Stephanie Castillo (The Oprah Magazine) shares the “7 best Caribbean books for your 2021 reading list, according to Rebel Women Lit’s Readers’ Awards.” These are the 7 choices:
- Best Fiction: Tea by the Sea by Donna Hemans
- Best Non-Fiction: Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World by Jessica Marie Johnson
- Best Poetry: New Voices, selected by Lorna Goodison
- Best Translation: The Sea Needs No Ornament
- Best Short Story Collection: Stick No Bills by Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw
- Best YA: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
- Best Middle Grade: When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten
Visit The Oprah Magazine for full descriptions.
Jherane Patmore doesn’t need a reason to celebrate Caribbean literature.
The 25-year-old founded Rebel Women Lit in 2017, a book club turned literary community in Jamaica and beyond, to help readers diversify their reading lists. Toward the end of 2020, Patmore, who lives in Jamaica, realized she didn’t have to wait for major book awards to recognize all the great work that was coming out of the Caribbean—not when she could do it herself. So, without a fancy judge’s panel or prizes, she organized the first-ever Caribbean Readers’ Awards to highlight books written by Caribbean authors and/or set in the region.
After receiving close to 100 submissions and 1,800 votes, Patmore announced the winners on January 3. Winners among them included Clap When You Land by Dominican-American author Elizabeth Acevedo, Tea by the Sea by Jamaican author Donna Hemans, and Stick No Bills by Trinidadian author Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw. (You can see all seven winners in the list below.) The Rebel Women Lit community also crowned the best new content creator, a bookstagrammer named Ambika, and three critics: Gabrielle Bellot, Kelly Josephs, and Shivanee Ramlochan.
The Caribbean Readers’ Awards are like the Goodreads’ Choice Awards in that they are completely reader-led. While it may be smaller in scale, the response was even greater than Patmore expected, with some readers already suggesting candidates for the 2021 awards. “I’m excited for new people to discover different genres and to have this space to celebrate literature that has been pushed aside or ignored,” Patmore tells OprahMag.com.
This is an extension of what Patmore wants Rebel Women Lit to be: An “inherently anti-colonial space,” where you don’t have to study literature at a university to have access to work outside of what is considered canon. With their book club meetings, local community libraries, playlists, and merch, Patmore and her team aim to center authors whose work not only falls outside the mainstream, but that pushes back on colonial ideas and narratives. True, the group may have its biases when it comes to reading Caribbean, Patmore said, but their interests include all ages, genres, and cultures.
“There’s so much that we can learn from other’s voices and perspectives,” Patmore says. “It helps us build empathy and understand other people’s stories so much more.”
Of course, the onus is not solely on Patmore and readers to push these books. A 2019 Lee & Low Books survey found that 76% of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents were white, while a 2020 New York Times analysis found that 95% of best-sellers were written by white people. Despite slight improvements over the years, the publishing industry and its gatekeepers still have a lot of work to do when it comes to increasing diversity and inclusion. If the system as a whole doesn’t prioritize BIPOC authors, then it becomes much harder for those authors to break through.
The good news is that communities like Rebel Women Lit continue to show how eager readers are to discover and connect with new voices. “There are a lot of people who are interested in discovering the Caribbean and the world,” Patmore said. “These books help you travel and explore, and I’m so happy to see such high demand.”
Ready to travel to the Caribbean—in the imagination, at least? Here are the book winners of the inaugural Caribbean Readers’ Awards to add to your 2021 reading list. [. . .]