When one speaks of Dominican authors of international acclaim, there are only two who have reached that plateau. Surprisingly though, many of us got to know about these two authors only years after their works had been published. I do not remember coming across the works of either Jean Rhys or of Phyllis Shand-Allfrey until after leaving high school. These two authors had made their marks on the international scene but in Dominica, for one reason or the other, we did not get the chance to read of them or talk about them at the high schools.
Jean Rhys may be the more notable of the two with her novel The Wide Sargasso Sea. She also published, After Leaving Mr. McKenzie and Good Morning Midnight among others. Jean Rhys was born in Dominica but moved to England at the age of 16.
Phyllis Shand-Allfrey’s most noteworthy publication was The Orchid House. She also wrote It Falls Into Place. Besides being an author, Mrs. Allfrey was a prominent politician and founding member of the Dominica Labor Party and was a member of the Legislature in the West Indies Federation. She was also the editor of the Star Newspaper.
These two ladies, and one of my fellow villagers, J. Ralph Casimir, along with a few other notables, like Edward Scobie and Henkell Christian were the forerunners of Dominican Literature and their works have been featured in many literary magazines and publications internationally.
While we did the work of a number of British writers at school (Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Byron, Keats and Chaucer) I cannot remember ever doing any class where the work of any Dominican author was part of the curriculum. I guess that may have been because most of the curriculum was tailored for the exams being set by the University of London and the University of Cambridge.
For a period of time not much happened on the literary scene in Dominica. There was a lot activity on the radio in terms of short stories, poems being read and plays being performed, but not much in the line of book publication. It was during the 70’s that Dominican literature experienced what I may term as a rebirth, since during that time, we saw the biggest outflow of work from local writers.
There have been periods when certain writers dominated the local scene. Fr. Clement Jolly, (maybe one of the most prolific Dominican writers,)-A Time To Remember; Lennox Honychurch-The Dominica Story; Arundel Thomas and Anthony Lockhart-Two Heads and Mark Sylvestre-When I Awake, were the front-runners then.
We then saw the emergence of Giftus John-The Dawn; Gabriel Christian-Rain on A Tin Roof; Irving Andre-A Passage to Anywhere; Leonard Joseph-From Thorny Bushes to Green Pastures; Ian Jackson-Of Thoughts Confusing; Christabel Laronde-Lespuis Famne and Ras Albert Williams-Honourable Natty Dread.
After that period, another group of writers emerged on the scene: Justina John, Aurelius Gordon, Alick Lazare, Michael White, Chris Seraphin, Ivenia Benjamin, Peter Piper and many others. These writers brought their own perspective to the art form and built on what had already been laid. Some were already writing but at that time took the opportunity to publish their works. They had seen the path made by those before them, and they boldly stepped in.
There are many Dominican writers based overseas who have published their work in the countries where they presently reside. Dr. Peter K. St. Jean, Gabriel and Esther Christian, Dr. Irving Andre, Joszann St. John, Raglan Riviere, Juliana Magloire, Paula John, Lola Louis, and Giftus John, to name a few. We have also seen authors who have published novels with Dominica mentioned, or Dominica as the setting for their work: Jamaica Kinkaid (Antigua) The Autobiography of My Mother and Marie-Elena John (also of Antigua) Unburnable.
Dominican Literature may have taken a while to catch up and be on par with the other Caribbean islands, but we are making our own footprints. It has not been easy to get the work promoted and highlighted as many of the authors would like, but it’s a small step and now with easy access to the internet, especially social networking and the ability to easily downloaded e-books to tablets, I believe the works of our local writers will make their way to the homes of Dominicans and the people of the other Caribbean nations. There are a number of talented young writers coming to the forefront who will keep the art form alive such as Delroy Nesta Williams, Monelle Alexis, Anique Cuffy, Dwight Thomas, Terri Henry, and Kamarsha Sylvester.
The creation of the Facebook group, Dominica Poetic Circle also gives young, as well as established writers, an avenue to showcase their work and at the same time get feedback from their peers.
The establishment of the Nature Island Literary Festival is a great and welcome initiative. I have not had the opportunity to attend any of the past festivals, though I have been invited, but the Litfest is a great avenue of motivation for our writers, both in Dominica and those who are overseas. This is a stage where we are able to showcase the best of Dominica’s literary talent and at the same time have other notable Caribbean writers meet with our writers and give direction and guidance, even for a few hours.
I would like to see a program whereby the work of writers become a prominent aspect of Dominica’s culture, not only during the Literary Festival and Independence Celebrations but throughout the year; so that our people will not only be aware of the authors/writers within their midst but also to appreciate the work for what it is.
We also need to find a way to help our people appreciate the work of their local artists, authors, and playwrights who have become very prominent within the Caribbean: Alwin Bully, Lennox Honychurch, Raymond Lawrence, Alex Bruno, Jean Lawrence, (I wonder how many of our young people know who she is,) and Steve Hyacinth, because these are the roots. These are the people who have planted the seeds that have germinated and grown and become who we are today.