A report by Bonnie Kogos for the Sudbury Star.
I eagerly attend the 36th Annual Key West Literary Seminar focusing on Writers of the Caribbean. This year, director Arlo Haskell and his directors were first to take a geographic focus at a time when the hurricanes of 2017 have underscored how much Key West shares with its Caribbean neighbours.
The opening address was by acclaimed Antiguan author, Jamaica Kinkaid, discussing aspects of cultural appropriation, an issue central to understanding Caribbean influences and how it has become important in American and Canadian literature. She pondered, “How much do we take from each other?”
For four days, I marvelled at the rich presentations by other Caribbean authors, poets and reporters. Listening to their observations, life stories and reading from their published books. Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, author of “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” addressed us. Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, Jamaican novelists Kei Miller and Nicole Dennis-Benn were next, examining the literary context of their island homes.
A year of my life was happily spent sailing aboard Yacht Quadriga, a 40-foot yawl. From St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands down the Caribbean chain to Grenada. Pulling into the ports of 26 islands over one Caribbean Sea filled year. I still marvel how I sailed, learned, laughed, danced, shopped, cooked, did laundry and stayed healthy, and most importantly, afloat. And the incredible delight of meeting and respecting the fine people on each of these Caribbean Islands. I kept a sailing log, a diary.
When I returned home to New York City, the natural extension was to become a busy travel agent specializing in these Caribbean islands, managing business trips, honeymoons and family vacations to these familiar places.
The love and respect that burgeoned within me during this time of exploration still daily zings within me, these Caribbean memories.
In 1990, I was hired by the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board to lead an educational trip to Tortola and Virgin Gorda, teaching other travel agents how to sell these islands. Afterwards, in the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, on the dock by his sailboat, I happened to meet Will Mudge from Kagawong on Manitoulin. After 20 years in New York City, I moved up to Manitoulin Island to be with him. A Canadian island. This one so cold, I learned “the winter way,” driving into iced ditches. Clean, snowy Northern Ontario.
At the seminar, Canadian novelist Andre Alexis took the stage. Not only has the winner of the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize in fiction, Andre’s become the third-ever Canadian author to receive this literary prize. He also won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s top fiction honour for his novel, Fifteen Dogs, and he has reviewed books for The Globe and Mail. Born in Trinidad, at four years old, he moved with his family to Ottawa, where he was educated and grew up.
“I had memories, smells, impressions of colours, the way the heat felt, and the ocean’s presence. Trinidad was the earliest influence of my writing, the way Trinidadians speak, the rhythm of storytelling, the repetitions and storytelling,” Andre shared. “My ideal, in writing, is the simplicity and beauty of the folk tale. I love novels, where I can create a place that houses possibilities. There are sensual elements that I create and encounter in my work. And times I don’t see them. I’m constantly aware that the element of Canada is ever strange to me. I came to Ottawa and learned to have an emotional attachment, so Ottawa is also a map of my emotional being.”
It seems he added this for me, sitting in the audience. “I went to New York City and to Brooklyn with my family. When I think of how strange cities are, Manhattan is my version of the ultimate. Now I’ve lived in Toronto for 30 years and I’m still cataloguing. I have a ‘Caribbeaness’ from which I consider my being.”
BVI memories blazed within me; I wanted to tell Andre that I, too, had come, kind of, from the Caribbean, through NYC, to Northern Ontario.
Of course, I met Andre after his presentation. We had coffee and together we smiled, in our knowing of many places and time. Laughing now, I shared how I struggled to learn how to live on Manitoulin, where winter snow always seemed higher than five feet.
He laughed. “Bonnie, when I got to Canada, my second birth took place in Ottawa. I was quite conscious of this happening. I still remember snow for the first time. What a shock. The sense of how extraordinary snow is “¦ this never leaves me. I’ve never lost how strange Canada is, and how much I love this country. The way the sky looks. People tell me Canadian skies are dull and faded, compared to the bright Mediterranean and I laugh. The Med is showy, and Canada is home. “
Talk of the Caribbean continued to serve as inspiration, myth, setting, memory and new ideas. With others, I sat, nodding, as the presenters continued. Authors Tiphanie Yanique and Esmeralda Santiago spoke of the devastating hurricanes and their impact of writers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Prize-winning author Robert Antoni, equal parts Trinidadian, Bahamian and American, charmed us with his use of funny incredible dialect. He lives and works in New York City, and will have lunch with me. Then, Jonathan Galassi, the charming president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, an author himself, regaled us with stories of “North and South.”
The next punch: What is “linguistic hybridity?”
Bob Antoni explained. “We’re versions of multiplicity in claiming hybrid language and the hybridity of all the islands. This is about articulating the vernacular. You may have read about this in ‘The History of the Voice’ written almost 30 years ago?
“The vernacular in language is always posited against the O.E.D. And vernacular language is always and forever transforming itself. In fact, the vernacular has been claimed by Caribbean writers. They have actually flipped the hierarchy of proper language, which becomes subverted. Prize-winner Marlon James uses multiple vernaculars. Language is bold. The question is, ‘Who gets to have the power?’ And how can you write and read, deep into a novel? Is the beach a place of hybridity? And, are you racially marked by language? No, language is neutral.”
What? So, we’re all cultural, multi-lingual, multi-gendered-American-Canadian, First Nations, Caribbean, European, Oriental, South American, and Russian “¦ hybrids. As I thought this, inside me rang the delightful Ojibwe song and cadence of “The Humble Song” sung by Danielle Roy of Wikemikong. Am I a cheerful, cultural, linguistic hybrid. You bet.
Perhaps, we, as cultural, linguistic hybrids, can use these flashes that become clean, loving global wishes for connection and community. And peace.
My Beloved Reader. Keep reading. And talking. And Singing. In all dialects.