When talking about British literature, even non-specialists cannot help but think of William Shakespeare’s genius, Virginia Woolf’s wit, Agatha Christie’s secrets or even C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe. But how does one kind of literature achieve popularity? For the past century, new kinds of literature have been trying to break through but circumstances have made it more or less difficult for them to flourish. Caribbean literature is a perfect example of how hard it is to fit into the literary world.
Paradoxically, it all started with the Second World War. At that time, the Caribbean Islands were still British colonies and their main purpose was to serve the British Crown. Needless to say that creativity was not really encouraged on these islands. So when they became independent, there were not many writers. And if there were any, there was almost nobody to read their work. As it was nearly impossible to make a living out of their writing, a few writers began to venture to London from the 1950s onward.
Many of them gathered there in order to improve their skills. But one of the most memorable collaborations happened on air in a BBC studio. Indeed, a weekly radio show produced by the Irishman Henry Swanzy called Caribbean Voices (1943–1958) highlighted West Indian writers who would read and discuss literary works. Swanzy wanted this show “to provide an outlet for writers who would otherwise be mute”. (Swanzy, 24) Many authors like Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Samuel Selvon, VS Naipaul, George Lamming, Derek Walcott or Una Marson contributed to the program and “publishing contracts with prestigious London firms often followed shortly thereafter.” (Kalliney, 90) Its format turned out to be quite useful and was part of its success. On the one hand, the “exoticism” of this literature was brought about by its topics and also the authors’ will to “legitimize West Indian oralities” (Simpson, 85) by keeping traces of creole in their texts and reading them out loud. And on the other hand, the audience was not only comprised of British people, it was broadcast in the West Indies as well. As a result, English Caribbean authors became known at home too.
In a nutshell, the need for exoticism after the terrible Second World War and the use of a myriad of media played an important part in the sustainability of English Caribbean literature. It also shows that a literary genre has to find a way to enlarge its readership in order to survive it. For West Indian writers of the 1950s, the BBC’s Caribbean Voices was a useful springboard that gave British and West Indian people the opportunity to discover and appreciate English Caribbean literature. Nowadays, their names and books ring a bell for many of us since they regularly win awards—like Derek Walcott who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. This literature can now flourish and that is mainly thanks to the radio show Caribbean Voices, a minstrel of modern times.
Dawes, Kwame. “Apologia for Caribbean Publishing.” Speech. Keynote for the 20th Anniversary Award Celebration of the UWI Press. 2013.
Newton, Darrell. “Calling the West Indies: the BBC World Service and Caribbean Voices” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 28.4 (2008): 489–497. Web.
Kalliney, Peter. “Metropolitan Modernism and Its West Indian Interlocutors: 1950s London and the Emergence of Postcolonial Literature” PMLA, 122.1 (2007): 89–104. Web.
Swanzy, H. “Caribbean voices-Prolegomena to a West Indian culture.” Caribbean Quarterly 1.1 (1949) : 21-8.
Simpson, Hyacinth M. “The BBC’s Caribbean Voices and the Making of an Oral Aesthetic in the West Indian Short Story” Journal of the Short Story in English, 57 (2011). Web.