Dominica: myth making

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)