No Longer Island People
Today is a day for fools.
Today marks the launch of Lesser & Leeward, a press with the Caribbean in mind in all aspects of its existence. Our contributors write from various sites and places where it be physical, geographical, or sociological – all united by our origin, parentage, and/or heritage from wherever we may be from along the Caribbean constellation.
Today my personal foolishness comes not only from the titular holiday, but for existing in a literary canon which doesn’t seem to have room for me or (m)any other Caribbean writer(s). Lesser & Leeward’s platform is intended to counteract alien voices on a topic so perilously necessary and urgent as the Caribbean and its global diaspora, of which I am proudly a part. This nascent movement comes in an age, a perpetual age it seems, when writing on our archipelago comes from, well, the rest of the world.
Case in point: I was already annoyed when I sat down to read Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s modern-day travelogue of the Caribbean, Island People. Namely, annoyed that this book was one of two Caribbean-focused books in my local indie bookstore, the other being James Williams’ Jamaican indentureship narrative. Jelly-Schapiro’s book stood out by title and by its cover, a pastel horizon printed shimmery in hardcover with a single errant palm tree in black – because it wouldn’t be a tropical archipelago without palm trees, I guess. Still, as a Trini boy in the diaspora I was hoping that Jelly-Schapiro’s outsider perspective on homeland affairs would be more illuminating than stomach-churning.
It starts a few paragraphs in, when J-S begins describing dougla Carnival mas-players as having “Benin bone structure and Kerala hair”. Listen, I’m a writer too, I know the struggle of making things sounds pretty for print, but not all coolies are created equal – from what I know of the indentureship trade, virtually none of today’s Indo-Trinbagonians trace their roots to Kerala. But the comparison of dougla folk to, of all people, American pop singer Beyoncé – “[from] the complex past that had given Trinidad’s people a particular beauty not unlike that of the creole superstar”(393) – reads more as an Othering than an outright statement of flattery.
There is a certain sting in the tone J-S evokes when he calls the island “an extension of Venezuela” and that it “spent most of its colonial history as a thinly settled backwater”(394). (Or when he throws shade at Beyoncé by calling her “straightened-haired” self inauthentic for a black woman, but moving on.)
There is a certain dullness and, dare I say it, lack of originality in posing the questions upon which J-S labors to speculate: why hasn’t soca crossed over like reggae has? For that matter, why are calypsonians so concerned about politics? And what’s up with all the drugs?
There is a despicableness in writing on the Caribbean which in general is made for Western eyes. To take a Marxist perspective on why this book failed to captivate me, it would be that J-S writes with dividends in mind – him, being a noted scholar on the Caribbean, must know there are more interesting Trini stories to tell, but knows that the ones he prints in his tome are marketable.
It is time for an era of Caribbean writing by and for Caribbean writers. Even I, as a diasporic Trini boy, feel reticent to speak sometimes when, it seems, there are so many other people from various locales with more to say than I might at any given moment. But this feeling no longer extends to writers from beyond the constellation -- not when all of us have so much to say. The only vaguely relevant excerpt I can find in this book is, in fact, in the liner notes, which refer to our archipelago’s residents as “forty million people who continue decisively to shape our world”. I’ll take that and run with it. This press is dedicated to and founded for those among us who shape where we are just by existing and writing about it.
As an epilogue, a few weeks later I came upon a much better compilation that could pass for a travelogue, penned mostly by writers from the islands, under the unassuming title Caribbean Dispatches. One missive stands out, that of an Englishman who married a Trinidadian woman and moved to Port of Spain, not necessarily in that order. He wrote:
To that we raise our glasses from our respective continents. To that we erect the Goliath within us, the book-wise Bussa with something to say. To that we say: bredren and sistren, is our time now!
Editor-in-Chief, Lesser and Leeward