Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, writes in his introduction to So Many Islands that the collection represents ‘real globalism’: ‘a glorious cacophony that seeks no common ground other than attitude. Stories and poems that exist in no other context than their own, characters who owe only to themselves, and writers who write with nothing hanging on their backs’.
Underlying these resolute words are the paradoxes of island living which James’s introduction continually emphasises: that the sea and the sky are at once ‘definers and confiners’; that ‘to be island people means to be both coming and going’.
So Many Islands – a collection of poetry, prose and non-fiction from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans – comes out of Commonwealth Writers’ work in the regions and has been developed alongside their partners. The anthology emerged from three aims: to animate the challenges facing islands, to provide platforms for less-heard narratives, and to offer development opportunities for emerging writers. Thirty of the nations of the Commonwealth are islands, and the project was evidently timely and required, soliciting responses from over 300 writers responding to an open call for stories, poems and essays.
Reflecting the simultaneous connection and separation of island geography, So Many Islands is published in three editions, by three presses, in three regions of the globe. In the Caribbean, US and Canada, it is available from Peekash Press. In Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, it is published by Little Island Press. And in the UK and Europe, it is published by Telegram.
In his foreword to the collection, editor Nicholas Laughlin notes how the stories ‘speak to each other across oceans. Their stories, their insights, their arguments, their jokes, their memories and their questions travel far on unceasing tides’. Such oceans have been crossed for the ten launches So Many Islands has prompted, arriving in Barbados, Bermuda, Fiji, Jamaica, New Zealand, Samoa, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and, most recently, the UK. Co-editor Nahila Folami Imoja, reviewing the Barbados launch, discusses the ‘ripple effect of good literature’. Her aquatic metaphor, together with constant turns to the ocean in So Many Islands, reminds us that, in Laughlin’s words, the ‘very sea that insulates and isolates’ islands is also ‘the medium that connects’.
As the pieces in So Many Islands cross oceans, they also cross genres, forms, themes and voices. In the anthology, you will find love poems and protest poems, stories of innocence and innocence lost, and narratives of departure and return. There are pieces that tackle traumatic histories – from the aftermaths of transatlantic slavery to nuclear testing in the Pacific – alongside a delicate exploration of budding sexuality in Singapore, a comic account of a cricket match that becomes a drama of personality, and a lyrical return to a Pacific island guarded by four female deities.
James’s introduction references the legacies which ‘take [islands’] resources away’; So Many Islands showcases the rich literary resource in which writing from islands shares. ‘It takes a big mind, or at least a big worldview, to write from a small island’, he says. ‘Everything we write stands one foot on land, the other in the sea. We can’t help it: we’re from where the air is clear, so it’s almost impossible to think small’.
Bocas Lit Fest has produced podcasts with some of the Caribbean authors – Angela Barry, Tracy Assing, Heather Barker, Jacob Ross and Melanie Schwapp:
Will Forrester is Intern with Commonwealth Writers.