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Annie Paul | Being a writer in Jamaica

Published:Tuesday | May 31, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Annie Paul
Olive Senior

It's that time every other year when those of us who like to read, head down to Treasure Beach for the Calabash Literary Festival. Since it started in 2001, Calabash has exposed Jamaicans to some of the top writers in the world and also given the region's premier writers a chance to share a seaside stage with the best.

The effervescent last edition brought the likes of Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Jamaica Kincaid to Jamaica. This one, taking place from June 3-5, will have Teju Cole (Open City), Geoff Dyer (White Sand), Robert McCrum (Globish: How the English Language became the World's Language) and Gillian Slovo (Red Dust) rubbing shoulders with Jamaican stars Marlon James and Kei Miller, among others.

Sad then to see the following conversation on Facebook a mere week or so before Calabash:

Honor Ford-Smith: Does anyone know where in Kingston we can buy the award-winning collection by Olive Senior, The Pain Tree? I have tried 5 Bookstores, including UWI. Nobody has it. Seems incredible!

Olive Senior: Not incredible at all. This is normal for me.

Christine Randle Wray: Douglas Orane's new book which has been heavily featured in the media - traditional and social - can't be found in the windows of the most prominent bookshops. Ian Randle Publishers is often called directly by customers because they can't find the books in the stores. I called one bookshop looking for Grace Jones's biography when it was published last year and the clerk didn't have a clue what I was asking about.

Rhoda Reddock: Check Paper Based in Port-of-Spain ...

Olive Senior: The UWI bookshop was responsible for books at the launch and I believe they were sold out. I'm glad we are (again) having this discussion about the sale and distribution of books by Jamaican authors. Distribution and sales are the weakest elements throughout the Caribbean.

It's good to hear readers' concerns but perhaps we also need to hear from bookshop owners, buyers and distributors as to what is behind their indifference to promoting indigenous literature.

Ironic that Olive Senior's book, having just won the prestigious Bocas Award in Trinidad this April, is available in Port-of-Spain but not in Kingston. I remember a year or so ago, Kei Miller, who had just won the UK's top poetry award, the Forward Prize, not being able to find any of his books in Kingston bookstores. Some years before that, I flitted from bookshop to bookshop like a duppy searching in vain for a copy of Frantz Fanon's classic, The Wretched of the Earth. All I found were American 'inspirational' books, religious tracts and textbooks.


Buying local


With all the chatter and fuss about buying local and supporting 'fi wi' everything, no matter how mediocre or ill-made, isn't it remarkable that books of high quality, written by excellent local or regional authors, are not to be found in Jamaican bookshops?

When Marlon James made history last year by winning the Booker - the biggest English literary award there is - it hardly made headlines in Jamaica. Like many other of our best writers, Senior included, James lives abroad. Yet an editorial in one of the local newspapers had the temerity to insist that Jamaican writers are not obligated to seek exile because their imagination can operate from anywhere.

"The argument in favour of exile is not a convincing argument because authors of fiction are endowed with a facility of creative imagination," the editorial read.

I think the editorial writer is missing the point. Writers, like any other serious professionals, are not obliged to remain in a society that considers their work so unimportant that they can't even stock the two and a half bookshops there are with a handful of their books. A couple of years ago, Jamaica lost one of the few writers who had stayed while others left.

Moving from Spanish Town, Jamaica, to Scarborough, Ontario, Garfield Ellis told the Globe and Mail that despite having authored several novels, most of them in Jamaica, he had never "lived the life of a writer".

"I decided to come to Canada to become a writer. You can't be a writer in Jamaica. You can't live as a writer in Jamaica. ... Everybody used to ask me: 'Why are you still here?'"

So he left. In the unlikely event you can find a copy of Ellis' For Nothing At All in a local bookshop, snap it up. It's the sometime futility of Jamaica masterfully converted to fiction. Read it.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog Active Voice ( Email feedback to or tweet @anniepaul.