I am a Chantel DaCosta. I am a writer. I am a Jamaican writer. I am a Jamaican writer, living, working, writing in Jamaica. This is the salient truth of this week’s essay, a short rejoinder to Annie Paul’s ‘Being A Writer in Jamaica.’
Annie Paul is an Indian writer, critic and blogger based in Jamaica, she has lived here for 20+ years. She has become one of the high ranking members of the island’s small intelligentsia. Paul has a weekly column in Jamaica’s premier newspaper, the Gleaner and on June 1 her column’s focus was on what she considered the sad case of the local book industry.
When I read the article on Thursday, I hissed my teeth, said “cho” and moved on. Since then, the article has been brought to my attention by three persons so I revisited the piece.
Paul sited that despite the rallying call of local officials and business owners to “buy local”, books by Jamaican writers cannot be found in island’s bookshops. But the thing is, the noted and celebrated writers that Paul referred to, Marlon James and Olive Senior, are not writing in Jamaica. Their books would fall into that category of imported items. Senior is based in Canada where her books are published. James lives, works and writes in the USA. They are both successful authors whose books are published by North American publishing companies.
After being signed and paid, and published, I wonder just how much control these authors have over the distribution and promotion of their work. I have a feeling they don’t have much control. The fact is for these North American publishers and book publicists, the Caribbean is not a region where any priority is given.
As a book reviewer, I am reminded on a daily basis, when I request books and I am rejected because of my location, that the publishing industry is primarily focused on selling to Americans, Europeans and sometimes a few Australians.
Another matter that concerns me is this, are writers who are born in Jamaica automatically deserving of recognition and praise by local book industry? Are these writers actively engaging in local events, do they advocate, speak or write for Jamaica?
Are they willing to do Caribbean book events and tours in the region to promote their work here? How much time and energy is placed on local engagement vis-à-vis, North American and UK tours and events?
As I write the biannual Calabash Literary Festival is being held in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Senior and James, are speakers, they will present, smile, posture, autograph new purchases, but then what?
Another matter that Paul took issue with is that local bookstores are filled with religious books, academic texts and inspirational materials. Here is the thing that must be considered and it is sad but the simple truth is that Jamaica has a culture of not reading. Jamaicans read enough to pass the test, the majority of our people read because Jesus books are pimped at church services and bible study. Jamaicans do not read general fiction and literary tomes on a mass basis.
Therefore, owners of local bookstores (as is their right) will stock books and items that will guarantee sales. So lets see, in order to turn a profit and feed their families, a bookstore owner may stock 150 NIV Bibles for every three copies of Pain Tree and maybe six copies of A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Lastly, within the issue of cultural biases against reading is the bizarre yet very popular practice of reading as punishment. I didn’t experience this myself, but I have heard and seen this time and time again. Parents, guardians, instructors deflate the loud, fun, high spirited freedom of a Jamaican child with these simple words, “Go siddung and tek up yuh book.” Until we address and eliminate the practice of reading as punishment then Jamaicans will continue to only read Jesus and school texts.