Anthony Williams was born in Castries, Saint Lucia, and from a young age he set out to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He began as a news reporter with the Government Information Service in 1977, soon after leaving secondary school, but a few years later he left journalism to take over the management of a family-owned banana plantation. After ten years, he returned to journalism and went on to become the editor of the Crusader, a newspaper in Saint Lucia. He was subsequently awarded a Reuters Fellowship in journalism at Green College, Oxford University. In 2007, he gave up full-time journalism to devote more time to creative writing. Along with freelance journalism, he does consultancy work and speechwriting part-time. He is the creator of Caribbean Book Blog and he recently published his first novel, Forbidden (e-book, 2011; see his post on the publication here). The following interview took place over the course of several weeks in December 2008 and January 2009 in a series of online exchanges.
Barrington Salmon: What is it that prompted you to create a blog that explores as you’ve described it, the “emerging nexus between writers, the internet and new media”?1
Anthony Williams: Frustration at seeing how Caribbean writers, especially those who reside in the region, continue to struggle to get the attention of publishers, the majority of whom are based outside of the region. Generally, the publishers claim that there is not enough demand for Caribbean literature to make it profitable, yet my research (personal interviews and random perusal of online message boards where Caribbean literature was being discussed) has shown that there is a demand for Caribbean books that is not being tapped, and that readers are complaining that it is difficult to find good books by Caribbean writers, both in the region and in the metropolitan markets.
Over the years, the increasing conglomeration and consolidation of publishing houses and bookstores and the rising influence of literary agents as gatekeepers have further limited new and aspiring writers’ access to publishing opportunities. What we read and our knowledge and images of the world are largely being decided by a very limited and incestuous collection of cliques with power bases beyond the reach of Caribbean-based writers, and of many of those who live in North America and other parts of the developed world.
Caribbean writers also have to contend with the fact that the Caribbean diaspora is widely dispersed, and there are relatively few bookstores within and outside of the region that sell Caribbean books. I came to the conclusion that, if they are to get around these barriers, our writers have to find new mediums to draw attention to themselves and their work. They need more publishing opportunities and other avenues to showcase their work. I saw the Internet and new media as important outlets to help them do this.
BS: How would you describe the response so far? Any surprises?
AW: I was taken aback and delighted at the response to my very first blog. You can get a sense of it in the comments section. Since then I’ve received very encouraging feedback from readers, a number of whom are writers. They have found my posts helpful.
BS: How would you describe the state of Caribbean literature: strong, thriving, diverse, diffuse, weak?
AW: In terms of the quality of work being produced—strong for the most part. In terms of the size of the readership and accessibility of their books within and outside of the region—weak.
BS: When you look at the genre, what do you see?
AW: I see an overwhelming homogeneity (mostly literary fiction and poetry) that needs to evolve further and become more diversified in order to cater to different literary preferences. That void for too long has been filled by non-Caribbean writers of romance, crime fiction, science fiction, and other genres.
I also feel there is a need for Caribbean writers to step up and play a more meaningful role in the dissemination of information, knowledge, and intellectual enlightenment in ways that generate public debate, so that they can influence the social and political direction of the islands.
BS: What do you regard as the best, most promising parts of literature in the Caribbean?
AW: The fact that there are still people in the region aspiring to be writers although the odds are heavily stacked against them. It’s also great to see how Caribbean postcolonial literature is being transformed by the emergence of female poets, novelists, and essayists. Much of their writing explores issues of love, relationships, motherhood, and the hardships of raising children, which, in my view, did not receive enough attention in Caribbean books of previous eras. Their perspective on these and other social issues pertinent to the Caribbean experience adds balance to the discourse.
BS: Does the state of Caribbean literature make you optimistic?
AW: Very optimistic. People never tire of good books, especially books they can relate to and that speak to them in authentic voices.
BS: What do you see as the top three obstacles Caribbean writers face as they try to find a market for their creations?
AW: Too few publishers who are willing to invest in writers from the region and too few agents who are willing to represent them.
The continuing need [for writers] to uproot and leave their homelands for North America and the UK in search of publishing opportunities.
The indifference of Caribbean governments to the plight of Caribbean writers and poets. It is incredible that in the twenty-first century our writers still have little or no access to grant funding. Moreover, to this day there is no major Caribbean literary award, albeit some islands have national awards, for example, Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados.2
BS: How important do you see social media and new media as it relates to Caribbean writers/poets?
AW: Indispensible, especially if they are considering taking writing seriously or making it a career. These tools have become so integrated into our social fabric, they have become virtually indispensable. And the fact that they are so diversified and flexible, and easily accessible, is a further advantage for writers. Consider the wide range available: Facebook, Twitter, and scores of other social networking sites; online bookstores and free online publishing platforms; electronic book readers; book-review and promotion blogs and websites; online book clubs; Skype software and a host of other IT-based media—all providing writers with an instantaneous and global reach that can be a great help if used properly and creatively. I share the view of information science and linguistics expert Dr. Marie Lebert, who did an extensive ten-year study (1993–2003) about digital technology for books. She discovered that the Internet has strengthened the relationship between author and reader. Writers can now post their work and discuss it with their readers, even sell it directly to those readers, without a middle man, thanks to the Web.3
BS: How much time do you spend promoting and publicizing your blogsite and your own work?
AW: My blog takes up quite a bit of my time. My articles require a lot of research. And my readers are actually helping to promote it through sharing and word of mouth. Other Caribbean bloggers have also been very helpful in spreading the word (e.g., Geoffrey Philp’s Blogspot, Nicholas Laughlin’s blog, and Janine Mendes-Franco of Global Voice Online) and they’ve included my link in their blog roll. For that I’m deeply grateful. The rest of my time is taken up with consultancy work, speechwriting, and for a while (after I gave up full-time journalism) with writing my first novel, which I recently submitted to a UK publisher.
BS: Do the new and social media tools help or hurt your craft?
AW: My blog gets views from around the world, including China, India, Africa, the UK, and France and other parts of Europe. I’ve seen translations of some of my posts in languages I don’t even recognize. It’s only about six months old. Any medium that gives you such worldwide access in a way that traditional media can’t, can only be helpful to your craft.
BS: What instruments do you use? For instance, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, and so on.
AW: Blogging. Although I would like to, for now I can’t spare the time to make effective use of other mediums. Hopefully, this will change soon.
BS: Have these instruments proven to be beneficial?
AW: Blogging certainly has.
BS: In what ways?
AW: It has helped me to connect with writers and readers around the world and share information that I have gleaned from my research. I am also able to use it to help writers get exposure for their work.
BS: Do you think these tools can usurp traditional methods of publicizing and promoting one’s work?
AW: In the same way that music CDs continue to exist side by side with the iPod and music downloads, print publishing will co-exist with e-books and the electronic reader. There will always be a space and a demand for physical books, and the same applies for e-books. As for book promotions and marketing, according to Internet World Stats it should be noted that as of 30 September 2009, there were 1,733,993,741 persons using the Internet—approximately one out of every four persons in the world (25.6%). Of that number, 478 million users are English speakers—the highest number of users.4 This means that in most parts of the world, including the Caribbean, there will continue to be a dependence on traditional methods of publicity and promotion. However, judging from current trends in the global book trade, the sector will increasingly incline toward the use of new media as they become more accessible.
BS: Do you think these tools have the capacity to change the face of Caribbean lit/poetry?
AW: The likes of Amazon and online publishing communities like Smashwords, Book Oven, and Red Room, along with the increasing access to e-reader technology, will gradually change the mode of accessing Caribbean literature, but it will not necessarily change the face or quality of the work.
BS: How has the art of writing changed from then to now?
AW: Unlike Caribbean writers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s who were predominantly occupied with the day-to-day struggles of colonialism, race, and the fight for political self determination, writers of the latter part of the twentieth century and beyond have broadened their vision in a bid to explore more personal themes, such as love and relationships, family life, and other similar social issues. The Caribbean experience is also being interpreted from a feminine perspective more than it has at any other time.
BS: Is there such a thing as a Caribbean aesthetic? How would you describe it and how does it manifest itself?
AW: It must be remembered that the Caribbean consists of an amalgam of distinct cultures, ethnic and linguistic groups with unique perspectives on life. It is by no means homogenous. Migration has also given rise to an external Caribbean diaspora with its own distinctive perspectives and take on what it means to be Caribbean. To the extent that the writer’s perspective is rooted in a Caribbean experience (whether by way of upbringing in the region or through exposure to Caribbean families), his or her stories or poetry will, to some extent, reflect a “Caribbean aesthetic” that will make the work distinctive. By and large, however, I think this is purely subjective and will always be open to debate.
BS: What of the future?
AW: Caribbean writers are entering a new dawn of literary and publishing opportunities ushered in by advances in technology and new media that are helping to level the playing field. It’s up to them to seize the moment and keep abreast of the latest developments. The future is very bright.
Barrington M. Salmon is a British-born Jamaican journalist who has been writing for more than twenty years. He recently completed a master’s degree in creative writing and new media from Demontfort University. He is a traditional African priest in the Akan Akom tradition and has lived, worked, and studied in Washington DC, United States; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Leicester, United Kingdom.
2 The Bocas Lit Festival, Trinidad and Tobago’s first major literary festival, runs from April 28 to May 1 in Port of Spain (see Anthony Williams, “Caribbean Writers Get Ready for Bocas Lit Fest,” Caribbean Book Blog, 18 February 2011). And in November 2010, the Guyanese government established the Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award to honor Caribbean writing in a direct and specific way (see Geoffrey Philp, “Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award,” GeoffreyPhilp.Blogspot, 2 February 2011).
4 Anthony Williams, “The Digital Tsunami Continues to Bear Down On the Caribbean,” Caribbean Book Blog, 6 December 2009.