The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Trying to Read More Jamaican

Posted on: December 3, 2006

I needed to plant Jamaica more firmly into my personal landscape. Why not through books? one might ask. They are your obsession, that would be the obvious route. Ahh, but above all forms of literature my obsession is novels. I feel as passionately towards poetry but I do not read it as often. And I did not think that Jamaicans wrote novels.

The number and variety of novels that burst on to my horizon as I started university, surfed the internet more and became aware of litblogs were overwhelming. Overwhelmingly fantastic. There was de Balzac, Borges, Camus, Moliere and Proust, de Chateaubriand, Wilde–authors I had never heard of or only knew the faintest glimmer about who seemed to have written the best books I had ever heard of. In reading the newspapers’ book pages, then dumping them for litblogs, I learned about the leading authors of the day, and the exciting books independent presses were publishing. New friends gently lead me outside of my Tolkien fantasy pen to try a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay and the wonderful word of YA fantasy, with authors like Susan Cooper, Garth Nix and Philip Pullman. I was too busy with books books books to worry about the authors’ national identities. (I did make an African connection with the work of Chimamanda Adichie and Chris Abani.)

Ideally, some might say, that is how it should be. Read for the story and forget about the rest. That does not satisfy me now. I have a yearning for Jamaican novels now that I know they exist! I have my collection of Lorna Goodison, Derek Walcott and CXC poems but that is not enough. I settled on Roger Mais as my first novelist to try and have bookmarked Peepal Tree Press. Recently I plugged “Roger Mais” into JSTOR and read a few interesting reviews on Caribbean writing anthologies that addressed our literary canon.

The most useful review was written by Malcolm Page in Vol. 3, 1970 Winter issue of Novel: A Forum on Fiction. His article was on two critical essay anthologies on West Indian literature in which he chose to focus on a few novelists. Three of them were

George Lamming — I have heard a lot about his work, none of which has been particularly persuasive. There was even an excerpt from one of his novels printed but my reaction–meh. I still plan to try him…eventually.

Samuel Selvon — A reviewer quoted from a short story anthology’s introduction that Trinidadian writers were known for their “irreverent wit”. Coo yah! Since when? A Brighter Sun was a CXC novel read in grade 10 and good lord, it has the distinction of being the most boring novel I have ever read in my entire academic life, perhaps since I was born. I was the sort of English student who before and since had never read an assigned novel and found it boring. (As You Like It was a pest but it never bored me.) I read The Pearl by John Steinbeck in grade 7 at 10 years and I love it (or the memory of it) even now; I can imagine certain scenes and moments from the novel. Animal Farm, any of the Shakespeare tragedies and historical dramas, Ayi Kwei Armah–I loved all of it. Except that disaster of a book with some immature East Indian boy messing up his marriage, which is all I remember about it. Also something about a mango tree, cheap eating utensils, and hitting his wife while she was pregnant. (Not even domestic violence could stir anything but momentary shock and disapproval.)

I don’t care how many critics rave about The Lonely Londoners, you will never get me near that book. Never.

Andrew Salkey — His novels sound interesting, especially A Quality of Violence, which partly deals with obeah in Jamaican rural society. There’s nothing like the fantastical element to pique one’s interest in a novel. For the same reason I am interested in the Guyanese writers as well, whose fiction is apparently infused with “mysticism” and “jungle lore”. That sounds wicked. The reviewer didn’t highlight any particular Guyanese writer in his essay. Luckily, the school library has the short story collection from which Page got his quotes. *does jig*

I doubt that I will get to the Mais until next year (maybe late December). I start Pamuk’s My Name is Red for an online book club this month, and still have three other books on my plate. I am more than half finished with the Byatt, so you never know.


4 Responses to "Trying to Read More Jamaican"

I look forward to reading more about your explorations into this vein and possibly adding some interesting novels to my TBR Mountain.

Me too! I’ve already checked out “Three Novels” by Roger Mais, so I may have something to say on it soon.

Thank you for listing these authors! I, too, would like to explore more Jamaican fiction, and am really at a loss as where to start. My mom is Jamaican (great up in St. Andrew, Half-Way-Tree area) but for the most part her education was very, very British. At the age of 72, she’s only just now starting to explore West Indian authors. Thanks to her I now know about Olive Senior and Andrea Levy (though she’s writing from a British perspective), but I know there is so much more out there that I’m missing.

You are very welcome. As I plan to make Jamaican reading a lifestyle rather than a phase there should be more posts on what I find in the future. There is Marlon James as well, whose book I mentioned in this post. Geoffrey Philp’s site is in my blogroll and he does a good job of mentioning Jamaican novelists ever so often.

Olive Senior is great, I read her short stories and poems in high school. Nothing since then, sadly. I can definitely relate to your mother’s educational experience. Even with the Caribbean books that were in my curriculum, my reading tastes were shaped by Penguin Classics and Shakespeare rather than say, Mutabaruka or Roger Mais.

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