Cleaning out some files just now, I came across a release I neglected to share when it was still news (read it here: OESnews18-PresAward_6-2-2018). It concerns two Caribbean literary giants – Earl Lovelace of Trinidad and Tobago, and America-based Edwidge Dandicat of Haiti – being awarded by the St. Martin’s Book Fair. From the release: “The Presidents Award is presented to individuals and institutions whose work is noted
for its excellence and for combining literary, cultural, and liberation components in the service of progress, of their people or nation, and of humanity,” said Lasana M. Sekou, projects director at House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP). I saw the accompanying photo and wanted to share it along with a note on each of these writers, two of my faves and writers you should know if you don’t already.
Their books (the ones I’ve read)
Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) – This was an Oprah’s Book Club pick (1998) right around the time a book club I was then a part of introduced me to it. Oprah being the literary king and queen maker at the time, it launched her in to the stratosphere not only as a major modern Caribbean voice but as a major author. It was uncomfortable and moving, dealing as it does with home, the mother-daughter dynamic, and purity tests for girls; definitely a must-read.
The Farming of Bones (1998) – I credit the book club I was a part of at the time for introducing me to this one and unearthing, for me, a part of Caribbean history I knew nothing about – the massacre at the border between the two countries of Haitians by Dominicans at the behest of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937. It rocked me in so many ways, thinking about how Haiti has inspired (as the singular example of Black people freeing themselves from bondage) and suffered (paying for their claiming of their ownership of themselves and their country) to this day; thinking of how so many Dominicans have, since the 1980s and continuing, made Antigua their home by that point, of earlier migration, decades before my birth of eastern Caribbean people to the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America, of Caribbean people moving for all sorts of reasons, economic and otherwise, of Black people, darker Black people especially, too often being treated as a stain upon the world, undesirables, of how to reconcile all of this ugliness, especially when from slavery to economic recolonization, we won’t even face it. What I liked about this book was the way it insisted we face it. The tensions between Haiti and the DR persist to this day (and Dandicat has become quite a vocal advocate for the humanity of Haitian people in these battles), Haiti is still treated like the world’s problem and not a self-determining nation that showed us the way, the colourist attitudes and their underpinnings in our enslavement is an issue we’ve barely scratched the surface of, but one of the things I like about fiction is how it mixes these big racial, social, historical, and geo political issues in to an engaging, and all too human, story that we can’t shake, long after we’ve forgotten the details. This is a masterpiece and easily one of my favourite books, period.
Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2010) – a collection of essays that while they spoke to the challenges of writing about Haiti, spoke to me as a writer trying to write truthfully, the bravery that that requires, and the fear that I may not be up to the task. I love this book for the insights it gives to Dandicat’s journeying but also for the ways it challenges me on my own.
Eight Days: A Story of Haiti (2010) – this gripping children’s book of a child trapped in the days after the major Haiti quake of that same year. I believe it was a fundraiser as the country struggled (struggles still) to find its footing; it was also a favourite of the Cushion Club Reading Club for Kids with which I volunteer (… or have).
Dandicat’s short fiction – of her loose short fiction, my favourite of the ones I’ve read is Ghosts which was published in the New Yorker.
Still on my to read list – Behind the Mountains (2002), The Dew Breaker (2004) , Anacaona: Golden Flower (2005), Brother, I’m Dying (2007), Claire of the Sea Light (2013) – I’ve actually read excerpts of this one but not the whole book though the excerpts I’ve read make me want to read it in full, and Untwine (2015). Actually I could probably add all the books by her that I haven’t read yet to this list but I’m sticking with the ones already on my TBR.
I’ve read less of Lovelace (less even than I realized) and yet he looms just as large in my literary imagination – in part because he is always part of everyone’s conversation as a pure Caribbean artist who has influenced the way we tell our stories to the world, and is many people’s favourites. The one I remember reading, again with my book club back in the late 90s/early aughts, I believe, is The Wine of Astonishment (1982) – with that iconic cover and its use of Trinidad traditional stick fighting culture (an extension of Africa in the lives of these displaced Africans). The details are fuzzy but the Bolo character is one of the things/people/entities that imprinted on me from this book (and from many Caribbean books I’ve read); I love a great character. I’m now realizing as I write this that I may have only thought I read The Dragon Can’t Dance; it is one of those Caribbean classics you grow up with until it feels like you’ve read it because you know it so well…only, maybe not (this was me and Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea for the longest while). I can’t say for sure which probably means I need to re/read it. So I’m going to put The Dragon Can’t Dance back on the TBR alongside the ones already there – Is Just a Movie and Salt.
Lovelace is “celebrated for his descriptive, dramatic fiction about West Indian culture. Using Trinidadian speech patterns and standard English, he probes the paradoxes often inherent in social change as well as the clash between rural and urban cultures.” (Britannica)
“Earl Lovelace is well known for his groundbreaking novels about carnival and
religion in Trinidad and Tobago, The Dragon Can’t Dance and The Wine of
Astonishment. His more recent award-winning novels, Salt and Is Just a Movie have
advanced his regional and international standing as a noted Caribbean author.” (from the press release re the St . Martin Book Fair 2018)
I remember we did an informal poll on the now (unfortunately) defunct Caribbean Literary Salon re favourite Caribbean writer and Lovelace won easily.
His awards include a 1980 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1986 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book (Salt), being shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1998, a 2002 Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of the West Indies, the 2011 Grand Prize for Caribbean Literature (Is Just a Movie), and the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize, fiction category and overall winner (Is Just a Movie) among others.
“Edwidge Danticat, (born January 19, 1969, Port-au-Prince, Haiti), Haitian American author whose works focus on the lives of women and their relationships. She also addresse(s) issues of power, injustice, and poverty.” (Britannica)
“Edwidge Danticat (Haiti/USA), a much in-demand writer around the world, is the
author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!; The
Farming of Bones; and Claire of the Sea Light. She is the editor of The Butterfly’s Way:
Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States. A MacArthur fellow, Danticat
has written six books for children and young adults. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, is a
USA National Book Critics Circle Award winner.” (from the press release re the St . Martin Book Fair 2018)
When this blog posted on Caribbean Favourites in 2010, four Dandicat books were listed with fans of the book crediting The Farming of Bones for “unflinchingly and vividly rendering (a brutal chapter in Haitian-Dominican Republic history)”, Breath, Eyes, Memory’s “simply beautiful writing”, Krik? Krak? as a book that “weaves love, heartbreak, pride, pain, and raw human emotion” in to its storytelling (this fan also described Dandicat as “truly gifted in her story telling”), and The Dew Breaker as an example of “truly amazing writing” and “a powerful exploration of the effect of political violence on individuals and communities”.
Dandicat was named by Harper’s Bazaar as ‘1 of 20 people in their twenties who will make a difference’, featured in The New York Times as one of ’30 under 30′ people to watch, and called one of the ’15 Gutsiest Women of the Year’ by Jane magazine. She received fiction awards from Essence and Seventeen magazines. She won a Pushcart for Between the Pool and the Gardenias’, Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelist prize (1996), the American Book Award for The Farming of Bones (1999), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Dew Breaker (2005), and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for Create Dangerously (2011), among others. She is a repeat National Book Award nominee (Krik? Krak?, Brother, I’m Dying) and the recipient of honorary degrees from Smith College (2012), Yale (2013), and the University of the West Indies (2017) – possibly more. She is a MacArthur Fellows Program Genius Grant recipient (2009).
“Both authors are also courageous advocates for the advancement of Caribbean
sovereignty and human rights” (from the press release re the St . Martin Book Fair 2018)
I’ve met each of these authors at least once – Lovelace at the International Congress of Caribbean Writers (2013) and Dandicat at the Miami Book Fair (2018). It can be fun to meet your heroes…it can be uneventful; one was one of these and one was the other but both remain as mental keepsakes for a writer (me!) very much inspired by them both.
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