I am pleased with the balanced sense of difference, and the sense of a certain unity that speaks in concert with a tradition, a community – one that goes beyond the community of literature – and out into their own societies. There is a way the writers here can connect with each other through the societies they inhabit, rather than through a writerly posturing, and the creation of a self-fetishising craft guild whereby they might interact. When I first started writing, I noted a latent trend in the pioneering generation that became much more apparent in the current generation of Caribbean writers, Kei Miller, Christian Campbell, Tanya Shirley and Ishion Hutchinson to name a few. My first observation was that these writers were writing about ancestors, grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, in an effort to understand, rehumanise, praise, quarrel with and memorialise their ancestors. This trend remains.
The questions for me have always been … what has primed it? What does it say at our particular point in the journey started by those pioneers? Where did we get to, and where were we going? Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné has taken us, for instance, into other realms with her writing – a writing beautifully entrenched in its own reality. One could read Boodoo-Fortuné’s work as if it is all happening in her own Macondo, where the possibilities remain unbelievably wide, but the parameters remain strangely vague but somehow discernibly (even viscerally) consistent. Boodoo-Fortuné’s work reminds me, constantly, of the fact that metaphor in the Caribbean, in writing truly inhabiting the Caribbean, cannot be understood in the same way that is has been proffered by a great deal of the writing we have encountered in Western books. Living in a society where metaphor operates in everyday life as ritual technology in Obeah, among other spiritual expressions that permeates the society, must affect the approach to metaphor. This is not necessarily (as we teach our children) an implicit comparison, but one that comes from a greater apprehension of the connections and blurred lines between ‘man’ and ‘animal’ and ‘thing’. This connection has helped, for instance, women and marginalised groups articulate the true nature of the status they have been dubbed by society. In poetry, this manifests in the transformation of the human form that we often find in Boodoo Fortuné’s poetry – sometimes a transformation into a more powerful figure than what society makes of its marginalised, and sometimes to a true shape of that marginalisation. In Shivanee Ramlochan’s ‘Clink Clink’, the haunting ‘clink clink’ of the young child’s fate, as she is made to stand and be measured and leered at by an ‘Uncle’, with her ‘nani’ or grandmother’s approval, is a good example. Or in Jannine Horsford’s ‘Anointing’ – girls as ‘two yellow-heart breadfruit’. Playful as some of these metaphors may seem, they anticipate and speak to, in varying degrees, from a Caribbean reality in which metaphor is not only that.
Writers are not only imaginatively resident in their own communities, there is no strict cosmological / imaginative homogeneity in any society, even though there are sparse yet dominant and softly prevalent constructions of reality abounding. Writers variously occupy their own societies, sectors and strata within it, move between them, as they occupy the world of ‘writing’. What I believe is ‘new’ here is that many more writers are able to do so much more, now, from within their countries, and that ought to delineate change. One facet of this change is the greater confidence with which these peculiar foundations of reality in the Caribbean have laid themselves underneath the work of these new writers. Even in poems like Tiphanie Yanique’s or Mel Cooke’s that seem to explain or speak to an outsider, the anticipated audience is clearly Caribbean (to see Mel’s performance of his poem included here in Jamaica is a gift!) Things about ourselves are not as often fetishised or explained as they are elsewhere, and the reasons for this is that ‘the writing world’, ‘opportunity’, connection and so forth are being brought to the Caribbean like remittances from many who travelled or live(d) abroad. Kwame Dawes, director of the Calabash festival with Justine Henzell and others, has lived for a long time in the United States; Marina Salandy-Brown lived and worked in England; the small publisher House of Nehesi has connections in New York and so on.
Several international journals have given the Caribbean attention. Peepal Tree Press is sine qua non in this development. Caribbean writers, perhaps in more profusion now, are on the ‘world scene’ and excelling: Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize; Vahni Capildeo, Kei Miller and Claudia Rankine won Forward Prizes. Tiphanie Yanique, published in this special issue, won the Forward first book prize for her book of poems, Wife, and is widely known and respected as a fiction writer. The Caribbean now has its own prize in the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Many of the writers gathered here have won major regional prizes – the Small Axe prize for example – held for up-and-coming writers. Many of these writers have been featured as exciting new voices at festivals. These kinds of developments have resulted in greater possibilities for writers to write themselves and their worlds. In fact, less to write worlds than to have whatever they write inhabit a world that is truly theirs – a world where basic assumptions can be taken for granted rather than explained away, omitted or otherwise compromised. By this metric, Caribbean written literature is decades behind the ‘spoken word’ or ‘oral tradition’, but what it does signal is that the two are continuing that necessary miscegenation toward the true actualisation of our literature where we can see the fragments / whole. By this, I don’t mean we achieve homogeneity, but enjoying The Best of All Possible Worlds, to use the title of Karen Lorde’s book.
So, if this special issue does manage to provide a glimpse of some of this newness with these new and newish writers, it also should encourage new readers and readings of Caribbean writing – not just from these writers, but going all the way back to our literary beginnings. For, even in the established and long-published, there may have been something that we missed.