Sunday, January 12, 2014

Island Fiction - Story of the Series: Part 5

In order to compete for readers and for young people's attention, the boundaries of good sense seem to be more and more fluid, if they exist at all. With Island Fiction I believe we did not shy away from raw reality, and the kind of social honesty and emotional integrity that young readers crave. Writers were asked to take risks, to not be too goody-two-shoes.  These are  pre-requisites  for an audience of tween readers leaving behind the world of illustrated  books and ushering in realms of more abstract imaginings. I am proud of the IF balance between the appeal of age appropriate risks and parental concerns about both language rightness and moral righteousness. By my own gauge, we never compromised our impressionable audience with  distracting sell-out concepts or provocative ambiguity. The goal was to tell a good story in any genre of speculative fiction that would appeal to both boys and girls between the ages of 10 to 14. Each title fulfils that goal admirably and as a collection the six titles are a young reader's treasure trove of reading fulfilment.

The issue of creating universally appealing content  may still be a moot point, at least until we have actualised the kind of change in consumers that stimulates a sustainable domestic market for our writers and illustrators.

On this issue I will highlight two main points that summarise my own view, that I have not heard discussed much elsewhere, and that guided my selection process for the first round of  Island Fiction novellas:

1. Universality is achieved as an indirect by-product of being specific. The profound and intimate appreciation of any One thing, opens access to more of the All. The Caribbean author who tries to be universal by writing something that has a general appeal to many, fails in this regard. He or she is reaching outwardly instead of delving inwardly. By beginning right here and now, mining the unlimited potential that can only be accessed through a kind of grounded and authentic presence, a truly Caribbean writer taps  into a living book of infinite possibilities. The yellow brick road we are paving to anywhere else, must begin with each step only we can take, upon a single tile, that we our selves fashion and lay.  Authenticity is lost when we are reaching with 'over there' strategies and trying to reverse engineer market success. Appeal to a wide market cannot be something we aim for if we are wholly concerned with being true to the work that is ours to do, which really, resides solely in the consciousness of our own "backyard".

There are so many who  hear this as a restriction. They think I am suggesting  that we only and always express  local life, folklore etc. And it is exactly this misunderstanding that is symptomatic of the blockage to which I am pointing; the one that does in fact limit a writer from plumbing into something essential. A Something that may emerge as truly unique and as yet unwritten; if not in one shot, certainly through the practice of time and again.

As an example of honouring  specificity:

Jamaican, Michael Holgate in his IF title, Night of the Indigo opens with "Cold, cold, cold. That's how cold it was." Simple. Authentic. Universally accessible. This is typical of how many West Indian dialects would express a more British, frightfully or dreadfully cold night. We tend to leave off adverbs and exaggerate our adjectives. The lady is not obese, fat, or even very fat. We all know that she fat, fat, fat. We explored this as a way of developing voice and style that was unique to his accent and yet accessible to every English speaking reader. We also moderated its usage so that it was age appropriate, and mindful that our target audience includes reluctant readers who are best served when English is standard, and treated as their second language. Even the dialect styling is applied to dialogue in a moderate way that sounds more classically styled, and not too cumbersome for inexperienced readers.

"Yes, Marassa. I see you. Always day-dreaming nightmares in the middle of the day with your eyes wide-wide open. Hmm? And when you shut your eye to block the sight, is like gasoline on firelight. Hmmm? Fire-flood of visions burning your mind."

2. The other point on crafting work that has universal appeal rests in a special kind of trust and confidence. "Special" - I am not saying that it is elite access, but it must be identified and cultivated; and "Trust" - in the sense that  you believe your readers to be at least as smart as you are. None of us ever heard of or knew about Hobbits before. Nor Vulcan's. Nor Wookiees. Before I read books brought to the West Indies by the English colonialists,  I had never dreamed of forest fairies sitting on mushrooms, and I think it was America's Disney whose Darby O'Gill first introduced me to Irish leprechauns. Yet today, even  Caribbean writers, readers and book publishers do not seem to trust that we can not only  dream our own dreams, nor can we successfully export them ( at least not without commercial, cultural and creative compromise) as well. We do not yet embody the confidence of First World creatives whose dreams  unapologetically colonise consumers with their own, very specific perspectives. We need this kind of confidence if we are ever to emerge with a market of our own making. I am convicted that readers from Hamburg, Germany to Perth, Australia  need not have heard of Papa Bois or Soucouyants before reading Island Fiction's Escape from Silk Cotton Forest. After all, J.K. Rowling has already ably introduced them to Muggles and more.

Perhaps because so much of our storytelling wealth has come through the oral traditions of the calypso tents and the canboulay chantuelles we find ourselves now falling somewhat behind on the ever evolving conventions of publishing and printing, but neither should this practical concern delay or deter us. True, it is easier to make your own rules when you are at first, up to speed with the game, but today especially, we join publishing at a time in history when the field has never been more level.

As an example of the kind of confidence that creates entire new worlds and races:
Trinidadian  Francis Escayg, in his IF title, Escape from Silk Cotton Forest, does more than document, retell, or even re-invent our folklore. (Spoiler Alert Apology) - He conceives of a prequel to one of our most prominent folklore characters, Papa Bois and creates entire new races of Goans, Moongazers and more...

"Cream of the Crop calypsonian, Lord Intimidator, a dashing ocelot bowed to King Zar…Jubilant crowds thronged the square. They pressed the skeletons of the tattoo fens to their bodies…The Lagahoos - dreadful  wolf-like creatures, capable of changing into any form - had earned a place in Market Square…"

This favourite with both teen girls and boys begins with a hard hitting war scene and stages Escayg's original, non-human character Domino, in such a way that kids always root for him as with any other 'real' action-movie hero they encounter. 

What I love about Island Fiction, is that the books offer standard English with rich West Indian flavours. Our treatment  of dialect is in the line of a West Indian classic like Angostura Bitters. We use it wisely, trusting and relying on its effective potency. The way a dash of Bitters is just enough to make  a W.I. Bentley or a Ponche Creme more precious and identifiable  to our people as well as palatable to many other tastes far and wide.

Similarly, we endeavoured to balance modern risk taking with the old school values of  righteousness. On one hand, the West Indian sensibility is already one of worldly sophistication, consuming with the rest of the world a limitless range of popular culture targeting so-called "Young Adult" and "Adult" audiences. Yet there is here,  an unusual muddle of genuine and diverse religious concerns, outright superstition and/ or enslaved conservatism.

It was and is important to me, that Island Fiction has a vision of values that will increase clarity over confusion, that uses metaphors and storytelling conventions to tell in any number of ways the age-old story of good triumphing over evil.

(Next time, blog on for Part 6: Does IF's cinematic style scare away superstitious West Indian readers and writers too?)

Above All,
Happy Writing,

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