This is an article I started shopping a little too late, a little over a month ago (hoping it would find fertile ground with June being Caribbean American Heritage Month). Give thanks for blogging. Sharing here with minor edits to the original draft. Share your thoughts.
If you were on #bookstagram or book twitter during the month of June, Caribbean American Heritage Month in the US, you might have happened upon a little hashtag catching fire, #readCaribbean. It’s the brainchild of Cindy, BookofCinz on instagram, Caribbean Girl Reading the World on twitter; also in June, June 9th to 18th in 2020, on booktube and bookstagram, is the Caribathon, run by Jamaica-born ComfyCozyUp and RunWright Reads.
Why all this Caribbean book love, you may ask.
“I love sharing my culture as well as other cultures in the Caribbean,” ComfyCozyUp said in the 2021 Caribathon announcement on YouTube.
Cindy has given her purpose as creating awareness about Caribbean literature, Caribbean authors, Caribbean heritage, and showcasing the Caribbean voice while maintaining how unique each island is. Of course, the challenge is to find Caribbean books, read them, chat about them, hashtag them, but Cindy also directs the reading with challenges within the challenge to #readCaribbean that include instructions to read Caribbean poetry, queer lit, folklore, women, indies, and various islands (my response to Cindy’s challenge here).
I wanted to write, as a Caribbean reader and writer, why these initiatives not only matter but why they excite me so much.
It is primarily because I am a Caribbean reader and writer from a 108 square mile island, a dot on the map, we may joke, even while our national ethos is “we bigger dan dem” because, while not small in our own minds, we are keenly aware of our place in the global scheme of things.
It is primarily because I am a Caribbean reader and writer from a 108 square mile island which bigger-better-known Caribbean islands may unironically call “small island”. Our most famous writer (daughter of Ovals and one of my favourites) is named for one of those bigger islands Jamaica and wrote a really thought provoking book about home called A Small Place.
It is primarily because I am a Caribbean reader and writer from a 108 square mile island who five times out of 10 when I’m outside the region and say I’m from Antigua gets, in response, “Jamaica?”, “Montego Bay?”, or depending on how far I’ve travelled, a blank stare, that has me fishing around for some connective thread between their world and mine. Viv Richards usually works because most of the world, or at least the former British empire, which is to say Britain and her stolen common wealth (on which the sun never set), plays cricket and Sir Isaac Alexander Vivian Richards is the winningest captain of the West Indies Cricket Team and was named one of Wisden’s top 5 cricketers of the 20th century. He is from Ovals, Antigua.
It is primarily because I am a Caribbean reader and writer from a 108 square mile island I described, in my well-travelled piece on Writing off the Map, as being “far from the world where books are made and dreaming impossible dreams is encouraged” in describing my journey to becoming a published writer in a world where, with some very few exceptions, Caribbean writers don’t even have prominence in Caribbean bookstores, nor gallingly those bookstores in Caribbean airports.
I am a self-described #gyalfromOttosAntigua. Growing up in Antigua and Barbuda, which became politically independent from Britain in 1981 when I would have been eight years old, two years or so before cable TV saw us swarmed with content out of America, another type of colonization, most of the entertainment we all consumed, with the exception of two weeks of Carnival in the summer, was from, as we say, “overseas”. How pervasive was this? Well, I just wrote that Carnival was in the summer and I live in “the tropics” where it’s summer all year round. How many books, TV shows, movies, songs, advertisements do you think it took for a little girl from an island in the Caribbean to internalize the idea of seasons. I mean, we had seasons in the Caribbean – Carnival season, mango season, hurricane season etc., but the spring, summer, fall/autumn, winter thing is wholly imported. So, more recently, are concepts like Halloween and Black Friday which have become quite popular here as well, even as people of my generation bemoan that they’ve usurped Guy Fawkes, which I remember fondly because we lit starlights and fireworks, what we called “bombs”. Guy Fawkes was, of course, another imported observance, this one of a failed gunpowder plot in Britain back in the 1600s. As a child, I knew as much about that as about why we sang London Bridge or Ring-a-round a Rosey in schoolyard playgrounds.
We, in the Caribbean, like to think of ourselves as a pepperpot, creole, a mix up mix up of influences though primarily of African origin. African origin, British and more recently American cultural and institutional dominance (I would say American cultural dominance, especially in the age of streaming and social media, and British institutional dominance certainly in the structure and mindset of our public sector), and a mélange of other people and influences. My mother is from the English speaking French and English Creole island of Dominica and a lot of the Caribbean – Dominica, Jamaica, Indo-Guyana – meet in Antigua, where a sizable percentage of our population is from the Dominican Republic, and also Europe, the Middle East, and increasingly China. Variations of the same all across the Caribbean, the mixes and seasonings varying based on political and economic influence and the movement of people.
What does all of this have to do with the #Caribathon and #readCaribbean? Well, to a greater degree than we like to admit much of what we consumed – so many of the books we consumed in school and for leisure – were not written by Caribbean authors. We were an Enid Blyton, Archie comic, Judy Bloom, Trixie Belden, Mills and Boon, Wakefield Twins reading people, and the discovery of our own voices, and we are still discovering them, speaking for myself, had to be a deliberate act because the other stuff was so comparatively easily accessible. My dad used to bring home books and magazines left behind by tourists (which by default meant white people) at the resort – most Antiguans and Barbudans worked in resort tourism after the death of the sugar trade, before my time. The West Indian/Caribbean canon did exist but the image of those books in a glass cabinet locked with a key at the library, at the time a room above a storefront on the main road through St. John’s City, because, yes, even islands have distinctions between city/town and country, crosses my mind as an apt metaphor for our relationship to those books. You had to work to get to them, unlock something. For many in the Caribbean, the introduction to Caribbean literature was a school thing – the story of Millicent by Merle Hodge, later Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipauls’ A House for Mr. Biswas for which I wasn’t ready (a struggle). Shakespeare, too, but I had the opportunity to re-meet the Bard under more receptive circumstances in my college years. And then, of course, he was all across popular culture – Hollywood loves a Shakespeare adaptation almost as much as a Jane Austen, whom I also studied in college. So I was primed. For many a Caribbean child, though, I’d venture, our school-based introduction to Caribbean texts as texts, defined a relationship akin to healthy eating with these books.
Two of my books, The Boy from Willow Bend and Musical Youth have been and are on schools reading lists in the Caribbean. Of course, like any author, I hope the students who are introduced to them embrace them, and not just endure them.
The beauty of initiatives like #readCaribbean and Caribathon is the opportunity to discover the joy in the Caribbean canon, the reading of Caribbean books widely and plentifully, as Antiguan-Barbudan calypsonian Singing Althea once sang, just for fun. Because Caribbean reading is not just healthy eating, though it can be. It is bananas – tasty and rich, mangoes – too rich but so good, soursop – good and thick, gynep – it has layers, man; it is all the things you can eat – the things that give you running belly to the things that make you hopped up on endorphins. It is a varied and tasty buffet of bookish goodness, and as with a buffet, you’re sure to find something to sate your literary palette.
Little known fact, from erotica to romance to historical dramas to scholarly tomes, the Caribbean’s got you covered; and the discovery of that canon is the point of these hashtags.
That both initiatives got going in 2020. Actually #readCaribbean was coined in 2019, but 2020 was a year in which the Black Lives Matter social movements, among other shifts in thought and action, propelled people to consume content formerly at the margins, the Black story. Sure, they ran full pelt toward The Help, initially, but hopefully social media driven nudges toward #ownvoices content that include #readCaribbean and Caribathon, because our stories too are part of this conversation, will open up the reading experience of eyes that usually default to more mainstream material. All these euphemisms. White people, the white experience, the white gaze, western stories (not the old west, the western hemisphere); that’s the default, and as I’ve shown, not just in America, but in America, yes.
When I posted about #readCaribbean on my blog at the start of June 2021, a couple of positively encouraging responses (from white women, judging by their avatars though I can’t say which country) suggested that while they hadn’t thought (or thought much) about it before they were now. “I’ve read a couple of these authors, but that’s it. I really need to branch out in my reading, so thanks for the recs.” – one wrote. Another – “I didn’t know June was #ReadCaribbeanMonth! I’m bookmarking this post to see which of these books I can find at my local library.” The most interesting comment for me though was the one who said that while they’d read and found interesting two of the books I’d listed, two modern Caribbean classics by the way, they were hard to follow because of “all the stuff with the mongoose … and all the dreamy, surreal sequences.” I appreciated the candor. But I have to admit I ruminated over this comment quite a bit before responding, wondering if it was just a matter of taste or limited exposure, because surrealism, symbolism, and magical realism is such a normal part of Caribbean literature beginning with the Anansi tales and Jumbie stories so many children of my generation, children of the 70s and 80s, grew up on that not only weren’t these wrinkles in my reading of the named books, they were part of the beauty and poetry of them. I said as much. But this continued to turn over in my mind. (Allowing for personal preference, of course) Was it possible to be so used to story told a particular type of way that other ways felt off? Well, of course, that is part of the problem with a reading diet – not speaking to this individual commenter, who as a book blogger I suspect reads more widely than most, but to reading habits generally – largely limited to a single food group. It’s bland and a little pepper makes it taste over-seasoned; when that’s just flavour, baby.
Last year, in an online book group, I saw enthusiastic readers posting stacks of books as part of their mission to read Black for Black History Month. The stacks included The Help, again, and To Kill a Mockingbird which, while a personal favourite from secondary school, are not #ownvoices Black books – a la Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, an Oprah’s Book Club pick which also deals with wrongful prosecution of a Black man (read my review).
It reminded me of how important it is to be as conscious in pushing books, as Oprah has to a degree (boosting authors like Toni Morrison and Edwidge Dandicat) written by Black and Caribbean writers, as I and others have had to be about deliberately seeking out and reading Black and Caribbean books. Even and ironically especially when we come from a predominantly Black country. Because, per the fine print, we are also former colonies of European countries and endured hundreds of years of being trafficked into the dehumanization of chattel slavery and post-slavery inequities that the labour movement of the 1930s, through the Independence and pan-African movements of the 1960s through 1980s, even to the reparations movement that gathered focus 20 or so years ago are still in the process of dismantling. We’re working through some ish. The #readCaribbean and Caribathon initiatives are as necessary for us, discovering and rediscovering and affirming ourselves, as for those who have been denied variety by a publishing and book industry that too often plays it safe by not publishing diversely nor properly promoting the diverse books that are published.
So, that’s why I was excited as a reader and as a writer, but most especially as a Caribbean person about initiatives like #readCaribbean and Caribathon.
Post-script: And this was my first #booktube reading wrap up (which is not exclusively #Caribathon and #readCaribbean related but does reference it).
As with all content 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, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, The Jungle Outside, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.