On the home straight

May 21, 2014

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It’s been an exciting week in the Year of Reading the World camp. That stack of paper you see in the picture above is the edit of the penultimate draft of my book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, which comes out in the UK next year, published by Harvill Secker/Random House. (It will hopefully be coming out in some other countries too – watch this space.)

On Monday, I had a meeting with one of my editors, Gemma Wain, and we talked through the changes still to be made. It was an extraordinary moment. After 18 months, three drafts and quite a lot of headscratching about how you conjure a book from a blog like this, I realised that the finished product was nearly there. And – better yet – we were both rather pleased with it.

That’s not to say there isn’t still work to do. Those little red marks are Gemma’s comments – and yes, there are around three of them on each and every one of this draft’s 263 pages. Still, for the first time, I have the feeling that the finishing line is in sight.

The team at Harvill Secker seem to agree. Apparently, they are keen to send proofs out to key readers and reviewers as soon as possible. So I suppose I better stop writing this blog and get started.

Now, let me see, should I keep or delete that comma in paragraph one…

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One of the exciting things about reading the world was the number of unpublished manuscripts I got to sample during the project. From the crowd-sourced translation of Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor, which I read for Sao Tome & Principe after nine volunteers generously converted it into English for me, and Mozambican literary giant Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, to Ak Welsapar’s The Tale of Aypi  – the first book ever to be translated directly from Turkmen but still, sadly, without an Anglophone publishing deal – I was repeatedly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary works I had the privilege of discovering.

People often ask me whether any of these works are going to make it into the shops. I hope so, is the short answer. Certainly many of them deserve to – not least because they are often one of the few, if not the only, English-language translations of literature in existence from particular nations. I would be delighted if this project meant that some of these exciting stories had a chance to break into the world’s largest publishing market.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard today that Robi Gottlieb-Cahen’s Minute Stories has come out through Editions Phi.

Now, I have  to confess that A Year of Reading the World has nothing to with Gottlieb-Cahen’s success – the book was already slated for publication when Claudine Muno, frontwoman of Luxembourgian band Claudine Muno and the Lunar Boots, helped me find it. Still, it’s great to hear of the first AYORTW manuscript making it into print – particularly from Luxembourg, which has very little literature available in English.

Gottlieb-Cahen’s fascinating collection of tiny stories of no more than two or three sentences written in three languages and accompanying paintings by the author will give many readers a chance to sample literature from a nation they might not otherwise have the opportunity to read a book from. Congratulations on your achievement, Robi!

And for details of more AYORTW titles coming to bookshops or e-retailers near you, watch this space…

Picture from Editions Phi

A red-letter day

May 14, 2013

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During last year’s epic adventure to read a book from every country in the world, there were a number of pinch-me moments. Sitting in CNN’s London studios waiting to do an interview that would be broadcast around the planet was one. Receiving a flood of messages from Portuguese speakers and translators volunteering their time and talents to enable me to read a book from Sao Tome & Principe was another. And I’ll never forget the evening I got home to find a package of postcards from Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán, or the extraordinary afternoon I spent with Jens Nielsen, the former partner of Swiss author Aglaja Veteranyi, after I wrote about her book.

Today brings another hard-to-believe moment and it has to do with that building pictured above. For years, travelling into London every Sunday morning for my weekly singing job – the only regular income I had when I started out as a freelance writer – I would pass the offices of Random House on Vauxhall Bridge Road and stare up at the windows wondering what it would be like to be an author with a book deal there. It seemed another world.

This morning, I am going into that building for my first session with my editors Michal Shavit and Gemma Wain at Harvill Secker on the manuscript of my book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, the story of last year’s quest. There will be a lot of work to do and I’m daunted, as well as intrigued, to hear what Michal and Gemma made of the first draft. But mostly, as I wriggle into my coat and head off down the hill to catch the bus that will take me down that familiar road once more, I’ll be excited.

Thanks again to all of you for helping me get to this point. Wish me luck!

Picture by chrisjohnbeckett

Mauritania: language barriers

December 12, 2012

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If there were a hall of fame for hardest countries in the world to find literature from in English, Mauritania would be up there with the best of them. The short answer is that there are no commercially published translations of books penned by writers from the country in either Arabic, French, Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke or Wolof – the six most commonly spoken languages in the nation.

As Manuel Bengoéchéa of the Institut français de Mauritanie explained to me, this is partly because Mauritanian novels and other similar works don’t exist in great numbers in the first place. With so many linguistic communities in one place and a strong oral tradition, it is hard to justify putting resources into publishing works that will only be accessible to a fraction of the population. As a result, stories are more often spoken than written in the country.

Nevertheless, there are some published and celebrated Mauritanian novels out there – and several people went to great lengths to try to help me find one that I could read in English. Of these, International Prize for Arabic Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro deserves a particular mention. Having lived in the country for seven years, she put a huge amount of energy into searching for a title – even scouring a book fair in the UAE for possible leads for getting a novella, L’amour impossible by leading writer Moussa Ould Ebnou, translated specially for the project.

And then, in one of those flukes of googling, where a brief portal seems to open up to the one page on the world’s more than 620 million websites that you need, I chanced upon an article about Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba. While studying his PhD at Kent State University in the US, the Mauritanian Fulbright scholar has vowed to write, self-publish and make available for free download one novel each summer. His first book, Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, came out in 2011. A quick search on the title took me to a download site. I clicked on the text and, just like that, Mauritania was solved.

Taking place over four days, Bamba’s novel unfolds a crisis in a nameless family in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. Having not been paid by his employer for many weeks, the father finds himself struggling to feed his pregnant wife and two daughters. His wife wants to solve the problem by appealing to her rich cousin, but the father has more extreme ideas and, as protests against political corruption flare in the streets, it looks as though the family unit may not survive this latest in a long line of setbacks.

As the title and bombastic prologue – written in the voice of the land of Mauritania – suggest, this is a book with big ambitions. With his anonymous, Everyman characters and lengthy dedication, Bamba seems to feel the need to speak for his entire nation – an understandable aim when you consider that this is in all likelihood the first book by a Mauritanian writer that English-language readers can access.

Coming after such grand beginnings, the domestic setting feels a little cramped at first. Bamba tries to show the link between national and personal events in the narrative, but there is still something of a disconnect, particularly when it comes to the title issue of ‘the curse of the language’ (the numerous people who have lost their native languages in the region), which features heavily in the prologue but barely gets a look in in the main text.

However, as the pages turn, the dramas in the lives of the characters grow to fill the space, providing many fascinating insights into daily life in the Mauritanian capital. While some elements, such as the delight of the male neighbours at the election of Obama over Bush, are disarmingly familiar, others are startlingly strange. For example, the custom of men being able to divorce their wives with a single word is extraordinary, while the wife’s belief that ‘freedoms were an American thing’ provides a fascinating insight into the differences in outlook that fill the novel. In addition, small details, such as the Turkish soap opera that threads through the narrative and the cousin’s daughter’s secret tryst with her boyfriend, bring Bamba’s spare prose to life.

The text contains the typos and slips common in self-published works. On top of this, while Bamba’s English is largely excellent, there are one or two linguistic tics and slight misuses of words that cloud the meaning. Pacing is also an issue: scenes move step by step, lacking the agility and dexterity found in the prose of more experienced writers.

Through it all, however, Bamba’s passion for his country and for telling the world about it shines through. The narrative may be threadbare at points, but its author’s ambition for change and a better life for many of the people in Nouakchott – where wealth and poverty have created a divide more impassable than any country boundary – is admirable. A rare insight into this most mysterious and overlooked of West African nations.

Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language by Mohamed Bouya Bamba (2011)

Palau: a world apart

November 26, 2012

From very early on in the year, this country of around 21,000 people spread over 250 islands, 500 miles east of the Philippines distinguished itself as the most difficult Pacific island nation to find books from. Every other literary globetrotter I’ve heard of has struggled to find a Palauan story, with many people resorting to anthropological works and histories by Western academics in the absence of anything by writers from the place.

My own experience bore this out. While I was able to find people to contact for recommendations from all the other Pacific nations – no matter how tricky the books ended up being to track down – it was difficult to know where to start with Palau. The few emails I fired off to people in the country disappeared into the ether without a trace. And any experts on the region I contacted simply said Palau would be difficult and left it at that. Things were starting to get desperate.

And then my resourceful colleague – who, by the way, I’m beginning to suspect is some kind of secret agent, so uncanny is his ability to find leads in the remotest of places – sent me a link to a Palauan writers Yahoo group. Judging by the absence of recent activity on the site, it might well have turned out to be another dead-end. However, there was an email address for the list owner. And so, not holding out much hope, I sent a message to it.

After about a week, a detailed email came back from Susan Kloulechad, a Canadian citizen who is married to a Palauan, with whom she has three children, and has lived in the country for nearly 20 years. She suggested several organisations and people to contact on the islands before mentioning that she had a couple of unpublished manuscripts of her own. One in particular, Spirits’ Tides, caught my interest. And so, judging that Kloulechad’s long association with the nation qualified her work to be considered as Palauan, I asked her if she would let me read it.

Moving back and forth between New York and the imaginary archipelago of Lekes, which Kloulechad says is a fictional version of Palau (the name is taken from a place in her husband’s village), the novel tells the fraught love story of Jonathan C Durston Jr and Micronesian girl Rur. Worlds apart in terms of their lifestyles and experiences, the two are really spirit companions who were separated when they entered time and were born at opposite ends of the Earth. They meet again when multi-millionaire tycoon Jonathan crashes his plane in the sea by one of Lekes’ deserted islands and Rur helps save his life. An attraction develops quickly between the pair, but, with so much separating them, a relationship between these star-crossed lovers seems impossible.

Jonathan’s crash-landing in the heart of Lekes provides Kloulechad with a great opportunity to reveal Micronesian culture to the reader. With Rur as a guide, we learn about everything from how to catch a coconut crab to the region’s strong family values and wedding rituals, as well as some of its folk tales. I was particularly pleased to come across the story of the race between the fish and the wily crab, which I read first in Marshall Islands Legends and Stories and now feels like an old friend.

The author balances this with a great evocation of New York City in winter, as seen through Rur’s eyes. Reading it made me deeply nostalgic for strolling through Central Park in the snow and my fingers itched to get online and book a flight – testament to how well Kloulechad captures the place.

There are some good touches of humour in the narrative too. Moments such as Rur’s mischievous pretence that her ability to start fires derives from island magic, rather than the lighter in her back pocket, and her fabrication of a story about the extent of Jonathan’s injuries to help them get a flight more quickly bring the novel alive.

On the downside, the balance slips during some of the debates between Jonathan and Rur so that the book often feels more like a two-dimensional manifesto for ‘the value of a simple life’ in Micronesia than the dramatisation of the meeting of two worlds. At times Rur seems to be hectoring not only Jonathan, but also the Westerner the author seems to envisage reading the book.

In addition, there are problems with the plot: the pact between scheming girlfriend Caroline and Jonathan’s father to entrap the hero in an engagement stretches credibility, while Jonathan’s forging ahead with plans for a marriage he doesn’t want and his reluctance to discover the identity of the employees embezzling funds from his company feel more like a decisions required by Kloulechad to keep the tension going rather than choices the protagonist would make. I was also uncomfortable with the use of Caroline’s desire to work once she’d had children as a way of vilifying her.

Nevertheless, as a light, romantic novel the book has potential. The raw subject matter is rich and Kloulechad’s skill in evoking places makes for some lovely moments. With a bit of structural underpinning and some fine tuning of motivations, it could be a very enjoyable read. And if it finds a publisher, it will also – as far as I can find out – be the first Palauan novel to make it into print. Now that’s something I’d love to see.

Spirits’ Tides by Susan Kloulechad

The Rest of the World vote closes on Friday 30 November at 23.59 (UK time). Make sure you have your say!

Ghana: a new conquest

November 19, 2012

As a friend reminded me when I put a call out for Ghanaian suggestions on Facebook, Ghanaian literature has been part of my life almost since the beginning. I can still remember the Anansi tales being read to me in my first years of school, as we all sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the teacher at story time.

As an adult, however, I’ve not kept up with literature from the country, so when I found details of Journey by Dr Gheysika Adombire Agambila on the Writers Project of Ghana website, I had no means of knowing whether the novel was likely to be any good. I couldn’t help being a bit put off by the rather lack-lustre design of the book jacket, which features footprints going across sand under a weirdly beige sky. Alright, so we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when you haven’t got much else to go on, it’s hard not to look for clues somewhere. On the strength of what I could see in front of me, I was tempted to stick with the first suggestion on my list, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which, the internet told me, was likely to be good and, by the way, has a fabulous cover.

But Armah’s classic was published in 1968. Surely I should try to read something a little more contemporary if I could?

Then I noticed that Journey was championed by the African Books Collective, which has delivered a series of good reads to this project throughout the year. Maybe there was more to this 2006 novel than met the eye?

Journey recounts the coming of age of Amoah, a teenage school leaver keen to make his mark on the world. Sex and girls are high on the adolescent’s list, as are going to live with his uncle and getting a job in Accra, far away from his grandfather’s traditional village. But as reality bites, Amoah begins to lose his prefect’s swagger and realise there is more to life in contemporary Ghana than his neo-colonialist boarding school could hope to prepare him for.

This is a book that thrives on oppositions. Whether he’s pitting old against young, educated against illiterate, rich against poor, Christian against Muslim, male against female, or science against superstition, Agambila delights in testing the boundaries of ideologies and cultural mores by letting them fight it out in the arena of his narrative.

Humour is the biggest weapon in his arsenal. From sharp, language-based jokes, such as the unfortunate Schola’s letter to Amoah at ‘sukool’, in which she tries to make him see that they are ‘swimming in the same boat’, to killer one-liners – the observation, for example, that ‘if acne affected older people, they would have found a cure for it by now’ – Agambila makes great comic capital out of his material. Amoah is at the heart of this. Filled with the arrogance of youth and yet touchingly naive, he is forever coming a cropper in his desire to ‘take advantage of promising situations’: drinking himself silly instead of intoxicating the girl he hopes to seduce, lending money to a friend who will not pay it back, and finding his plans scuppered by the systems of a society he has not yet taken the time to understand.

This vulnerability makes Amoah very likeable and gives Agambila leverage to tackle some of the book’s more challenging themes, such as the long shadow that British rule has cast upon the country. Many of these struggles play out in Amoah’s mind as we see him scorning the ‘hopeless bush students’ at his school and reflecting that a porter is ‘so strong he would have fetched enough money to build a house and marry several wives in the days when humans were bought and sold’, but becoming furious at his grandfather’s nostalgia for colonial rule. Similarly, while he sneers at the traditions and beliefs of the villagers in Tinga, Amoah is unable to help superstitions about witches creeping into his mind when he walks out late at night. Educated to be disdainful and distrustful of the culture he is rooted in, he struggles to find a way to assimilate the contradictions within him, playing out a national drama on a personal level.

At times the pacing can be problematic. Agambila has a tendency to put us in scenes and keep us there in real time. While this works brilliantly with comic set pieces such as the dance Amoah attends at the hotel near his school, it becomes less compelling when it comes to descriptions of the hero’s bathing rituals. In addition, the latter half of the narrative could do with some tightening to keep the momentum up right to the end.

On the whole, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Sharp, funny and insightful, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read – a worthy successor to the crown of Anansi in the kingdom of my imagination.

Journey by Gheysika Adombire Agambila (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2006)

For a long time, there was only one name on the table for the tiny Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis: Caryl Phillips. The award-winning playwright and novelist had been suggested by Sue for the list, and his track record was certainly impressive. No doubt if I read one of his 10 novels (and counting), I would find much to admire.

But there was something that made me hesitate: although born to Kittian parents in St Kitts and Nevis, Phillips left the country when he was just four months old and grew up in the UK. He is now Professor of English at Yale University. Phillips’s work certainly had a claim on being considered Kittian – in much the same way that Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is linked to the Dominican Republic – but I couldn’t help wondering what else might be out there from writers who had spent more time living in the country itself.

For a while, the answer seemed to be: not a lot. Much like writing from St Vincent and the Grenadines, books from St Kitts and Nevis seemed to be thin on the ground – at least as far as works that had made into wide enough circulation to reach readers outside the country were concerned.

Then I stoogled upon an article about Bertram Roach, a senior citizen on Nevis, who published his first novel in 2008. The book by the former electrician, who spent some time in the UK as an adult but was raised, educated and trained on the island, was greeted with a great deal of local enthusiasm and government minister Hensley Daniel praised the example Roach’s achievement set for the island’s younger citizens. It sounded like just the thing I’d been looking for.

Inspired by stories heard from the villagers and labourers on the Brown and Bush Hill estates, where Roach’s father was manager in the early decades of the 20th century, Only God Can Make a Tree traces the long shadow of slavery. The narrative focuses on Adrian, the mixed-race son of an Irish immigrant and a local woman, who, because of his light skin, has a degree of social mobility not afforded to many of his peers.

The early 20th century world should be Adrian’s oyster and he gets a good job as an overseer on St Kitts. Yet he finds himself caught between the two communities and, when he starts relationships with both a local Sunday school teacher and his boss’s daughter, it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes, setting off a chain of events that will take a generation to make good.

Roach’s plain style lends itself to his subject matter. Whether he is describing the race-based hierarchy of the society, where gradations of skin colour affect job prospects and status, or the mixture of fear and fascination that leads him to jeopardise his relationship with his true love Julia for the rich and flighty Alice, the author’s clear and direct prose makes his story memorable.

This is particularly the case when it comes to his handling of local traditions and customs. From zombie dances and Easter celebrations, through to curiosities such as the saying that when the sun shines while it is raining ‘the devil is beating his wife’, Roach delights in sharing his knowledge of his country with his readers.

This sense of authenticity is clearly important to him, as he makes clear in his Prologue:

‘Non-Caribbean authors have written books after brief encounters on the islands, taking back a notebook full of local gossip. One, Island in the Sun, was a bestseller and was made into a film.

‘I grew up on a sugar plantation in St Kitts and Nevis. The stories I tell are my real stories.’

In fact, the Prologue reminded me of a piece at the beginning of Cecil Browne’s The Moon is Following Me, my choice for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At the time I read that, I thought its unusually direct and somewhat declamatory style was peculiar to Browne, but finding a similar introduction at the start of this book makes me wonder whether such pieces might be something of a literary tradition in some Caribbean nations.

Such directness, however, is not always successful in the main body of the book. At times, Roach pushes the narrative aside to expound on topics such as the unscrupulousness of obeah men and his belief that ‘class and colour are the two greatest social evils in most parts of the West Indies’. The plot is also threadbare to the point of reading more like an outline at some points, as though Roach is rattling through it in his impatience to get on to the next episode that sparks his interest.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in this book – and much to interest the non-Kittian or Nevisian reader. Roach set out to tell the stories he wanted to in his own way. And, in that sense, the book is a great success.

Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach (Athena Press, 2008)

This book was one of a pile of tempting-looking titles that Richard from now-defunct Aflame Books very kindly gave me earlier this year. I had originally been planning to try to source some other recommendations for Costa Rican literature and had in fact had some leads from Cherie at Palabras Errantes. She suggested Anacristina Rossi and Carmen Naranjo as two respected writers from the country.

However, when I tried to track down their books, there was a problem: translations by these writers are extremely thin on the ground. Only a couple of Carmen Naranjo’s short stories seem to be available in English, while Anacristina Rossi’s work is either untranslated or prohibitively expensive – the English translation of her novel The Madwoman of Gandoca that I finally managed to track down would have cost me more than £100 to buy and ship.

That was a bridge too far for me, particularly when I already had a Costa Rican novel peering down at me from the shelf above my desk. Cadence of the Moon by Óscar Núñez Olivas it would be.

Based on the crimes of Costa Rica’s first recorded, and as yet unidentified, serial killer, the novel follows young journalist Maricruz and jaded, divorced police detective Gustavo as they ply the tools of their respective professions to try to solve the case. The extreme sadism and skill of the murderer and the compromised nature of the organisations in which they work test their ingenuity, endurance and professional ethics to breaking point. With only their intelligence and consciences to guide them, do Gustavo and Maricruz have what it takes to find the killer and see justice done?

Gender politics play a huge part in the book. From the ‘game of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’ Maricruz is forced to play to win her male colleagues’ cooperation every day of her working life, through to the gruesome, female-focused mutilation rituals of the murderer, this is a novel about how men and women interact. Some of the observations can feel a little two-dimensional and cliched, as when Maricruz’s gay friend Pedro launches into a lecture about the narrowness of straight men, however there are some nice touches that lift the narrative and the handling of the relationship between the two central characters is generally good.

Olivas also does tension well. While working a series of outlandish elements into the story – among them the occult, an underground political movement, and the symbolic significance of the phases of the moon – he manages to keep the plot moving and make it believable. Nevertheless, readers (at least those who can get hold of a copy of this now out-of-print translation) will probably find the ending surprising, given that here the narrative veers sharply away from the conventions of the murder-mystery form, having adhered to most of them throughout the book.

This is probably due to the fact that the things Olivas seems most interested in as a writer are only tangentially connected to the murder case. In many ways, the real focus of the novel is on the politics and compromises that riddle big organisations, such as Maricruz’s newspaper and the police. During the course of the story, both of these come under pressure from outside influences, ranging from advertisers and funders in the case of the newspaper, through to public opinion and government interests in the case of the police – although it must be said that some of the ethical dilemmas Olivas poses his characters are a little underwhelming. Maricruz’s initial reluctance to cultivate Gustavo as an off-the-record source because she believes she should publish everything she discovers, for example, comes across as more than a little naive.

Interestingly, while Olivas, himself a journalist, is relentlessly scathing about the European publisher Mr Grey – who makes crass pronouncements about the ineffectualness of Costa Ricans and all but strangles the newspaper in his desire to micromanage it – the writer is more chary when it comes to the police. Alongside the FBI expert who sweeps in to draw up a psychological profile of the killer, Gustavo and his colleagues appear bumbling and crude in their methods. Whether this is a reflection of the status quo or not I don’t know, but it seems odd that Olivas does not try to balance the exposure of the Costa Rican police force’s weak points with some observations about how its methods might compare favourably with the clinical, anonymous approach of the US agent.

All in all, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find that this book was more than it was cracked up to be. From the cover picture of a gagged woman on a full-moon night, I assumed I’d be getting a brutal and sensationalist whodunnit. In fact, the contents where a lot more subtle and thought-provoking. Hmmn. What’s that old adage about books and covers again?

Cadence of the Moon (En Clave de Luna) by Óscar Núñez Olivas, translated from the Spanish by Joanna Griffin (Aflame Books, 2007)

When it comes to literature from Caribbean nations, it tends to be feast or famine. Either you find yourself overwhelmed by a plethora of books from excellent and exciting writers, as in the case of countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, or you have to look hard to come up with even one work you can read in English.

All the same, few Caribbean nations have been as tricky to find stories from as the tiny archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As writer Adam Lowe of Peepal Tree Press, which published my Grenadian pick, explained when I contacted him to ask for ideas, the literature scene on the smaller island nations is still in its infancy and there is very little support and guidance for aspiring authors. As such, while there are writers from these countries, few will have had the opportunity to develop and publish their work.

Adam might have thought he was delivering bad news, but in actual fact his email spurred me on. There were SVG writers out there, then. I just had to find them.

A bit of frantic googling (froogling, if you will) later, and I landed at the threshold of ‘Writing “D”‘, a blog by debraprovidence, a teacher with a self-confessed interest in exploring the literary landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I left a message and held my breath.

Debraprovidence replied the very next day with the names of three writers, all of whom, as far as I could make out, emigrated from SVG at a fairly young age. Of these, Cecil Browne’s short story collection The Moon is Following Me caught my eye.

The book is full of tales of longing. Whether they are hankering after sweet coconuts, a secret love or the perfect line up for a local band, Browne’s characters are all driven by a desire to achieve, prove or change something – even if they have to adopt unconventional means to do it. There is the emancipated slave-turned-hawker who challenges a rival to an eating competition in order to defend his pitch, the young man who tries to win his sweetheart’s affections by buying her a wedding dress, and the school-leaver who risks his life for a taste of his favourite fruit.

Their author, too, seems to be unafraid of breaking with tradition. Indeed, when I opened the book and found myself confronting one of the most unusual forewords I have ever read – in which the author assures the reader of his stories’ ‘universal appeal’ – I was rather taken aback. It seemed as though Browne’s query letter to his agent or publisher had somehow got mixed up with the manuscript and published with the book, and I was apprehensive about what the collection had in store.

I quickly relaxed, however, helped by Browne’s quirky humour and delight in subverting expectations. From the moody schoolboy of the title story, who spends his time wishing disaster would strike to relieve his boredom, to the prudish Mrs Goodridge in ‘Action Action’, who is thrown into a panic by the news that her husband of 12 years is finally coming home from England to live with her, Browne delights in making his characters swim against the currents of their lives.

He couples this with a deft turn of phrase and an eye for detail that makes otherwise commonplace moments sparkle. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ‘cylindrical dress, about a metre in diameter’ that Mrs Goodridge fantasizes about making for herself to ward off physical contact. In addition, the stories initiate the reader into the altered sense of scale that comes with living in a small place through incidental details such as bandleader Sister’s ambition ‘to put Fitz-Hughes on the SVG map’ in ‘First, Second, First, Third’.

That said, there are a few technical issues holding some of the early stories back. Several of them take a while to come into focus, as though Browne is casting about looking for his subject well into the second or third page. The prose is also occasionally a bit choppy, as though bits have been missed out, so that odd sentences jump from scene to scene like a scratched record. Perhaps most problematic of all is ‘Spanish Ladies’ – a story close to the author’s heart, judging by his remarks in the foreword – in which Browne seems to have allowed his emotional involvement with the events he describes to override his writing, making for an unusually flat and predictable end.

Overall, though, there is much to like here. The last two stories, ‘Action Action’ and ‘Taste for Freedom’, are particularly strong – my copy has ‘great’ and ‘nice’ scrawled in the margins throughout these. I’d be interested to see what Browne, who left SVG at the age of 13 and is now head of maths at a college in west London, writes next. And I wonder, if he’d stayed in SVG, whether he would have published these stories at all.

The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (Matador, 2010)

Look up the words ‘Saint Lucia’ in any work on world literature and you’ll find the name Derek Walcott somewhere nearby. Celebrated as one of the Caribbean’s foremost literary figures, the Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright is the go-to writer for literature from and about his island home. For my purposes, Walcott’s epic poem Omeros would technically have fitted the bill – when I set out on this quest, I planned to allow myself to include narrative poetry if prose stories were hard to find, although I have not done so as yet.

But I was curious to see what else Saint Lucia had to offer. What other literary flowers flourished in Walcott’s formidable shadow? And what prose stories might this nation famed for its poetry have to offer me?

After a few fruitless searches, I was delighted to stoogle upon an article on the website of Jako Productions, an organisation seeking to promote the artistic expression of Saint Lucian culture. Written by Modestes Downes and Anderson Reynolds, ‘A Synthesis of Three St Lucian Novels: Neg Maron: Freedom Fighters, Season of Mist, Death by Fire is essentially a potted history of Saint Lucian novel-writing. The island’s prose works are by no means as numerous or celebrated as its poetry, the article’s authors acknowledge, but they do exist. Indeed, the early 21st century apparently saw a relative explosion in Saint Lucian prose publishing, with the three novels named in the piece’s title expanding the country’s prose canon to nine works.

Of these, I decided that Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Saint Lucia’s former director of culture Michael Aubertin was the book for me. Taking place in the space of a single trip to the cinema, the novel records 19-year-old history enthusiast James’s daydream vision of the events that rocked Saint Lucia more than two centuries ago. With the British and French battling over the island and slavery rife, the only hope for the nation’s black population lies in joining the Neg Maron, a community of escaped slaves in the heart of the rainforest. But when Golang runs away to live with them, he realises that existing in secret is not enough: if his people are ever to achieve real freedom they must take back  their independence by force and with it the pride, self-esteem and dignity that have been denied them for so long.

Aubertin’s writing is best when it is passionate. This comes across most strongly in the passages where Golang realises the danger of his fellow slaves internalising false assumptions about their own inferiority and sets out to rally them. In particular, a speech in which fellow revolutionary La Croix exposes the hypocrisy of their colonial masters in light of the French Revolution fizzes with rhetoric:

‘We must challenge the veracity of their watch-words. They cannot cry “Liberté!” and have us in chains. They cannot cry “Egalité!” and feel we are not equal. They cannot cry “Fraternité!” and not realise the truth about the brotherhood of all men. The true testing ground of the revolution is not France, but right here in the colonies! They have no option but to make us free!’

In addition to such stirring speeches, Aubertin engineers several moments of great tension in the narrative. The sections where Golang hides and protects a British deserter and where the Neg Maron set out to capture the governor’s canoe are gripping.

The plotting isn’t consistently taut, however. The time shifts are awkward and Aubertin neglects to round out some of the lesser characters in his impatience to tell the story. There is also a degree of self-consciousness in the writing, which makes some of the exchanges, particularly those involving the British soldiers, rather stilted.

All in all, though, I was glad I read it. As one of nine published novels produced by this nation of fewer than 180,000 people, at least up until 2005 (if you know of any more, I’d love to hear about them), it provides a thought-provoking insight into the island’s past and how it might inform its society today. I’d be intrigued to see how the other works compare. Ah well, maybe next year…

Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Michael Aubertin (Caribbean Diaspora Press, 2000)

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