So Many Islands: Glimpses into lesser Known Cultures

by Mariam Diefallah

Photo by Zidhan Ibrahim on Unsplash

Beach, check; palm tree, check; inquisitive village elder, check. When inlanders imagine life on islands, they envision a paradise of coconuts and hammocks. They see exotic holiday destinations where time ceases to have any meaning. So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Ocean is a collection of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that keeps these imaginations in check. Caught between land and sea, the seventeen authors of the anthology show us that living on an island is being in a constant state of looking both inwards and outwards. The anthology challenges our romanticized yearning for certainty. The readers experience a looming sense of loss and a haunting urgency that are exacerbated by the knowledge of the colonial history of the islands, and the impacts of climate change.

The anthology highlights the unique challenges faced by islanders and explores the constant sense of in-betweenness and its impacts on human relationships and psyche. This theme is present heavily throughout the text. But are most clear in pieces exploring the diaspora experiences. These stories and poems explain the challenges faced by the diaspora members when their imaginations of the homeland are met with reality. For example, in A Child of Four Women, Marita Davies gives us a tour of the matriarchal traditions of the island of Marakei. Through this tour, we get to experience the protagonist’s journey from estrangement to embracement of her identity. This was especially made clear during an incident where she placed tobacco as offering for one of the statues, but the tobacco was instantly taken by a group of children. I suppose I knew that the tobacco couldn’t sit there all day, but cheeky kids and tobacco-hungry adults had interrupted my introductory experience. As the tour continues, the protagonist slowly frees herself from her expectations and constant search for a ‘deeper meaning’ to finally become able to embrace her place as ‘a woman of Marakei.’

The theme of in-betweenness is strongly present in stories discussing race, gender, and sexuality. In Plaine-Verte, Sabah Carrim sheds light on the difficulties of living within a minority group. Through a persistent itchiness of the protagonist’s scalp, we experience her hyper-awareness of the stereotypes associated with the Muslim Community of Mauritius. That itchiness reflects the inner worlds of Aisha; it shows her rejection, yet acknowledgment of being different from the larger community on the island. We find a similar equation in Granny Dead, where Melanie Schwapp paints a picture of losses and gains. The eerie language of the piece captures the haunted present of Jamaica. Through the story of a young woman who gets pregnant and loses her little child, we are introduced to the race and class struggles on the island, and the conflicts between the island’s ‘modernists’ and the the old ways of the Maroons.

We asked the author to talk about Granny Dead in relation to the other stories in the anthology, this is what she said:

In The Plundering by Heather Barker, the author invites us to imagine a different present where the colonial past of the island is addressed and confronted. We follow the story of a young girl from Barbados. We learn that she is a runner who always comes second in sports. At the beginning of the story, she is invited to join the plundering — an imaginary corrective justice mechanism that gives black people permission to go to wealthy white people and ask for what they needed — houses, businesses, lands, anything — and the white people had to give it to them. During this quest, the protagonist feels anger and sadness despite the gains she gets through the plundering. Through her journey, she learns a harsh reality: she comes second place.

In the last piece of the book, Avocado by Kendel Hippolyte highlights the ultimate symbol of island restlessness as we imagine the disappearance of the Caribbean. Finding comfort in a piece of avocado, the protagonist shows us that living on an island is a constant act of loosening yet tightening your ties. Through the poem, we gain a deeper understanding of the emotional ties islanders have with the land. Living on an island is living in steadiness, but also facing expansion. It is giving stability away, and accepting the coming changes. It is knowing you can hold and rest, but never quite own this home of yours.

We talked to Nicholas Laughlin, the editor of So Many Islands. In this interview, he elaborates on some of the themes present in the anthology and gives us a glimpse about the editorial process of the book.

Nicholas is a writer and editor from Trinidad and Tobago. He is the editor of the arts and travel magazine Caribbean Beat and programme director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literature festival and literary development NGO. Nicholas has published two books of poems, The Strange Years of My Life (2015), and Enemy Luck (2019).

Nicholas Laughlin, the editor of So Many Islands

How did you decide to be part of editing this anthology?

The idea for an anthology of writing from Commonwealth small island countries came from the cultural programme at the Commonwealth Foundation based in London, Commonwealth Writers (CW). They work to support writers across the Commonwealth, but with a special focus on regions such as the Caribbean and Pacific, and on smaller countries with less developed literary infrastructure. As a member of the team at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an NGO in Trinidad and Tobago that runs an annual literary festival and numerous writer development programmes, I had worked in partnership with CW before. Naturally, when they came to me with the idea and invited me to edit the book, I was easily persuaded. I was especially excited about the chance to explore contemporary writing from other regions of the world, outside the Caribbean, and learn more about the culture and history of places I may never manage to visit physically, but which have fascinating parallels with my home country and region.

Can you tell me about the editorial process of So Many Islands? I am particularly interested in the challenges of editing an anthology that combines writers of varying levels of experience.

After CW put out an international call for submissions, we got over 500 pieces. Reading through them was a massive, but also a very rewarding task. I had help as So Many Islands had an associate editor, Nailah Folami Imoja from Barbados, and Rukhsana Yasmin, who managed the project for CW — so really it was an editorial team of three. We had long Skype calls and wrote many emails to narrow down the submissions. What helped was deciding at the start that we would have no more than one piece from any one country, so we knew that in the case of countries with numerous submissions — like Trinidad and Tobago for instance — we would have to be especially ruthless.

We focused on the quality of the writing and the distinctiveness of the voices and stories, rather than the writers’ bios. In many cases — especially for writers outside the Caribbean — I didn’t know much about their previous publication history until we had already shortlisted their pieces. I find a very special happiness — and I think Nailah and Rukhsana feel the same way — in encountering a new and exciting writer and being able to help launch their writing into the world. This made me on the lookout for pieces that told me something I did not already know, in a form I was not already familiar with.

One of my favorite quotes in the forward was: the very sea that insulates and isolates is also the medium that connects one island to every other island. My question is, in what ways do you see the pieces isolated and in what ways do you see them connected?

Each story, poem, or essay in the book is very much grounded in a specific place, time, and language — in a specific island context. It would not be that particular story or that particular voice in another place or context. But there is still a lot that the pieces have in common. You can tell that they come from small places, which appears in the social proximity and intimacy they deliver. They come from places that have a colonial history, which often shows itself in subtle but decisive ways. Taken collectively, think there is also a sense in which they cover the chronological range of a human life, with pieces about childhood, adolescence, leaving home, struggling with an understanding of one’s identity, love and desire, age, death, and the consequences for those left behind.

Sia Figiel from Samoa wrote an afterword for So Many Islands that offers a beautiful metaphor for putting together a book like this, comparing it to sewing together a garland of flowers. Individually, the flowers may be very different in colour, shape, and fragrance, but all together, they create something that is unique, yet connected. Of course, it is worth noting here that the word anthology comes from a Greek word that literally means a gathering of flowers!

If you have to characterize the island writing-style, how would you describe it?

I don’t think there is a specific style that we can say is unique or distinctive to islands. The diversity in So Many Islands and in contemporary writing from the Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean, and Indian Oceans show us how different styles, approaches, and voices come out of our numerous island experiences.

You mentioned in the forward that the choice of the seventeen writers was not based on specific subjects or social settings, but on their imaginative grounding. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?

In choosing the pieces, we were not looking to tick boxes for particular subjects or narrative elements — beach, check; palm tree, check; inquisitive village elder, check. We were looking for stories that simply convinced us! We were looking for stories which, as readers, we felt told us something essential about what it is like to come from this specific island context.

The theme of restlessness was present in many of the stories and poems in the book. Would you say that restlessness is island-specific? Or what makes restlessness on the island different from that inland?

I am sure there are equally restless people in the middle of continents, but the thing about being from an island is that you are always conscious of its limits, its shores, the horizon, and what lies beyond. From some Caribbean islands, you can easily look out and see the next island in the archipelago. In the Pacific, people have wandered the ocean for many, many generations, navigating with precise knowledge across vast stretches of open water. The sea washes up odd things from elsewhere. Strange people turn up on boats. These unique experiences make you curious, and curiosity breeds restlessness.

I want to talk a bit about the language in some of the stories. Why do you think it is important to write some words as spoken in the local dialect?

The meaning of any story or poem is in its language, in the sound of the words. Every language and dialect in the world has unique ways of talking about the things that are most important to the people that speak it. Most Commonwealth countries are English-speaking because of our colonial history, but English is not one monolithic language, it is thousands of mutually intelligible words, concepts, and accents. The diversity of our dialects and voices is simply how the world is. Reducing all literature to a single neutral dialect has never historically existed and is always an imagined construction. It drains the reality from our stories and it’s boring! Whereas learning new words, phrases, and names is one of the most basic pleasures of reading.

What books are you reading at the moment? Would you like to recommend some writers, especially from the Caribbean, for our book club?

At the moment, and for a discussion I am joining next week, I am rereading the poems of the St. Lucian writer, Derek Walcott. By coincidence, the title So Many Islands comes from one of his poems, The Schooner Flight! In general, I spend a lot of time trying to keep up with the flood of new books by Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora writers, as our festival, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, has a Caribbean focus. Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné and Shivanee Ramlochan are Trinidadian poets living at home in Trinidad and Tobago who I highly recommend. I also recommend the two Trinidadian diaspora writers, Dionne Brand who is based in Canada, and Vahni Capildeo who is mostly based in the UK. I read more poetry than fiction to be honest, and I find it harder to keep up with novels. But near the top of my to-read list, and because it has been highly recommended by a trusted colleague, is Book of the Little Axe, which is a new novel by Lauren Francis-Sharma, a US writer with Trini roots. And so I am not too Trini-centric, I would like to also recommend Marcia Douglas, a Jamaican writer based in the US, whose fabulous novel, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, is breathtaking.

Mariam Diefallah is a gender activist, blogger, and creative writer. She was born and raised in Giza, Egypt. She is a strong advocate for better sexual and reproductive health and rights for womxn, and a passionate believer in pleasure as a form of activism. In her free time, you will find Mariam dancing or cuddling with her four cats.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Sabaya Book Club’s editorial stance.

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