Dominica: myth making

August 22, 2012

An unusual picture today, but I couldn’t resist showing you how colourful this book was inside. I found it after a search for a Dominican writer other than  Jean Rhys, who is far and away the most famous literary daughter the small island has produced. Her widely read classic Wide Sargasso Sea – the story of the early life of Bertha Rochester, the first wife of  Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – is rightly celebrated and studied as a work of great merit and skill. If I hadn’t already read it and several of Rhys’s other novels, I would have jumped at the chance. But I’m only reading writers I’ve never read before this year and, besides, I was curious to see what else Dominica had to offer.

My search took me to an intriguing website called the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences, which hosts a microsite dedicated to Dominican writers dotted around the world in an effort to build links and enrich the local literary scene. Several of the writers listed, all of whom, as far I could make out, no longer live in Dominica, sounded interesting.

But then I saw The Snake King of the Kalinago on the list. It was apparently a reinterpretation of one of the island’s traditional creation myths, as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica. Having heard of some other children’s writing schemes in countries where the publishing industry is still relatively small-scale, such as the Unbound Bookmaker Project in the Marshall Islands, I was intrigued to see what a book produced through one of these initiatives might be like.

Bringing together history and ancient myth, the storybook tells of an unusual relationship between Bakwa the giant snake king and the Kalinago people of the island. Having proclaimed himself guardian of the people, Bakwa stands up to the French settlers of centuries past, but his anger and the bows and arrows of the islanders are no match for the guns and swords of the Westerners. Facing defeat, Bakwa retreats to his cave to sleep, only to wake again when the world is finally at peace.

The imaginative use of everything from natural landscape features to historical events really makes the story sing. Using a rock formation on the shore that looks like a giant staircase as the setting for Bakwa’s first emergence from the sea, the myth is literally grounded in the island. This is complemented with some beautifully quirky descriptions, such as the invaders’ galleons on the horizon looking like ‘three massive fish on the sea’, and the vivid illustrations, which are taken from Yet We Survive: the Kalinago People of Dominica – Our Lives in Words and Pictures edited by Mary Walters.

Coupled with this, and giving the work a touch of childish authenticity, is that wonderful shrugging impatience children have when they are uninterested in an aspect of a story and keen to get to the main action. Bakwa, we learn, decided to make his home on Dominica simply because ‘he was no longer comfortable in the sea’. Nuff said. No doubt several of our novelists could learn a thing or two about concision from these young writers.

Nevertheless, I did find myself wondering about the process by which this book was generated. Was this story created as a group exercise orchestrated by a teacher/editor? Was it stitched together by a grown up from a series of individually written pieces? The acknowledgements shed very little light on this and I felt a little frustrated as a result. Without an understanding of the process, it seemed hard to draw conclusions about the finished book as I had no idea whether I was dealing with work primarily by children or a skilled editing job.

Still, the book made me smile. It’s certainly brightened up the shelf. And if the exercise, whatever form it took, prompts even one of those students to put more words on paper in future, it’s got to have been a good thing.

The Snake King of the Kalinago by Grade 6 of Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica (Papillote Press, 2010)

10 Responses to “Dominica: myth making”

  1. colgore said

    I’m going to imagine it was a group effort with very little editing. That seems like more fun. I love the entire premise of your blog.

  2. Celia said

    Interesting read about “Yet We Survive”. You can also see more book titles about Dominica or by Dominicans here
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.182898208696.122748.175372073696&type=3

  3. Dear Ann Morgan
    I am the publisher (Papillote Press) of Snake King of the Kalinago and am delighted that you came across the book in your a-year-of-reading-the-world project. You ask how the book was put together. As the acknowledgements outlined, Snake King was the work of children from Atkinson Primary School in Dominica (chosen for its closeness to the Kalinago Territory and for its committed head teacher). Teachers from the school were supported through workshops in creative writing before they embarked on working with the children. There was a little editing but essentially these are the words of the children who used their own knowledge of the snake myth and their imaginations to put together this delightful book. As you mentioned, the illustrations first appeared in Yet We Survive: the Kalinago People of Dominica – Our Lives in Words and Pictures.
    By the way, you may have noticed that Papillote Press publishes other books by Dominicans and about Dominica. But thanks so much for your thoughtful blog. Good luck with the big read. Hope you’re enjoying the Caribbean contributions.

    • Thanks Polly. That’s great to hear. I’ve been curious about how publishers go about putting group works by children together for some time. It’s great to have your insight. I must check out your list for some contemporary adult fiction I can add to the list for visitors to check out. Do let me know any favourites. Best wishes

  4. vanbraman said

    Sounds like it was an interesting project and an interesting read. I am imagining my class doing something like this when we were in sixth grade. The results don’t look too good in my mind :-).

  5. […] award short listed Abraham’s Treasure by Joanne Skerrett to the Snake King of the Kalinago singled out by spotlighted by Ann Morgan during her Year of Reading the World project, this independent Dominica-based press has been doing its thing. It is listed as a publishing […]

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