For the past four years, editing stories for Anansesem Caribbean children's literature ezine, for the Caribbean children's book publisher Campanita Books, and through my own personal children's publishing consultancy has afforded me the opportunity to read a wide array of children's stories by Caribbean writers. It's been a remarkable learning experience and one from which I've gained some insights. I'm not a mainstream Editor so I've never done any editing work for a mainstream publisher. Also, I haven't edited anything remotely close to a bestseller. Yet, even with my humble editing experience, I think I have something to contribute to a conversation about the task of editing Caribbean children's literature.
I recently got around to watching this much-feted video of Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz's conversation at the New York Public Library. There is so much in anything Toni Morrison says to upend a person's thinking, but I was particularly riveted by her tales of the time she spent working as an Editor at Random House back in the 60's before she started writing (starting at 3:21 in the video). At one point (starting at 9:17), Morrison talks about how so much of the writing by African-Americans in the 60s betrayed the controlling presence of the white gaze. She would read fiction by African-Americans and she could feel that the writing was restrained, that the writers were withholding because they didn't want to offend the white, mainstream status quo.
The works Morrison was interested in and chose to edit on the other hand, were those works that were "unapolegetic about what they are, what they are saying, and what they intended for African-American people or anyone else to know." She was interested in working with African-American writers who were talking to African-American audiences, whose writing was coming from within. These were the bold, self-aware writers who works Morrison helped to canonize. The result was powerful and widely read works of literature by African-Americans that talk to African-American audiences, but that everyone has been able to find real value in reading.
Listening to Morrison talk about this, my heart dropped because it is exactly the same thing that has troubled me time and time again when I read children's stories by Caribbean writers. The writing in itself may be beautiful and engaging, but one gets the distinct sense that the story is written for audiences other than Caribbean people. For example, in many published, self-published and unpublished children's stories by Caribbean writers, the fiction is bogged down by unnecessary clarifications as if the writer feels the need to explain Caribbean realities to non-Caribbean readers.
And what happens when children's writers do so much explaining in their writing is they in fact end up apologizing. The writing comes across as if the writer is apologizing at every step for having a reality distinct from that of the imagined reader in the colonized mind, i.e., the foreign British or American reader. I've read children's stories by Caribbean writers that pander to foreign audiences so much that the story has little to do with Caribbean realities, reflecting instead the customs, language and experiences of (usually white, middle-class) British or American people.
I would urge Caribbean children's writers to write fiction "coming from within" as Toni Morrison puts it, because that claiming of one's voice and one's experience is where the source of powerful, authentic writing lies, as well as the power to reach Caribbean children in a meaningful way. A good start is to study the literature for young people written by Caribbean authors such as Merle Hodge, Ian McDonald, Michael Anthony, and Lakshmi Persad. These are prime examples of authors who wrote pointedly and unapolegetically for both young people and Caribbean audiences, not restraining their voices or narratives to suit foreign audiences.
In fact, I heard Merle Hodge speak about her work at the Cropper Foundation Caribbean Creative Writers Workshop a few years ago and she told us the story of how the American publisher of her children's novel, For the Life of Laetitia, wanted to append a glossary to the book because of its plethora of Caribbean Creole words, sayings and cultural allusions. Hodge adamantly refused the glossary idea and it is safe to say that For the Life of Laetitia is not only a modern Caribbean classic but has been widely appreciated outside the Caribbean.
So how does one write pointedly for Caribbean audiences? Having thought about it a lot, both for my own writing and for the sake of helping other writers, I believe it involves several things including but not limited to: the unapolegetic use of Creole; not explaining things that most Caribbean people will understand; not being afraid of offending anyone (remember, some of the best children's books, many of them best-selling, have been subject to censoring); not bending the writing voice to mimic the tone of foreign, mainstream books; experimenting with styles and formats that reflect forms of Caribbean consciousness (e.g. ex-tempo, orality etc.)
I plan to continue editing Caribbean writing for children and like countless readers hungry for stories that speak to them, I'm ever on the lookout for those works that are coming from within. A children's writer writing from within is a writer who is doing the work. The moments I love most and live for are when someone sends me something to read and I can smile and say: yes, this writer is talking to me.