Presenting Caribbean Writing

By Doering, J. W. | Contemporary Review, November 1997 | Go to article overview
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Presenting Caribbean Writing


Doering, J. W., Contemporary Review


E.A. Markham, head of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, was born in Montserrat in 1939, and moved to Britain in 1956. He studied English and Philosophy at Lampeter, followed by academic and stage work (e.g. directing the Caribbean Theatre Workshop in 1970-71), as well as restoring houses in France and holding a post as media co-ordinator in Papua New Guinea.

Initially as a playwright, he began making a serious impact on the literary scene; he then moved into poetry -- Crossfire and Family Matters are just two of his collections, then into short story writing, with such books as Something Unusual, and has recently completed a campus novel. His career has also spanned magazine editing (Artrage, Writing Ulster) and writing residencies (e.g. the C. Day Lewis Fellowship at Brent, London). Throughout all of this he has sought to promote new writing wherever it may be found, as well as an awareness of Caribbean work, which has led him to produce two landmark volumes -- Hinterland, an anthology of Caribbean poetry, and now the recently issued Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories, which I discussed with him recently.

The book is the first collection of its kind to appear in Britain, and one of Markham's avowed aims with it is to make readers aware of a body of excellent writing, as well as offering a way into the various texts on offer: the book contains a wide range of different modes of communication -- oral folk tales, a sermon, a section of a novel, and a piece for dramatic performance. This range strikes me as wholly in keeping with the sort of man who has followed a broad spectrum of experiences.

It is to some extent this variety which explains the importance of the book: quality of writing should transcend any artificial barriers of society, intellect, or anything else. This is a concern that has been present for Markham throughout his career, challenging the prescriptive and rigid tendencies of many people. After work done by the Caribbean Artists' Movement (founded in 1966 by Andrew Salkey, John Larouse, and Kamau Brathwate), Caribbean work gained greatly in visibility in the U.K.: `The next stage, the next danger, was that the now visible work would become marginalised or ghettoised ... I personally encountered this in the early seventies when I was part of a poetry troupe, "The Blue Foot Travellers", which was often described as "Black Writing". So that challenge I and others took up to prevent the work being ghettoised -- hopefully in my own work, and also when I edited a black arts magazine, Artrage, where we defined "black" as a political colour.'

The Penguin Book is characterised by a dynamic attitude to race and racial awareness, which is epitomised in `You Left the Door Open', by Pauline Melville, included in the collection. The story deals with a performer who creates characters to entertain live audiences; she invents a character called Charlie, a small-time crook. She buys clothes for him, invents a criminal record, a manner of talking. And then Charlie attacks her in her house during the night, tries to have sex with her, and after a verbal fencing match masturbates and clears away the evidence.

What is so disturbing about this story is its liminal quality, the interface between the real and the imagined, male and female; the possibility of cross-over, and of one state radically affecting another. The lurking threat in things that we normally take for granted. The narrator makes her living by creating characters, constructing them as required from joke moustaches and clothes bought from street stalls. But she is finally faced with the fact that she can invent a man who actually exists, who is tried for sexual assault; in telling the story, she constructs herself as a character, at her own decision, and so offers a fascinating image of someone coming to grips with threat.

The inclusion of this story signals an even-handedness in the general editorial policy, mirrored in Markham's remarks: `Women's voices in what has been traditionally a male-orientated literary (not oral) culture are now becoming, more prominent in scribal culture .

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