Originally appeared in Mosaic #9, June 2000
In the late 1980s, upon learning about a forthcoming conference profiling the work of Caribbean women writers, Jamaica Kincaid asked, “Are there many of us?” The conference was the 1988 First International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA —an historical event which brought together women writers from all over the Caribbean, providing a forum for many of them to meet each other and discuss their work as a group for the first time.
With the emergence of writers such as Opal Adisa Palmer, Olive Senior, Erna Brodber, Zee Edgell, Dionne Brand, Marlene Nourbese Philip and Michelle Cliff, during the 1980s, the volume of writing being published by Caribbean women had grown; so much so that in the introduction to their 1989 anthology, Her True-True Name, Pamela Mordecai and Betty Wilson would question, “whether these women had been writing much before that time and therefore whether what appears to be a sudden literary blossoming may not, at least in part, be a flowering of publishing interest consequent on the Women’s Movement and the improved economic status of women, making them a market to be reckoned with.”
There are no simple answers to the question posited by Mordecai and Wilson. I do know, however, that Caribbean women have always written, albeit at the kitchen table. The publishing industry, driven by political and economic concerns is constantly shining and it has been a struggle to have our voices heard at all. Still, each generation of writers has paved the way for a new generation of talent to follow, each of us standing on another’s shoulders. Gradually, we have gained confidence, gathered momentum, reclaimed our voices, become a chorus.
The chorus was humming, when, in 1990, as a graduate student at Ohio State University, I went in search of other Caribbean women writers. I had recently made the decision to drop out of my Preventive Medicine program and direct my energy toward writing poems and stories instead. My family and friends doubted the wisdom behind my choice. But I needed to be validated and was hungry for other Jamaican women like myself, who had taken the writing path. Where were they? The bookstores had very little, but I finally found a few shelves in the campus library where the hum became louder and when, hallelujah, I opened Opal Palmer Adisa’s Bake Face and other Guava Stories, her pages broke out in tongues. I sat there reading on the concrete floor for hours. Here was a voice that gave authority to my own. And there were others—Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey, and Myriam Warner-Vieyra’s Juletane.
But why weren’t many of these writers available in bookstores? Traditionally, the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent, Canada, have acted as centers for the publication of Caribbean writing. Britain has been welcome and fertile ground for these writers, nevertheless, there is a sense that many have become locked in the “Caribbean Series” of large publishing houses such as Longman and Heinmann. These series have served as pigeonholes and many talented writers have not always received the exposure they deserve, their work never crossing the Atlantic. There is also the fact that regardless of which shore we are published on, serious critical attention to Caribbean women writers has tended to focus on a select few.
Still, this is gradually changing—simultaneous to the emergence of the creative writers, there has also been growth in the number of scholars. Here, the outstanding work of critics such as Carole Boyce Davies, Carolyn Cooper and Vévé Clark comes to mind. Another turning point came in 1995 when the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars was formed—an organization which celebrates Caribbean writers and fosters critical scholarship in the field. Furthermore, in the 1990s, for the first time, we saw a new development with an increased number of works by Caribbean women being published in the United States, the latest wave including writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Patricia Powell, Margaret Cezaire-Thompson and Nalo Hopkinson.
So there I was sitting on the floor of the library, the voices gathering strength—Michelle Cliff’s Abeng, Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning, ushering me in—I knew I was in good company. Later, as I worked on the manuscript of what would become my novel, Madam Fate, I covered my walls with photos of these literary mothers. I wanted them there to stare me in the eye, challenge me to be more, do better—the look every no-nonsense island mother gives to her daughter.
“Are there many of us?” Each year, Jamaica Kincaid’s question continues to be answered with both new names and the rebirth of old ones being added to the roster. Still, we have a long way to go. Inspired by the work of one of my mothers, Marlene Nourbese Philip, I like to think of Caribbean women writers as at a frontier. Redefining “margin” space as “frontier” space, Philip suggests that “marginality is in the eyes of the beholder. The margin, she reminds us, is a space of silence and inaction, while the frontier is the site of activity and battle. As an Afro-Caribbean writer, this functions as a very useful and empowering perspective, reminding me that when all is said and done, we flower because we persist in flowering and we write because we must write.
“Young Haitian Woman Reading”