Trinidad: Back in Noir

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A report from Trinidad’s Guardian

Authors in the upcoming collection include Derek Walcott, VS Naipaul, CLR James, Sonny Ladoo and Ismith Khan, as well as the co-editors Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni. The book follows the 2008 collection Trinidad Noir, co-edited by Sunday Arts Section editor Lisa Allen-Agostini. She interviewed Akashic publisher Johnny Temple on the new Noir.

 

• Lisa Allen-Agostini: What’s the idea behind this book? 

Johnny Temple: In our Noir Series, which now comprises more than 80 anthologies, the first book for a specific geographical area is made up of brand-new fiction stories—as was the case with the original Trinidad Noir. When we pursue a second book for that area, it is always reprints of older stories, what we call “Classics.” Akashic Books is dedicated to promoting Trinidadian literature, among our other missions, so we thought it made sense to produce this second volume.

 

• What’s your favourite story in this collection? Why? 

I honestly can’t pick a favourite among all these fantastic stories and poems, but I will say that it is a tremendous honour to publish a piece by CLR James. Though he is best known for his nonfiction work, his novel Minty Alley made a big impression on me during my university studies in the 1980s, and it’s a nice twist to kick off the collection with his fine 1927 story La Divina Pastora.

 

• The Akashic Noir series has been to Hell and back, nearly. Can you talk about the geographic spread of the series and what tipped Trinidad as the first Caribbean island to be featured in the series? 

The Noir Series was launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. The majority of the volumes in the series are based around cities (Los Angeles Noir, Paris Noir, Beirut Noir, etc), but occasionally they are based around US states (New Jersey Noir, Montana Noir), regions (Orange County Noir, Long Island Noir), or whole countries (Trinidad Noir, Haiti Noir). At this point the series touches upon many different cities and countries around the world.

Havana Noir, edited and translated by Achy Obejas, was the first volume in the series from the Caribbean region, and Trinidad Noir became the first English-language Caribbean instalment largely as a result of me crossing paths with you at the exact right moment in time. Having you edit that book (along with co-editor Jeanne Mason) was a wonderful turn of events, and we’re quite proud of how well the book came together from a literary perspective (and how well it has sold!).

Convincing Edwidge Danticat to edit both Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, and Colin Channer to edit Kingston Noir, further bolstered the Noir Series’ strength in the Caribbean. And there is plenty more ground for us to cover in the region.

 

• The Classics sub-series is picking up nicely in the Noir series’ wake; you’ve done, among other US cities, Chicago, Brooklyn, Boston and New Orleans; and Haiti in the Caribbean. What has the Classics sub-series achieved and what has been the response from readers? 

Related to my earlier comments about CLR James, I can selfishly say that one thing our Classics volumes has achieved has been to allow Akashic to publish some of our all-time favourite writers, including: CLR James, Langston Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Richard Wright, Sandra Cisneros, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Sara Paretsky, Derek Walcott, Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe—to name just a few!

The response from readers has been excellent, since the Classics volumes really capture a full arc of a geographic location’s literary history.

In Trinidad Noir: The Classics, for example, the oldest story in the book is from 1927 (CLR James) and the most recent is from 2015 (Shani Mootoo’s The Bonnaire Silk Cotton Tree). For the whole Noir Series, we define the term “noir” very broadly, so as to allow enough literary diversity to sustain a series that will soon have more than 100 volumes.

 

• Both editors Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni have very distinguished literary careers. What have they brought to the shaping of the new book? 

Earl and Robert picked all the stories and poems included in the book, so they shaped it completely. Having the two of them at the helm was a coup for Akashic. They faced the difficult talk of capturing the essence of T&T’s “noir” literature in a collection of fewer than 20 pieces. T&T obviously has a rich literary history so they had their work cut out for them. Earl’s introduction to the book offers excellent insight into their selection process and its challenges.

 

• How effective has been Peekash, the imprint Akashic and Peepal Tree created together to support Caribbean publishing? What’s in its near future?

I’m quite proud of what Peekash has accomplished thus far in the Caribbean. This publishing project was started by Peepal Tree and Akashic, and we’re in the process of pulling back as Peekash gets established in the Caribbean, under the guidance of Bocas.

The goal has always been to help establish a company that would grow independent of Peepal Tree and Akashic and become self-sustaining in the Caribbean. The next two releases from Peekash are:

• So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific, featuring fiction, poetry, and essays from small island countries across the Commonwealth, edited by Nicholas Laughlin. Peekash will publish the Caribbean edition of this collaboration with Commonwealth Writers in November 2017.

• An exciting collection of new writing from past finalists of the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize, 2013–2015, edited by Funso Aiyejina.

 

• Akashic is now a programming partner with the Bocas Lit Fest. What does this mean for the festival and T&T writers?

Akashic has always supported Bocas fully, and I have also collaborated with the festival in my role as chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, which programs the annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Bocas has presented programmes multiple years at the Brooklyn Book Festival. So we have worked together in numerous capacities and it has always been fruitful—and enjoyable. I think it’s important for likeminded literary entities to collaborate and share ideas.

I’ve been very impressed with Bocas since the get-go and I’m honoured to be involved. Hopefully Akashic’s gritty literary orientation will continue to be warmly received by the Bocas audiences!

 

• And finally, for the benefit of any prospective noir fiction writers out there, what do you look for in a good piece of noir fiction? 

When evaluating fiction submissions, I trust my gut in a visceral sense.

There’s a certain bodily reaction when fiction starts to truly transport me, altering how I see the world around me for the minutes after I set down the manuscript, sometimes for much longer.

A perfect example of this was my first reading of Marlon James’s debut novel, John Crow’s Devil (which we published in 2005).

When I first read the manuscript, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

Not as though I had personally suffered an assault but as though I had witnessed an assault, and was somehow a more enlightened person as a result. It can all be quite confusing. There are of course marketing concerns as well, though at Akashic those concerns are often secondary when it comes to our fiction programme.

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