“I knew I had to leave my home
country—whether in a coffin or a plane.” —Marlon James, winner of the
Man Booker Prize for literature 2015.
The auditorium in the Royal Festival
Hall in London, at least the size of or bigger than Napa’s, was packed
with people who love books, read them, write them, are comforted,
expanded, inspired by books, can’t live without them.
When I heard Marlon James the night
before his win was announced read with a charismatic kind of audacity
that only survival, a kind of swallowing of knowledge, grit, real
suffering, and talent can justify, I knew he would win. It was time. It
was time for the man in the ras. It was time for the Caribbean to rise
again, Trinidad’s Naipaul, St Lucia’s Walcott, and now Jamaica’s James.
They all left to write, of course. Marlon had a double bind. Marlon was
too different to stay—called batty boy in an all-boys school in Kingston
for being gay. Even if he weren’t, it would be hard. Until Bocas— the
tireless work of Marina Salandy-Brown and Nicholas Laughlin—there was
I’m in London now, with the
encouragement of Trinidad-born novelist Monique Roffey, of British and
Egyptian parentage. Roffey is, in a way like me, a hybrid. She has made
it. I have not published my first novel, yet. Roffey encouraged me to
come to England for a year to write. When Marlon was nominated for this
literary prize I spoke to Roffey, and this is her experience trying to
write in the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad:
"In the UK there is a well established
‘generosity of spirit’ amongst writers; it’s common to see working
writers mentoring new writers, or for emerging writers to work
informally with published authors. So when I began my private informal
classes in Trinidad, in 2009, I went about it the same way, drawing in
local writers via word of mouth. I found there was a good response and
so in 2014, I decided to set up something a little more formal in St
James. For a time, that writing group really worked well, it hummed
along, and I (naively) assumed that all was well.
"The group was very mixed in terms of
race and class. You cannot buy talent, and it was the work we were
discussing on the page. It felt like something good was happening. There
was also a private FB group to support the group, which was more of a
place to post notices, re competitions.
It was me who saw some bullying
happening on FB, it was me who brought the issue of race into the FB
group. I saw a black Caribbean poet attacking a white Caribbean poet,
critiquing her credentials to call herself a Caribbean poet. I brought
the issue of ‘whiteness' into the group and a massive race row ensued.
“Soon after, I was attacked by another
poet, a man I considered a friend and a colleague, and who I had invited
to teach in the group. He attacked an article I wrote, in the most
personal, contemptuous and shaming manner, passing it off as valid lit-crit.
Over a long weekend, three white women
were attacked, all Caribbean writers and poets, all of us were shamed. I
collapsed under this attack, and so did my group. Not only are there
issues of race and privilege crippling writers in the Caribbean region,
but there is an old guard, many of whom are resident in Trinidad and
they are all male, and they have policed the region’s cannon for a long
"I’m aware the poet Wayne Brown also ran
a private writing group in Trinidad in the 90s; he was a black man, and
yet I hear he also struggled to hold his writing group together and
eventually left Trinidad for Jamaica. I hear he was a brilliant teacher,
and yet we share the same problem of mistrust and infighting. If I could
put my finger on why it's so hard to live and work and grow as a writer
in the region, it is to do with a lack of trust and an age-old narrative
about creative license and credibility. It feels like new conversations
are only starting to happen in the Caribbean, with people like Bajan
artist Annalee Davis’ White Creole Conversations project, and with more
women writing now in the region.
“There are mindful, creative
conversations to be had in the region about class, gender race and
privilege. Raging at each other shuts down debate and shuts emerging
writers down completely. A writer needs 1) a period of apprenticeship 2)
a period of emergence 3) first publication 4) stabilisation. Too often I
have met female writers in Trinidad who just gave up writing because
they were attacked way too early on in their career, when they were
still an apprentice writer. I have heard this story often; usually the
story is that one of the resident male writers or someone of a different
background railed at them and shut them down. Emerging writers need
considerable time and space to get off the ground.
Instead, if they live
in the region they face big heavy policing and big issues around race,
gender and privilege, which often cripples the creative muse.” I for one
am so glad that Marlon James got away. Jamaica and the Caribbean is
proud, now, but did little to nurture him.