UPDATE! Ann’s landed a book deal from this project and she’s still reading. Here’s her review of Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean.
Late last year, I did an interview with British writer Ann Morgan about her project (a blog now on track to become a book) to read the entire world in one year. That article Reading the World: the Caribbean Leg can be found here. I came across the transcript of our original interview and thought it was worth sharing. Enjoy.
Joanne C. Hillhouse: What’s the single most significant thing you’ve learned so far on this literary journey?
Ann Morgan: That the world is full of generous people who will help you achieve your goals if you ask them in the right way. In terms of what I’ve learnt from the books, that’s probably best summed up by a sentence from The Corsair by Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud (the book I read from Qatar): ‘You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people.’
JCH: Has it changed how you perceived any of the countries or deepened your understanding of them in any way? I ask that because I do believe that the insights provided through the arts – even more so than non fiction or news – can open a window to the soul of a country; how people live, think, dream, what they value…. I wonder if it has resulted in any shifts in terms of how you see things?
AM: I think I’ve learned to appreciate the value of difference more and the extraordinary variety of cultures we have in our world. However, I’m also very conscious that as I’m only reading one book from each country this year I mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that I have gained a rounded insight into any particular nation – I’d be annoyed if someone assumed they knew all about Britain just from reading Great Expectations!
JCH: I find the task you’ve set yourself to be quite ambitious, has it ever felt overwhelming?
AM: I was worried it might be overwhelming at the start and it has been tiring. But by making a plan of how much I had to read each day and sticking to it, it’s been possible. I’ve also had great encouragement from people all over the world who have got behind the project and done so much to help me.
JCH: Has it been fun?
AM: Yes, great fun. And I now have friends all over the planet, which is brilliant.
JCH: What’s the most fun thing you’ve learned about the Caribbean through reading Caribbean books?
AM: I loved the myth about the Snake King as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica. The story was so rooted in the landscape of the island – with a specific rock formation on the island used as the staircase for the snake to climb out of the ocean. The illustrations also made it a really colourful, joyful book.
JCH: What’s the most unsettling thing?
AM: I guess that would have to be the history of the brutal acts that took place under the regime of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. These form the backdrop and backstory to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which I read for that country. It’s amazing that such a vibrant society could emerge from such dark times.
And assuming it’s not either of these, what’s the most revealing thing?
AM: I was fascinated to read Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo’s reflections on what it’s like to try to find a voice as a Caribbean writer in her – as yet unpublished – memoir One Scattered Skeleton. She is related to VS Naipaul, so grew up in quite a large shadow, but for her the biggest obstacle seemed to be the fact that all the books published out there apart from Naipaul’s were from countries like the UK. Her descriptions of how books and formative experiences that we encounter growing up affect the way we read and write are fascinating.
JCH: Do you feel like you understand the Caribbean better than you did? Can you before and after it for me?
AM: I suppose yes would be the short answer – although I’ve only read one book for each nation, so there’s loads I don’t know. I think the variety and diversity of life in the Caribbean is something I can appreciate more now. Here in the rainy old UK we are used to lumping the region together and just thinking of it as a sunny, tropical paradise. However the books I’ve read have showed me that the different nations have strikingly different characteristics: from the tensions between rich and poor in the Bahamas to the playful rivalries between different communities and islands in tiny places like St Vincent and the Grenadines, there’s so much to discover.
JCH: People think of reading as a very solitary thing. Reading your blog though I get the sense that it’s been quite a social experience for you, connecting with writers and critics and other book lovers from around the world. Has it?
AM: Absolutely. When I started the project, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it alone – I needed people to tell me what I should be reading. I wanted recommendations of books that people loved and admired. And that meant talking to people! As the year’s gone on, I’ve also been incredibly lucky with the number of people who have gone out of their way to help me get hold of books from harder to reach places and countries that don’t really have any literature in translation. It’s been an amazing experience.
JCH: How many books have you gotten through so far this year?
AM: I’m now into the final 10 books of the project. By the end of the year, I’ll have read and posted on 197 books – one for each nation on the list of 196, plus one extra ‘Rest of the World’ book. This was chosen for me by blog visitors who voted on a shortlist of books from territories not on my main list.
JCH: In selecting books, and especially books from the Caribbean, how have you dealt with the question of what constitutes national literature?
AM: This is a tricky question wherever you are in the world. Although it sounds as though working out what country a book is from should be easy, when you start to think about it, it becomes really complicated. All sorts of questions come up: does the writer have to live in the country? Must they have been born there? And does the story have to take place in that country too? Where do you draw the line?
In fact one of the Caribbean authors I read, Dany Laferrière threw me a real curveball with his novel I am a Japanese Writer, in which a Haitian-Canadian writer – like Laferrière – tries to embrace Japanese national identity. That novel shows up how inconsistent and ridiculous many of the assumptions we make about nationality are. As a general rule, though, I’ve been trying to make sure that all the books I read are by writers with enough of a connection with a country for it to be a big part of their life story.
JCH: I once blogged about what it’s like to be a Caribbean writer, to be on the fringe of what’s considered mainstream. So it was interesting to me reading your comment about your reading patterns before now. Would you say such patterns have changed for good as a result of this experience? And would you recommend others in the UK and the US to open up their reading palate? Why?
AM: Yes, I’ll certainly be reading more world literature in future. And, yes I would recommend other UK and US readers venture further afield. Reading books from other countries and cultures is one of the easiest, richest and cheapest ways of experiencing the world from other perspectives.
JCH: What’re your favourites that you’ve read from the Caribbean and why?
AM: I loved both the Laferrière and the Diaz because they’re incredibly complex, clever and engaging books. However, for a story that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and keeps you reading way past bedtime, it would have to be John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James – my Jamaican choice. It’s a novel about a village that gets taken over by an extremist preacher and becomes a sort of cult – spooky and brilliant. I also really enjoyed Garth Buckner’s Thine is the Kingdom, which looks at questions of identity and class in the Bahamas, and Glenville Lovell’s Song of Night. Ooh and Merle Collins’s The Ladies are Upstairs contains some great atmospheric stories – there’s so much to choose from!
JCH: What was your most difficult Caribbean read and why?
AM: Probably the Laferrière for the reasons described above. Difficult’s not a bad thing, though. In this case it threw up some really interesting ideas.
JCH: What was the most challenging region of the world and where does the Caribbean rank in terms of the challenges of this literary journey?
AM: The Pacific island nations were the most challenging group of nations to get books from, although several French and Portuguese-speaking African countries also have very little or no literature in translation (these required some imaginative solutions, like, in the case Sao Tome and Principe, getting a book specially translated by a team of volunteers). Some of the smaller Caribbean nations on my list shared similar challenges to the Pacific island nations. Having low populations and with relatively young publishing traditions, countries like Saint Vincent & the Grenadines and Saint Kitts & Nevis didn’t seem to have much that a British reader like me could get my hands on. It took some expert advice from bloggers, readers and writers who know the region well to find my way to books that I could read from those countries. However, I’m encouraged to see initiatives like the BOCAS Lit Fest growing in popularity – I’m sure this will help get the work of Caribbean writers out to wider audiences.
JCH: Have any of the Caribbean books you’ve read entered your list of all time favourites? Why?
AM: No, although another Caribbean title I read years ago – Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea – is already a great favourite. The books have definitely given me an appetite to discover more Caribbean literature, however.
JCH: Which Caribbean book would you readily recommend especially to the British reader? Why?
AM: I think every book I’ve read from the Caribbean has had something to recommend it. British readers might find one story, ‘Action, Action’ in Cecil Browne’s The Moon is Following Me (my choice from Saint Lucia) especially interesting. It’s about a woman preparing for the homecoming of her husband who has been away working in England for the whole of their marriage. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid also has some fascinating things to say about the legacy of British colonialism.
JCH: What most surprised you about reading the Caribbean?
AM: Laferrière’s book.
JCH: You mention that the Olympics was an impetus for this journey, the fact that the world was coming to London where you live. I love watching the opening parade with my mom in small part because at some point she’ll marvel out loud at the sheer number of countries and discover some country she never knew existed. Has this reading adventure been like that for you? What Caribbean country did you discover?
AM: Yes, in terms of places like Nauru and Tuvalu, although I had heard of all the Caribbean nations before.
JCH: I find it interesting that your Antigua choice is a book actually set outside of Antigua and the Caribbean…do you feel it provided any insights to the country?
AM: Setting hasn’t played a big part in most of my book choices this year. British writers write about other places all the time so I don’t see why I should expect authors from other countries to stick to stories within their own national boundaries. That said, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, which takes place in the US, does provide some interesting insights into the long-term effects of British colonialism in Antigua & Barbuda. There’s a brilliant bit where Lucy describes her memory of having to recite William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Daffodils’ at school without ever having seen the flower. It shows up how damaging it can be to be forced to embrace a culture that is not your own.
JCH: From a cursory glance, though there are some classics on your list, you seemed to stray from the traditional Caribbean literary canon (Selvon and Anthony in Trinidad, Lamming and Clarke in Barbados, McKay and Senior and Goodison and Winkler in Jamaica, Edgell in Belize, Jean Rhys in Dominica, Harris and Carter and McDonald in Guyana et al) to what can be termed the newer wave of writers; is this incorrect? If it is correct was it accidental or purpose driven?
AM: My project’s been driven by recommendations from readers around the world, so the list reflects what people have suggested. In general, though, I do tend to choose more contemporary works.
JCH: There are Caribbean countries missing from your list (the USVI, the BVI, Aruba, Curacao, St. Martin and St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Montserrat, Anguilla, Cayman, Turks and Caicos, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico etc.) – any particular reason?
AM: My list of 196 countries is made up of all UN-recognised states plus Taiwan (which used to be a UN member), so it doesn’t include Caribbean nations that are not in this category. However, I am including one extra book in the project from the ‘Rest of the World’, to represent all territories not on the main list. This was voted for from a shortlist of nominated books by visitors to the blog. As you can see on the site, some books from other Caribbean places made the longlist. The winning ‘Rest of the World’ book will be revealed in the penultimate post of the year.
JCH: Did you find any common thread in the Caribbean lit that you read?
JCH: You might be interested to know that a fair amount of Caribbean readers have probably read books from the US and the UK more than what Caribbean books they’ve read. There are many reasons for this, including our history of colonialism, limited publishing opportunities for writers and access to regional books for readers not to mention books going out of print, and the sheer pervasiveness of American culture. Does that surprise you? I suspect it doesn’t since you mentioned several times how difficult it was to find books from this or that Caribbean country? Given what you’ve read, if you had the ear of the international publishing industry what would you say to them about the potential of Caribbean literature.
AM: No, it doesn’t surprise me. As I mentioned, the lack of published Caribbean literature in decades gone by is a theme in Vahni Capildeo’s memoir. The situation does seem to be changing with the rise of more literary festivals and publishing houses dedicated to Caribbean, which is a good thing. This will help the next generation of writers to develop their talents and reach more people around the world. There is certainly no lack of stories to tell and publishers looking for fresh voices will find plenty of them in the region.
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