Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Historical stories in Caribbean children’s books

There is not a long list of historical fiction written by Caribbean authors for Caribbean children.
Perhaps it is a psychological problem. Most of our ancestors were uprooted and alienated from their ancestral pasts by slavery, (Africans), indentureship (Indians and Chinese) and indeed it was alienation, too, for many of the Europeans who came. There are few pockets of Carib/Taino descendants- these were the original inhabitants of the Caribbean. Up to fairly recent times even the study of Caribbean history in schools didn’t exist.  Oral history carried some of the stories but modernization has all but wiped out this source. So now, we have to rely on our authors to bring the past alive, as only stories can do, for our children.

Plantation life, on which the Caribbean was built, was no bed of roses; difficult even for the ruling class. Slavery was demeaning and cruel, robbing both masters and slaves of their essential humanity.

A new culture had to be forged out of the disparate elements present in the Caribbean. It has been a painful process for the many, and I think that, as a people, we would rather forget the shame and the pain.

But we can’t change history and as the popular saying goes, we have to know where we are coming from to know where we are going. But,how to deal with it, so that it is not merely sentimental, or damning, or so politically incorrect, in modern terms, that we ‘fraid of it? For example, much as we laud the Maroons for standing up to the British in Jamaica, there are still pockets of people who think that they sold out after they gained their freedom from slavery by helping the planters to catch runaway slaves - so maybe they’re not so heroic after all???

It is also difficult to emerge from the brainwashing which taught us that only European culture was valid. So our heroes couldn’t be heroic. They were ragtag blacks clad in osnaburg, and wicked in their wish for freedom from the masters who enslaved them. Their acts of defiance  - poison, burning the cane fields, rioting - were ‘evil’ acts; by a ‘lawless’ people.That’s how the chroniclers of that past saw the slaves.

Can we, in our stories, give our children a concept of heroism which transcends this? Can we give them stories which equate to the Robin Hoods of the English past, or any of the other European heroes who, in one way or another, changed life for their people. Can osnaburg be made to seem as glamorous as ‘men in tights?’

Of course, in the twentieth century, we got freedom songs and freedom singers and freedom fighters who gained international respect. In Jamaica, our governments have also created national heroes out of past political activists, and have declared a national holiday when we remember them. However, and this is something I usually point out to the aspiring writers for children in my classes, most of what we give the children to read are dry accounts of their dates and the deeds which made them famous. We give them posters of lifeless faces. We expect modern children to automatically understand why (and be enthusiastic about) people who fought for freedom from slavery and for Independence for our country are heroic.. These heroes do not come alive for the modern child, not in the way that fiction could make them.

Writers like Vic Reid (Jamaica) have written compelling historical fiction for children, but we need a lot more of this.

Here are two anecdotes from my own experience.  Draw your own conclusions.

1st anecdote
When my older grandchildren were about 6 and 7 years old, I was telling them some stories from our past, notably what slavery meant. I told them about the slaves being dissatisfied and wanting their freedom. So, I asked, what do you think they did? The girl was quick to answer. “They went up to JBC to demonstrate.”

(JBC was the former government television station. She was interpreting out of her experience watching television what people did when they were unhappy with their situation.)

2nd anecdote

Some time ago, I spent one week in Grenada, teaching writing for children, at what was then the Extra-mural Centre. I don’t know if they call them national heroes, but one of their influential political figures was T.A.Marryshow. The Centre was actually in what used to be his house, I was told.  After one class when I had introduced the topic of historical fiction, some students and I were in the car park, below the building. In St. George’s, on every level you have to look up to the next. One of the students remarked that her family used to live in an area below the house. She recalled having seen Marryshow at one of the windows looking out with a ‘trumpet’ at his ear. She also said that the children used to raid the plum tree in his yard, despite being afraid of him. I pointed out that she could use this as basis for a children’s story about the life of Marryshow. Such a story would certainly bring him alive for the children. I don’t think anybody took me up on this.

I like to remind my students that all these important men (and women) would have had children in their lives in some way They would have been fathers, uncles, godfathers etc. How they did or did not interact with the (fictional) children around them would help to give them faces children could understand.
Next post I will review Freedom Come by Jean Goulbourne:published by Carlong
 Publishers (Caribbean) Ltd. This book contains five stories about children in Jamaica’s
distant historical  past: Tainos, buccaneers and children in slavery.

And after that I will return to a discussion of Diane Browne’s novels A Tumbling World ... A
Time of Fire and The Ring and the Roaring Water, both time travel stories which take us back to
closer historical times in the twentieth century.

P.S. Since writing this post, I have been delighted to read Gwyneth Harold Davidson's Young Heroes of the Caribbean which marries both the history of the seven Jamaican Heroes with the story of a contemporary 10 year old boy. Title: Young Heroes of the Caribbean. I understand she intends to make it a series. Get a copy here: 

Hazel Campbell's (me) books available at 
Post a Comment