THIS YEAR’S NGC Bocas Lit Fest promised an event that I waited for with bated breath: the list of the top 100 Caribbean books that shaped us. The list lived up to all those feelings that such book lists evoke: nostalgia, joy, confusion, sadness, disappointment and even anger over books that didn’t make the list.
What is missing from the list tells a story just as important as books that did make the list. Non-fiction books barely made the list. Post-colonial literature proved scarce.
Many books on this list shaped my perceptions of the Caribbean reader and an immigrant. Given the nature of the question, I would have had to answer Miguel Street by VS Naipaul is the Caribbean book that shaped me the most because it moved me to get on a plane, come to Trinidad and make this island my home.
If I were answering the question of what is my favourite Caribbean book, I might have chosen Chanting Down Babylon, a collection of essays on Rastafarianism published by Ian Randle Publishers. I enjoyed teaching essays from that book – especially the one on the epistemological significance of I and I. My students in the International School and my students in YTC enjoyed that lesson about pronoun usage in formal English, Trinidad creole and Rastafarian English.
On the other hand, I might have chosen The Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace as my favourite novel. The story of the Shouter Baptists’ struggle during colonialism is a moving story.
Together many of the books on this list create a picture of my relationship with this country. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John is special because while I wrote a study companion on the play for Macmillan Caribbean, a whole slew of short stories came pouring out of me and became the book Speaking of Promises.
My favourite Caribbean writer, Roger Mais, made the list with Brother Man. Early in my teaching career, I taught My Bones and My Flute by Edgar Mittelholzer and I still remember my classroom decorated with drawings and mobiles my students made to interpret that journey up the Berbice River.
The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace helped me to understand Trinidadian culture in my early days. Growing up in rural Ohio and spending my first few years on this island in Warrenville and Caroni make A Brighter Sun by Sam Selvon and Summer Lightning by Olive Senior important books to me because they deal with rural areas in Trinidad and Jamaica.
Equally important are my ambivalent feelings about Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem, which surfaced once I discovered Tituba was an Amerindian slave – not an African slave as portrayed in literature. Records, including the Salem witch trial transcripts, refer to Tituba as an Amerindian. I for one tried to set that record straight in Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the US. It is interesting how many people have not yet caught up with that historical correction.
Ardene Sirjoo led a lively panel discussion on the list with Jamaican writer Olive Senior, UWI Cave Hill professor Aaron Kamugisha and Johnny Temple publisher of Akashic Books.
Senior said, “My big disappointment is that the list doesn’t engage with the post-colonial, post-independence intellectual tradition of the Caribbean. It mainly reflects what our creative writers are telling us.”
Both Senior and Kamugisha said you can see a CXC reading list in the books chosen for this list and Kamugisha said, “We should resist canonisation because there are so many fascinating ways we can teach Caribbean literature. Some of the conservative work is fascinating in its own right.” He pointed out that we tend to recognise the radical side of academic literature more than the conservative side.
The panel also pointed out the lack of representation of books on music, dub poetry and short stories although one of my favourite books, Senior’s collection of short stories in Summer Lightning, is on the list.
“People need to broaden their minds about what makes a great book,” said Temple.
Senior said the book that transformed her was the dictionary of Jamaican English. “Suddenly it validated my own culture, the language of ordinary people,” she said.
Both the book list and the discussion of the list brought up many interesting points about the need to broaden our outlook on Caribbean literature to encompass more non-fiction and academic writing, a broader spectrum of themes and time periods. It’s all there waiting to be discovered.