By Edward Nawotka
PORT-OF-SPAIN, TRINIDAD: “I visited a library in Cedros on the southern most part of our island,” said writer and editor Joanne Gail Johnson,”from the outside it looked like an old hut, one with all the filigreed carving on the eaves. You stand there and you can see the sea through the palm trees. It looks almost dilapidated. Then you inside it’s got AC, there are computers, people are reading. There’s a buzz about the place. What it also made me realize is just how much Caribbean writing is grossly under published. There’s Walcott and Naipaul, but little else. We have such a diversity of ethnicity in the West Indies – African, Indian, Chinese, Asian – that it’s a shame there is so little available, particularly for children. There is a hunger here that’s not being filled.”
Johnson, a children’s author and co-founder of the Caribbean region’s branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, isn’t the only person to see a gap in the market. In 2006, Nick Gillard, publisher of Macmillan Education, saw an opportunity to publish in the Caribbean and enlisted Johnson to edit a new series of YA novels specifically for the islands. Thus, the Island Fiction Series was born. The first titles started appearing in print last December and the first six in the series are available now.
“I deliberately wanted the series to be speculative fiction; incorporating fantasy, sci-fi, folklore and legend,” Johnson explained. “The idea was to open the door to dream our own dreams, let our imaginations run free for awhile.”
Thus you get Gerald Hausman’s Time Swimmer, a novel about the friendship between the mythological Odysseus, who in Hausman’s telling has lived for 1,000 years under a curse from Zeus that has turned him into a giant, storytelling sea turtle, and a Jamaican teenager named Luke. Together the pair hopscotch across time, appearing at moments of historical importance such as eruption of the Pelée volcano on Martinique in 1902 – an event that killed 28,000 people and left just one survivor – and changing the course of history. (An echo of Derek Walcott’s retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey in his book Omeros).
“Time Swimmer is the benchmark book of the series,” said Johnson, “He’s the only previously published author we’ve used [Hausman has published some 70 books] and he’s West Indian by choice [he has lived for long stretches in Jamaica, where he also taught a writers workshop for many years]. All the other authors in the series so far are all publishing their debut novels.”
These include The Legend of the Swan Children by Maureen Marks-Mendonca (Guyana), The Chalice Project by Lisa Allen-Agostini (Trinidad), Escape from Silk Cotton Forest by Francis C. Escayg (Trinidad), Night of the Indigo by Michael Holgate (Jamaica), and Delroy in the Marog Kingdom by Billy Elm (Jamaica).
Johnson asked her authors to incorporate stories indigenous to the islands, while maintaining the local diction in their writing and avoiding obvious island clichés, such as the appearance of umbrellas in pina coladas. “It was important that our characters use a lot of dialect, but not so much that it made the books inaccessible to readers outside the region,” she said.
Perhaps the most important instruction she gave to her authors was to write the books in a vivid cinematic style. “I wanted the writers to take risks and make the books entertaining.”
The strategy has paid off. Johnson reports that following a recent visit to a class of teenage, reluctant readers, where each student was given a book. “I heard back the next day that the students had all read the books and were asking for more.”
Ultimately, Johnson would like the Island Fiction Series to become a harbinger of further Caribbean creativity or even a catalyst for a literary renaissance in the region.
“The time has come, the relevance is here, this is it,” she said. “We’re now being critiqued alongside countries with hundreds of years of tradition in publishing. With so much influence in publishing coming from the UK and the United States, it’s wonderful to see some of our own stories in print.”
BUY: titles in the Island Fiction Series
READ: Joanne Gail Johnson’s ongoing blog about the series.
CONTACT: Johnson directly.