“…we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position…” – Stuart Hall
The wonderful potential of possibility contained in that statement by Stuart Hall can be an empowering thing, especially when those places, histories, experiences, and cultures that we find ourselves in have become prisons. In order for us (I mean Virgin Islanders/Caribbean people) to avoid that mental trap, we have to begin to appreciate fully the parameters of those various contexts. I choose here to focus on that last item – culture – but really, to focus on culture is to focus on all of the above: place, history, experience. The BVI, like other small corners of the archipelago, is a community still in the nascent periods of its quarrel with history – still identifying historical sites, and physical spaces; still arguing over how to commemorate and recognise them; contemplating how to monetise both those physical spaces and their narratives; recognising the need for more agitations towards a Territorial Museum of Art and History; and perhaps just beginning the arguments about the usefulness of those narratives in the first place. I believe we are in a similar state in the area of culture.
It would benefit us then to agree first what it is we mean when we say culture. We often hear talk of cultural preservation – which, in my mind, positions culture as something in need of protection, something under threat by external factors. This may indeed be the case, and a worthy cause to be fighting for but it dangerously suggests culture as a dead or dying thing – a specimen that exists behind glass. This is the most insidious notion possible for a community like ours. It formulates culture as something indefinable and past, as static and inaccessible. It completely immobilises then decimates the possibilities that that quote suggests.
The reality is the contrary. Culture is alive and organic. It is supple and adaptable. It evolves at a rate similar to language. That function provides the insight then for a more workable definition: culture is the assortment of values, beliefs, traditions, ideas, and identities of a particular community or group of people. The processes by which cultures amalgamate and assimilate these various ingredients make interesting studies, and a sustained examination of the process at work in the British Virgin Islands would be no less intriguing. But in layman’s terms, the clearest implication for the above statement would be that BVI culture has room to contain both eponymous fungi band The Lashing Dogs as well as the various contemporary soca (Drastic and VIBE) as well as hiphop acts (NJAR) insomuch as those acts espouse the values, beliefs, traditions, ideas, and identities of the contemporary Virgin Islander.
The most substantial benefits for possessing a distinct culture are an equally distinct sense of identity and belonging. This sense of belonging bestows upon the culture’s practitioners and inheritors a cultural identity (despite their ability to observe it or fully articulate its meaningfulness and with the understanding that this sort of cultural understanding must be wary of the edge at which it can fall into the dark precipice of nationalism). This starting point should intimate to us the importance, or rather, the desperate need for a fledgling society and certain of its members to dedicate the resources of time and energy (both public and private) to invest in the sorts of activities, institutions, and traditions that study, support, and contribute to that community’s culture.
Over the past few years, steps have been taken by the current administration to establish certain touchstones that speak to civic duty and national/territorial pride. These touchstones – a territorial song; a territorial pledge; various symbols; and a territorial dress – have all had an observable impact especially in younger generations. By schools mandating that students learn the territorial song and pledge and actively perform them with consistency, the generation of school age citizens is being armed with a sort of belonging more powerful than any political ‘belonging’.
That being said, the best way to observe the culture of a place as it grows and evolves, is to read that place’s literature, listen to its music, and appreciate its art. This is because literature, music, and art – the creative industries of a place – are the ways that a community or nation communicates, quarrels, and struggles through its understanding of its own culture. We must then look to the contemporary artists, musicians, and writers in the territory in order to appreciate our culture in its present form; we must find sustainable ways of providing them with the proper platforms. I would argue therefore, that it must be a distinct priority of any territory with a sincere interest in its culture and identity, to patronise, support, and nurture the arts.
A legitimate argument can be made that, while our culture is not in need of preservation, our arts industries are in desperate need of management and protection while the people in them who have passed quietly from our consciousness are in need of remembrance and celebration. It is a dream of mine to see the establishment of a Museum of Art and History become a priority for our government. Imagine the cultural and social impact such an institution could have on the psyches of the generation for whom the territorial song and pledge are already committed to memory. Aside from such a large financial commitment, there are clear and much less expensive ways to facilitate and support those who are creating work of cultural importance. If local bookstores and libraries committed to local authors in the same way that some radio stations and their programme directors commit to playing local artists we will have achieved much. If local authors and performers were compensated what they were worth (and on time) we will have achieved more. And if our children can recite the poems of Rufus Faulkner and Sheila Hyndman the same way they can sing the territorial song the heart of this poet may burst in his chest.
The business of excavating the history of these islands of the northeast Caribbean is a funny thing. Firstly, there is a paucity of texts that deal with the history of the British Virgin Islands. The most popularly known and read publications are perhaps Vernon Pickering’s A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands (1987) and the books and pamphlets published by Norwell Harrigan and Pear Varlack in the 1970s and 1980s. Isaac Dookhan did much important work on both the American and British Virgin Islands in the 1970s as well, yet many of these texts have fallen out of print and are very difficult for the average person in the BVI to put their hands on. Given this dearth of widely available historical texts, and many other disparate reasons, much of our history continues to subsist in local legend and oral tradition. It is telling then, that when perusing academic documents in pursuit of my doctoral degree, much of what I found had been written by non-locals whose work had access to university and publishing networks.
As with the rest of this region of the world, discussions about history invariably lead us to the sea. It floods our eyes when we think of the large and painful waves of migration to this region throughout history – namely the voyages of Columbus, the Middle Passage, the period of East Indian indentureship, arguably concluding with the turning of the tide with the Windrush generation following the second World War. As Brathwaite wrote in ‘The Cracked Mother’:
And why do the waves come here
riding from allotted lands
It is difficult at times to think of the torturous path through which bodies were brought to the new world, and much poetry has been written attempting to write through those wounds and memories. Indeed, the Middle Passage dominates sections of Brathwaite’s The Arrivants (1980) and Walcott’s Omeros (1990) while a single Middle Passage voyage is the birth point for NourbeSe Philips’ Zong! (2011). For the most part, in Caribbean literature the sea operates as the nightmarish portal connecting the New World citizen with his precolonial past. But that is not the sea’s only possibility – and I can think of a few exceptional poets who embrace it differently. I am not certain how relevant the fact that they are all women might be or what that might say about the boundaries of my reading. Immediately, I think of the sea and fluidity as presented by Dionne Brand in No Language is Neutral (1990) – as embracing an alternative poetics and politics of gender and sexuality, a new and brave way of understanding the world. Similarly subversive is the use of the aquatic and the submarine in the poetry of Lorna Goodison in Turn Thanks (1999). That work is full of images of women working the trope of washing – clothes, children, bodies – culminating in ‘My Mother’s Sea Chanty’ where Goodison (with thanks to Kincaid) in a dream sequence transforms her deceased mother into a sea nymph.
As has been the case in the previous entries of this space, it has been my mission to write Virgin Islands literature into the empty spaces of the canon. With this in mind, as we can identify the centrality of the sea in the work of numerous Caribbean poets, there should be no surprise that we find similar themes in the work of Virgin Islander poets. In the introduction to the work of Alphaeus O. Norman I previously presented at much length, the power and violence of the sea is integral to Norman’s presentation of the natural world – the elements are there to be survived.
In her collection Legacy (1997), Penn Moll suggests a sea that is not one that is all rage and violence to be conquered, hers is a sea that is both mystical creator and sustainer of life. While she does not deny a sea that is imbued with a godlike persona, the agent of an apocalyptic violence on land, body, and memory – she carves out a space where the sea is full of a somber peacefulness. Legacy is comprised of poems where the sea is a stoic provider. ‘Pelican Dive’ opens the collection in a small fishing village on Tortola which could be any one of a number of small northern coast communities. Here, the sea sustains the village through a harmonious ecosystem where the diving pelicans are how fishermen find ‘where fishes beat / in schools’. In the best ways Penn Moll reveals herself as a properly sentimental and nostalgic poet. The men of this village of ‘the land of her youth’ have not lost their abilities to observe the natural environment and to find their place in it. In this land, there is not yet the modern haste of rush hour nor the concrete monoliths that have risen below the peaks of the island’s hills.
In this respect, Penn Moll’s poetic sensibilities are a distinct departure from A. O. Norman’s as covered in this space prior. While Norman examines the struggle of various unnamed men to become something more than themselves – something historic, Penn Moll is primarily concerned with nature in general and humanity’s responsibility to it. This view is reinforced by one of her recent publications, This Land: A Trust from God (2014) – a book of collected essays, many of which focus on environmental concerns.
Overwhelmingly, what the poems in Legacy point to, is a pastoral imagining of the British Virgin Islander way of life as well as a nostalgia that, when examined, suggests that these memories of her youth are in danger of being effaced from the collective consciousness of the islands.
A large part of that way of life as presented is the work of the fisherman, as opposed to the exclusively agrarian communities on the hillsides. ‘The Fisherman’s Nets’ dedicates itself to the documenting of that work:
A heavy evening haul
late for market
netted and pegged
the catch near shore
in the crawl
for cold storage.
What is interesting here, is that Penn Moll diverts the attention of the poem from the body itself although we recognize that it is bodies doing the work of the village. Instead, the work itself is central, a socialized ritual performance where persona and the individual have been excised and the only worth that remains is the value to the families of that community. Both of these poems, as is done in the other sections of this work, concern themselves with this business of recording this work of fishing as it sustains the small community. The sea provides food and fuels commerce for the unnamed bay area village. As such, it gives life to body, culture, and essentially for Penn Moll, it provides an anchoring sense of self, identity, and belonging.
However, perhaps even more interesting that this aspect of her work is the manner by which the removal of individual bodies in order to focus on fish and fishing begins to create a different kind of meaning. The lines that follow the previous excerpt begin to confuse whether it is just fish she speaks of. In a manner reminiscent of Brathwaite’s work, the enjambments above create phrases that are fractious in meaning. She writes: ‘netted and pegged / the catch near shore / in the crawl’ followed later by ‘splitting, gutting, / sea-salt corning’. The violence that must be routinely exacted on the bodies of the fish cannot help but begin to mirror the kinds of violence wrought upon the bodies of the enslaved on these shores. It is that sort of clever juxtaposition that confirms for me the value in continuing to re-read our local works and attempting to locate them within and against our estimation of the Caribbean canon.
To say the sea is ubiquitous in island life is a clichéd yet desperately accurate statement. On most of the islands in this formation, it is very difficult in the outdoors to lose sight or smell of the ocean. It dominates the vista and the smell of the sea spray travels far inland. Given the inability to ignore the sea and the sentiment of much of her poetry, the value of the sea is as a sort of recorder of not just history, but also the traditions and culture of these smaller shores of Africa.
The subsistence living culture that Penn Moll depicts in those two poems is no longer a reality here. There are very few full-time fishermen given how dramatically local society and economy has shifted over the past five decades. Despite this, my wife and I came across a beautiful image in Carrot Bay several weeks ago, that pulled my thoughts directly into the pages of Legacy. On the humble fishing dock there, a thin and stark concrete strip with few rusted brown slips, a barebacked fisherman stood untangling his nets. No less than five pelicans stood on the platform with him, jostling for the small fish he loosed and tossed toward them. It was nearing sunset, and the light that glowed around man and birds lent the scene a surreal air. It was a snapshot into the time that Penn Moll has recorded, where the sea is recognized as the metaphysical force of creation that it is and islanders understand and maintain our symbiotic relationship with it.
We are now constructed as a tourist’s paradise, explicitly presented as a place that Westerners can discover removed from the common beaten path for visitors to the Caribbean, and too often the image that I just described will be coopted into that problematic and consumerist image. This remains an important part of our not too distant history – despite the unspoilt Eden narrative – and importantly it is part of the legacy that Penn Moll seeks to preserve as the land of her youth has shifted about into something that no longer resembles the scenes she constructs.
Anegadian Alphaeus Osario Norman (1885-1942) may have been the most skilled poet of form these islands have produced. Unfortunately, his poems are not readily available for reading, most easily accessed in time capsule documents like 1834-1984: 150 Years of Emancipation published by the Ministry of Education and Culture or in books of devotional and autobiographical poetry by his granddaughter Andria Flax. Andria has been very gracious in sharing several of Norman’s poems while I pursue my doctoral degree, and his grandson Richard Courtney deCastro shared documents that clarified errors in other publications. With the hope of spreading both an appreciation and intellectual curiosity for Norman’s work, I have selected three poems here to focus on:the haunting ‘Loss of the HMS Valerian’; a retelling of the 1733 St. John slave rebellion in ‘Amina Negroes’; and the anthemic ‘The British Virgin Islands Negro’.
But first some history. Norman was an engineer by trade and at the time of his death in 1942 worked in the shipping port at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. The closest thing to a biography that exists on the eminent local poet of the time resides in the memoir of another notable BVIslander – the entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Reynold O’Neal. O’Neal devotes about five pages to Norman spread throughout his memoir Life Notes: Reflections of a British Virgin Islander. According to him, Norman trained as a blacksmith through an apprenticeship with the Royal Mail Factory in St. Thomas – a skill which enabled him to travel to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Mexico before settling in Road Town. Norman was also an accomplished seaman, having had two sloops (the Spider and the Pelicanus) built for him to sail goods for trade to and from the Leeward Islands and the Dominican Republic. When the United States joined World War II, Norman found work on St. Thomas manning earthmoving equipment, and it would be while working with one such machine that an accident brought his life to a violent end. Throughout his time resident on Tortola, Norman was known as a poet and historian, writing his poems in an exercise book he carried everywhere.
A preoccupation with the sea and the Virgin Islands history submerged in it prevails in Norman’s work: the poems that I have been able to retrieve are ballads that are devoted to ships lost at sea, the evolution of the inhabitants of the islands from enslavement to autonomy, or exploring the mythic power and terror of the sea. Overall, inasmuch as seven poems can define a poet’s concerns and focuses, Norman is fixated on documenting moments of historical significance to these islands through his poetry. The sea appears universally in these poems, ranging in form from a metaphorical paradise for the marooned slaves in ‘Amina Negroes’ to an unyielding and tempestuous supernatural force in the sinking of vessels the HMS Valerian and the Fancy Me. However, the primacy of the sea in its roles in Norman’s work is its place in the storming and unrelenting tempest. Of the seven poems that can be read, four present the sea as such. No chronology exists for these poems, so it is difficult to surmise when they were written or if there are enough unseen poems to deviate from this particular presentation of the sea.
Norman’s poems are also submerged in biblical, literary, and mythical allusions when depicting the sea in this way – no doubt informed by his faith and voracious appetite for books. This seems to paint a deified intent into the tempests he describes. For example, he begins ‘Horseshoe’s Reefs’ by describing the impenetrable darkness that plagues sailors seeking to navigate Horseshoe Reef off the coast of Anegada:
Egyptian darkness reigns supreme
from Horseshoe Reef to Sopher’s stream.
The phrase ‘Egyptian darkness’ is rooted referentially to the book of Exodus as one of the plagues that Yahweh besets upon Egypt in order to coerce the release of the Israelites in slavery:
Yahweh then said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven, and let darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt, cover Egypt’. So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and for three days there was thick darkness over the whole of Egypt’ (Exodus 10: 21-22).
This reference and its connection to emancipation obviously resonated with the poet. More ominous than the darkness for the sailor is the reef the sea conceals. The sea that Norman examines is consistently presented as a powerful force full of deadly phenomena. Reefs are hidden in waves and hurricanes materialise unexpectedly. The opening line of Norman’s ‘Loss of the HMS Valerian’ owes much to the Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where the sprite Ariel reports to Shakespeare’s good wizard Prospero how well the plan to incapacitate the King and his court has gone. Norman spins the line in question, ‘the still-vexed Bermudas’, into ‘Still vexed were the Bermudas / Still were they tempest tost / When the good ship Valerian / And most her crew were lost’. This overriding focus continues throughout this particular poem, at times comparing the wrecked Royal Mail ship to the Titans of Greek mythology while contextualising the loss of its British crew and their afterlife in terms of the Norse legend of Valhalla while comparing their entombment in the sunken ship with Viking burials. Norman’s poems are occupied by an awareness of the histories they record. Such a juxtaposition of various major events in the history of these islands against these myths so steeped in the supernatural infuses the local, smaller histories with an epic grandeur. Throughout the work that we have, Norman seems driven to use these mythical allusions to elevate the historical experiences of Virgin Islanders alongside Shakespeare and the finest Victorian ballad writers.
Besides the consistently mythically and supernaturally violent sea, ‘Horseshoe’s Reefs’ and ‘Loss of the HMS Valerian’ thematically position the sea as a burial ground, another consistent element of Norman’s poetry and its presentation of the sea. This framing of the ocean symbolically presents the sea, similarly to Walcott, as a crypt of history but also more practically of bodies and ships. In ‘Horseshoe’s Reefs’, Norman writes that:
[a] hundred stately ships have found
their everlasting burial ground
upon the awful reefs and rocks
and from moles and graving docks.
The poem primarily bemoans the lack of a beacon to warn ships that come upon the reef despite being written hundreds of years after the first wreck. Norman, being a sailor himself, imbues a sense of a fraternity of the sea in his elegiac poetry. His lines grieving over the lives of the sailors lost with the HMS Valerian in 1926 off the coast of Bermuda were inspired by the fact that the same crew two years prior were in the British Virgin Islands providing relief following the devastation wrought here by a hurricane. A semblance of an account of their assistance can be found in the notes by Agnes Hancock, the wife of the sitting Monarch’s Representative in the islands at the time of the hurricane, Captain Otho Hancock, OBE:
On September 9th HMS Valerian arrived with the Acting Governor, Archbishop and other good friends. All the ship’s crew worked for two days, but even 60 of them couldn’t move a house which still completely blocks the road which had been floated off its foundations.
They brought us food and seven huge cases of clothing. These we have in the church and three of us are sorting and doing up parcels all day. Long lists are coming in from all parts of the island (Tortola) and outlying islands asking for clothes…some lists have things like the following example – “Have lost roof, trunk and three children”.
Given the severity of the storm, and the speed of the aid provided by the Valerian’s men it is unsurprising that Norman felt so moved to write in their honour.
In keeping with this sentiment, across several poems Norman constructs a fraternity of sea voyagers be they black or white, slave or slaver.
In ‘Amina Negroes’, a poem commemorating the revolt of enslaved Ghanaians on the neighbouring island of St. John in the Danish West Indies in 1733, Norman uses the types of descriptors expected in poems of great wars. ‘Amina’ was the term often used in the 1700s to identify Gold Coast Africans who spoke Akan. Interestingly, the insurrection that Norman immortalises was the first island-wide, well planned, and successful rebellion of enslaved peoples in the Danish West Indies lasting almost seven months between November 1733 and June 1734. The various Akan peoples arrived to St. John in a succession of Danish slaving vessels between 1730 and 1733 and were quickly identified as being the most unmanageable of those enslaved on the island. The Governor of the Danish West Indies at the time, only identified as Gardelin, in his appeal for military assistance to Monsieur le Marquis de Champigny, the Governor General of the French Windward Islands described the Amina as ‘the worst runaways of all Blacks’ (The French Intervention in the Saint John Slave Revolt of 1733-34, trans. And ed. A. P. Caron and A. R. Highfield), with the implication that this recalcitrant reaction to their enslavement is in part due to the specific belief ‘that at their death they return to their fatherland’. Death therefore, held no terror to the Amina, and this outlook would fuel the ferocity of the rebellion and seal its near mythical conclusion.
Norman’s poem begins in Africa and the men who would lead this rebellion are immediately identified as ‘[a] band of the Amina sons’, euphemistically juxtaposing them with European soldiers and the language that identifies them as noble defenders of something greater than themselves in Victorian and First World War Poetry. At times the lyrical qualities are reminiscent of Lord Alfred Tennyson and poems like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ especially in its attribution of nobility and bravery in what is ultimately a hopeless endeavour as well as its challenging of the reader to deny the same to them. The closing stanza in Tennyson asks the reader ‘[w]hen can their glory fade?’ which exhibits a similar sentiment to Norman’s penultimate stanza:
Who can forbid that prayers be said?
Or carols changed for the dead?
Or disbelieve that they shall rise
on angels pinioned to the skies?
The fabled conclusion to the revolt that Norman commits to verse according to the local legend is that ‘the rebels chose death by throwing themselves over a cliff rather than allowing themselves to be recaptured’. This particular slave revolt has become a source of islander pride as a counter narrative by demonstrating a historical tradition of self-determination and assertion by the people of these islands. The revolt has been revisited in the arts subsequent to Norman, having been interpreted through drama and dance by St. Johnians and this collective and communal memory has ensured that Fortsberg fort and premises remains one of the few parcels of land with historical importance to remain in local hands as opposed to the National Parks.
These elements seem to solidify this particular event as worthy history for a categorically disenfranchised people to take hold of, and since Mary Point, St. John (the cliff from which the vanquished Amina warriors are said to have leapt to their watery deaths) is in such proximity to Tortola as to be in plain view regardless of weather, Norman’s desire to share in this specific moment as a celebration of physical resistance to oppression is mirrored in his other works which celebrate the transformation of the islands’ black citizens from enslaved people to land owners, from disenfranchised to active political members of their society. One such text that charts this transformation is ‘The British Virgin Islands Negro’. In it, Norman assumes an almost celebratory tone from its beginning, echoing a cessation of the oppression wrought on the body by slavery represented by the literal burial of the white planter:
No longer rise the wails of woe
No longer bleeds the dark Eboe
The planter’s shell has ceased to sound
The massa’s in the cold cold ground.
There is however, a fundamental difference between the successes that Norman specifies the ‘British Virgin Islands Negro’ possesses versus the plight of the insurrectors on St. John. Severe droughts that persisted for almost ten years between 1837 and 1847 coupled with several severe hurricanes striking the islands in 1819, 1837, 1842, 1852, 1867, and 1871 made the two main crops of sugar and cotton unsustainable. Most planters had mortgaged heavily against their estates and found it difficult to recover from each unforeseen catastrophe. Thus defeated, many estates were sold, some were lost to unpaid taxes, and still more were abandoned having been destroyed by hurricane. The formerly enslaved, once freed, usually remained on the plantations they had worked for generations, which now provided a small wage as well as clothing and housing. These circumstances demonstrated the impracticality of the plantocracy being supported by anything other than free labour, while allowing Norman less than one hundred years later to declare that in the British Virgin Islands, ‘[t]he Black is lord of land and sea / And title-deeds assert his right’. Norman however inhabits a peculiar duality. Firstly, he enjoys the privilege of being able to use his work to speak back to the coloniser in a manner similar to Caliban’s retort to Prospero: ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse’ (Act 1 Scene 2). Building on the celebration of the St. John rebellion – an event in which 40 white men, women, and children were killed – the white colonial ‘massa’ figure is the focus of much of ‘Negro’ as a contrast to the autonomy being enjoyed by Norman and his contemporaries:
No longer crack the driver’s whips
His sons go down to sea in ships
He never feels the oppressor’s hand
His sons are owners of the land.
No more he bows to lords he meets
His chariot rages in the streets
No more his plaintive beggar’s plea
He orders on both land and sea.
Simultaneously however, Norman seeks to embrace, identify with, and even claim ownership of the British construction of empire. Despite ending the previous stanza with the line ‘[f]or Hodge’s slave is Belle Vue’s lord’ (a clear reference to the infamous Arthur Hodge), he writes in the next stanza that ‘[h]is empire’s battles he has fought / ‘Gainst Prussian horde and Hottentot’. There appears to be a strident dissonance between the actual enslavement by the white colonials present on the island and the philosophical commitment to the idea of the British Empire symbolised by the distant crown. After Emancipation, some Virgin Islanders chose conscription in the West India Regiment and travelled to Jamaica for training. The most famous Virgin Islander to do so was Samuel Hodge. At the time, and indeed into the 1980s as evidenced by notes in Ye Yslands, it was believed that Hodge was the first black man to receive the Victoria Cross. This would have been Norman’s impression and those lines are clearly his honouring of the Virgin Islanders who served in both the Napoleonic Wars against the ‘Prussian horde’ as well as those who fought in Africa.
This recurring theme of those who were slaves now finding themselves in control of their own destinies and in ownership of their own land in the hundred years between emancipation and Norman’s day may gloss over what has been recorded historically as consistently desperate economic depression for most of the territory’s residents.
Norman’s devotion to and pride in local history is self-evident in his work, and it is this richness of his poetry that in my mind establishes him as one of the most important writers in BVI history and necessitates the unearthing of whatever work of his remains uncovered for the edification and education of us all.
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.
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.
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.