Victoria Brown recounts her experiences reading and writing Caribbean literature in the U.S. She ponders on the seemingly capricious ebbs and flows of publishing, readership, and the ‘market.’ (Read the full article in Apogee Journal—see link below.)
I worked as a nanny when I first came to America.
One rare quiet afternoon I found a slim book on my employer’s shelf by Jamaica Kincaid, an author I hadn’t heard of. We look to find ourselves in fiction, but rarely does a teenage Caribbean nanny in New York find herself sprawled on her boss’ couch immersed in a novel written by a former Caribbean nanny. To say Lucy spoke to me is to under-report the crystallization of intent, the force of the impact that afternoon had on my creative life to come. Here was my story, unsparingly told: my relationship with my mother, my immigrant journey, my homesickness. I finished Lucy in one sitting, and I immediately wanted more.
Because before Kincaid, to find the Caribbean in literature I had V. S. Naipaul. In some of his early stories, I caught snatches of myself—a foot or a plait perhaps—but never me, fully formed, in the middle of the action. Any pathos for Naipaul’s characters takes backseat to the bathetic; his Caribbean writing has always been part ridicule and part anthropology, local people put to usury for a foreign gaze. Trinidadians and West Indians have never been Naipaul’s people. His island birth, according to him, has only been an accident of history. Yet it was Naipaul’s work I found easily accessible, lauded as timeless, and enshrined in the canon.
Consider then, finding Jamaica in New York. After consuming Kincaid I searched for and found others, Maryse Conde, Michelle Cliff, and Paule Marshall, but only Kincaid had received the gold standard imprimatur. The New Yorker published Girl, Kincaid’s jewel, in 1978. Until Krik Krak, Edwidge Danticat’s spectacular 1996 debut, Girl sat alone, calcified in countless anthologies and syllabi, as the representation of Caribbean Women’s fiction. Prolific Roxane Gay has acknowledged that she is currently having her moment, and Naomi Jackson’s debut is getting good press, but surely Girl has more sisters, friends, enemies even, waiting to be discovered. I can’t be the only one searching for their stories. Should I cease my search, and wait patiently for editors and mainstream tastemakers to decree that Caribbean literature is experiencing another “moment”? [. . .]
Good fiction exposes our shared humanity, but I confess to feeling an extra thrill whenever a Caribbean reader tells me how much my book has resonated with her own life. Because sometimes I don’t want to distill the range of human emotions through a representative narrative; sometimes I want to read a book about someone like me.
VICTORIA BROWN is the author of Minding Ben, Hyperion 2011 (released in paperback as Grace in the City, 2012). Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, NBCnews.com, Sunday Salon, and Moko Caribbean Arts and Letters and is forthcoming in Caribbean Quarterly. She teaches in the English Department at LaGuardia Community College. More of her writing can be found at byvictoriabrown.blogspot.com.