Novelist Monique Roffey enthuses about the explosion of new writers emerging from the Caribbean islands.
When I published my novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle in 2009, I already knew several excellent writers and poets in the UK who, like, me, wrote about the Caribbean region, and lived mostly in Diaspora. I knew then, there was a small UK- based group of poets and writers including Anthony Joseph, Roger Robinson, Vahni Capildeo, Amanda Smyth, Malika Booker and others. Of course, I was also aware of a resident group of writers in Trinidad such as Raymond Ramcharitar, Kevin Baldeosingh, Lisa Allen-Agostini and Sharon Miller. Also I was aware that there are, still alive, famous Caribbean writers, even infamous writers of great esteem and merit, big names, these men and women are our God Fathers and Mothers of the canon, the Legends, the Nobel winners and the Booker winners. But I saw these writers and poets as way ahead of me, existing in a kind of far away stratosphere. These big names were writers I’d read and admired, but they were on a different stage, higher, above me. They were the First Generation; they are now seen as the Golden Era of Caribbean Literature.
Then in 2012 something happened. I attended the BOCAS Literature festival in Port of Spain, a world-class festival which showcases the work of Caribbean writers. It was a memorable experience for me because there in my hometown, I got to meet many other Caribbean writers born in the 1960s and 70s. Most of these writers were female, and incredibly they were of varied race, class background, and sexual orientation. It felt auspicious to meet such a group of peers at one gathering, some I’d heard of, some I hadn’t. We all had a lot in common and yet we were all so different; in fact, much of our life experience isn’t common at all. But what was pertinent for me, then, only two years ago, was to come across a constellation of writers of similar age. We were children born into the early years of the Independence era in the region. We were children of the new era, literally.
Of course we are talking about a generation now writing in the early part of the 21st century. Things have changed in the Caribbean since the dawn of the Independence era.
I’ve now been to BOCAS three times, and over this period have met more and more of my peers: Kei Miller, from Jamaica, a multi-talented writer and award winner whose latest poetry collection is on the 2014 Forward Short-list, Shara McCullum, a poet, also from Jamaica, Loretta Collins-Klobah, an American living in Puerto Rica for decades (also Forward short-listed), Kerry Young, a Chinese-Jamaican novelist, James Aboud, a Syrian-Trinidadian poet, Marlon James, a Jamaican novelist, Diana McCaulay, a Jamaican novelist, Ifeona Fulani, a Jamaican fiction writer, and of course, though I have not met him, the famous Pulitzer Prize winning Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic. These names are just off the top of my head; the list goes on and includes many writers who are on the cusp of publication.
Until BOCAS 2012, I’d no inkling that such a large sweep of literature was being produced by writers connected to the Caribbean, that a whole New Wave of writers had emerged – and this new generation is remarkable and complex and spread across the Caribbean region and the world (some live in the region and some don’t.) There are now dozens of us New Wave Caribbean writers and poets writing and we constitute a much more diverse group of writers than previously existed in the so called Golden Era; we are fresh blood.
Of course we are talking about a generation now writing in the early part of the 21st century. Things have changed in the Caribbean since the dawn of the Independence era. Issues have changed. The Caribbean has been globalised, the world-banking crisis has hit the region too; we have specific environmental issues and the USA is the new long-term coloniser, only they haven’t invaded the region with guns, bearing arms. The USA arrived silently, insidiously, via cable TV and the internet, via fast food outlets and big corporations and this American invasion has affected everything in the region from food, and architecture to carnival and thought itself.
Homosexuality is still illegal through much of the Caribbean, homophobia is rife. HIV is high, infidelity is often glorified. Domestic abuse is also high. So is drug-trafficking, gang-related violence and murder. In Trinidad, alone, the murder rate is over 300 deaths per year. Trinidad, an oil-producing island, has now been de-classified as a developing nation. It is now considered developed; this is due to the amount of nearly new Japanese cars on the roads, Port of Spain’s new water taxis and glittering office blocks. New Port of Spain looks neatened up, glamorised. Meanwhile, civic society is neglected. The artists and culture bearers are ignored. The police are corrupt; the health service negligible, the schools use outdated curriculums, and town planning does not exist. Floods are common in the rainy season and so is fire in the dry season; both devastate the homes of hard working citizens.
One of the Golden Era of writers once said to a fellow New Generation writer friend, “We had Black Power and the Independence era, what does your generation have to write about?”
During the Golden Era, the writing from the region was mostly male; it was agenda based, political, collectively seen as ‘writing back’ to metropolitan centre, at least in the Anglophone Caribbean. There seemed to be a consensus of ideas and issues to be tackled; the issue of nation language, the plight of the common man, those people who never appeared as subjects with agency in the nation’s literature which was once only written by the white man. It was a kind of regional endeavor. That same Golden Era writer felt a new beginning was owed and had somehow been denied to the recently de-colonised people of the region. And he was right, a new beginning could have happened and never did. It is sixty years since the British left Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, and British political Westminster-style systems have never been dismantled.
Instead the region has grown capitalistic and brutal. Votes do not add up. A complex society does not get fairly represented with a two-party system. The people of the region, once tortured and subjected to grand crimes against humanity, are still hurt. It could be said the region demonstrates generalised symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. People tend to flare up. Violence is commonplace. Tourists still come to the Caribbean to suntan their bodies after office burnout back home, even though now and then they get attacked and chopped up. Or accidentally run over by a glass-bottomed boat. Tourists visit and yet they complain about the service in hotels. Many of the hotels are old plantation estate Great Houses and many of these tourists don’t see, or care to see, the echo of past horrors in the region. When a black waiter serves a white foreign woman a cold drink on a platter there is no smile on his face. Yet these white tourists go back to their offices and tell their friends their Caribbean holiday was wonderful, but the service? Not so good. Especially those with those Goddamn Tricky-dadians – they real not so good at service.
The region is complex. My generation of writers has much to think about and address. At BOCAS 2013, Marlon James delivered a keynote speech which more or less came down on the side of doing away with a regional or national literature, seeing it as reductive and a way of keeping writers and their writing small. No more folk loric characters such as Maas Joe and his old donkey; a national literature was somehow over. Of course, his friend and fellow writer Kei Miller has written an essay in reply, saying we need to stay respectful towards our folkloric characters, the very people who once had no voice and no representation – and maybe these characters in the New Wave of Caribbean literature also now own iPads.
Our generation is no longer writing back to a centre based in Britain or any other European centre, that much strikes me as over. Instead, we are writing towards the region, that is who we are writing back to, our home, our centre; and we are writing for ourselves and sometimes, yes, towards each other. These days, the Caribbean writer might be white and middle class, or brown-skinned and privileged, or from Chinese or Syrian extraction; they might be gay or straight, they might be living in the region or in Diaspora. The New Wave of writers has become so much more porous and diverse in terms of their social background. And so, the literature of the Caribbean region is alive and well and varied and we are charting our own here and now. Today many of us are writing with our feet on the ground, in the region, or maybe we are in the USA and or in the UK, or like me, living 50/50. But we write books of poetry and novels, essays and psycho-geography embedded in the landscape, culture and time of the 21st Century Caribbean.
Monique Roffey, for Waterstones.com/blog
Note: This article was amended on 24th July 2014 at the request of the author.