Crippling Creative Influence


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Category: Reflections 18 Oct 15

“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 nothing.

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 time.

"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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur