I was eleven when i decided I was going to become a writer.
At the time I was attending the Roman Catholic Boys Primary School in Castries, Saint Lucia. That same year some of my classmates and I had decided, with the support of our teacher, that we were going to produce a school play. This was back in 1971 when the island was still a colony of Britain and a lot of emphasis used to be placed on mastering the English Language, particularly English grammar and English Composition (essays). I often topped the class in English. It was decided that I should write and direct the play and take care of casting. It was entitled ‘The Mad Monk.’ Rehearsals went smoothly and eventually the play was performed before the entire school. It turned out to be quite a hit and garnered rave reviews.
A few months prior to that I had written a poem entitled ‘Offspring’ about a couple in the throes of passion, which resulted in the birth of a child. I mailed it the island’s leading national newspaper, the Voice and they published it. The editor no doubt, hadn’t a clue who had written it. I was about ten. Somehow, a pretty girl around my age or a bit older whom I had had a secret crush over, discovered that I was the suspect and she complimented me and said how thrilled she was by the poem. I was over the moon.
At this point I had felt pretty confident about my writing abilities and fancied my chances of making it into print some day. Fortunately I grew up, for the most part, among three older sisters who were all avid readers. So was my father. So I was never short of good stuff to read.
Notwithstanding my pre-pubescent successes, what really galvanized me and had me believing that I was fated to become a man of letters was the encouragement I received from one of my primary school teachers. From early on, he saw my capabilities and set about motivating and pushing me to improve my writing. I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude.
Moving on I continued to excel at English and English Literature at the expense of every other subject. By the time I left secondary school, I was ready to go forth and take the literary world by storm. Or so I thought.
i quickly realized that this was a lot easier said than done. In my pitiful innocence and inexperience I had badly underestimated the obstacles I would be up against. There were many, including several diversions and distractions. They all seemed to be telling me the same thing; wake up and stop daydreaming, there’s no room at the trough for literary nonentities like you from, of all places, the Caribbean; go study something practical and get yourself a proper job if you want to survive.
At that time, the English-speaking islands in the Caribbean had virtually no publishers, a situation which continues unchanged, give or take a few small publishing houses mostly in the larger islands like Jamaica and Trinidad. The majority of the region’s writers who have succeeded in getting published over the years have had to go hat in hand to places like the UK, Canada and the USA, seeking opportunities that are notoriously hard to come by, even for the citizens of these countries.
The publishers willing to give them a break have always been few and far between and not usually inclined to place their bets on anything other than literary fiction or poetry.
Among the chosen few who have gone on to achieve celebrity status, including Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Edwidge Danticat and several others, they have invariably been forced to live a life of exile in North America or Europe. There they’ve managed to carve out professorial careers in academia while writing on the side, and cashing in on literary conference and book fair appearances. Most of them dare not even think of trying to live exclusively by their craft.
I had no interest in haunting the hallowed halls of academia. Instead, I took the opportunity to become a journalist, hoping it would prevent me from straying too far from my dream of becoming a novelist. Twice I lost my way and then regained my footing. Two decades later I was no closer to achieving what I had craved so much. If anything, getting published seemed to have become even more difficult and elusive.
It’s easy to allow such a situation to get you down. Several times I came close to giving up but each time I managed to hold on and refused to let the dream die.
I haven’t made it any easier for myself by opting to write so-called genre fiction (crime, mystery and romantic suspense) rather than the more esteemed literary fiction that views itself as above and beyond all other forms of fiction – and which has long characterized ‘Caribbean Literature.’
In doing so I may well have reduced my chances of getting a traditional publishing deal even further. This suspicion has been borne out by several publishing surveys, including one done recently in the UK.. Its findings show that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers in Britain who succeed in getting published are being urged to focus on producing literary fiction that propagates stereotypes of their communities and culture, by addressing topics such as “racism, colonialism or post-colonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people.”
Initially, my inclination was to become an author of literary fiction. Not any more; or at least not for the foreseeable future. With my new novel, Between Two Fires, I have opted to use the classic murder mystery and the cultural dynamics of the Caribbean to explore some of the burning social issues of our contemporary society, including female empowerment, gender conflicts in relationships and the waning of love in an age of rank opportunism and unparalleled materialism. I have always loved crime fiction and a good murder mystery, even as a child, so going this route feels quite natural.
At the same time, if I’m to be honest, it’s also a deliberate and conscious act of defiance. To some extent I am also doing it in solidarity with my fellow ‘genre fiction’ writers all over the world who labor in relative obscurity because of choosing to become the literary equivalent of commoners, often looked down upon by their literary compatriots of pedigreed stock.
Thankfully self-publishing has leveled the playing field and helped me and many others to take charge in creating the future we want for ourselves rather than just depending on a handful of gatekeepers to determine whether or not we deserve to be considered writers. More than anything, it is this feeling of empowerment and freedom that drives me and inspires my writing.