Welcome to the world of books. For our next port of call in the View from Here series we are travelling to a land of sunshine and sand. Our guide to the literary heart of the Caribbean is Joanne C Hillhouse, a local writer and blogger. You can find Joanne in several places on the Web including http://jhohadli.worpdress.com and http://worldvoices.pen.org/ah-write).
Let’s meet our local expert
A popular local calypso begins “in Antigua, we wake up to the sun…” and we do. We are a land of sunshine and beaches, in the heart of the Caribbean. But we are also a country – Antigua with sister island Barbuda – of varied people with real stories, real journeys, not just the postcard moments. I am a writer from Ottos, Antigua and my people, my country, who we are, who we want to be, have always fired my imagination as a storyteller; and the belief that stories about the human condition resonate with people anywhere provides the motivation for me to share my stories beyond my shores. I write to understand, to engage with, to reflect my world. My name is Joanne C. Hillhouse, and I am a writer. I blog about my writing life – my books, my experiences as a writer, my services as a writer and editor and more, including the littscapes of Antigua and Barbuda at http://jhohadli.worpdress.com (named for a nick/pen name that’s a blend of my name and the popular version of my country’s Amerindian name, Wadadli); and I blog at http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com – there’s that Wadadli again – about the literary scene in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean and primarily about the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which is a writing programme I started in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts among young Antiguans and Barbudans. One of the features of the latter site that I am most proud of is the bibliographies of Caribbean and of Antiguan and Barbudan literature, the research component that’s turned the site into a resource for people interested in that sort of thing. I’m an avid reader and consumer of all things artistic, really, so I blog about books, film, music, TV, whatever catches my interest, really.
Q. When we think about authors from these islands, our minds might go to Jamaica Kincaid. Who else would you recommend – in other words, who are some of the people that we could be missing out on?
Jamaica Kincaid is a favourite writer of mine. In fact, discovering her book Annie John years ago was one of those steps on my journey to accepting that it wasn’t so crazy to want to be a writer. Because when you come from a small place, it seems the most impractical thing. Outside of the calypsos – because I do count the calypso writers of my childhood among the greats of Antiguan and Barbudan literature – she was perhaps the first local writer I discovered. Others like Althea Prince, D. Gisele Isaac, Marie Elena John, Floree Williams, Dorbrene O’Marde, and others have added to the fiction writing literary canon out of Antigua and Barbuda. There are my books as well – The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and forthcoming Musical Youth – which was second placed for the 2014 Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction. So I’m excited to be a part of that narrative as well. I also hope BookerTalk readers will check out the bibliographies I’ve put together and posted to the site where you’ll see that though most of the publishing has been necessarily independent, there has been quite a lot more of it than one might expect from a place which, when you combine both major islands (we also have a number of uninhabited offshore islands), is 170 square miles.
Click here for a list of local writers (the list can also be viewed according to genre)
Q. The literature that you focus on in your blog (Antiguan, Barbudan, Caribbean) seems to cover a wide variety of cultures and geographies. How much difference is there between the three island groups in terms of way the writers focus on and show they write?
Well, there’s a common history among the islands and countries of the Caribbean – Africa to the Caribbean via the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, migration (in and out, and within) and the huge social impacts of moving people and cultures, independence, re-defining self in the post colonial age. There will be common themes but I think people coming to the Caribbean and to Caribbean literature, who really pay attention, will find a lot of variation within these broad strokes. There are regional differences, even within countries, even within communities – differences in terms of language, food, ideologies, dress, values, expression, variations as relates to ethnicities and histories etc. That is before you even get to personal narratives and the imagination, the compulsion to create not just regurgitate. I think the beauty of what art, not just literature, is doing is re-discovering and sort of re-mapping for ourselves a self that’s too often been defined by the Other. I think there’s a new wave of literature as well, a literature born of people who do not have direct experience with colonial rule and what all of that means, but have come of age in a Caribbean feeling the growing pains of self-rule, and influences other than the traditional influences, with all of the hopes and limitations that come with that. Because each island is different, each person is different, the result of that exploration – the art that comes out of that – will be different. One of the things I challenge the participants in my annual Wadadli Pen Challenge to do, because we’ve been so much influenced by things outside of our direct lived experience, is to find the stories within our space. Because we have so many stories, and so many varieties of stories to tell, still…not to mention different (sometimes quite inventive) ways of telling them
Q. How much is the literature from this part of the world influenced by its past history of connections with West Africa and with Britain?
Well, it’s like I just said, the influence is there but part of the interesting thing about the Creole experience is that it is this new thing born of all of these influences of which Britain and Africa is only a part, a significant part, but still just a part of the whole. As far as literature goes, we were certainly in the school system in which I came of age, exposed to what’s called the Classics, Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond; and, frankly, didn’t read enough of our own world, though it did exist. And notwithstanding the efforts of slavery and colonialism to totally erase our African identity, it remains in some of the language influences, some of the food, and expressions, music and philosophies handed down orally, whether in local sayings or Anansi stories. In my own book Oh Gad! – Africa is there in the coal pot making tradition that’s a central motif, it’s there in the local sayings, and in the spoken dialect, but there’s no denying the influence of English, and in fact, America as well in ways I’d be at pains to pick apart. But Caribbean is neither of these things explicitly, it is its own thing, and the art and literature reflect that.
Q. What books are currently getting a lot of buzz right now? What are your friends reading perhaps?
Caribbean books, you mean?… Lord, I don’t wan’ get into trouble…understand that this isn’t definitive okay, not even the tip of the ice berg, just what comes to mind…but if I think of the Caribbean writers that have been personally recommended to me in recent years, Marlon James and Kei Miller come immediately to mind. Ah, other names I think which would be part of discussions on modern Caribbean literature include people like Junot Diaz, Monique Roffey, Roland Watson-Grant, Barbara Jenkins, Oonya Kempadoo,Tiphanie Yanique, Colin Channer, Elizabeth Nunez, and, of course, one I’m always recommending, my literary crush Edwidge Dandicat. There are also Robert Antoni who won the Bocas prize for literature this year, and former winner and a legend of Caribbean literature in his own right Earl Lovelace who is still very current and relevant. Among the poets, Lorna Goodison, while she’s not new relative to some of the other names I’ve called, still gets a lot of love; Derek Walcott, as a Nobel Laureate and someone still producing respected work, is an icon; I have much respect for one of my former mentors now poet laureate of Jamaica (also not new but still relevant) Mervyn Morris, and among the newer poets, again relatively speaking, you’ll likely hear names like Miller, Vladimir Lucein, Christian Campbell, Loretta Collins Klobah, Kendel Hippolyte… But honestly we still don’t read ourselves enough so we, including me, still have a lot to discover among our own writers.
I would like to also direct you to the bibliography put together by John Robert Lee and shared on my blog and to various discussions on my blog on Reading the World, the Caribbean leg and Caribbean favourites . My ‘blogger on books’ series which granted is not Caribbean exclusive does include some Caribbean literature as well.
Q. Which authors would you consider to be in the classical canon — the kind that you had to read at school?
More trouble…okay… George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Lovelace, Walcott, V. S. Naipaul are without any subjectivity considered among the Caribbean classics… but among my favourites in school would have been Michael Anthony and Sam Selvon, and from Antigua, in addition to Kincaid whose earliest works can be counted among the newer classics, the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour. I’m assuming you’re referring here to the published Caribbean literary canon and even more specific to books from that canon that would have been read in school, and up to secondary school specifically, because if you broaden it calypso writers like Antigua’s Shelly Tobitt would be part of the conversation for me and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a couple.
Re the Caribbean canon, the Lee biography mentioned earlier would also be instructive.
Q. As an author yourself, what experience have you had trying to get your work published for an international audience?
I wrote about the journey a few years ago in a much-travelled piece entitled ‘Writing Off the Map’ which you can find here among other places. Long story short, it’s been a challenge; a slow climb, one step forward, two steps back, paying your dues, and all such clichés. It hasn’t been easy and I remain a writer on the hustle. But it hasn’t been without its high points – for instance, just this year I would have been invited to participate in a Commonwealth panel at the Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow, Bocas as a Burt finalist in Trinidad, the PEN World Voices festival in New York, I would have had a story published to positive reviews in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, among other journals and anthologies, I would have had the opportunity to edit a special on Antiguan and Barbudan literature for online literary platform Tongue of the Ocean I just received another invitation for a festival next year that I would not have been invited to a year ago, quite recently my book Oh Gad! – the mass market edition of which came out this summer – has recently been added to a course on Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and was recently discussed on National Public Radio [NPR] in the US . I’m far from being where I want to be, from having the resources I need to have just to make life, but I’m writing, I’m moving, and, thanks to social media, I continue to push my books and tap into opportunities to keep writing, keep moving.
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Much of the last week has been spent in fighting proposals to turn our local branch library from a professionally run service to one that is operated or maybe even managed completely by volunteers. We first heard there were changes in the wind in April but at that point our branch was save apart from a few reduced opening hours. Without warning in August that changed and suddenly our local library was slated for downgrading so our local authority can fill a £32M funding gap over the next three years.
We were promised these were just proposals and no decisions had been taken. Further statements were made that “our intention is not to close libraries”. Well, guess what, when the consultation document came out this week the first question was ‘would you support community led libraries as an alternative to their closure?’ What a biased question and one that is impossible to answer without giving the council what we now believe the want – a mandate to close libraries yet masquerading this as being what their citizens want.
A local protest group has now been formed and I’ve found my evenings and the weekend rapidly developing campaign posters, putting an action plan together, contacting the media etc.
Problem is that this is happening all over the country as councils see a diminishment of the public library service as a relatively easy way to cut costs; much less emotive than closing a school or a day care centre for the elderly. Anyone who has a household budget understands the challenge of having to make savings. We’re not stupid in thinking that the local authority is any different and can suddenly magic up more money but the approach they are taking is very short sighted. What doesn’t seem to be really under consideration is the long term impact on literacy and on elderly people who live alone and use a trip to the library as a way to keep in touch with people.
If we were asked to volunteer to help the existing librarians, to run reading groups for children or restock the shelves etc, there would be plenty of people coming forward. But few people are willing to do this and see librarians lose their jobs as a result. This is something that warrants a considered debate not simply a checkbox questionnaire.
Clearly I am not much use at spotting prize winning books. Last year I was rooting for Jim Crace’s The Harvest to win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I got it completely wrong since the prize went to the (in my view) much less impressive The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
This year I was 100% sure that Ali Smith would grab the prize. I was even flirting with the idea that I might put a flutter on her (except the last time I went into a book maker’s establishment I was seven years old so the routine might have changed a bit). Just as well I didn’t since those devilish judges turned their backs on Ms Smith in favour of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which is set during the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War Two. Darn it, I have read three of the six shortlisted novels this year but wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t got as far as this one.
I’m not familiar with Flanagan’s work but this sounds like a fascinating read even though it’s likely to be harrowing at times given its subject matter.
So Scotland misses out but at least the title goes to an author from the Commonwealth thus confounding everyone who signalled the demise of the prize when they ‘let in the Americans’.
Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers. Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.
Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still, querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick. Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.
Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna. Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.
Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?
Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way. Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special, that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.
But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …
And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy). The two are inexplicably connected:
…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t
This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.
How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.
A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
I’m not a great fan of ‘must read’ book lists. They either make you feel smug that you’ve read most of the titles or inadequate when you discover you’ve not even heard of most of those authors. Those few words “must read” get my back up also for another reason: they make me feel like I’m being given a medication prescription for some nasty cough medicine instead of having a door opened to what could be a wonderful experience.
But there are some lists which make me sit up and pay attention. Often they are lists where the selection is made by authors themselves rather than publishers or critics. Or they are lists that introduce me to writers from parts of the world outside my own. I use these lists to find titles I can consider for my world of literature project.
Two articles published recently have ticked both of these boxes.
In the first, David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and more recently Bone Clocks) who is a fan of Japanese literature recommended 5 books by Japanese authors. I was expecting Haruki Murakami to feature in the list but in fact Mitchell has chosen a few lesser known authors. “They are books I would like people in the West to know more, because they are some of the high points of Japanese literature,” he said. “Even the most famous aren’t widely known outside Japan, and … three aren’t even really well known there.”
I’ve not heard of any of these authors but I’ve added two of the recommendations to my wish list (the titles by Tanizaki and Ariyoshi).
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, is a domestic family saga with dark undertones. Set in Osaka on the eve of World War 2, it portrays the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family.
Silence by Shusaku Endo. Mitchell says this is a big historical novel about an era after Christianity is outlawed, with complex and flawed characters
The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi. Another historical novel, this time featuring a Japanese doctor who was the pioneer in the use of anaesthetic in the 1810s and the first doctor in the world to perform successfuly surgery for breast cancer. (the English translation of this novel is currently out of stock but being reprinted)
The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe. Mitchell says Abe is ‘a bit bonkers’ which perhaps accounts for the odd nature of this novel. It’s about an entomologist who falls into a sandpit when he is out looking for insects one day. Somehow he becomes the slave of inhabitants of a nearby village who won’t let him out of the sandpit. He has to keep digging away at the wall of the sand dune in order to keep it from encroaching upon the village.
The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Mitchell describes Ogawa as an experimental writer whose experiments don’t always work. This novel is one that does. It’s about a mathematics professor who wakes one morning to find his memory has been wiped clean. His housekeeper and her son help him cope with his defect.
Central American literature
I know absolutely nothing about literature from this part of the world but thanks to Words without Borders I’ve been introduced to some upcoming writers from one of those countries. The October issue of Words without Borders e-magazine features short stories by 7 Guatemalan writers. This is an opportunity to read work by authors whose material is not widely available outside their home country or translated into English.
Super Thursday is coming up next week on October 9. This is the day when the publishing industry launches hundreds of books on the same day (1,500 last year actually), in the build up to Christmas which is their busiest time of the year.
With that number of new titles coming out shortly, it’s going to be a severe test of my resilience to adding yet more titles to the bookshelf. A few upcoming releases have already caught my eye. I’m hoping I can get some of them ordered at the library rather than bust my book purchasing ban still further.
Lamentations by C. J Sansom is the sixth in the series set in sixteenth century England. Once again the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake becomes embroiled in the politics of the Tudor court. In Lamentations, Henry VIII is near to death, providing an opportunity for the disaffected Catholics to try and return the country to their faith. Their attention turns to Henry’s wife Catherine who enlists Shardlake’s help to protect her life. I’ve read two of the Shardlake series so far, Dissolution and Dark Fire ( click on the links to see my reviews ) both of which I loved for the way they plunge you into the smells and sounds of sixteenth century England as well as the intrigue of the court. Lamentations is published in the UK October 23.
With her latest novel, Rachel Joyce will be hoping to emulate the success of her debut novel The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy revisits the Harold Fry story but this time from the point of view of the person that he walks the length of England to save — his former work colleague Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is shocked to discover that Harold Fry is walking. She’s not sure she’ll still be alive by the time he reaches her. and she has something important to tell him. A volunteer at the hospice suggests she writes to Harold and to confess what she has hidden for twenty years. I enjoyed the Pilgrimage book overall but am not sure there’s enough mileage left to sustain a whole new novel. I could be wrong however. We will find out when its ‘s published on October 21 by Bond Street Books.
Much to my embarrassment I have yet to read anything by Colm Tóibín despite all the critical acclaim for his work. His newest novel could change that. Nora Webster sounds superb. Its set in Wexford, Ireland where a widow is mourning the loss of her husband who was the love of her life. Lost in her own grief she doesn’t see the suffering endured by her young sons at the loss of their father. This is a story about a strong willed woman trying to protect her privacy in a small community with an insatiable curiosity and desire to know everyone else’s business. Nora Webster is published by Scribner.
If these are not temptation enough for you then maybe you’d like a bag especially created to mark the upcoming launches. Turner prize winning artist Tracy Emin is the designer for this year’s Books are my Bag bag. You can start buying it from bookshops and independent stores on October 9. See the info on the Booksellers Association website.
Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I have just a few pages left to read of Ali Smith’s latest novel How to Be Both. It’s a wonderful novel because of the innovative narrative structure — one part is the story of an early Renaissance mural artist; the second is about an inquisitive teenage girl in the present day. Some editions start with the artist, some with the teenager so readers get to have a different way of interacting with the text. My version began with the artist. At first I couldn’t see how the two stories would come together but I had underestimated Ali Smith’s talent. This is such a superb novel that I’ll be astounded beyond belief if it doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize later this month.
Next on my list to read is a novel I was given as a gift by a work colleague in South Korean who was excited to learn I wanted to discover a local author. So now I am going to be reading Please Look after Mom by the South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin. This novel, which has reached sales of more than a million copies in the country, is about woman who gets lost in the crowd at a train station in Seoul. Her selfish family of husband, two sons and two daughters who haven’t really given her much love and attention until now are forced by her disappearance to re-evaluate their lives and their relationships.
I’m making slow progress with the audio version of Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. It’s not as easy to listen to while driving as crime fiction so I find myself having to stop and rewind frequently because I’ve lost track of who is who.
The West Wing series is one of my favourite TV programs to come out of the USA. Some of the episodes get a bit bogged down in detail that is hard to understand if you are not familiar with the American government and political system but the characters are highly watchable and there is a tremendous energy in these programs. Those guys are so constantly on the move they must easily beat the recommended 10,000 steps a day. We’re revisiting the whole series at the moment and we’re in the midst of the election campaign for the next President. Great fun.