100 Caribbean Books that Made Us

The full list (linked) includes three books by Antiguan and Barbudan writer Jamaica Kincaid: At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, and A Small Place. And there are many familiar titles from the classic and recent Caribbean literary canon, from V. S. Naipauls’ A House for Mr. Biswas (Trinidad and Tobago) to Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (Jamaica) to perhaps lesser known tomes like Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay’s A Long Way from Home, a non-fiction work on a list which panelists at the Bocas lit fest in 2021 found lacked surprises and non-fiction.

“The one thing I want to say about that list is that it is to me totally predictable,” said Olive Senior (the current Jamaican poet laureate whose Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal is listed) at the start of the Bocas discussion about the crowd sourced list. The sourcing began give or take a year ago and I even weighed in via video back in June 2020

– it is not meant to be a definitive list, as re-emphasized during the discussion – but Caribbean people’s perspective of the books that made them.

The list, she noted, is based mostly on fiction and poetry, influenced by what was taught in schools (what co-panelist UWI Cave Hill professor Raymond Kamugisha referred to as the CXC booklist) and by things like the Bocas effect, and does not engage with the post colonial academic tradition.

Notable omissions, according to Kamugisha, included Aime Cesaire and George Lammings’ The Pleasures of Exile; and for Senior, the lack of dub poetry and language poetics (Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, and Louise Bennett) was also disappointing. Johnny Temple, publisher, Akashic, questioned how one even defines Caribbean literature given the linguistic, racial, ethnic, religious etc., diversity of the region. The list perhaps inevitably leans anglophone.

But looking at the current publishing and distribution landscapes, there was some hope of a radically transformed future list.

“It will be more a list of people’s own thoughts and desires,” Senior said of future lists which will perhaps be less a result of schools’ reading lists, given how differently reading habits are being shaped in the age of the internet and social media (blogs, bookstagram, booktube etc.).

Roughly 1/3 of the list, from the discussion, is female – Kamugisha noticed though that in the example of Kincaid, the surprise was that with three books listed, her most significant work, per critical reception, The Autobiography of My Mother, was missing.

Kwame Dawes was for Johnny Temple a “glaring omission”.

Though, obviously, they all agreed that the determining factor is who is making the lists, and Temple in particular noted, for instance, that if a list was made in the US no Caribbean book before 1980 would make it – Sam Selvon, essential as he is to the canon, he said, is unknown there. Senior chimed in with the post-note that he (Selvon) lived and worked in Canada as a postman, in obscurity.

Full discussion here.

As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight,  Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, and The Jungle Outside). All Rights Reserved. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles,  images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.

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