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What constitutes Caribbean identity? And who can legitimately claim it?
Complex questions, they have once again reared their heads in discussions, as people debate who can call himself or herself a Caribbean writer.
Is “Caribbeanness” an accident of birth? A legacy bequeathed by one’s parents along with the recipes for rice and peas and callaloo and the address of the best corn soup vendor “back home”? A choice one may make once one migrates to the archipelago, to any of these lands battered on one side by the bruising Atlantic and caressed on the other by the gentle eponymous Caribbean Sea? And what happens when one leaves—does one cease to be a Caribbean writer when one lives elsewhere?
When I think of Caribbean writers I think of VS Naipaul and Derek Walcott and Martin Carter and Wayne Brown and Earl Lovelace. I think of Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison and Nalo Hopkinson.
Of these, only three—Carter, Brown and Lovelace—spent the larger part of their careers writing from the region. Carter, a Guyanese politician and public servant, wrote his chilling, thrilling poems at a ponderous pace in Georgetown, while being one of the engineers of Guyanese independence. Brown, a poet and journalist, lived in his native Trinidad and moved to Jamaica for the last years of his life; he spent his career writing on the region, in the region, and raising up a cadre of writers under his tutelage that includes Sharon Millar (2013 Commonwealth Short Story prizewinner) and Amanda Smyth (prizewinning author of the novels Black Rock and A Kind of Eden). Lovelace was born in Trinidad and still lives here, writing his novels and plays here; with a Commonwealth Writers prize and an OCM Bocas Prize for Literature among the honours Lovelace holds, he is perhaps the singularly most successful writer to hail from and remain in the region.
Of the current crop of writers flying the Caribbean flag there are some who neither were born here nor live here permanently, yet identify themselves as Caribbean writers. There are others who were not born here, but have lived here for so long that to think of them as anything but Caribbean writers would be ludicrous. And of course there are those who were born here, grew here and left for colder pastures.
Debbie Jacob, a US-born woman, writes from Trinidad and on Trinidad. Monique Roffey, a Trinidad-born and UK-bred writer of UK and Mediterranean heritage, has published four novels, three of them set in and written about the Caribbean. Smyth, born in Ireland of Trinidadian and Irish parentage, spent time in Trinidad and identifies as a Caribbean writer even though she now lives in the UK. Both her books were set in Trinidad and Tobago.
Many of our current literary superstars—such as Jamaican wunderkind poet/ essayist/ novelist Kei Miller, Trini-Bahamian poet and critic Christian Campbell, and Jamaican novelist Marlon James—reside outside of the region, dipping back in from time to time, some for longer periods than others.
I can’t help but wonder what Caribbean these itinerant writers inhabit in their hearts. Miller himself writes of Caribbean emigrants in his recent book of essays Writing Down the Vision:
‘… we are after all, children of exodus. In some way or the other, we escaped something and many feel conflicted about going back to countries whose reputations declined even further after we left. Our islands are continually presented to us as places of increasing violence, corruption and backwardness. Furthermore, we grew up on the bible. We know the story of Lot’s wife who fled, but turned around to look—a simple and automatic gesture of regret, of goodbye—and for this she was turned into a pillar of salt. The truth is, many migrants prefer to hold on to a soft, nostalgic image of their former homes, even if outdated and untrue; they prefer this to going home for a potentially depressing update.
It is easy for the immigrant to hold on to such nostalgic images. Indeed, I would like to suggest that for those who have survived the distance […] that their strategy has involved a complicated act of imagination.’
– Kei Miller, Writing Down the Vision, Peepal Tree Press, 2013. 51-52
Of course it’s valid to have more than one home, and to write about a home you inhabit more in spirit than in truth. But when you write on that imagined home, what are you writing—where are you writing about?
Every so often on the Internet I’ll spot some smirk, some snide comment questioning the currency that the title “Caribbean writer” represents in the publishing world. The intimation is that it adds an exoticism, a potency, a cachet that plain old “UK writer” or “US writer” lacks. I may sound cynical to say it out loud, and I don’t necessarily co-sign the sentiment, but it’s a real question that is being floated by other people.
On the other hand, living outside the region is the only way some writers can make a living at all. Teaching and journalism, two of the old stand-by jobs for writers, only go so far here; and when almost all the publishing opportunities reside elsewhere, it may seem more sensible to just leave in pursuit of them and stay where you end up. Naipaul—one of those who left for such opportunities—has only ever been a writer, but he’s one of an elite club. Most of the other writers I’ve mentioned in this post are writing teachers or university lecturers.
And what of those like Jacob, who is not Caribbean by ancestry or birth, but by choice? Is that even possible? Can the expat claim Caribbeanness by virtue of residency? Is Caribbeanness a quality to be acquired by contact and, if so, how long does it take to stick—five years? Ten? Fifty?
But isn’t the region just precisely this kind of place, where identities can be changed, adapted, remolded?
In his Nobel Prize lecture Derek Walcott wrote:
‘Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent. And this is the exact process of the making of poetry, or what should be called not its ‘making’ but its remaking, the fragmented memory.
– “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”, quoted by Judy Raymond in Caribbean Beat, Issue 101.
So these Caribbean writers—by birth, by berth, by heritage, by desire—may each have a valid claim to the title; but the works they make are not all reflective of the same Caribbean, reassembling, as they are, different fragments in their diverse hands.