Reading Jamaica in New York
I worked as a nanny when I first came to America.
One rare quiet afternoon I found a slim book on my employer’s shelf by Jamaica Kincaid, an author I hadn’t heard of. We look to find ourselves in fiction, but rarely does a teenage Caribbean nanny in New York find herself sprawled on her boss’ couch immersed in a novel written by a former Caribbean nanny. To say Lucy spoke to me is to under-report the crystallization of intent, the force of the impact that afternoon had on my creative life to come. Here was my story, unsparingly told: my relationship with my mother, my immigrant journey, my homesickness. I finished Lucy in one sitting, and I immediately wanted more.
Because before Kincaid, to find the Caribbean in literature I had V. S. Naipaul. In some of his early stories, I caught snatches of myself—a foot or a plait perhaps—but never me, fully formed, in the middle of the action. Any pathos for Naipaul’s characters takes backseat to the bathetic; his Caribbean writing has always been part ridicule and part anthropology, local people put to usury for a foreign gaze. Trinidadians and West Indians have never been Naipaul’s people. His island birth, according to him, has only been an accident of history. Yet it was Naipaul’s work I found easily accessible, lauded as timeless, and enshrined in the canon.
Consider then, finding Jamaica in New York. After consuming Kincaid I searched for and found others, Maryse Conde, Michelle Cliff, and Paule Marshall, but only Kincaid had received the gold standard imprimatur. The New Yorker published Girl, Kincaid’s jewel, in 1978. Until Krik Krak, Edwidge Danticat’s spectacular 1996 debut, Girl sat alone, calcified in countless anthologies and syllabi, as the representation of Caribbean Women’s fiction. Prolific Roxane Gay has acknowledged that she is currently having her moment, and Naomi Jackson’s debut is getting good press, but surely Girl has more sisters, friends, enemies even, waiting to be discovered. I can’t be the only one searching for their stories. Should I cease my search, and wait patiently for editors and mainstream tastemakers to decree that Caribbean literature is experiencing another “moment”?
Not too long ago, a fellow Caribbean author with an impressive backlist consoled me over how quickly my first novel had dropped off the radar. She told me African women are having their moment, but be patient; Caribbean women’s writing would again come into vogue. I wanted to tell her that I am not a mini-skirt, but of course I am Caribbean and was taught to respect my elders. But I did wonder about this relegation to moments; about next big things and bandwagons, and why in literature “moments” seem to apply mostly to fiction produced by women, and by extension, to black women, who, in data distilled from a 2013 Pew Research Center study, were found to read more books than any other demographic.
Are editors telling the current corps of writers pedaling war stories, “Hold up, Bro, we’ve already had a war book burn up the lists?” Or to authors of commercial women’s fiction—that bubbly subgenre previously referred to as “Chick Lit—“Sorry, we are saturated with summer schmaltz.” Literary groundswell for each of these categories unearth an endless and limitless supply of reading treasure for readers to browse. Similarly, large reading audiences for books written by Caribbean women exist, but a manuscript doesn’t make a book: agency representation, editorial interest, acquisition, support, marketing, and publicity make and sell books. And when this year’s New York Times summer reading list, compiled annually by Janet Maslin, included not a single book by a black author of any persuasion, we are still a long way from recognition.
Good fiction exposes our shared humanity, but I confess to feeling an extra thrill whenever a Caribbean reader tells me how much my book has resonated with her own life. Because sometimes I don’t want to distill the range of human emotions through a representative narrative; sometimes I want to read a book about someone like me.
VICTORIA BROWN is the author of Minding Ben, Hyperion 2011 (released in paperback as Grace in the City, 2012). Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, NBCnews.com, Sunday Salon, and Moko Caribbean Arts and Letters and is forthcoming in Caribbean Quarterly. She teaches in the English Department at LaGuardia Community College. More of her writing can be found at byvictoriabrown.blogspot.com.