Editor’s Note: This is the third in an ongoing series about the role of literature in the unique life of the people of the Virgin Islands. The author is the editor of The Caribbean Writer literary magazine, which is published annually under the auspices of the University of the Virgin Islands and which presents the best works of the best writers in the region.
In our daily meanderings about this community, it is common practice for us to extend greetings to people we encounter along the way. In fact, saying “good morning” or “good afternoon” is good community relations currency because it clears pathways and engenders good feelings.
The unmindful person wouldn’t want to be the fly on the wall to hear talk about them “not having any manners” or about what a “rude, disrespectful brute” they are.
These are customs that are collectively nurtured and often insisted upon by our diverse society and this is the way that recognizing context enhances a persons’ overall humanistic experience
It’s an amazing thing to see newcomers fall in with not only some of our defining customs, but also some of those practices that might give us a blushing pause — like that engaging on-your-“barna-wukup” waistline disconnect dance that at least one off-island lineman learned very quickly.
The debate around whether that style of dance is culture or fad is fierce because as subcutaneously sweet as the “Stanley Tramp” is, those who tramp behind that cultural band rarely dance like that. And what a show it is to see a tourist hustle down a bowl of kallaloo and fungi, pig tail and all, their first local culinary experience. After that, it’s like they have passed the cultural test.
Similarly, to have a well-rounded, conscious experience with some of the literary selections taught in our own curriculum spaces, we must also set the works in their own cultural or community context.
So, this idea of context brings me to a conversation about reading that my walking partner Phyllis and I had for a few mornings. As usual, I was sharing my displeasure with what children in the public schools are required to read on a regular basis because I believe that reading is a golden opportunity to influence and shape ideas.
I suppose the idea of shaping has political implications too and so the question that arises is who should take responsibility for this shaping imperative? Parents? Teachers? Curriculum experts? Language arts experts? Governments? Who?
I am mindful not to be myopic here because the internet slays the tidy order of reading anything. But shouldn’t there be a significant space for students to experience regional and local literature right alongside Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe? Ideas and experiences explored in such literature can acutely engage students and connect them with their own identity markers associated with universal values around compassion, civility and traditions.
But it seems that only conscientious teachers (I know a lot of them) teach Caribbean literature. In fact, one of my friends argues, and I agree, that we are being disingenuous when we say that we don’t have Caribbean materials for teaching in the Virgin Islands public school classrooms, that we don’t have Virgin Islands materials to infuse into the curriculum.
Authors from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are featured collectively in one or another of our literature texts. Despite all the efforts that are being made now and in the past, are we reluctant to use Virgin Islands literature or Caribbean literature in our classrooms because we singularize the literature dismissively as an anomaly of sorts or something separate and sexy?
I am not sure what the general thinking is, but I think the key questions that we might ask as we ponder this are:
What are our intentions when we identify a particular literary selection for use in our classrooms?
Why is this or that selection chosen over any another selection?
Sometimes we have a tendency to abandon one leadership initiative just because we can, but even when we carry forward some initiatives, many educators simply blame this “what to teach” dilemma on a “lamb to slaughter” approach to curriculum content action, saying “This is what they gave me to teach.”
Others lay this void on the compendium of paperwork that teachers are tasked with preparing and submitting to the educational leadership each week, which, some say, doesn’t allow them even wiggle room to be creative. You see, setting the work in its cultural context means that the teacher must be au fait with the history behind the selection to really do a meaningful job of teaching it.
For instance, the teacher who might teach Tiphanie Yanique’s best-selling novel, “Land of Love and Drowning” (2012) must become immersed in Virgin Islands history from 1917 to around 1984. There is no way around that. But, think of the possibilities when the historian collaborates with the English teacher to teach culturally appropriate Caribbean selections.
Anyone who has taught George Lamming’s “In the Castle of my Skin” knows that having a working knowledge of Caribbean and some of Bajan history would make the reading of this Caribbean classic a richer and more meaningful experience.
Some of the finest students have been touched by teachers who made this happen. We know that teachers have a certain amount of autonomy — given or taken — don’t we?
Yet still, some teachers actually don’t see the value in that literature. I once heard a very esteemed teacher remark that he doesn’t really have too much regard for Caribbean literature because the quality is often nebulous, and he doesn’t really understand it.
I would also add that I felt a little sadness for a student who shared that a teacher, speaking about the writings and memoirs of a particular Caribbean historical figure, opined, “This stuff is not even literature.”
Naturally, then, the question arises: What is literature? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the body of writing produced in a culture.” I suppose this could refer even to the telephone book, recipe books and so forth. But admittedly, that would be a tad problematic.
Another definition holds that “literature is the use of language to tell a story.” But other works that are not narratives but are philosophical in nature are considered literature — writer’s like Descartes and Roseau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill to name a few. So that definition doesn’t quite cover the spectrum either.
Another definition is: “Literature is writing that has claimed consideration for its beauty or for its effect.” Yet still, one scholar suggests that there are two basic kinds of literature: “That which still speaks to us and our particular anguishes of today and that which spoke to its contemporary audience and can only have a scholarly interest for us as we try to discover what the work meant to those for whom it was written.”
It seems that all of these approaches together provide a working idea of how we define literature in the academic sense. Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott decries what we consider the literary canon, or the list of works that are generally regarded by distinguished scholars as the standard for literary value and skill. In an interview published in 1994 in The Caribbean Writer, he said, “There is a very dangerous thing happening in education. It’s this discussion of the canon: What should be read? You cannot treat literature or art as if it were an immigration quota.” So, this debate about what is literature or what should be in the literary canon, can continue ad infinitum
While there are always questions about value and skill, this is true of any body of evolving literature, because quite frankly some of us don’t want to be edited, especially when we are wedded to a particular syntax or idea. In fact, now that self-publishing makes book creation easier than ever before, a writer must work even harder to gain that recognition. Publishing is not a destination that automatically comes with curriculum access; however, in the local arena, it’s a little easier if we stay within the territory, because there is such a dearth of writers that we practically have a captive audience.
But, granted, not every published piece of local work is appropriate for the classroom. I have counted more than 300 books in circulation written by Virgin Islanders thus far. The list grows as people share their work with us.
Marvin Williams, deceased editor of The Caribbean Writer, often lamented that local writers don’t like to be criticized. In his words, “Criticism is as important to writers as rain is to plants.” Surviving the regional, national and international critical test is what causes a writer to garner recognition on lists like the New York Times Best Selling list.
World-renowned authors like Earl Lovelace, Tiphanie Yanique, Elizabeth Nunez, Jamaica Kincaid, Kwamae Dawes and others who are invited to present at our annual literature festival provide us with up-close opportunities to learn as we embrace scrutiny and competition in order to strengthen our craft.
The Daily News series: “Literature in Life”
Part 1: Jan. 23, 2019
Part 2: Jan. 24, 2019
Part 3: Today
Part 4: Feb. 1, 2019
Part 5: Feb. 2, 2019
— Alscess Lewis-Brown, St. Croix, is Editor of The Caribbean Writer; she has written six books for young readers, including the popular Moko Jumbi Majorette series, and she is a part-time professor at The University of the Virgin Islands.