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Riding the Caribbean’s writing wave

NEW SCHOOL OF THOUGHT: Marlon James’s new book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is being hailed by critics as ‘the great Jamaican novel’

WHEN THE Costa Book Awards shortlist was announced in November it probably escaped a lot of people’s attention that two Caribbean writers were on it .

Monique Roffey, a Trinidadian, was nominated for her fourth novel House of Ashes and in the poetry section Jamaican, Kei Miller, is up for the award with his latest collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion.

The winner will be announced on January 27.

These nominations are indicative of a renaissance in Caribbean literature. For a new generation, it is an exciting moment.

Support for their writing from UK publishing houses like Peepal Tree Press is notable, but it is The Calabash International Literary Festival, in Jamaica, or Trinidad’s Bocas Lit Fest which takes place in Port-of-Spain every April, that has really invigorated a diverse range of Caribbean writers including Bahamian author, Robert Antoni; Guyanese writer, Gaiutra Bahadur and Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo.

In 2013, Bocas welcomed Irvine Welsh as a special guest, after he unexpectedly accepted an invitation from festival director Nicholas Laughlin.

The year after, Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson performed, Caryl Phillips the successful St Kitts novelist floated around for the week-long readings and prize-giving ceremonies. At the end of it, the literati set all headed to an epic closing night party at the hillside home of Earl Lovelace, a celebrated member of an older generation of Caribbean writers.

Miller, who was born in Jamaica, studied at Manchester Metropolitan University, completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow and is currently based in London. He is a director role at Royal Holloway’s Research Centre for Creative Writing. He has already collected one award – the Forward poetry prize in September – for his latest work, which netted him £10,000. 


SHORTLISTED: Poet Kei Miller

When asked what he thinks is inspiring the current renaissance, he said: “Well, that [question] requires me to think of it as a renaissance of some kind, which I don't feel,” Miller responded, shooting down the theory that Caribbean literature is enjoying a new surge of creativity and popularity.

“I'm not saying it isn't, but it certainly doesn't feel that way to me,” he continued. “I see myself as part of something that's been going on for a very long time, a river that ebbs and goes into spate, but a rather constant river nonetheless.”

He’s eager to dispel any sense that his young ilk (he was born in 1978 in Kingston) is anything more special than those who went before them. 

PROPAGANDA

Miller adds: “I don't know if there's been a single decade where amongst the significant writers writing in the world there hasn't been representation from the Caribbean. So the whole 'new renaissance' to me feels a bit like the stuff of blurbs or PR propaganda. That being said, I do think it's an exciting time to be writing, and to be writing about the Caribbean.”

He tells me he feels lucky to be old enough to have relationships with “some of the greats,” and name drops the Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite and St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott both born in 1930, and the Trinidadian author, Earl Lovelace, born in 1935.

All three are products of the inter-war period and reached their prime during the seismic shifts of the 1960s when independence and the birth of new nations out of former colonies unearthed new wellsprings of invention. It allowed for a psychological freedom within which these great minds cultivated and expanded the soils from which Caribbean art and writing would grow into the new world era.

“[They] can be quite generous with their wisdom and advice and are still writing well,” says Miller. But he also feels fortunate to be “young enough to be a part of that group of ambitious writers and academics who seem committed to shaking things up, to seeing and writing the world in more complicated and compelling ways, to going back to those stones that had been left unturned.”

“So many of us are writing about the queer Caribbean, and increasingly the digital Caribbean, and also reading Junot Diaz or Monique Roffey or Marlon James you see our writers going back to a violent past that hasn't been sufficiently fictionalized because fiction is a way to think through those times. It's a great time to be writing.”


CONTENDER: Monique Roffey

Roffey, born in Port-of-Spain and based in London, was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2010 for her novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and in 2013 won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

She has gravitated both towards the Caribbean region and away from it to England quite frequently in recent years.

Though her accent suggests a traditional English middle class upbringing, she sees herself as Trinidadian – a product of the mid-60s, post-colonial era – born to European parents whose lifestyle was self-indulgent and glamorous. “My mother was like a Bond girl,” Roffey once said.

She has used her success and reasonably well-known name to champion the writing coming out of this ‘renaissance’, although, like Miller, she is wary of the label.

“The current boom is due to a mix of activity in the region: festivals, regional prizes and more established writers coming back to teach and mentor [upcoming] writers,” she says. “Bocas, Arvon/ Hollick, Small Axe, the Commonwealth short story prize, the Wasafiri New Writing prize...all of these give writers in the region an opportunity to step on to the regional and even international stage.

“The internet and social media has also had a cohesive effect. The internet means the region is now connected rather than isolated, so there is a new feeling that publication, be it mainstream or independent presses, is a possibility.”

She too, is quick to acknowledge the past, adding: “There has been a steady stream of literature coming out of the region for 60 years and the idea that there is a sudden boom needs to be put into context.


VETERAN: Barbados-born poet Kamau Brathwaite

“The cannon is rich and has been for decades now. We are the second wave [but] we are following some very big names."
Nicholas Laughlin, director of the Bocas Lit Fest, says: “‘Caribbean literary renaissance’ is millennium talk – I prefer not to use such hyperbolic language.

“It's gratifying to see Caribbean writers recognised in the wider world, as Kei and Monique have been, but that isn't new – Caribbean literature has had its share of international recognition over the decades, from our three Nobel Prizes (Perse, Walcott, Naipaul) down the ranks.”

EXCITING

The editor of the Caribbean Review of Books explains: “What makes the ‘moment’ feel promising and exciting is an upwelling of new literary talent over the past five or six years here at home and in Caribbean diaspora communities.

“This emerging generation of writers combines the confidence of belonging to a distinguished Caribbean literary tradition with a fresh perspective: new voices and styles, new ideas and stories, new ambitions, and an ever-expanding sense of what it does and can mean to be a ‘Caribbean writer’. Budding writers in the region also benefit from the literary ‘infrastructure’ that we're slowly but surely building up: festivals, prizes, workshops, residencies, and other practical initiatives which were sparse on the ground twenty years ago.”

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