There is a place on the South Coast of Jamaica called Treasure Beach where frothy turquoise waves whip violently into jagged rocks and aloe vera plants sprout from the ground like an offering. This is not the Jamaica that many tourists know with oversaturated, all-inclusive hotels, loud tourists and Margaritavilles. Treasure Beach is untouched and almost defiant in its beauty, which is why every two years numbers of authors and lovers of words travel to this stretch of land for Calabash Literary Festival.
Founded in 2001, the festival draws in top literary figures from all over the world to Jakes Hotel, and this year was no exception. Authors in attendance included notables such as Sir Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Jamaica Kincaid, and Colum McCann. Equally thrilling though, was the presence of literary voices from the Caribbean; writers that weave together tales of their homeland with precision and colorful narratives.
Kwame Dawes, co-founder of the festival, said, “Derek Walcott has written eloquently about the unique accident of Caribbean identity as a meeting place of so many different cultures inside a cauldron of strife, pain, exploitation, invention and creativity. Slavery, racism, colonialism and the attendant outgrowths of those three monumental forces created the complex space that is the Caribbean, and human being in that place have had to learn, again and again, how to survive and even thrive in such worlds. The Caribbean is not unique in having emerged out of a complex history, but there is something profoundly and arrestingly contemporary about the global forces that have come to make up the very identity of Caribbean people and their cultures, for better or for worse. In this sense, the Caribbean voice is attractive to the world.”
Here are six Caribbean writers you should take some time to discover:
1.Mervyn Morris: Many may be familiar with Morris’ work, especially considering this year he was named Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate since the country’s independence in 1962, but, for those who don’t, learning more about Morris’ writing is sure to be a fulfilling discovery. The Jamaican native is a Poet and Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at University of the West Indies, Mona. A mentor to many Caribbean poets, Morris’ works include The Pond, and I Been There, Sort Of. He is a master of evoking personal memories with wit and sentimentality. He is also not afraid to shift from English to patois, exhibiting the complex history of country.
2.Beverly East: East has many titles under her belt in addition to writer, including graphologist and forensic examiner. Her latest novel, Bat Mitzvah Girl – Memories of a Jamaican Child, chronicles her life in London, where she was raised by her biological parents and by extension four Jewish women who lived next door that she called her aunties. At Calabash, East read an excerpt of the memoir that recalls when her aunties stormed to her all-white school after she had been bullied numerous times with no intervention. Needless to say, after their uproar, she was not bullied again.
3.Ann-Margaret Lim: Lim’s name is sure to be one that gains more attention in the coming years. The Jamaican poet’s debut book, The Festival of Wild Orchid, explores the contradictions and beauty of Jamaica’s history and landscape. In the poem Kingston Blues, she writes, “The Cactus bites and Trench Town is what it was; a place where children know how to starve and women how to weep.” It is the same empathy towards the plight of many that echoes throughout her work.
4. Andrea Stuart: Writer Andrea Stuart’s prose rings with such detail that you can almost smell the sugar she recalls on her grandfather’s plantation seep from the pages. In her memoir Sugar in the Blood, she recalls her mother’s earliest memory is of “being put on a blanket … placed adjacent to the fields and being given ‘fingers’ of newly cut cane to suck.” Her account of the history of sugar and the slave trade in her native Barbados is palpable and fastidiously researched. Her first book, Showgirls, a collective biography of showgirls, was adapted into a two-part documentary for the Discovery Channel in 1998. Her second book, The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napoleon's Josephine won the Enid McLeod Literary Prize in 2004. Of her writing, Stuart said, “I write about history because I believe that it is the bridge to our future; it is our history that decides how we live in the present, what is possible for us in our social and psychological worlds, and even in many cases who and how we love.”
5. Roland Watson-Grant: It was during Grant’s reading at Calabash of “Off the Island," a short story about envy and epiphanies that I recalled how prose could both sting and elate all at once. Grant’s debut novel, Sketcher tells the story of a nine-year-old “Skid” Beaumont and his family, who have relocated from the Caribbean to the swamps of Louisiana after his father has a drunken revelation. Magic is a central theme in the novel. Of the story, Watson-Grant said, “Sketcher is what I call my 'magicalogical' novel. It's about growing up fragmented and trying to put the pieces together again. Identity and family and friendships all go to pieces and so the main character, nine-year-old Skid Beaumont develops a belief that his brother, a hoodoo sketcher, can literally draw things back together. Ultimately there is beauty, even in broken things and on one level, the novel is a comment that art in all its forms helps the healing process.” The sequel to the book, Skid will be released June 2014.
6. Tiphanie Yanique: Author of the critically acclaimed short story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, the USVI native is also the author of a children’s picture book, I Am the Virgin Islands. Currently an assistant professor of writing at The New School in New York, her novel The Land of Love and Drowning will be released in July by Riverhead Books.