Browsing the ether

A reading list

We tend to think of the Caribbean as a series of small places where everyone knows everyone else, but the region of the world to which we might apply the C-word is in fact a geographical extravagance, tricky to define on a map: “as many islands as the stars at night,” Derek Walcott once wrote, plus the continental irredentas of the Guianas and Belize, the Antillean outposts of Colón and Limón and Bluefields in Central America, and a fecund diaspora in North America, Europe, and further abroad. It is a region with no centre, no single capital, no lingua franca, and from most Caribbean territories it is easier to fly to Miami than to an island three stops up the archipelago.

For that matter, it’s often easier to follow the political news from New York or London than that from Kingston or Bridgetown — to say nothing of the literary news. And the magazines and journals whose special job it is to pull the multilingual literatures of the region into one frame of reference — to maintain the very idea of one Caribbean literature out of many — can be frustrated by the great distances between them and their possible readers. To put it plainly, it is expensive to transmit printed matter through the post, almost as expensive as printing it in the first place (as the editors of the CRB know only too well).

The obvious solution, in the Internet age, is to launch into the electronic ether, and there are few major Caribbean periodicals without their own websites — not to mention blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages. Keeping up with the latest in Caribbean writing increasingly means online reading. And in recent years a small crop of new literary journals has sprung up which eschew paper and ink for the lower costs and wider reach of pixels and bytes. Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, published from the University of Miami, was a pioneer. Their first issue, devoted to the work of Kamau Brathwaite, debuted online in 2003. Appearing roughly twice per year, Anthurium includes fiction and poems, interviews, peer-reviewed scholarly essays, and has even published the proceedings of several academic conferences; the latest issue collects material from a 2007 conference called Archaeologies of Black Memory. (The Anthurium editors are crucially supported by the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library, which has also digitised a mass of historical materials from the Caribbean, especially Cuba.)

Another early(-ish) adopter of the digital medium is Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters, based at New York University. Unrelated to the Jamaican literary festival of the same name, Calabash started in 2000 as an ambitious paper journal, “dedicated to presenting the arts and letters of those communities that have long been under-represented within the creative discourse of the region,” but by its fourth issue it yielded to “economic realities,” as its editor Gerard Aching explained in a prefatory note. “In bringing you the latest works from a burgeoning community of important and dynamic creative artists, writers, and thinkers via this format, we have merely substituted one virtual reality for another.” (The format involves making each piece available as a downloadable PDF; not quite the most convenient medium for most readers.) Fiction and poems are the heart of the matter, alongside a strong visual arts vein. The latest issue is a tribute to Wayne Brown, the Trinidadian writer who now lives in Jamaica, running an influential course of writing classes.

Brown himself made a foray into online publishing in 2007, with a journal called Caribbean Writing Today. Early issues presented a distinguished line-up of contributors, including Mervyn Morris, Olive Senior, Edward Baugh, and Ian McDonald. But CWT was premised on the expectation of an audience willing to pay to read its monthly editions; and the annual subscription fee was not exactly modest. Sadly, the journal did not last a year, and its archives are currently offline. The lesson for prospective online editors? Forget expensive custom-designed sites, use free web tools, and do it for love, not money. Consider, for example, Repeating Islands, a weblog started in early 2009 by two literary scholars, Ivette Romero-Cesareo and Lisa Paravisini-Gebert, offering “news and commentary on Caribbean culture, literature, and the arts.” Often posting a dozen items daily, Repeating Islands is a broad, bubbling stream of information about new books, exhibitions, films, and scholarly conferences, with particularly strong coverage of the Spanish and French Caribbean.

Another newcomer is tongues of the ocean, an online poetry journal based in the Bahamas (it borrows its name from a hundred-mile deep-sea trench off the coast of Andros), edited by poet and playwright Nicolette Bethel. Launched in February 2009, tongues plans to publish three issues annually, releasing the material from each issue gradually, a few poems at a time, encouraging readers to check in weekly. Early installments include poems by better-known Bahamian poets like Marion Bethel, Obediah Michael Smith, and Ian Gregory Strachan, as well as contributions by younger poets from the wider Caribbean. “Our world surprises us with its vitality,” says an eloquent note on the tongues submissions page. “Seeds tossed on our soils grow into big trees. We want your best trees.”

“Trees” nudge our thoughts back round to paper — to which medium the CRB has managed to cling, for almost five years. But who knows how much longer? Already the audience for our online archive is bigger than the physical magazine’s print run, and the publishing industry is quickly evolving to a point where, for a small literary magazine, paper is not a luxury but a liability. As you turn the next page, reader, contemplate for a moment the unlikelihood of the object in your hands.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009