Caribbean Voices: a History

Caribbean Voices is a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programme that was critical to the establishment and amplification of Caribbean literature. It didn’t give Caribbean literature a voice (your voice is your own) but it gave it a megaphone.

The programme, initially Calling  the West Indies (1939), emerged first as a way of connecting Caribbean people, fighting for the ‘motherland’ during World War II, to each other and to home. It was rebranded as Caribbean Voices in 1943 with Jamaican Una Marson as the producer.

The programme spotlighted literary works by Caribbean writers.  Through this programme –  and through the contributions of regional literary presses like Barbados’ Bim, started in 1942, and Guyana’s Kyk-Over-Al, started in 1945 – a Caribbean literature was born. Whereas, pre-Caribbean Voices, people largely wrote in isolation from each other. Once the programme got going people got to hear the writing from other islands, moving us from a nation literature to a Caribbean literature and given that Caribbean Voices operated out of the BBC, Caribbean literature was becoming a part of world literature. Scripts were sent up to the UK to be edited and then broadcast back to the Caribbean. This programme also provided opportunity for literary development given the editing and critiquing of the stories. Marson was succeeded in 1946 as programme producer by Irishman Henry Swanzy. It must be noted, as well, that by 1948, the Windrush generation (mass migration of English-speaking Caribbean people i.e. British West Indians to the ‘motherland’ i.e. England) began establishing a formidable and transformative Caribbean presence in the UK. The programme blossomed and the emerging Caribbean voices blossomed through it. It provided a platform for writers and work for them as editors and reviewers etc.; it paid writers (!).

So, through all of this, Caribbean Voices helped lay the foundation for Caribbean literature. Given the reach of the medium of radio (and given that this programme was backed by the BBC), it was critical; one might even say, revolutionary. Jan Carew of Guyana, Andrew Salky of Jamaica, Sam Selvon of Trinidad, George Lamming of Barbados, Derek Walcott of St. Lucia are just some of the early writers – now known as the foundation (and legends) of the Caribbean literary canon – to have come through this programme. To quote the BBC retrospective that inspired this post, “They felt encouraged to keep on writing…they were writers of the Caribbean.” They are today considered to be the classics of Caribbean literature.

V. S. Naipaul was editor for a couple years after Swanzy – and the programme speaks to how his stint helped him to develop his craft to become the Caribbean literary legend that he is. The special explores how the programme, which ran up to 1958, shaped Caribbean literature; in positive ways and in ways that bears some re-examining as the programme touches on, particularly in its framing of the idea of what Caribbean literature ‘should be’.

It’s an interesting listen, if you have the time. This one sort of summarizes in roughly 30 minutes. There is a two parter as well, the first part covering much of the same ground as the previous link, the Caribbean Voices’ impact and the second part looking at what’s happened since up to the early 2000s. The retrospective was produced by Colin Grant and ran in 2009.

Through what platforms do we engage with Caribbean literature today?

As with all content on Wadadli Pen, except otherwise noted, this is written by Wadadli Pen founder and coordinator Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out Please note that, except otherwise noted, images on this site also need to be cleared if you wish to use them for any purpose. Thanks.


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