Howzat! Books, creative writing workshops, and a Caribbean Canon.
In a roundabout way, voting for the Top Ten Caribbean Novels is trying to achieve a similar goal. However, as the Comments on my post and at Nicolette’s demonstrate, choosing the "best" books from the Caribbean is difficult because the books are as varied as writers. But as Nicolette said, we have to start somewhere, and a lack of consensus shouldn’t deter the effort. There isn’t much agreement among the Newsweek bunch either. And if we choose to avoid the issue because of difficulty or lack of agreement, then that may only lead to more problems.
For one, creative writing workshops are also now as ubiquitous as these surveys. And if we follow what my history teacher, Jimmy Carnegie, used to call “enlightened self-interest,” a discussion about the books that best represent the essence of Caribbean literature and life seems only logical. Now this shouldn’t be interpreted as narrow regionalism. Chaucer's pride in his "nation language" led to the creation of the Canterbury Tales, and had it not been for the rise of the British Empire, that bumpkin from Stratford-upon-Avon, would have probably remained a “local writer.” We have great writers from the Caribbean. And how could I call myself a Jamaican/Caribbean literary blogger if I ignored the talents of Naipaul, Lovelace, Rhys, and Lamming?
And then there’s the issue of time. Much as we would love to, we can’t read all the books that are being published, so we need a standard for aesthetic judgment. That’s why I began the list with fiction writers. From my experience of teaching creative writing workshops, fiction is not only easier to teach than poetry, it is also easier to evaluate. (Or are my standards are higher for poetry?)
For example, here’s a typical workshop question:
Write a poem or short story about playing cricket.
When I read a poem, I am expecting a cerebral/sensory/ emotional experience. Poetry asks complex questions within the details: the bok! when the ball meets my bat, the sweet stench of naseberries floating across the oval from a nearby field, dried saliva on my lips, blinking at the punishing sun, the wind billowing through my shirt, and lifting kites above my head.
The poem encapsulates that moment of infinity, the game, and the universe. It’s everything that led up to the moment, the moment itself, and what may happen after the moment has passed. And in the midst of everything, there is word choice for rhythm, connotation, denotation, wordplay, simile, and metaphor.
The poem delivers infinity. And then some.
A short story, on the other hand, asks very simple questions: What is the name of the bowler? The batsman? Where are they playing? What time is it? What’s happening? The writer supplies the information. The bowler’s name is George and the batsman’s name is Will. Protagonist or antagonist, take your pick. If George is the protagonist, I should care if he will be bowled out, so supply some background information about George and Will. They’ve hated each other since childhood or they’ve always been friends, but they must now be opponents because of the game. You decide.
They’re playing in Kingston, Jamaica and it’s late in the evening. You could also mention the sky, but that’s not really important. What’s really important is that it’s the last ball of the last over of the fifty over match and both teams are tied at 115 for five. The bowler cleans the ball on his thigh and prepares to make his run…
The main thing that a short story must deliver is what happens next: “He’s out!” or “Four!” Short stories are the autistic savants of fiction.
Of course, Naipaul, Lovelace, Rhys, and Lamming are asking more complex questions in their fictions, and few, if any, outside the region know about their work. Other Caribbean authors such as Olive Senior and Tony Winkler, who have been publishing outstanding literary fiction for years, have also gone unnoticed. It will be interesting to see the final count, and to see which books finally emerge from this very limited survey of books by Caribbean writers.
Voting ends this Friday: Vote for Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels