Get The Lithub Daily
Follow us on TwitterMy Tweets
The following interview was conducted at the official launch for Island People, held on November 21, 2016, hosted by BKLYN Commons, Brooklyn, and presented by Greenlight Books and Lit Hub.
Garnette Cadogan: In Island People, you take us through the Caribbean, and also argue that the Caribbean has gone everywhere. You make clear that if one can’t afford a flight to Jamaica, just stick one’s head out the window, or just look down the hallway, and the Caribbean is there—hidden in plain view, or actually not so hidden. However, there are more than enough stories of white men traveling to the Caribbean, and recording their impressions. So, many might ask, why another book from a white dude making his way through the islands? What’s the rationale for a book about the Caribbean from another explorer from beyond?
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: You promised you’d start with a tricky question [laughs]. And the legacy you invoke belongs to the long, and deep tradition of “travel writing” whose connotation is imperial. As genre, “travel writing” was for a very long time about countries that had empires—it was about sending hearty fellows off to “exotic” places, to come back and tell the people in Europe about strange lands. (One thinks of the Brits Wilfred Thesiger and T.E. Lawrence, Richard Francis Burton, Evelyn Waugh, or even Flaubert in Egypt.) Some of this writing was of course problematic in all kinds of ways—beginning, perhaps, with the very frame of the “exotic.” Because that’s a very problematic word: it doesn’t really mean anything, except different-from-the-dominant-culture. All of us, and no matter our color or where we’re from, may naturally feel curious about what’s different from us—why wouldn’t what’s unfamiliar feel sexy, or pique curiosity? But “exotic” is a word, given its ties to imperial endeavor, that long ago came to suggest one kind of difference in particular—it came to just mean “not-quite-white.” It’s a word we can do without.
That older tradition of travel writing did also yield some great prose; it gave us books that I’m very much in conversation with. But if there’s any guiding idea behind what I try to do with Island People, it’s Toni Morrison’s insistence, about the task and necessity for all writers in this hemisphere to strive to make a new map of the Americas that, as she put it, “opens as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest.” That’s a beautiful idea. A harder idea to put into practice than to say, but something to aspire to, certainly: a map about discovery that’s not about conquest.
GC: It’s also an aspiration whose pursuit is shaped by the identity of the pursuer.
JJS: Yes, of course. It would be silly to pretend that all of our experiences, that my experience, isn’t shaped by the body I have or the citizenship I have—that being a white man with a US passport doesn’t shape my experience. The kinds of access and privilege I have; the kinds of access, to certain realms, I don’t have and which limits my understanding. We all have to be conscious of how identity shapes experience, of how we’re positioned by history. This is what you do, of course, in your own remarkable writing on “walking while black.” But then what’s important, I think, is that that consciousness be a starting point, not an end point—not a barrier, but a route to finding the human connection, the human stories. Because at the end of the day, as a writer, it has to be about human stories.
GC: So, a self-refleixive storyteller, then.
JJS: Yes. But it has to be, too, about insisting at times on the value of outsiders. Of course, books by writers writing about where they grew up have always been essential to literature—think of Jamaica Kincaid’s books about the island of Antigua, where she grew up; or Jean Rhys’s about Dominica. But it’s also true that the outsider, the humane and curious visitor, can bring to a place a broader sense of context that’s unique. Just think of the literature of New York City, in the past few years—the descriptions of the city found in the wanderings of a Teju Cole, say, or in Zadie Smith’s essays. Here are writers from Nigeria and England, seeing the place fresh—and that has huge value. It’s like Robert Frost said: “America is hard to see.” Everywhere is hard to see; the more sympathetic eyes the better.
But in my case, it’s also been about contextualizing the stories and encounters within a broader argument about the Caribbean that’s really quite opposite from the conception you regularly see in a lot of that old, and, I’m afraid, new travel writing. That is, the region as “marginal” or strange. In fact the Caribbean belongs, I contend in this book, at the center of any story we tell ourselves abut the making of the modern world.
GC: That’s one of your central claims—that the Caribbean’s importance is bound to its crucial role in modernity. How so?
JJS: Over the past couple of decades especially, intellectuals from the islands have been arguing for the Caribbean’s import. And in offering a fresh portrait of the region—which is also a portrait of how the Caribbean has shaped the world—my version of that argument is really borrowed, or draws from, C.L.R. James. He was a brilliant writer and radical thinker from Trinidad, as you know, who wrote splendidly about cricket, calypso, and capitalism, and much besides—a remarkable figure. He also wrote what’s still in many ways our best book on the Haitian Revolution—The Black Jacobins. And Island People is directly in conversation with what James was arguing in in the early 1960s, when he released a new version of The Black Jacobins. In a new afterword he added to that book then, right after the Cuban Revolution, he made an argument about why the people of the Caribbean were “the most highly experienced in the ways of Western Civilization”—why the Caribbean’s history meant its people now were fated to play a particular role in shaping world culture in the 20th century.
GC: And that role makes them harbingers of modernity?
For James, the salient points about Caribbean history, and particularity, were basically three. The first was simply about the Atlantic slave trade, and the sheer volume and length of the slave trade in the Caribbean. Because the Caribbean, you know, wasn’t just a part of the Triangle Trade. It was really, for 300 years, the central hub. We in the United States may sometimes think we were the big center of the slave trade, that the Caribbean was peripheral. But in fact it’s the opposite. The colonies that then became the United States, before the end of the trade in 1807, imported scarcely 400,000 enslaved Africans. The Caribbean, by contrast—which got started way earlier and had huge sugar plantations for centuries before cotton got going in our south—imported some 6 million Africans to cut cane. It was the central node of the Triangle Trade, really.
The second reason for the Caribbean’s import is the Haitian Revolution—it’s only in the past couple of decades, really, that a critical mass of historians has caught up to what James was saying, decades ago, about how incredibly important the Haitian Revolution was far beyond Haiti. It was the only successful slave revolution in history. It’s an astonishing story on its own, this saga of slaves defeating their masters to found a new country. But more than that, it really in a sense was the birth of modern politics. The Enlightenment’s makers in Europe said that all humans have universal rights—but the Haitian Revolution put that to the test. It said to the West: “OK, how serious are you about that? How serious are you about this idea of ‘human rights’, for people who aren’t white?” And we’ve been contending with that question, really, ever since—Haitians, certainly, have been contending with it, with the fact that the world wasn’t ready for a black nation on the world stage; with the truth that France, at least once Napoleon took over, wasn’t ready to extend them human rights. The truth, too, is that the young United States, nearby, didn’t recognize their sovereignty for decades.
And the third key thing that James said, about the Caribbean, was to do with its crucial roles, in the 18th century and after, in the birth of capitalism and the modern world economy. James points out that in the 1700s in French Saint Domingue, before it became Haiti, many of the things we think of as uniquely modern or a product of our era of “globalization” were basic facts of life, well before they were common in Europe—people working at industry; a sophisticated (and brutal) division of labor; long-distance trade; mass migration. In the Caribbean, the descendants of those enslaved Africans, as well as people from India and elsewhere, have learned the cultures of Europe over centuries. And that’s part of what led James to argue that “of all the formerly colonized people,” the people of the Caribbean were uniquely placed to be at the vanguard of fighting colonialism worldwide, of leading what was then known as the Third World, of imagining new ways to be “modern” for colonized people. And history proved him right. Just run down the canon of anti-colonial thinkers and leaders, in the twentieth century. From Marcus Garvey to Frantz Fanon to Aimé Cesaire to even Fidel Castro, who for a time from the 1960s really turned little Cuba, for better or worse, into the center of the Non-Aligned Third World during the Cold War. So many of them are from the Caribbean. Africa and Asia had its people too of course, but so many of these important figures who were pointing out the iniquities of colonialism for the globe, the legacies and contradictions of Europe’s empires, were from the Caribbean.
GC: And that’s a roll call of political figures. You emphasize in your book the signal importance of cultural figures, too, who commonly wed politics to art.
JJS: Yes, of course. All the music, in particular, that one could mention—the spread of Cuban rhythms, in salsa and everything else, everywhere; reggae; and hip-hop—which we think of as coming from New York, but which evolved in the Bronx in the 1970s, with the help of kids with roots in Jamaica and Puerto Rico All this stuff that was birthed by Caribbean people but is now all over the world. I mean, what was the first million-selling LP? Harry Belafonte’s Calypso, in 1956. And then, of course, there’s Bob Marley. Thirty years after his death, this reggae star from Jamaica is arguably the most popular musical and political icon on earth. It’s astonishing—there’s literally no country on earth where you can’t find his face painted on a mural, a poster hanging in a coffee shop. He’s there—“the first Third World superstar.”
GC: In the book, you seem to be mapping the region through its significant figures, some popular, some unknown. You head to Jamaica and “locate” Marley, Cuba to write on Castro, Martinique to write about Fanon, Dominica to write about Jean Rhys . . .
JJS: I went to grad school for geography, as you know, so I think a lot about maps [laughs]. And maps, of course, are another tool of empires—to map a place, and to label it, is an incredibly potent way not merely to claim a territory, to drive a flag into it, but to proclaim its contents. Maps are extremely powerful documents, for organizing information, for telling stories. But my vision for this book, and my engagement with the Caribbean, has also very much been about: How to bring a map of what we know, or think we know about this region, and compare it to our vision of it, but then to allow that map to be reshaped by listening—by listening to people there, and absorbing their maps.
GC: As a walker, I travel around with maps floating in my head—walking is often about squaring internal maps with experience and discovering new maps “out there.” One of the marvelous things about your book is the way you fill in your map, the way you add color and dimension to it by talking with people. You’ve called this book Island People, and it’s plain that it’s people—your interactions with them—that shape not only your encounter with the Caribbean, but also, as you argue, shape the world’s encounter with its islands.
JJS: Yes, absolutely. This is a book about the Caribbean as both a place and an idea—it’s an exploration of Caribbeanness. It has to be about the figures who have been iconic of the Caribbean, who have shaped what we think of when we think of the Caribbean. So Marley’s here in the book. He has to be. Along with other musical icons, especially of recent decades, that have been so key—from Celía Cruz to Hector Lavoe to Grace Jones to The Mighty Sparrow to Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. They’re extremely important.
GC: You give us portraits of all these people through the lens of where they’re from—whether visiting Lavoe’s home barrio in Ponce, Puerto Rico, or where the great calypsonian Sparrow, is from, on the island of Grenada. But it’s notable that many of the people in this book, who demonstrate how delightful and fascinating the islands are, aren’t the “great” figures—its people around them, for example the guy in Ponce who built the statue of Lavoe. Often, it’s people who don’t have a visible tie to greatness—the hustler or the evangelist on the corner, the woman selling corn soup.
JJS: When we try and narrate history, it’s often about finding the great figures, the representative figures—whether those are politicians, or pop stars, or generals. And there’s a reason for that; signal figures help us see or make sense of an age or its larger currents. And certainly those figures are in the book. At times, in up-close and personal ways. On small islands, it’s often not hard to get access to people. You make a few calls, you can often get through. You know, in Martinique, you can go interview Patrick Chamoiseau, the island’s finest writer; you can go talk, in Jamaica, to Lady Saw, “the queen of the dancehall,” which I did—these people are accessible; they are, in those contexts, regular folks.
But certainly one of the ideas behind this book is the inverse of that, too. You know, Derek Walcott, the great poet from St. Lucia, has a line: “All Port of Spain is 12:30 Show /some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro.” Walcott lived in Trinidad for years and worked in theatre in Port of Spain; his comment riffed both on the town’s carnival culture and its old love for movies—Port of Spain was full of cinemas, from the 1940s on. But what he was noting there, really, was a characteristic one notices all over the Caribbean—the ways in which, as Sly Stone sang, “everybody is a star.” There’s a reason for all those reggae versions of that song [laughs].
GC: And there is a long musical tradition across the region of many people singing, effectively, “everybody is a star.” Or, “I’m a star.”
JJS: Because that kind of presentation of self, the forging of ones’ self as an outsized character—you see it everywhere in Jamaica, in Trinidad, Cuba; less so maybe on the smaller islands, but certainly on the bigger ones. There’s a reason that introverts don’t always seem to do well in those places. It seems almost to be a duty, in these New World places where we’re all making it up as we go along, to create oneself as a “figura”. And if that’s true of these societies, it has be a part, at least I felt, of how one narrates them. So there are plenty of those characters in the book.
GC: You write about Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, then, by going to their home villages, to talk to their people—the other stars.
JJS: Yes, absolutely. Which isn’t an idea original to me, of course. Wherever you are in the world, the “celebrity interview” can often be the worst way to gain insight or write about a prominent person. The best-known example of this idea in action is Gay Talese’s classic profile of Frank Sinatra where he never meets him [“Frank Sinatra has a Cold”]. But just in recent years, some of the most memorable journalism is in the same vein: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s terrific essay on Axl Rose, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on Dave Chapelle—these pieces where the central figure is only glimpsed, never actually spoken with. The speaking happens with those around them. It’s how Ian Frazier, also, went about writing Great Plains—which is one of the great books, really, about place (and which includes, incidentally, a marvelous unnamed cameo by Frazier’s dear friend Jamaica Kincaid).
And so in Island People, when I write about Marley, for example, that’s the way I go about it. I went up to his hometown, this small village in the Jamaican countryside, called Nine Miles. It’s in the hills of St. Ann’s parish (which is where Harry Belafonte’s people are from, too, but that’s a different story). What I did on that visit to Nine Miles—and through a convoluted story I won’t detail here—was to call through a friend, one of Bob’s surviving brothers up in Miami, to arrange to stay on the Marley compound in the village, where Bob is buried in a small mausoleum right by the shack where he was born; his mum’s buried there now, too. The whole place, during the day, is kind of a tourist trap—people come up on buses from cruise ships or resorts in Ocho Rios, to visit the gift shop. But at night there’s none of that; and the land, the Marley mausoleum that people there call “Zion,” is still owned by Bob’s family—most of the tour guides there, not that the tourist’s know it, are his cousins.
And when I was there, I heard this story: that when Bob was interred, when they drove his coffin up from Kingston in a pickup truck, and slid it into its slot in “Zion,” some said, that he’d been slid in the wrong way. That his head didn’t face the rising sun. Which matters in Jamaica. And which led, some years later, I learned, to his family discretely opening up the tomb and turning his coffin around. So in Nine Miles, what I did was to go find the guy who people said they’d had turn Bob around. His name was Bongo Joe—that was his Rasta name; his “Babylon name,” his slave name, was Gilbert Powell. But he went by Bongo Joe, and he was a lovely guy, fascinating character. He told me his whole story—about his friendship with Bob when he was alive, about how he became a trusted ally of the family, about how when Bob’s mother started having bad dreams, and became convinced that Bob was stuck in the wrong way, they asked Bongo Joe to come dig out his coffin, and put it in again. Which, long story short, is what he actually did. So I got his story. And it was such a rich lens on the place where Bob’s from, what people believe and how they live, the ties he had to the context that made him. The Caribbean context where Marley, this larger-than-life figure, was also just “Bob.”
GC: While you were having conversations with these people, you were also listening in on conversations that the Caribbean was having with itself. Throughout the book you’re having conversations with others—with C.L.R. James and his political vision for the region, with Naipaul, who grumbled his way through the islands in The Middle Passage, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked around wide-eyed and in search of wonder. How’d those conversations first become important to you?
JJS: Well as I said, the notion of travelogue is a tricky one. It’s so often predicated not just on the exotic, but on the visual—it’s about glimpsing crumbling buildings, girls with swaying hips. Describing the spice and hue. My portrait of the Caribbean is based in the conviction that that’s a mode of travel writing we need to get beyond; it grows from affinity that’s seen me spending much of my life immersed in this world I write about but that I wasn’t born to. I mean, I grew up in Vermont—
there weren’t a lot of West Indians about. Except for around the time of the Vermont Reggae Festival—which was a formative experience, in a way [laughs]. But mine is the story of someone who was drawn to the islands from afar, through music.
But then I went to college in Connecticut, and as an undergrad at Yale I studied Caribbean literature. What I was drawn to, as much as the Caribbean qua Caribbean, was that this was a region where what’s striking and interesting about the Americas in general is really brought into starkest relief—traumatic histories of genocide and slavery; cultural mixing as a fact of life; the fact that all of us here, except for Native Americans, are from somewhere else, that we’re all making it up as we go along. And the Caribbean just struck me as an extraordinary place to think about these things. Both through the writers I was studying—Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, Jamaica Kincaid—and then up close, by going to where they were from. I went to Cuba for the first time, when I was 18. I went to Trinidad a couple years later. And then really for the past twenty years I’ve just been on one island or another, every chance I get.
GC: A lot of that time, you were in graduate school, in a geography department, writing a PhD thesis about the Caribbean.
JJS: Yes, and since I was doing geography, I was now thinking especially about the Caribbean as region—about how these islands were grouped together under a common label. Which was again, in the first instance, an imperial history—the very word “Caribbean” derives in part from the truth that from around the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, these were thought to be islands peopled by cannibals; the phonetic resemblance between Caribbean and cannibal—and Caliban, for that matter—isn’t by accident. So that’s part of the story—how these islands have been imagined from without. But then what I grew more interested in, in engaging with their own intellectual histories—with how people from the islands, over the past several decades, have imagined and understood the region—is the way many Caribbean intellectuals have sought to articulate the Caribbean as a coherent cultural region: they have proposed that these islands are connected.
Which is remarkable, when you think about it—these places are divided by language and history. But so many Caribbean writers and thinkers have shared this sense that there’s some essence that the French islands share with the English ones share with the Spanish ones. From C.L.R. James to Sylvia Wynter, to Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant, to everything that students in courses on “Caribbean studies” now read, such as Roberto Fernandez Retámar’s Caliban onward—essentially every prominent intellectual from the region, during the decades since something called “Caribbean literature” emerged in earnest, in the 1950s, has embraced some of version of this idea. This idea that the Caribbean islands share certain commonalities that have implications for their culture and their future—and that there’s ways to find those commonalities in the music, in daily life, in what Cubans call de cierta manera, a certain way of being. That there are ways to connect, as C.L.R. James did, what happened in Haiti in the 18th century to what happened in Cuba in the 1960s to what’s now going on elsewhere.
GC: So an imagined belonging in the midst of remarkable difference—is this key to understanding the region as a whole?
JJS: What Edouard Glissant called the “poetics of relation,” in the Caribbean, is a good example of one these theories. Key to Glissant’s theory is the simple idea that cultures—all cultures—are created by difference, by people coming into contact with different ways of being, and that that dynamic has of course been prevalent for centuries in the Caribbean. He calls the Antilles “rhizomed” lands—places that don’t have one singular root, but are crisscrossed with the roots of many places, but he didn’t present this as a lack. He argued that such places are hugely productive and interesting, because this is actually where culture comes from—from engaging with difference. Glissant didn’t necessarily make the claim that it was only present here, that the Caribbean was exceptional, but he did say it’s a part of the world where these “poetics of relation” become extra visible, and are familiar—whether they call it by his name or not—to all Caribbean people.
GC: We hear the word “Caribbean” now as a term of description that unifies, but for me, growing up in Jamaica, I never thought of myself as Caribbean. It was only when I left to live abroad that I began to think of myself as Caribbean or West Indian. But I have a sense that for many folks from the islands, they have a quite national conversation; it’s very much Jamaicans, and Bajans, and St. Lucians and Martinicans. There’s not necessarily a conception of Caribbean people as “Caribbean,” per se. In your exploration of this arc of territories, from the heel of Cuba to the chest of South America, and as you encounter the Caribbean here in New York City, what gives you confidence that these disparate islands can be viewed as a whole?
JJS: Well, it’s so true what you say: we could have a whole conversation just about how people from different islands speak of each other—we could talk about, say what Trinidadians and Bajans say about each other! Bajans saying Trinidadians dance too much; Trinis say Bajans are too uptight and have ugly accents [laughs]. But I think that one of the interesting things about how this conversation about being “Caribbean” has happened, and that’s particularly potent about how it’s happened here in New York, or in London, Toronto, Paris, is how it’s been enabled by proximity in a city like this—by people leaving the islands. Because these conversations have happened in Harlem and Bed-Stuy, historically, in ways they haven’t been able to happen in the islands themselves.
Humans of course have a tendency to be rivalrous, with our neighbors especially—and that also happens in New York. People from all the English islands, at least, do party together every year at carnival time; Labor Day in Brooklyn is the biggest public gathering in city. But there have been ways there, too, where Haitians and others have felt left out; there are tensions that emerge. But traveling through the islands, and trying to test this idea of the Caribbean as a unity, I’ve kind of found again and again that one of the commonalities, really, is being from an island. I hasten to mention, of course, that there are a lot of places that are deeply Caribbean that aren’t islands—Barranquilla, Colombia; Guyana; Belize. But the more particular focus of my book is implied in its title—Island People. Islands are key to the imaginative geography of the Caribbean. Islands are also interesting because on the one hand they’re defined by being places apart, by being isolated from everyplace—but they’re also connected to every place, by the sea. And I do think there are some things that all people from islands share. Even if, today, one of the striking things about traveling in the Caribbean is how far apart the Antilles can seem—to travel between the smaller French and English islands, you often have to go all the way back to Miami, rather than simply fly between them—there is reason to picture them as a connected.
GC: The subtitle of your book is “the Caribbean and the world”: you’re interested in how we see the world present in the Caribbean, and how the Caribbean is present in the world. How is writing about the Caribbean a way of writing about the world?
JJS: There’s a quote that I like that captures it: it’s one of the epigraphs in the book, actually. It’s from Junot Díaz. I was at reading out in California, where I heard him say it. He was talking about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And he said, “We’re all in the Caribbean, if you think about it.” Which is something you could perhaps say that about anyplace. You could say, “We’re all in Kansas if you think about it.” You could even write a book defending that—I don’t know that it would be a good book, but you could write it. But what I think Junot meant accords with my conception of the history of the Caribbean. It goes along, you won’t be shocked to learn, with C.L.R. James.
Because when James came here to the U.S. in the 1960s, when he returned here after a while away and started to teach in U.S. colleges, he was scandalized, in a way, by the fact that there were programs in African-American Studies starting. Which may sound odd now—I mean, all of us who’ve spent time in universities know how key those programs have often been, for diversifying academe, for placing certain stories and histories where they need to be. But James’ position was that you can’t think about history, certainly not the history of America, without thinking of the history of the slave trade—he couldn’t understand why this should be treated as some marginal thing. And of course he had a point. Because the history of the African diaspora, of the slave trade, is the history of the making of global capitalism, it’s the history of the making of modern culture. It’s the history, for me, of the making of modern politics. Because the truth is that we are still in very real ways, living in the afterlife of the slave trade. Just open the newspaper: our conversation on race, in 2016, shows that. But it’s also our culture. The melding together of people, and of cultures, that occurred in the Caribbean birthed cultures and processes that are hugely important to all of us.
Although many may not see it, the Caribbean has become a symbol and model of so much—including through how potently and often it’s supplied an answer to the question: “How can the world dance together?” Caribbean music, and Caribbean traditions, have been so key to that question’s answers, for so long. The Notting Hill carnival in London—it was started by Trinidadians and others there in the 1960s, as a small community fete. But it’s now Europe’s biggest annual party. And that’s a very interesting thing to contend with. And not only because of its size and ability to give people from all over the Caribbean a sense of belonging in public space. It’s deeper meaning is to be found in the islands. In Trinidad, for example, which is a place I love dearly, and where every year’s calendar is basically organized around the annual carnival in which everyone takes part, there is this powerful moment when the nation is looking at itself as a dancing crowd in the street. An unclothed crowd, or barely clothed, sometimes with skin covered in mud to obscure identity. And everything is worked out there—or not worked out, as the case may be—but all the society’s tensions and joys are there, on the street. And that spectacle has its own resonance in cultures created by slavery—the struggle to turn the body into an instrument not of labor but pleasure. That struggle, and the way it’s played out in the Caribbean, has shaped “liberations” around the world. It’s to the Caribbean, for all the brutality of its history, that people have been looking for a long while now for some crucial clues. And long may they continue—so long as credit is given, as it should be, where credit is due.