Maryse Condé, touted as one of the grand dames of Caribbean literature, is a Guadeloupean, French-language author of highly-acclaimed historical fiction novels. She is best known for her novel Segu (1984-1985).She was once asked about the latest book she had been working on. She replied:
“Currently, I am working on a novel for my granddaughter. She is seventeen and she doesn’t read. I am writing something that will be attractive to her and motivate her into thinking of race and origin. I want something where la forme will attract her. Her generation isn’t interested in books. So I’m hoping to find something that will bring her to the story, a story of someone like her. Caribbean writers are so serious. There’s no joking or irony. I want it to be something comic, but…” http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/diaspora/research_topics/caribbean_literature.htm
That was in 1998.
Eleven years later, Condé’s concerns are being echoed by Cheryl Stevens, the Assistant Registrar (Syllabus Development) of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). In an interview with the Guyana Review she said the regional examinations body had been seeing signs that reading was becoming less popular among Caribbean children.
The CXC officials are not the only ones who are concerned. According to the Guyana Review, the Guyana Ministry of Education “has long conceded that reading has become a diminishing pursuit among school-aged children, and the various reading programmes that have been implemented in some schools across the country do not appear to have remedied the problem.”
It is a concern that is being echoed throughout the Caribbean as schools, education officials, parents and many others grapple with the problem and try to figure out how to deal with it.
To try and encourage the kids to read more, the CXC has been providing teachers with suggested reading lists for secondary school students and the lists have been appended to the English syllabus, said Assistant Registrar, Cheryl Stevens.
“The CXC as an examination board can only go so far. We can assist by making suggestions but at the end of the day it really depends on what teachers and parents do as far as exposure and encouragement are concerned … Our suggestions with regard to what is available cover novels, plays and poetry.”
Macmillan is one of the leading publishers of school text books for the Caribbean. It’s a position they’ve enjoyed for over 40 years. During that time they created the Macmillan Caribbean imprint and have published books for and about the Caribbean in all subjects and at all levels, from infant to tertiary education. They also have a Caribbean Writers Series imprint similar to one created by Heinemann and Longman. It features poetry, fiction and a wide range of general interest titles by Caribbean authors. Macmillan’s longstanding foothold in the Caribbean’s educational system means they are well placed to gauge the attitudes of the region’s young people towards reading.
In 2006 they began activating plans to launch a brand-new fiction series aimed at boys and girls aged 12 – 15. In their search for an acquisitions editor, they approached Joanne Gail Johnson, an acclaimed writer of children’s books based in Trinidad, and the founding regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-Caribbean South (SCBWI). They called the new imprint Island Fiction. From the outset, Macmillan Caribbean was optimistic about the series. “The Island Fiction books are guaranteed to get teenagers reading and eager for more,” they declared on the series’ website. A tall order given the concerns expressed in all quarters of the region.
Even more intriguing was their chosen genre for the series. They wanted novellas and the books had to be “dynamic” and “fast-paced” and based around fantasy/science-fiction themes and the legends and folklore of the Caribbean.
In a post on her SCBWI website www.caribbeanchildren.com Joanne Gail Johnson reiterated what sort of stories she was looking for; they had to be of the “futuristic/legend/sci-fi /fantasy” genre or any combination of the four, and have strong Caribbean themes and broad universal appeal – somewhat along the lines of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
“I know when I say “a Caribbean Harry Potter”, just about everyone, everywhere knows what I’m talking about. Since I am accepting submissions from authors and aspiring authors anywhere in the world, it is a useful association,” she explained.
By December 2008 she was ready to launch the first releases. Ten months and one season later, Island Fiction has launched 6 new titles: 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) and Time Swimmer by Gerald Haussman.
Five of the 6 writers are first-time authors. They’ve pulled out all the stops in promoting their books – from media interviews and local and international tours to book trailers on YOU TUBE, to plugging their books on Face Book and on their individual web sites and blogs and visits to schools. Gerald Haussman, the author of Time Swimmer even took questions from fans at schools in North America via SKYPE.
From reports coming out of Trinidad, the books have caught the youths’ interest and have them all excited.
Trinidadian authors Lisa Allen Agostini (The Chalice Project), and Francis Escayg (Escape from Silk Cotton Forest) visited the St. Francois Girls School in Belmont, Trinidad for readings along with Island Fiction series editor, Joanne Johnson. All six titles in the series were put on display. 135 students from the three Form 3 classes each happily took a book home and the few left over went to the school library. Johnson and her team encouraged the girls to share their books with friends to encourage them to read the series and urged them to check out their favorite authors online via the Island Fiction community.
The Island Fiction books are reportedly also poplar with teens in Jamaica and Guyana and are gradually finding their way in the other islands.
The books have not only thrilled the children, they have caught the attention of reviewers from the region and further afield.
Michael Holgate’s Night of the Indigo captured a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and has helped to place added international spotlight on the series. The novel is about a 15-year-old boy, Marassa, who is thrown into a wondrous world of natural mysticism when he tries to save the life of his dying twin brother. Guided by Kundo, the mystic warrior, he transcends time and matter into an unknown dimension called Orunda. To succeed in his lifesaving mission he has to accept his responsibility as a ‘Warrior of the Light.’
Legend of the Swan Children
by Maureen Marks-Mendonça is another favourite with the kids. The story revolves around Alex Springfeathe, a boy with supernatural powers who, nevertheless, can’t stop his world from crumbling when his mother vanishes without a trace, he loses his home, and his life is endangered. On the run, he is plunged into an extraordinary adventure in the heart of the rainforests of South America. Therein lies the answer to a riddle that could save his mother.
Trinidad Guardian columnist, and series editor of Macmillan’s CXC English Literature Study Companions, Debbie Jacob was full of praise for Legend of the Swan Children:
“Legend of the Swan Children by Maureen Marks-Mendonça has beautiful, elegant language reminiscent of good magical realism. The imagery is spectacular and the story is very inviting. This is one of my favourite books in the series because of its lilting language.” http://guardian.co.tt/commentary/columnist/2009/07/06/my-most-important-top-ten
in a subsequent comment on the Island Fiction Series Editor Joanne Johnson’s blog, she compared Maureen Marks—Mendonça’s style to that of Wilson Harris, one of the giants of Caribbean literature. “… I like each book [in the series] for different reasons, but I think I am most excited about Legend of the Swan Children. The author has managed to offer young people a novel very much in the magical realist style of Wilson Harris, who is the greatest novelist to come out of the Caribbean. Very original, but very much in the tradition of Harris…”
Some people are not happy with the Island Fiction books. Several critics have taken issue with Joanne Gail Johnson’s practice of touting the books as being in the Harry Potter vein and have asked her if she doesn’t think they promote evil and witchcraft.
Johnson has little patience with her critics and in a post on her SCBWI website http://www.caribbeanchildren.com she gave them short shrift.
“The concepts of light emerging out of darkness, of good conquering evil, of what is ‘magic’, supernatural and divine within us all, of eternal life and resurrection are archetypal. Such stories can be told and retold using different characters, locations, plots and so on. It is sad when adults so bigoted by false religion seek to separate themselves and children from a valid, creative, literary exploration of the human psyche and IMAGINATION.” http://www.caribbeanchildren.com/article_harrypotter.html
Recently, I put it to Johnson (via email) that some of her critics may be uneasy about the books because of genuine religious convictions and she risked alienating them further by her harsh response. She was not impressed:
“I do a lot of work here with children and teens. With corporate help we distribute free book gifts of Caribbean stories. One teen returned her Island Fiction novella saying she wanted to read it but her mother would not let it into her house. I prefer to call this superstition rather than religious. That way the teen girls HEAR that there are varying view points and with the increasing autonomy of adulthood she can and will be choosing herself and will be responsible for her own choices,” she countered.
It turned out that the book the girl’s mother forced her to return was Michael Holgate’s Night of the Indigo. It was awarded a Silver Moonbeam Medal for teen spirituality/religion!
“I have been using the Island Fiction series novellas to speak here (Trinidad) on Faith and Fiction: Finding the Hero in Me. Teens here say they have never finished an entire book without pictures before and are swapping with each other to read all six,” said Johnson.
There’s no mistaking her pride in the series and her conviction that the books have the ability to excite and foster self-esteem among the Caribbean’s youth.
“Island Fiction is for me as much a privilege as a responsibility. Beyond the folk tales, popular music styles and shared carnival and culinary cultures there is something less transient that unites us. But it is my sincere belief that we must unravel, not discard these navel strings and use them as artistic lifelines which enable, not limit our creative freedom. The more West Indian-specific and intimate our storytelling, the more universally appealing and infinite our bounty …
“Our Island Fictions are First World fare, and now our authors are free to spin yarns of WHAT IF firsts. And so the tables, for once, have been turned; non-West Indian authors who dare to submit manuscripts for Island Fiction, (and there have been many), are held to the highest “Come good!” standards – because our Island Fiction Caribbean is not merely a backyard playground for other peoples – unless of course we choose to share our sand box beaches and turquoise pools with rum loving, invading aliens.” http://www.islandfictionserieseditor.blogspot.com/
To some extent, Joanne Johnson and her Island Fiction team seem to be on the same wavelength with Maryse Condé who bemoaned the lack of diversity in books for Caribbean adolescents and teens. As Johnson observed:
“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 is not being filled.” http://publishingperspectives.com/?p=1956
As things stand, the stars may be aligned in her favour. CXC Assistant Registrar, Cheryl Stevens said the CXC board is working with teachers and the various education ministries to make adjustments to the rationale and aims of the regional syllabus to bring it in line with current developments in the region.
“We have revisited some of the teaching and learning activities and we have made some clarifications to the English A assessment component. We have also had to select new text books for the English Literature component for the next two cycles, 2012 to 2014 and 2014,” she added.
It’s not hard to see what prompted Macmillan to place their bets on Joanne Gail Johnson. She’s very committed; she goes down in the trenches with her writers and she’s passionate about the IF series. The big question is will Macmillan keep the faith and stay the course or will the accountants eventually move in and stop the party on the perennial pretext – not enough Caribbean people read. That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Johnson and her writers have their work cut out for them.
Stabroek News: Thirty years on the Caribbean Examinations Council prides itself in meeting the intellectual needs of the region… But the loss of the reading habit remains a worry: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2009/guyana-review/08/20/thirty-years-on-the-caribbean-examinations-council-prides-itself-in-meeting-the-intellectual-needs-of-the-region%E2%80%A6-but-the-loss-of-the-reading-habit-remains-a-worry/