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Saturday 17 March 2018

Breaking ground, thinking big

Marina Salandy-Brown writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

“It takes a big mind, or at least a big world view, to write from a small space.” So writes Marlon James, the most celebrated writer in the history of Jamaica letters and the winner of both the Man Booker Prize 2015 and the fiction category of the OCM Bocas Prize, founded in TT to help the world rediscover Caribbean writing.

James’ observation appears in the Introduction to So Many Islands, a new anthology of original fiction by writers from small islands, who routinely have been considered peripheral to mainstream affairs. James continues, “Everything we write stands one foot on land, the other in the sea. We can’t help it: we’re from where the air is clear, so it’s almost impossible to think small.” Insightful talk, probably inspired by St Lucian Literature Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott who in The Schooner’s Flight [from which the new collection takes its title] told the metropolis, long before James had hatched as a writer, “Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”

The anthology includes seventeen pieces of writing by new writers in small island states in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas and the Indian and Pacific Oceans that are part of the Commonwealth. It was born as a project of Commonwealth Writers [part of the Commonwealth Foundation] and the Bocas Lit Fest and brings to an international readership ideas relating to leaving home, childhood innocence, love and trauma, protest and discovery, history and identity. It may or may not be the first time that such a broad geographical collection of island writing has been assembled, but it certainly is the first time that the Caribbean, with an editor and a deputy editor working in TT and Barbados respectively, has put its literary stamp on such a body of work in a Caribbean publication distributed internationally.

Our region is represented by works in fiction, essays and poetry from eight islands. Tracy Assing, a member of the Santa Rosa Carib community, has contributed an incisive memoir essay entitled Unaccounted For, about the exclusion of our indigenous people’s history and culture from accounts of TT settlement and conquest and the effect on both family relations and national development, as the rights of that community remain largely in dispute. She begins strikingly by pinpointing an issue that still dogs us here and elsewhere: human greed, “In case you’re wondering how we got here, I can affirm that greed played a major role”, and ends with the admonition that, “These islands were not terra nullius when Christopher Columbus arrived. The natives resisted.” Assing’s final line is an echo through the ages, “….how we survived? We learned to adapt. Listening to the land.”

Small island countries within the Commonwealth share a similar history of exploitation, abandonment, treachery, violence, and all the fallout from that unwanted past that we are still struggling to overcome. When we read an assortment of world writing, such as appears in So Many Islands, that includes writers in Fiji, Samoa, Mauritius, Singapore, Cyprus, Niue, Malta, Tonga and Kiribati, we understand that islanders everywhere may feel isolated by the vast seas that divide us, but the tides also connect us in a small, fragile world, one in which histories and human cares are almost interchangeable.

The current, very amusing [if the message wasn’t so terrifying] public service advertisement broadcast on television here about the beautiful but deadly Lion Fish that is ravishing to extinction all fish species and crustaceans in our tropical waters and which ends with the advice to eat as much of the killer fish as we can, made me re-read the short poem by the Somoan contributor to the anthology who writes in response to the 1980s French nuclear testing,

Remember those out of this world skies

In Rarotonga when we go ‘Woah,

God’s amazing!’?

& we aren’t allowed to eat the fluorescent fish?

Remember the deformed dogs

in Tahiti, that one with its right leg bent

up in salute, we call Hitler?

& all those rat-looking cats?

Remember how heaps of the family

fly off to Paris

and we go ‘Woah, so lucky!’

but they aren’t laughing?

Island people, people everywhere share similar troubles, withstand the same traumas and laugh at the same jokes. Marlon James believes the reason is that human nature itself has not changed, not that we in the islands have not. These pieces of writing make stories out of the fact that everything around us has changed, however. To read them is to discover, along with the writers, what we think about it. So Many Islands is published by Peekash Press and is available in bookshops.


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