Readers of the World – The West Indies (Part One)

It’s time once more to resume our trip around the Readers of the World. Last time we visited India; for this instalment we’re having our first stop-over to the West Indies…

The cricket fans amongst you will know that the West Indies are currently touring England, and the Caribbean islands have brought the world not only some of the most fiery, charismatic sporting figures, but a range of excellent literature. As a side note, cricket fans looking for a good novel to read, and indeed non-cricket fans, should take a look at Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, endorsed by Barack Obama no less.

The first of our West Indian destinations is Antigua, who can lay claim to being the birthplace of Jamaica Kincaid, who wrote the acclaimed Lucy which was originally serialized in The New Yorker, and tells the story of a nineteen year old Antiguan au pair who moves to the US and grapples with her cultural identity, represented when she has to recite ‘Daffodils’ by Wordsworth, only to feel fake because she is not English and has never seen a daffodil.


The Future for a Child volunteer led initiative in Antigua
is encouraging Antiguans to donate books that can be given to children in the country who lack books of their own. Founder, Ina Howe, hopes that by providing deprived children with their own books can help foster a love of reading and improved literacy.

The Antigua Observer points out that Howe acknowledges more can be done than just providing young people with books:

She referenced a teacher at Villa, Ms Russell, whom she said got an award for her kids having read the most books from the new school library – which is separate and apart from Future for a Child but helps make the point.

“It made a difference that this one teacher was encouraging her kids to read,” Howe said. It goes without saying that this also needs to happen at home. Children, she said, like to talk about what they’ve read and asking them how they liked the book, which characters they liked and so on, is a good conversational starter.

In Barbados it would appear that literacy is not such a critical issue, as it can boast a literacy rate at a staggering 99.7%, the 5th best in the world according to a United Nations Development Report in 2011.

The most well reknowned writer of Barbados is probably the poet Kamau Brathwaite. His work explores the racial and cultural backgrounds of Caribbeans, particularly the African diaspora, for an exploration of his work, I suggest you read the long, fierce poem ‘Soweto’.

The Barbados Association of Reading seeks to promote literacy, providing an interesting definition of themselves:

The Barbados Association of Reading is cognizant of the empowering nature of literacy to effect positive behavioural changes in people and supports the efforts of the government through the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development in the provision of educational opportunities from nursery to tertiary level for all citizens of Barbados.

BAR events have included the Walk for Literacy where walkers handed out free children’s and adult’s Caribbean literature to passers by; annual conferences and open monthly meetings.

Over in Dominica, Chief Cultural Officer Raymond Lawrence is trying to get people to read more, saying

The practise of reading…must be promoted and encouraged in order to develop a greater appreciation for various types of books and literature and to expand on our knowledgebase…

…As we all know, books are very important in schools. Books, in fact, are the foundation of any educational system in the world. So for everyone, especially our young people, books are of great educational value.

Earlier this month Dominica Public Library celebrated Library Week 2012 with the theme of ‘Building Communities at Your Library’, focusing on how improved community participation in libraries can lead to greater enjoyment of reading. One of the highlights saw library officials visit prisoners for a reading session, an activity that won’t have been a million miles away from The Reader Organisation’s work in criminal justice settings.


In terms of writers, one Dominican stands out: Jean Rhys. Rhys penned the popular and excellent Wide Sargasso Sea, a post-colonial novel offering a new take on the English classic Jane Eyre. The book acts as a prequel telling the story of Antoinette Cosway, AKA Bertha Mason, and her deeply unhappy relationship with Mr Rochester.

Guyana lies on the mainland of South America, yet remains part of the West Indies. Famous writers here include E.R. Braithwaite, Martin Carter, John Agard and Grace Nichols (featured in the forthcoming A Little, Aloud for Children).

Before becoming a writer, Braithwaite worked as a social worker for London City Council finding foster homes for children of ethnic minorities, and he was a school teacher. Race is a critical talking point for Braithwaite in his work, with his most famous work To Sir, With Love exploring the challenges faced by black professionals working in 1950s Britain.

Literacy rates in Guyana are relatively low compared to the rest of the West Indies, but the Guyana Book Foundation are seeking to address this by ensuring that those who work with youngsters in an educational capacity are aware of the best techniques of teaching reading and writing.

So there we have a pick of some of the interesting aspects of West Indian reading and literature, stick around for part two!

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