20th August 2012, St. John’s Antigua- It was one of the healthiest turnouts I have seen for the annual launch of the Antigua & Barbuda Review of Books, Friday gone at the University of the West Indies Open Campus. Hopefully, given that the issue celebrates the poetry of Antiguan & Barbudan women, it bodes well for the future of the literary arts in our twin island nation.
What’s different and delightful about the publication as well is that it also celebrates the country’s literary past.
Painstakingly discussing the lives and significance of the lost voices featured, guest editor of the edition and accomplished Antiguan & Barbudan writer, based in the US Virgin Islands, Edgar Lake said, “These are people our children should know about.”
These include people like Shelley. No, not that Shelley, i.e. Romantic era poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; nor the other one, i.e. calypso writer Shelley Tobitt, either. Rather a little known Shelley, Rebecca Freundlich Protten, born in slavery and gone on to glory within the Moravian church.
And others, Mary Prince to Althea Romeo-Mark, women who’ve lived, some of whom continue to live remarkable lives, making bold, transformative choices. Lake spoke, for instance, of Veronica Evanson Bernard’s poetry in the local vernacular at a time when it was frowned upon to do so.
The larger point he made though was the need to breed a culture that sees value in unearthing these women and other lost voices, a culture that values the literary tradition, artistic expression, learning and discovery, and human connections. He suggested that this culture, which once existed, has been lost.
“The romance of learning has left this place,” Lake sighed.
But his tone was not despairing, rather it challenged the audience to grasp the lifeline that is the Antigua & Barbuda Review of Books and perhaps this issue in particular, and pull the country back from the brink of soullessness.
“We have to not only learn it,” he said of the literature he has unearthed, often in faraway places, notwithstanding that it presumably belongs to us, “but persuade them to continue this deep work.”
And it is deep work.
You have verses like contemporary poet Linisa George’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” tackling the issue of self-abnegation and self-love, and Romeo-Mark who had survived both a civil war in Liberia and refugee living in England before finally settling in Switzerland, dealing with deprivation of the soul-crushing kind in “We Do Not Cry for Meat.”
Many of the writers, understandably, were not present. Some are long gone from this life; some domiciled elsewhere yet writing probingly, insightfully of home – exploring, as Lake put it, the interiority of Antiguan & Barbudan living.
The launch included performances by George, Fayola Jardine doing her poem Brown Girl, and Jesseca Brann, one of her charges in the Young Poets Society of Antigua and Barbuda. The collection includes Rebecca Freundlich Protten, Mary Prince, Elizabeth Hart Thwaites, Eileen Hall Luke, Hilda MacDonald, Veronica Evanson Bernard, Yvonne Richards Ochillo, Agnes Cecilia Hewlett-Carrington, Valerie Combie, Elaine H. Olaoye, Althea Romeo-Mark, Elaine Jacobs, Germaine Owen, Naomi Jackson, Linisa George, Tameka Jarvis-George, and Jesseca Brann.
This represents, Lake said, “a very small glimpse” of the local literary canon. “We could have put 300… (and that would still have been) a small part of what lies forgotten (in libraries and museums) around the world.”
Ask for the Antigua & Barbuda Review of Books at your local book store.