Every mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. Previous features have been from Chovwe, Shingai, Tlotlo, and Rafeeat
Today’s letter is from Akilah White, a Jamaican freelance book and film reviewer, as well as a sensitive reader living in the shark's mouth. Her literary writing is in The Book Slut, Rebel Women Lit Magazine, Inklette Magazine, and the Jamaica Gleaner amongst other venues. Her film writing is in Flick Magazine and the upcoming anthology Divergent Terror: The Crossroads of Queerness and Horror (Off Limits Press). When not doom scrolling on Twitter she bookstagrams at @ifthisisparadise.
As a reader growing up in Jamaica in the late 1980s - 1990s, it wasn’t unusual to think of books and literature as something imported from elsewhere. A school might award a locally published book at a prize- giving ceremony like the 22 Jamaican Short Stories anthology, but the Caribbean canon taught in schools was filled with titles published abroad by Caribbean writers who lived abroad, typically in Britain, at least for as long as it took to establish a writing career.
It was the way of the world, nothing I gave much thought to. It fit in with the overall idea that for many of us, any hope to not just survive but thrive meant migration to elsewhere. Unexpectedly, that did not prove true for me. The move back home from Canada as an adult, the sharp differences in the different literary spaces, and the readerly steps I took since then, helped to reorient my gaze.
Bookstagram, of all places, proved pivotal in that reorientation. For a reader in English, the US and UK publisher dominance is all but impossible to avoid. They controlled the most visible networks and communities in virtual reading spaces through access to advanced review copies of their frontlist titles. There was a sameness to what people read as a result—a pattern that broke the more one found readers untethered to the ARC system, located outside of the ‘Global North’, or who read particular genres. (Romance readers have such a voracious appetite it proves easier to find a lot of different titles on their pages beyond any one season’s hyped offerings.) Bookstagram exposed me to books I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise but it also heightened my consciousness of publisher identity and location in relation to Caribbean literature.
My first inkling of how important this could be occurred with so-called middle-grade and young adult books. No one who had ever listened to A-dZiko Simba Gegele read could resist snatching up her book, All Over Again from Blouse and Skirt, Blue Banyan Books YA imprint. It was about a preteen boy in rural Jamaica who had to contend with the challenges that came with starting high school (which starts at 7th grade here), friendship, and his extremely annoying little sister. On one level it was such a simple tale, yet from it I derived such complex, fulfilling pleasures. Gegele wrote the entire story in our local vernacular—not just the dialogue! It wasn’t even the full Patwa, so to speak, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had read a book that even came close. To read about things I may not have directly experienced but knew so well, in the way I would have heard it written on the page, was a psychological and spiritual balm I did not know I needed.
When I wanted more, I returned to the same publisher. I began to discern a new pattern that I could not articulate but was palpable. As a child who grew up on Annegrew on Anne of Green Gables and R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series to an adult who read Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, and Jordan Ifueko, local titles like All Over Again or The Beast of Kukuyo by Kevin Jared Hosein, a book set in Trinidad, felt utterly unlike the books for younger readers from the ‘Global North’ markets. I reached for Musical Youth by Antiguan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse, published by Caribbean Reads in St. Kitts and reached the same conclusion: they were similar in ways that made them distinct from their overseas counterparts.
A perfect test case appeared in Barbadian author Shakirah Bourne’s middle grade novel published as My Fishy Stepmom by Blue Banyan Books and as Josephine Against the Sea by Scholastic. I was amazed at how a story could remain the same and be radically different. I could begin to speculate at last (albeit on the basis of a micro sample but let’s have fun).
The difference did not rest in anything as simple as the language because Scholastic kept the Barbadian dialect. What hit me on a first read was the different approach to character and story development. To my mind, the regionally published works retained more of an oral storytelling logic and texture. The US edition gave Jo, the protagonist, far more interior monologues to achieve a more pronounced psychological realism and to explicate in detail what was left inferred in the Caribbean edition. What was once a dialogue heavy text became much more reliant on narration. Additional scenes were added to help bolster particular themes in a manner that fitted neatly into how I was taught to identify and analyse themes in literature class.
Along with that, there were little cultural specificities that were not, practically speaking, essential to the story but were elements I missed all the same: Jo selling tamarind balls to save for cricket game tickets, hearing the very loud DJ with his very loud music at the bar down the road late at night despite whatever laws might be on the books.
I do not note these changes to suggest that one edition is better than the other. Of all the Caribbean titles for younger readers that make it through the northern pipeline, Josephine Against the Sea is one of the few I wholeheartedly recommend. What it did underscore for me was the need for us in the Caribbean to recognise what is distinct about our art and invest in it. I suspect that, unlike our adult fiction authors, those who write for children have been largely reliant on our regional publishers to release their work, and therefore have had less need to hybridise their styles. There are obstacles tied to colonialism and our own local peculiarities that encourage stagnancy. Despite it all, our writers have a beautifully distinct voice that is worth preserving for ourselves and the world.