The cultural establishment across the Caribbean has been changing in the last few years, with a sudden rise in the attention given to literature through a number of book fairs, festivals and similar events in various islands in the atoll. Thus, at least in appearance, literary craft had gained some of the ground it had lost over the years to more stereotypically characteristic forms of Caribbean expression, such as plastic arts, or music. Nevertheless, despite this welcome resurgence, the fact that there are scarcely any regular avenues to promote the creation of new literature in the region and to divulge the works that are created remains a puzzling, as well as a troubling, reality. Within this desolate landscape, The Caribbean Writer emerges as a long-standing example of commitment and endorsement of the literature produced in the area.
Founded in 1986 by the initiative of Erika Waters, Professor Emeritus of the University of the Virgin Islands, the journal has been produced annually, without fault, for the past 25 years. One determining factors in the high standards of quality that it has been able to provide from its first number, published in the summer of 1987, is the outstanding talent and judgement displayed by its Editorial Advisory Board, which, from the beginning, has included luminaries, such as Derek Walcott. Apart from the Nobel laureate, who still features in the board, these days The Caribbean Writer is advised by hugely influential writers, including Kamau Brathwaite, Edwidge Danticat, George Lamming, Caryl Phillips, Zee Edgell, Merle Hodge, Earl Lovelace. among others.
The latest edition of the journal, published in the summer of 2011, is an ambitious collection of over 600 pages dedicated to Haiti, on the wake of the tragic set of earthquakes that rocked the country towards the end of 2010. Incorporating photographs and interviews, book reviews, original narrative and poetry, this issue truly encompasses much of the integrating effort that, over many years, has characterized the publication. Nowhere is this more evident than in the choice to produce the vast majority of the material in English and French, as a gesture towards Haiti and the Francophone Caribbean. This initiative was neither original (Casa de las Américas produced a multilingual journal for years, for instance) nor unique, given that The Caribbean Writer has in the past published work in its original language. Nevertheless, it is one thing to publish one or the other piece in, say, French or Spanish, and another thing altogether to produce a full volume of this extension in two languages – an effort that amounts to publishing two books, really, and which, in the words of its editor, Opal Palmer Adisa, took a village to bring to fruition.
The silver anniversary edition of the publication is the second one produced under the tutelage of Palmer Adisa. It includes over 100 pages of poetry, beginning with a touching piece by Kamau Brathwaite. From the selection of verse, however, it is the distinctive voice of Andre Bagoo that stands out the most, with two poems that, despite being far apart from each other in the layout of the book, call out forcefully with the same strength. Similarly, a selection of fifteen short narratives, fictional and otherwise, is capped with a heartfelt story by Edwidge Danticat, perhaps the most notorious Haitian writer of her generation. Among those fifteen tales, the lone French original, a piece by Haitian writer and scholar, Évelyne Trouillot, bears special mention, as it offers English-speaking readers a rare view into the talent of an outstanding artist, little known outside French Caribbean quarters. Other highlights include an edifying conversation with Earl Lovelace, a vivid exchange with Elizabeth Nunez and an exhaustive list of reviews of Caribbean books published in the past year, with contributions from a wide array of personalities, from Geoffrey Philp to Kwame Dawes.
Almost inevitably, the volume is dominated by the sense of loss, suffering and injustice that is derived from the accounts of life in Haiti in the past century, or so. Nevertheless, as a piece of work what truly binds together this edition of The Caribbean Writer is the obvious care and dedication put into the furnishing of the final product, evident to the reader from the first contact with its lavish front cover (an evocative design by Pasko Mérisier). This very reason makes even more irritating and surprising the fact that the English texts are riddled with simple mistakes that condition their reading.
Nevertheless, rogue possessives and apostrophes notwithstanding, the quality, diversity and thoroughness of The Caribbean Writer make it a seminal publication for anyone concerned with literature in the region. Because, if the initiative to create the journal in the mid-80s came from a conspicuous shortage of outlets for upcoming or even established writers at the time, such scarcity has become even more alarming through the commendable effort of the University of the Virgin Islands and its Cruzan campus, where The Caribbean Writer is produced. As the publication celebrates its 25th anniversary, perhaps moving into the next stage, producing multi-lingual editions and reaching farther within the discrete traditions of the Caribbean, the onus is still there, present, prescient, pressing, for others to take similar risks and to help to develop a fully operating literary establishment. Some progress has been made in the past ten years, to be sure, but not enough to call literature anything other than a nascent market in the region. It is up to no one, other than us, to make that change.
PUBLISHED BY SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2011.