As the note on our theme says, the Caribbean has always existed at a crossroads of one kind or another, and nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, the Caribbean remains at a crossroads. The artist Christopher Cozier once said, after a residency in Johannesburg, that he often felt like someone standing at an intersection with a sign, rewriting and reorganizing its message, wondering if it was being understood or engaged.
There’s a similar feeling as we put out the first issue of PREE, an online portal to relay high-grade writing from, on or about the Caribbean. Will PREE be read as widely as we hope? Who will PREE’s audience be and how will they engage us? Will this kind of writing appeal to the younger generations growing up in an era when books have virtually become an endangered species? Will youngsters still yearn to be writers in the same way that some of us born in the 20th century did? Will the rest of the world be interested in what Caribbean writers have to say?
The role magazines and publication platforms play in the development of writers is a critical one. In a 1986 interview, renowned Caribbean writer and thinker CLR James told cultural studies guru Stuart Hall about the thrilling moment when his short story ‘La Divina Pastora’ was republished in The Best Short Stories of 1928. The latter was part of a series edited by anthologist Edward J. O’Brien that annually compiled the best short stories in England, ‘. . . whereupon, being published in it’, recounted James, ‘a lot of information was conveyed to the Caribbean people. 1. That James was a writer and 2. To James that he could write!’.
We see PREE’s project as being somewhat similar: publication in PREE should signal to the Caribbean, as well as to the world, that here are writers to be taken seriously. We think it’s important to make our writers and their writing visible, to show them off to the world, and to each other, to say look at this, read this, enjoy reading it because it’s luminous writing from a region more renowned for its real estate – sun, sand and sea –than its globally undervalued intellectual property. We want to provide a platform where Caribbean writers can be proud to have their work published, the equal of metropolitan outlets they might otherwise aspire to see their work in. To have your work accepted by PREE should count for something, because our editors are demanding and exacting, and to earn their approval your writing has to be superlative in form, style and/or content.
The neglect of writers locally is legendary. Moving from Spanish Town, Jamaica, to Scarborough, Ontario, in 2012, the singular Jamaican novelist 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?”’
Tragically, months after making the move to Canada, Ellis discovered he had cancer, but for the remaining six years of his life (he passed away in March 2018) he outdid himself, winning the Lignum Vitae Una Marson award in 2017 for his unpublished manuscript, Land We Love. We want to particularly honor and remember Garfield in this inaugural issue of PREE.
Newspapers and magazines here tend to allot significantly more space to business and corporate life than they give our intellectual or aesthetic preoccupations. We think this may be a regional affliction. Thus, for example, a substantial recent interview with the poet laureate of Jamaica, Lorna Goodison, by Jacqueline Bishop, was buried in the print only, throwaway literary supplement of the Jamaica Observer newspaper. Four pages of often valuable intellectual property that the Observer restricts to the 500 square miles of Jamaica, deliberately ignoring – or ignorant of – the global demand for information about the country’s internationally renowned writers and poets.
Several earlier generations of writers and poets cut and cleared the space the current crop of writers now occupies, free to write about the world in any way they see fit. The struggle is no longer against colonizers and colonization – it’s not just about a kind of literary import substitution – writing the local equivalent of canonical European texts or ventriloquizing ‘the folk’. Yet because of the work of these earlier writers, the Caribbean was well on its way to having an #OwnVoices movement by the end of the 20th century and younger writers have benefited from this.
The younger wordsmiths featured in PREE’s inaugural issue focus on writing the contemporary – mapping the crucial junctions at which the Caribbean finds itself today, articulating the intersections we occupy in these contingent, uncertain, dark times. They are not particularly interested in producing #UpLit – uplifting writing that allegedly makes us feel better about the world – often valorized in the Caribbean as embracing ‘positivity’, especially when portraying the region to outsiders.
In these dark times, says Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, when all the things we thought the world was moving away from – demagoguery, institutionalized hatred, extremism – are on the upswing again, is the role of fiction merely to provide distraction, relief and upliftment rather than engagement? She thinks not. We agree with her, and add that not just fiction, but non-fiction, poetry, drama and the myriad forms of expressive writing that exist can and should participate in reconstituting humanity, with the kind of engagement that will counter the retrograde fundamentalisms threatening to overwhelm us.
‘In hard times we also have to learn how to reconstitute ourselves. Read all the Baldwin you want but staying up and watching Netflix is just as reconstitutional,’ says Junot Díaz, perhaps the region’s grittiest, most generative contemporary author. Díaz, who single-handedly put geek culture front and centre in the global imagination, highlights a new phenomenon, the Netflixization of our times. What distinguishes contemporary writers from their predecessors is their immersion in realities concocted and visualized by the new wave of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming TV series that have overtaken books as conveyors of fictional worlds. Today you cannot write a compelling narrative uninfluenced by the techniques of filmic storytelling, or the gestalt of a TV ‘streaming’ economy. These effects are registered visually, tonally, temporally and thematically in contemporary writing. As the conventions of streaming inevitably alter the conventions of storytelling, how will writing from and about the region change? What new genres might these new technologies and practices generate?
Will such changes render Caribbean writing ‘inauthentic’? ‘To write like Charles Dickens is to be inauthentic, but to scat like Cab Calloway is to have influences,’ says Belinda Edmondson in her insightful book on literary culture in the region, Caribbean Middlebrow (147). According to Edmondson, to be inspired or influenced by ideas from cultures backed by economic or imperial power has traditionally been viewed as a negative, when it should perhaps be considered an exchange of ideas, a more benign and fluid process. The question of ‘authenticity’ is a fraught one, leading to closures rather than apertures, and is therefore to be treated with caution.
In its search for an ontology, Caribbean writing has encompassed everything from dialectical writing to so-called dialect stories or writing in the vernacular. In the early days the latter was considered appropriate for internal consumption but not for export. Edmondson cites Naipaul’s wry comment in The Middle Passage on local resistance to the use of Creole speech in Caribbean writing:
‘They [West Indians] do not object to its use locally; the most popular column in Trinidad is a dialect column in the evening news by the talented and witty person known as Macaw. But they object to its use in books which are read abroad. “They must be does talk so by you,” one woman said to me. “They don’t talk so by me.”’
Today there is no hesitation about using the region’s vernaculars in writing the Caribbean, or in rendering legible its colloquial or creole speech whether for domestic readers or foreign ones. There is no pan-Caribbean patois or creole, but a variety of creoles inflected by the languages people spoke and the colonial languages they intersected with – in effect the native languages of the region. At PREE we accept work written in Caribbean vernaculars, English and representations of both.
Thus readers of this inaugural issue of PREE will encounter an array of anglophone Caribbean vernaculars in our selections, some almost entirely in Eastern Caribbean creole like Oonya Kempadoo’s ‘Leaving Island if at All’ and others interspersed with it. In Jamaica this mother tongue is known as patwa. Although some people insist on referring to it as ‘patois’, the French word for such linguistic innovations, we prefer the patwa spelling, as it honors the fundamentally phonetic nature of this dynamic, oral language. In his short piece on language in Jamaica, Smadi Pitni suggests that his compatriots’ relationship to patwa and English ‘is one more example of the psychic extremes that we live between. In a way these languages are opposites, but in another way they are not because they reconcile their differences inside of us.’
‘The Counting-Up’ by Ingrid Persaud employs fluid colloquial voices to tell a story about sexuality, gender, ethnic and class difference in human relations – raising questions about what constitutes family. Family mythologies inevitably intersect with national and cultural mythologies and Sharon Millar’s ‘Curry Duck’ skillfully dissects race and ethnicity via culinary rivalry: the central character unsuccessfully teaches her daughter how to manage white skin in the tropics and tries to preserve French Creole tradition by passing on recipes for ‘complicated soufflés and cheese sauces that had come down unchanged and un-creolised from her original French ancestors . . . ‘Curry is not going to go with everything else. The flavour is too strong,’ she warns her daughter, who represents the end of the family’s bloodline of undiluted European ancestry.
‘Carousel’ by Leone Ross squarely confronts the question: who is a Caribbean writer and what is Caribbean writing? London-based Ross has Jamaican roots but her story has no expressly Caribbean coordinates. Located in England, ‘Carousel’ is an unflinching exploration of racial and gender difference. It trembles on the brink of adolescence and adulthood, lovemaking and warfare, tenderness and contempt, sameness and difference, shame, pleasure, rage. Ultimately the differences recede as, ‘past the colour, he could see the same bumps and textures, the same pores . . .’, making the male protagonist relax in a bed that fits his long frame, unlike the procrustean bed of society he’s used to fitting into.
Beds are a recurring motif in this issue. In Anu Lakhan’s ‘Dear Dr. Kafka’, a riff on biology, surveillance, familiarity, poetry, science and, again, family, the second part is a complaint about beds you can’t lie in – lumpy, slippery, mattresses that slide on beds too cheap to trust with your weight – and ultimately marriage. Krystal Sital’s ‘The Incident’ is also about family – or the rending apart of family – on ‘islands stranded in the middle of nowhere.’ Here the bed is a ‘rheal nice bed’, handmade by the husband.
PREE is predicated on the belief that fiction and poetry aren’t the be all and end all of Caribbean writing – non-fiction and essay writing are just as important, and we are pleased to feature Kei Miller’s lyrical essay on the politics of race and location in Caribbean writing.
‘How many years and decades must pass before we can belong to a place and to its words? How much time before we can write it?’ asks Kei, before responding: ‘This thing have to do with more than just passports and birth certificates and the accidents of our birth. It have to do with the where that we choose, and the where that chooses us.’
In ‘Land at the Crossroads’, novelist and environmentalist Diana McCaulay wonders if Caribbean islands like Jamaica are forever stalled between the binaries of resorts and the informal settlements that service them. The environmental consequences of both tourist and squatter economies are one-way speedways to catastrophic change. Is it possible to switch direction and find a new way out?
The anthropocene, visualized as ‘a million plastic bottles suspended in brine – reflux from what we feed the ocean’ is also the theme of Roland Watson-Grant’s terrifying ‘Everybody Live Uptown Now’. In this story of the aftermaths of a tsunami that wipes out half of Kingston, the narrator watches as ‘two containers bang into our building, one bright orange, the other green. They sound empty.’
Those unfamiliar with Jamaican politics will miss the political signification embedded in that image, the fact that orange and green are not inert colors in this polity. Similarly in poet Dingo’s ‘A Nanny fi a cup of coffee’, will anyone outside Jamaica get the references to its currency, and the images that embellish them? Does it matter if local signifiers anchor our stories? Does this make them less mobile, or can we write stories capable of carrying such referents?
In this same vein, does it matter if a local signifier anchors this platform? In ‘A Brief History of the Word “Pree”’, my fellow editor Isis Semaj-Hall provides a thorough deconstruction of the name of this platform – PREE.
There is much else in this issue for readers to chew on. The interview with novelist Marcia Douglas plumbs the depths of her engagement with a reggae aesthetic, something Kwame Dawes once proffered as a paradigm for Caribbean writing. Elements such as the ‘dub-side’, ‘version’, and ‘re-mix’, play a key role in her unusual novel The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. Richard Georges, poet and publisher of Moko, another Caribbean literary magazine, discusses his exploration of ‘the crossroads of the sea floor as a primary site of socio-historical retrieval and poetic exploration’. The edited conversation from the Key West Literary Seminar featuring Marlon James, Kei Miller and Nicole Dennis-Benn sees the writers discussing the different Jamaicas they come from and the tensions they grew up with.
The poems by Ishion Hutchinson and Tanya Shirley exemplify the region’s long-standing poetic tradition, with Ishion refashioning the Walcottian style and Shirley fiercely and boldly extending the range of Jamaican poetry in directions not seen or heard before.
Finally, in ART-icles we feature artwork worth lingering on, work that amplifies our Caribbean imaginary. We are happy to provide a space for legendary artist and masman Peter Minshall to signal his wariness of getting drawn into the ongoing LGBTQ arguments in Trinidad, and the Caribbean at large, by focusing on the much broader human plane in which his work is reposed. While his rainbow image might lend itself to being coopted into current sexual rights-based activism, Minsh made it clear that his piece wasn’t intended as activism, and wasn’t to be mobilized in that way, even though he is very much in support of such activism. In contrast to Minsh’s inherent optimism of spirit the artworks by Sheena Rose and Kelley-Ann Lindo hint at the dark side of island life. If visual art can be seen as another language, aren’t these works also examples of Caribbean writing?
With PREE, we’ve attempted to create a powerful and agile platform for Caribbean writing, one as capable as a dragonfly of migrating across oceans, moving in any direction, and changing direction suddenly. Thus, although the opening team involved in this inaugural edition of PREE is largely Jamaican, plans are afoot to vary this in future editions. I feel blessed and highly favored to have had the opportunity of being ‘selector’ for this first issue of PREE, and am grateful that 85% of the invited writers submitted without hesitation. The result is a stimulating compilation of reading material, along with provocative images sourced from Caribbean artists and photographers. We look forward to publishing two issues of PREE each year and invite writers to submit work they would like to see in PREE. The theme of our next issue is Pressure.
 In Edmondson’s words, responses to European ideas by rewriting European texts.