What (Caribbean) Writers Want

June is #readCaribbean and #CaribAThon which are two #CaribbeanHeritageMonth social media book reading challenges. I’ve been letting those challenges drive, if not guide, my reading this month and journalling about it over on my Jhohadli blog.

With #readCaribbeanwriters on online minds though, it seems a good time to revisit a thread posted last June to the Caribbean Writers group on facebook; specifically for the answers and what they reveal about the landscape for writers in the Caribbean. The questions from Barbara Arrindell, Wadadli Pen team member, who was crowd sourcing responses for a presentation, were what do Caribbean writers most need, and what is the state of the writing and book production industry in the Caribbean.

Caribbean Reads, indie publisher out of St Kitts-Nevis and the US, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, maybe around 2018. Caribbean Reads was started by US based Nevisian writer Carol Mitchell as an avenue to publish her own books and books by other authors (including some of mine). Its listing includes award winning and critically acclaimed Caribbean books.

Responses –

Cut and condensed for length (with insertions primarily in parentheses for clarity) and, while there was a fair amount of conversation between respondents, keeping to answers to the original questions. Where ideas are repeated, limiting to one or two versions. Also, while I’ve gotten permission from group admin Sandra Sealy to share the thread, I don’t have individual author permission. However, if I recognize the respondent as a public figure, I will name and, where possible, link them (if anyone wants their name removed, they can let me know). The reason for naming and linking is to encourage you to check them out and especially their books and/or services (mine linked here). Ordered and re-arranged in to sub-heads because this is a blog not a facebook thread. Finally, these are not absolutes; each island/country is different and some have more resources and initiatives than others. But the point is there could always be more, a lot more.

Olive Senior, Jamaican writer and current poet laureate, at the Best of Books (Antigua-Barbuda bookstore) table at the Alliougana literary festival in Montserrat, 2019. Olive, also a Wadadli Youth Pen Prize patron, has mentored writers like me in the Caribbean and likely Canada, where she lives, won major awards, achieved international success and local acclaim, and is on record (a few years ago now, so things may have changed) criticizing the lack of availability of her books/books by Jamaican authors in Jamaican bookstores and spaces where books are sold (like the airport).

– Development & Opportunities –

“More support for libraries which, in turn, can serve as centers of support for local writers – hosting readings, writers groups, workshops, etc. Two of the Caribbean countries where I’ve lived have no national libraries since at least 2014.”

“Continued spaces for aspiring writers to nurture their abilities. Most are limited to writing competitions which don’t come with any ongoing support.” (Nerissa Golden)

“I taught a few novels for almost ten years in the lower forms or secondary schools. There should be a faster turn over so other writers could get an opportunity.”

“Regular changing of the CXC books and recommended books for all Language Arts courses. Transparency around when submissions are due, what criteria given selection. A mix of veteran and young blood authors. Writers in schools program. Supported by governments.” (A-dZiko Simba Gegele)

Andre Warner, pictured here at the Best of Books collecting his prizes, has been a finalist for several years and in 2020 was co-winner of the main prize for the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, a project I started in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda. In 2021, Wadadli Pen became a legal non-profit. Also in 2021, Andre started interning with me, assisting me while trying to learn more.

– Finance & Institutional Support –

“More self-published authors. Still not where it needs to be. Established systems such as education ministries, CXC (Caribbean Examinations Council) aren’t encouraging using more modern stories in their curriculums.” (Nerissa Golden)

“We need governments to support and promote local books and to encourage and equip their writers to produce work at an international standard. And we need MOEs (Ministries of Education) to incorporate recent local work in the education system and also invite ongoing production of new material for our students.”

“•Arts grants systems to support working writers.•Publishers need incentives to produce fiction, poetry and drama because those are not typically as lucrative as text books.•Support for audio book production, marketing and distribution. This is an emerging market the region could really “ramajay” in because we have great stories, great voices and great producers.” (Lisa Allen-Agostini)

“Grants definitely. Self publishing improved. Printer.”

“When we get books published, we then need to be BUYING them to stock in our libraries, using the books in our curriculum, reducing the inertia in the CXC book list, using our books to promote our islands as more than sea and sand, and so on. With that endorsement and exposure, we might change local public attitudes towards our books and generate demand that will support the industry, increase output, and bring book prices down. Separately, if we value the art then we have to put dollars behind it. Not just a one time handout every now and then but a long term PLAN with real money for ongoing training, opportunities for exposure, writer community building, and institutionalization of Caribbean books. If we do that we’ll get more output from all of the islands.” (Carol Mitchell)

“Little (publishing) houses need something like the Arts Council of England.”

“Government support for the writing industry, through a regional/national writing council that treats writing as an export product. Government should behave as if telling local stories is an investment in cultural positioning, because, writing is excellent public relations for any country. A literature council whose goal is to produce books written by nationals about your culture has been a strategy of developed countries to make their way of life almost seductive for the rest of the world. We need nothing less than a change of perspective in the industry, there is so much potential for growth.” (Marsha Gomes-Mckie)

“Taxation and customs is a real problem when it comes to bringing in books. It drives the prices sky high, higher than any international distributor. It’s what will make a 90-page poetry book cost more than $100. Not related, but even obtaining royalties and advance money is a pain. It will take months to get through to BIR (Board of Inland Revenue) for you to get through to stamp duty to avoid double taxation from some territories.” (Kevin Hosein)

Students in Antigua and Barbuda browsing books. This looks to be a table set up by a local bookstore in-school.

– Publishing avenues & Infrastructure –

“With regards to works of fiction, we definitely need two strong areas. 1) a strong marketing department and 2) literary agents. Both of them working hand in hand. In addition, and this is one is a slow process. Writers to succeed need readers. You can have the best books and no readers and the books will not succeed.”

“Reactivate the Caribbean YA (young adult) Lit Prize that Bocas ran. It published over two dozen books in the time it was active, got markets for those books and put them in children’s hands. That was a successful programme for all the parties involved: publisher, author, reader.” (Lisa Allen-Agostini)

“Distribution in the region is a massive problem. At the production end and the retail end getting books printed in region may be rendered more expensive when you try to get the books to different territories. That’s one of the advantages of a publisher. All authors aren’t necessarily marketers nor should they have to be and a publicity and distribution network that was as seamless as possible would go a long way.” (Ayesha Gibson)

“…and effective ways of receiving payment.” (A-dZiko Simba Gegele)

“Self-publishing is hard. Most of the time that should be spent creating is spent on publishing. Our governments want us to write, edit, print and shop our books entirely by ourselves just so they can boast that we have a “creative industry”. Only in books and media are we expected to build a car and sell it; every other industry is given tax breaks, concessions and loads of cash. A writer can’t be a writer. We have to be business people. That might sound empowering but it is not. It is enervating and deprives us of the needed creative energy to push against boundaries. But more than that, we need to make readers of our people, particularly our children. So if the system won’t give us an imprint to which we can submit manuscripts and will support our work, then at least create a love for reading, writing and appreciation for books. Not reading for CXC but reading for pleasure, provocative thought, preservation of memory, experimentation, self-expression, self-esteem and sheer variety.” (Julius Gittens)

A book table display, likely belonging to a local bookstore, which would have the books of participating authors available for sale, at the 2015 US Virgin Islands book fair.

– Bookstores & Book Promotion –
“Encourage the book shops to display West Indian writers’ books in vantage positions in their shops. Too often the books are hidden away, tucked away in some deep dark corner. We need them at the front so as soon as you enter the shops you see them.” (Vishnu Gosine)

“Now with the internet we should improve marketing of our work maybe under one banner.”

“Authors should not be expected to be their own marketing machine, and that is sadly the case in the Caribbean…Real money has to be put in, in the form of grants or awards or angel investors. This has been seen in the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean Literature, which in my own experience, was quite successful in what it set out to do. The prize money was like a neat little advance and then you had tours with schools and libraries in the region, getting reviews from Bookstagrammers, Goodreads and NetGalley, and could easily get books featured in stores …And some of the books were even picked up by other presses, such as Diana McCaulay‘s and Lisa Allen-Agostini’s. It provided visibility and opportunity to connect with an audience.” (Kevin Hosein)

Periodically, long time Wadadli Pen patron, the Best of Books bookstore, hosts local authors, not just for launches or readings, but sidewalk showcases like this one from 2020 i.e. as the country began to loosen pandemic restrictions.

*

I will end by sharing a wish list I posted here back in 2017 and the Wadadli Pen R & D page – work done completely voluntarily; though there have been calls to the government of Antigua and Barbuda for the appointment of someone specifically tasked with lit arts development, who could, we would hope, access the resources to do this and more, more consistently. What has been captured on the R & D pages, and built on this blog over the years, consistent with what sparked Wadadli Pen in the first place, is providing what was not and is still not available. There is a RESOURCES page, a page of Caribbean Resources, a listing of professional services, writing and publishing frequently asked questions, two opportunities pages (one with pending deadlines and one with market, including publisher links), links to writer web pages locally and regionally, listings of published short pieces and books by Antiguan and Barbudan writers, a bibliography of Caribbean writing, a reading room and gallery series sharing writing and art and art conversations, links to literary festivals of the Caribbean, and more (including regular lit postings).

Started during the pandemic, Ten Pages bookstore in Antigua and Barbuda, owned by Glen Toussaint, who also has a lengthy relationship with Wadadli Pen, and continuing, can also be found around St. John’s City and online.

One of my pet peeves is to hear people within the formal infrastructure say that artists should not sit and depend on government, they should do things for themselves, because our feet are tired, that’s primarily what we’ve had to do (build what we need) given the lack of an enabling environment. And though it seems obvious to me that some in the region are doing more and better than others, it’s clear there are some common grievances and needs and avenues and opportunities, as writers mentioned hail from various islands (big and small).

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, Oh Gad!Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, and The Jungle Outside). All Rights Reserved. Subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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