What is the first thing you wrote?
I confess I can’t remember. I know that by age 7 I had written my first stories in response to composition prompts, the kinds that were par for the course in Jamaican primary schools for my generation: ‘Myself as a penny’, ‘How I spent my summer holidays’, ‘My pet’ (lol). I always resisted the ‘One bright sunny Monday morning I woke up in excitement’; ‘My pet is a dog, his name is Rover’ kind of start that was also par for the course, and went off on my own weird tangents. Once, at the age of 8, I even ended up walking in woods on the edge of my ‘notorious’ district (I thought notorious meant ‘very noted’) until I heard my [non-existent] grandmother’s voice calling me home. Funny enough, my teachers never seemed to have any problems with my digressive, off-point responses; they just exclaimed about my vocabulary; and of course I didn’t, at the time, think of these excursions as writing. In high school I wrote a lot of poems and short stories, and I wrote romance novels in serial form in exercise books and when these ran out, on the flyleaves and in the margins of my textbooks, much to my mother’s fury and grief. My classmates gathered around every morning before class or during break, to read the latest instalments. The funny thing though, is that I was far more interested in painting than writing, obsessed, really, and I was good at it, though not outstanding. But in those days, you had to choose among hierarchies of subjects and it made sense to me to opt for a science subject instead of art, though I was spectacularly lousy at all things scientific.
Who do you write for?
I write for any reader out there, who might like (what I hope is) a good story, a well-told story, and for myself, because I would probably die if I couldn’t write.
What was the first Caribbean book you read?
Nola at Home. I would have been about five or six. It was one of those series of readers that were endemic (and I’m using the word advisedly) across the British ex-colonies, an attempt to localize the pictures and geographies in the books being read by children in the newly independent countries. I think it was one of the Nelson’s West Indian Readers that replaced the Royal Readers. I read it on my first day at school (I had learnt to read at home) and I enjoyed it very much, but I found it – strange, I guess is the word, because though Nola looked like me, it said ‘Nola goes to school, Father goes to work, Mother stays at home with Baby Bob, Stay mother, Stay, you can not go, you must stay at home with Baby Bob.’ My mother went to work; she worked planting our food and sometimes tying cane on [Busha’s] ‘property’; most mothers I knew worked in some form or another, so Nola’s family seemed odd – but nice and new. In the next in the series she visited her grandparents on a farm, and that too was marvelously exotic, because we didn’t have farms where I lived, we had grung.
How many Caribbean writers from the 1940s and 50s could you name? How many women?
Re number of writers, quite a few, I think. I gave myself a few minutes to see how many I could recall off the bat and was able to come up with 30, though my memory could post only five from the Franco- and Hispanophone region. Also only seven women, unless you count Jean Rhys, who doesn’t seem to have published anything between the 40s and 50s but had been quite prolific up to the 30s and was again in the 60s, and Eliot Bliss who seems to have stopped publishing after the 30s but has quite a lot of stuff in unpublished papers from the 50s – in other words they make nine if you include people who you might say were just ‘living writers’ during the 40s-50s. Amy Jacques Garvey, Elma Napier, Louise Bennett, Paule Marshall, Constance Hollar, Una Marson, Phyllis Shand Allfrey were the other women who came to mind.
Which writer do you wish you knew more about?
John Figueroa. For two reasons. One, because he was the first person to open a window on the world of Caribbean writing to me. He edited the collection Caribbean Voices: Dreams and Visions Vol 1, which I read in third form at school… I was 12 years old, and I still remember the thrill of wonder and recognition – the sense that I was entering a world I already knew but which was completely made new in the poems in that book – ‘charm’d magic casements’ indeed. Even the cover, in light sea colors superimposed on white, was purely magical to me. I read it from cover to cover and started all over again. Two, because I always meant to find him and say thank you, thank you, and I never got around it to it, the way we so often never get around to the simplest, most profoundly necessary things, because they are both simple and within reach – until we wake up one day and find they are lost and were in fact just that, profoundly necessary. By the time I plucked up the courage to get around to it, he had died, and that was that.
What is the earliest piece of Caribbean writing you have read?
It depends on my starting point in a given moment. I think, mostly, Tom Redcam’s Becka’s Buckra Baby. I’m tempted to say Columbus’ letter to the sovereigns (Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain) on the occasion of his first reconnoiters in the Caribbean – a fascinating document of contradictions that has everything to do with the formation of a region that became the crucible of modernity. The keynotes, the echoes down the years, are quite eerie.
Does the Caribbean’s literary past matter to you?
Obviously, yes. The idea of a past is complicated though, yes? There’s the colonial ‘past’, of course, but also the arts, literary and otherwise, of all the other places we’ve come from in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and all of them are still with us, whether they’ve traveled in ships and bodies as part of a spiritual DNA or been knowledges we sought out (some of us made physical pilgrimages back to ancestral lands) and drew on, or absences and signs of absences, like phantom limbs that were there and are real. All of it is part of who we are and will become and what has informed our voices and our songs. The project of shaping the present and the future is inextricable from the contemplation of the past that is always with us. Even if we take the word in its most literal sense and reflect on the increasing traction being achieved by the scholarly work of revisiting archives to find hidden material and pose new questions, we know that what is retrieved is never the past but a personal window of desire that we open on the past. In other words, a construction, perhaps an invention, as fluid and fraught as any other thing image-ined, and, in the Caribbean context, often seriously perilous, though not as perilous as it was up to 186 years ago. This understanding, in part, explains our terror of the impositions of History and why the habitat of our historical fictions is almost always myth.
Who are our most important writers today?
I don’t have an answer for this question. I can’t think of any serious writer who hasn’t contributed enormously to the still-in-progress mosaic – Walcott’s Antillean vase – of Caribbean representation. In terms of its experience, it is a vast region, and the sheer range and complexity – and truthfulness – of the work coming from writers in all genres, including popular music, is quite amazing. The realities of publishing and our migratory lives outside the region have historically marginalized writers domiciled at home, and I think this is still true, though we’ve made significant advances in local publishing. Personally, I am very interested now in the work of writers who live in the region or who write about what’s happening or has happened there (as opposed to migrant space/Caribbean abroad), but that has nothing to do with any general perceived level of importance – I just think I want to hear these writers so that the Caribbean that is anchored, even shiftingly, even contradictorily, on those tangible pieces of rock, doesn’t get drowned out of my head. Maybe it means more to me now because I’ve lived away for nearly 17 years; I’ve become an American citizen, but the Caribbean, Jamaica, is still the place where I’m able to write from, where my voice finds sound, so to speak. I’m fascinated by how many of us who live away, who have become denizens of other places, return to or stay, in our writing, in the region itself. Quite a bit of the most recent writing is not about ‘two-placed protagonists’ in Europe or North America or about protagonists who have broken the boundaries of these traditional Caribbean diasporas (though there’s stunning writing about such locales too) but about Caribbean characters at ‘home’. There’s a story in that, that needs telling, I guess.
What are you reading now?
Marcia Douglas’ The Marvelous Equations of the Dread. Jason Vail’s 10th Stephen Attebrook mystery—I’m a medieval mystery aficionado so I’ve devoured everything by Ellis Peters and Pat MacIntosh, then I discovered Jason Vail. Thanks, weirdly, to COVID-19 I’ve had more space to read so I also just finished Anne Prachett’s The Dutch House, Kei Miller’s The Same Earth and several others that have been on my bookshelves unopened for ages.