I found myself on a windy and rainy evening at the Westbeth Center for the Arts, a massive warren of beautiful apartments crammed full of writers, dancers, visual artists, actors, poets, and other artistic folks. For what the PEN World Voices Festival deemed a Literary Safari, several of these creative-types opened their apartments and hosted visiting writers in mini-salons, where the scribes read for fifteen minutes and answered questions for another fifteen, and then whoosh! Off you go to find someone else’s apartment (crammed floor-to-ceiling with eclectic art) to engage another writer from another faraway land.
My plan last was to get a feel for the scene in the Caribbean, a literary frontier to much of the world, with one quick pit stop in the Land of Philosophy. This required some planning on my part: being one who tends toward introversion, I’m not one to just walk up to someone and start chatting them up; and yet here I am, reporting on an event, which requires me to do just that.1 So I arrived early, sketched out the four apartments I intended on visiting at half-hour intervals, hitting up writers from Jamaica, France (that philosopher), then Trinidad, and ending in Antigua.
Two out of four ain’t bad, right?
I was the first to arrive at spacious apartment number one where I was ushered upstairs to find Sharon Leach sitting comfortably in a high-backed chair. A queen ready to hold court, surrounded by the aesthetics of the hosting couple—lots of Buddhas. Eventually a small crowd gathered, maybe fifteen of us, to listen to Leach read her short story “Sugar,” from her collection What You Can’t Tell Him (2006). It was her first time, she admitted, reading in front of a non-Jamaican audience. (That’s hard to believe, but that’s also the beautiful thing about this festival; another plank on the cultural bridge between New York and Kingston was nailed down in that blissful apartment.)
“Sugar” is told from the first-person perspective of an eponymous hotel maid at a Jamaican resort. She is envious of the guests (mostly white foreigners) who pass through her hotel with their overstuffed suitcases and music playing devices. The guests are carefree, it seems, and have money to burn. The life of the vacationer seems decadent, and Sugar can’t help but want their gadgets, their earrings, their jet-setting ways. Visitors come in, but she’s always looking out. She is helpless. We are left with the feeling that this might always be the case for Sugar, and that’s sad.
After Leach finished her reading (U.S. debut!), I piped up with a couple of questions about the literary scene in Jamaica. What are the trends? Is it alive and well? Leach could only muster a cautious “it’s getting better.”
I pressed. Better in terms of what, quality? Better in terms of interest from the public? With a heavy sigh she reported that there’s just not that much literary engagement on her island nation. Not like you might find in Trinidad, she pointed out. The public is just not that literate, not that interested.
Leach is the editor of Bookends, a weekly literary supplement published in the Kingston-based newspaper Jamaica Observer, so I asked about criticism in Jamaica. Is it vibrant? Or, perhaps is it incestuous, as it is in Haiti, where the same few writers continuously publish and critique each other’s work? With dismay she answered that the critical scene is lacking, lamenting that just recently the editors of her newspaper cut the number of pages in the weekly guide.
“We don’t have a literary culture in Jamaica,” Leach confessed.
[Part two of this dispatch is forthcoming.]
1. And if you’re an over-thinking introvert like I am, then you likely also consider that many—if not most—of the writers you’re about to meet are also introverted to a degree—they’re writers, after all—so now you have to plan an interaction that might be forced and awkward for both of you… Oh the artificial agony!
Caribbean, Jamaica, PEN 2014, Sharon Leach