UPDATED TO ADD THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE FULL INTERVIEW
The world of social media is an amazing thing, connecting people from far flung areas. Know what else does that? Books; which intersects most interestingly with the world of social media via Ann Morgan’s Reading the World blog. A British freelance writer and editor, Ann is using her blog to share her year of literary, not literal, travel to 197 countries.
“(It’s been) great fun and I now have friends from all over the planet which is brilliant,” she informed me when I reached out to her from where I live, Antigua.
Social media brought me to Ann’s page, and as a Caribbean writer and reader, I was curious to see how she was covering my region. I wondered how she was finding the experience and what she was discovering about my world and the world-at-large in the process.
“I think I’ve learned to appreciate the value of difference more and the extraordinary variety of cultures we have in our world,” Ann said. She added though, “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 appreciate this comment. It calls to mind Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story, in which she chastised those who make generalizations about the character of a country from a read of a single book, or even a single type of book about that place. Where that place has fewer writers, or fewer opportunities for its writers to enter the mainstream, that danger is more acute; the Caribbean, where, as I know firsthand, opportunities to publish are limited, falls into that category. I was thrilled, therefore, to see that Ann’s choices were unconventional and multi-layered enough to reveal several aspects of ‘the Caribbean story’.
“I think the variety and diversity of life in the Caribbean is something I can appreciate more now,” Ann said. “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.” Her appetite stoked, she’ll continue sampling Caribbean literature, discovering more and more about its diversity and humanity as she goes.
So far, she’s discovered something of its fun and mystical side. “I loved the myth about the Snake King as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica,” Ann said. “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.”
She’ll also continue to discover its bloody history such as “…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…it’s amazing that such a vibrant society could emerge from such dark times.”
Diaz’s was one of Ann’s favourite books of the past year. Other favourites were Bahamian writer Garth Buckner’s Thine is the Kingdom exploring class and identity; Barbados born writer Glenville Lovell’s Song of the Night, of which Ann blogged he “creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island”; Grenadian writer’s Merle Collins’ “atmospheric” The Ladies are Upstairs; and Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière’s I am a Japanese Writer (how’s that for a curveball when it comes to trying to pigeon hole Caribbean literature?). “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,” Ann said.
The book she found most revealing, though, was an unpublished memoir by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, 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.” That’s an interesting insight because it is true that most of us grow up, even now, reading books from outside. Ironic, isn’t it; and debilitating, if you’re a young girl, as I was, dreaming of being a writer. Jamaica Kincaid, an Antiguan born writer was perhaps the first time I saw someone from my backyard doing exactly what I wanted to do, telling stories that reflected me. I discovered her in my late teens. Given her celebrity, no surprise that she made Ann’s reading list. “Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid also has some fascinating things to say about the legacy of British colonialism,” she said.
One telling thing in Ann’s responses is that she found no formula to Caribbean fiction. Thematically, stylistically, tonally, they were as diverse as the countries and writers, themselves, as diverse as we who live here know we are.
“There is certainly no lack of stories to tell,” Ann said, “and publishers looking for fresh voices will find plenty of them in the region.” Hear that, publishers?
As for you, readers, remember you don’t need a passport to travel. Like Ann discovered, “Reading books from other countries and cultures is one of the easiest, richest and cheapest ways of experiencing the world from other perspectives.”
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