Firing the Canon: The Condition of the Literature of the British Virgin Islands.

The contents of this essay have been ricocheting around inside my skull for the greater part of two years. Maybe this is not an essay – perhaps it is an extended musing on the state of affairs for a writer in a community increasingly bereft of readers, perhaps it is the rant of a man who fancies himself more a writer than he has any just reason to be considered one. Ultimately, this essay is about three especial concerns of the Virgin Islander (or any) writer. Those concerns succinctly put are: audience, exposure, and reception. These three concerns almost mirror exactly the issues that Jamaican scholar and poet Edward Baugh identifies in his revisiting of his famous essay “The Quarrel with History” in 2012 for Small Axe. In his introductory paragraph he talks specifically of the difficulty West Indian critics have in finding their routes to publication both locally or in British and North American journals and the attached anxieties of “audience, exposure, and sustained accessibility”.

The primary preoccupation of every writer before the pen touches the page should be the identifying of their audience. The dangerous trap that many find themselves ensnared in is the belief that their own amusement or catharsis provides adequate impetus for their words to be recorded and read. However, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, good writing is not based in expression but in communication. Regardless of the genre, good writing (and our local literature deserves nothing less) should communicate and elicit meaning and feeling of value to the reader, not the writer. Indeed, we must assume that often the reader does not share all the same interests, concerns, and tastes as the writer but is able to extract an idea or an emotion from her writing that possesses value for him. Sometimes indeed, it is the writer’s duty to demonstrate that value to her reader.

One of the clearest values a local literature must have is that the work it catalogues under itself must provide or present ideas of permanent interest specific to the people it concerns. This definition allows us to distinguish between, for example, a local author and a text that can be designated local literature. I would argue then that a local author that writes a book of devotion or financial management has not written a text that has become part of the local literature. At the same time, the expatriate who pens a poem, short story, novel, or memoir that is set in these environs and examines characters and themes that breathe the Caribbean air we breathe or has been constructed by local experiences has done more to develop our local literature. The value that is demonstrated to the reader is that literature is one of the avenues through which the identities and experiences of a community are both preserved and examined. Literature of the Virgin Islands therefore is of obvious importance for that purpose, the added possible impact is the inspiration of younger writers having seen, read, and in some cases listened to writers who share their experience and environment.

How to Escape from A Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories. TIphanie Yanique 2010.
How to Escape from A Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories.
TIphanie Yanique 2010.

It is this impact of inspiration from which we currently suffer. Looking across the channel, the young writer Tiphanie Yanique stands out as the most relevant voice writing in the USVI, producing impressive works of fiction over the past four years. Looking around on the islands that fly the Vigilate flag, there is a noticeable void in comparison. However, casting our gaze into the past there is no shortage of reading material. In fact, there is a rich tradition of Virgin Islanders writing as far back as the well-named Anegadian Alphaeus Osario Norman (1885-1942), a fine poet who began writing in the Victoria Era. In the years since his death, a long list of poets, novelists, historians, and memoirists can be compiled to include: Jennie Wheatley, Quincy Lettsome, Verna Penn Moll, Sheila Hyndman, J.R. O’Neal, Roy Hodge, Vernon Pickering, Patricia Turnbull, and Hugo Vanterpool to be brief. Some of these writers enjoyed greater success than others, their works becoming almost required reading in the small circle of academics that call these islands home. Some others passed on without ever seeing their work read seriously even in this small territory.

The contemporary local writers struggle also with this question of audience. The writer who mines the Virgin Islands for her content and inspiration has had an even lonelier existence than the one well engrained in clichéd memory. She has probably had to self-publish a book or two, hold a book launch in the breezeway of the Central Administration Complex, and resign herself to a readership that numbers itself in the tens despite the number of copies she sells and signs. She has no awards or honors to look forward to, no celebration of her life’s work, and no guarantee that her books will be talked about after she is no longer able to sell them herself.

In order for this dynamic to change, the local writer cannot only target a local audience. The work produced locally – despite its local focus – must be of regional relevance and international quality. Without those attributes, books produced simply will not be commercially viable. Further, in the information age, it has become seductive to patronize vanity publishers. These companies charge authors for the printing and publishing of their books and will print anything once they have been paid. This practice only serves to chip away at the local writer’s reputation – the implication being that their text cannot survive the editing process of a publisher. This perception, whatever its veracity is damaging in itself, but perhaps more importantly, the exposure that it may offer the local writer is extremely limited. Both vanity-publishing companies – also referred to now as subsidy presses – and the self-publication route are only as effective as the author’s Rolodex. Neither then, can truly address the issue of a middling readership. It appears that the local writer needs to begin to consider publishing her work in regional and international presses. Such an endeavor, though daunting, will begin to establish the readership necessary to establish regional relevance as an author and then hopefully territorial significance in the landscape of our local literature. Poets need to start publishing their poetry in established online and print journals, novelists need to start publishing short stories, and so on. The obvious benefit to the individual is that arduous process of creation and revision sharpens her skills and hones her craft, meaning that when the next great Virgin Islands novel is published it can be a text that stands up to and against the contemporary novels of the region.

Professor Eddie Baugh.
Professor Eddie Baugh.

I pause here to provide some history. The Department of English at the University of the West Indies at Mona began its programming in 1950, but it was only in 1969 with Professor Baugh as its Head of Department that the curriculum there expanded from the history of English literature. The first course on West Indian literature ran in 1969. This is a striking bit of trivia. Considering then that Mittelhozer had already published the entirety of his massive bibliography, Selvon had published two classics, Naipaul was already an accomplished author, and both Walcott and Brathwaite were publishing to critical acclaim, it is clear that the leadership of the institution and the department prior to Baugh were clinging to the old establishment when the material to be studied was on bookshelves at home and on both coasts of the Atlantic. Here we are forty-five years later, and in the British Virgin Islands some of that mulish resistance finds itself in our curricula.

A cursory glace at the syllabi of Language Arts classes at the primary level and literature courses at the secondary and tertiary levels reveal a paucity of Virgin Islands literature being taught. Many moons ago, while I was a student at the then British Virgin Islands High School, we read Harriet’s Daughter, A Brighter Sun, Miguel Street, The Hills Were Joyful Together, The Wine of Astonishment, as well as the poetry of Walcott, McKay, and others. The opportunity was there then to experience a world of literature that was not distant, that was not foreign, that was something we could access and create for our own. Increasingly, as I stand in the Caribbean Literature and Black Diaspora courses that I teach, I realize that my students, my English majors are not as versed as my peers and I were in the well-established canon of Caribbean literature. Too many do not recognize any of the names I listed previously. They do not recognize those women writers who dominated the 1980s – Senior, Kincaid, NourbeSe Philip – or the contemporary writers who compete for awards and critical praise like Kei Miller, Marlon James, Lisa Allen-Agostini, or Sharon Millar.

This is an unfortunate turn of events, and perhaps points more specifically to a number of challenges being faced at the secondary level both with the profile of the student and the various demands in a very peculiar and politically charged education system, but what is more alarming to me is the number of Virgin Islander writers who I have had to discover on my own. The Virgin Islanders I listed earlier should have been taught alongside the West Indian greats. No child should graduate from primary school in the British Virgin Islands having never heard of or read the work of Alphaeus Norman, a man who may still end up being our most important contribution to West Indian literature. Jennie Wheatley’s Pass It On! seems readymade for use in the local Language Arts curriculum with its series of Boysie shorts. At the secondary and tertiary levels, there is a wide range of work available to cement in the mind of the Virgin Islander student that he can both be proud of and inspired by a vibrant local literature.

This acceptance and celebration by our educational institutions is integral to the development of our contemporary and future writers. Following in the footsteps of Professor Baugh in 1969, beginning to study our own literature will afford it the respectability and validity that comes with literary criticism. This is the only way the region can become aware of the great Virgin Islander writers who have gone before and afford them their rightful place in the canon. It is also the best path we have to ensure that the stories of the Virgin Islands continue to be written.

2 thoughts on “Firing the Canon: The Condition of the Literature of the British Virgin Islands.

  1. An absolutely brilliant read. I am first challenged to complete my reading of the Caribbean and Virgin Islands works that I bought within the year. It have been my desire to re-read many of the pieces mentioned here and to discover some of those I have yet to know. As an author- about to self publish, this piece made me question the integrity of my own work, though it is a collection of words and phrases that I’ve labelled a “dictionary”. I believe that you have hit every nail on the head and I share in your disappointment that VI writers like Norman are not well known, I have ready only two of his poems as a part of the Virgin Islands’ History course and Mrs. Wheatley can attest that I have begged to get a collection and read, but alas, some family matters prevent me doing so. Virgin Islands writers have to first become comfortable with the truth that the words ablaze within them are not only meant to be cathartic, but the region and world deserve the learn about us through them and that we as a territory rely on their intellect and discipline to write to give us a place within the international discussion of literary accomplishment. Let’s hope that a new mindset is birth in the upcoming years that lends itself to pruning the workers and making their work ripe for international picking.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. This article was brilliantly written and convicts me the more explore the literally world around me. The children of the Caribbean deserve to have “first pick” at the wisdom and knowledge sprung forth from the minds and hearts of our great authors.

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