Earlier today, a writer friend of mine asked her facebook friends to name a “globally acclaimed/commercially successful novel published in the last 20-30 years that does not have an American/British character or any other significant connection to the US/UK (plot, setting etc.)?” This book was to be written in English and could not be a translation.
She received lots of suggestions but also lots of acknowledgment that it’s a tall order – so many of the books that cross over to the big time are centered in or center the Western (often white American, white European) imagination. This is something I’ve become keenly aware of as someone who grew up in the Caribbean (specifically part of the former British West Indies); geographically, also, part of the Americas (among the smaller parts of the larger part of the Western Hemisphere) and so close to North America that the running joke is that if America (specifically the USA) sneezes the Caribbean catch cold. Those of us in the English speaking Caribbean grow up reading a lot of books, watching a lot of films/TV, listening to a lot of music from other places – in my generation, primarily North America; a generation or more ago when we were still a colony/colonies, primarily Britain.
But it’s not just American culture writ large but whiteness that is privileged in a lot of what crosses over – it’s a trope we see regularly in literature and film we consume: the white savior character (To Kill a Mockingbird – one of my all time favourite books, The Help, 12 Years a Slave etc.) to stories that only seem to matter in relation to their relation to whiteness (e.g. Cry Freedom in which both Steve Biko and Denzel Washington, who played him, were supporting characters in a story about apartheid). And it raises the question, does even regional literature too often have its gaze turned toward the West or too keen an awareness of the West’s gaze on it, and spotlights how rare it is for books that don’t to claim the global spotlight (markers of which are commercial and critical success).
One of the things I enjoy about the existence of my latest book With Grace is that it is a fairytale that centres a little black girl in a Caribbean space who saves herself – subverting racial, cultural, gender tropes typical of the fairytale genre. Now I just need it to do the crossover thing. As an aside, perhaps this limited its crossoverability, but one of my favourite reader reviews of my novel Oh Gad! was the one that referred to it as “unapologetically Antiguan”. Among my other books, Musical Youth, touches on the theme of colourism in the black community, a bi-product of the multi-generational centering of whiteness.
Anyway, I’m using this post to share some of the books I shared and some of the books shared by others in response to my friend’s post for those of us seeking to de-centre the West and whiteness in the literary art we consume. Let me be clear, there are lots of Western books and lots of books centering whiteness that are favourites of mine, but my point and the point of the original post, I believe, is that they are so pervasive that engaging with art that’s almost indifferent to the white gaze (Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston come to mind) is a bit of revolutionary reading (and absolutely necessary in a world where all people need/deserve to see themselves). And even if you don’t care about all of that, it’s good to step out of our comfort zone for a bit, even if only on the page.
So, the criteria (no more than 30 years old, critically and commercially successful, a novel, no Brits or American people or places), I mentioned initially too bona fide literary stars who are multi-award winners deified by critics and fans alike Marlon James’ Book of Night Women and History of Seven Killings (Jamaica) and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s The Thing Around Her Neck and Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria) – except these prove the difficulty of the challenge because Book does have British characters though, as I pointed out, it centers the African-Caribbean Night Women of the title; and I haven’t yet read History or Sun, the latter, it was pointed out to me also has a major English character. And Thing is a short story collection not a novel (and even there the impact of colonialism is felt).
Challenged to consider some other, specifically Caribbean possibilities, I mentioned the following though most are more critical than commercial successes (in brackets are my notes, not mentioned in my response to the post).
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (coming of age story set in Antigua; its first publishing may fall just outside the 30 years but my discovery of it doesn’t so I’m counting it as it’s the book that helped me begin to claim that being a writer wasn’t beyond my imagining – our stories mattered too)
The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Pulitzer winning, Dominican – Sp. writer; book largely based in the US with Dominican characters coming of age in the US but which very much centers Dominican culture and history)
Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo (This writer is connected to several countries but this first book is set in her home country of Guyana)
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Dandicat (Haitian writer, easily one of my favourite writers and one of my favourite books on this list; and she along with Diaz and Kincaid probably best hits the sweet spot of critical and commercial success while being post-colonial…I think)
Fear of Stones by Kei Miller (Jamaican writer, not a novel; he does have novels, I just haven’t read them yet)
Gone to Drift by Diana McCaulay (Jamaican writer, award winning young adult novel)
It Begins with Tears by Opal Palmer Adisa (set in deep rural Jamaica)
Ladies of the Night by Althea Prince (I believe there’s one story set in Canada where Prince lives, but the rest of the women in this book couldn’t be more Antiguan if they tried; another not-novel though, a short story collection)
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (one of my faves, Antiguan main character, set in America though)
Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez (does it count as de-centering if you take Shakespeare’s Tempest, update it to the 20th century, set it in Trinidad, and shift the point of view?)
Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer (a very sensual book by a Jamaican writer; the locale shifts – the US, Jamaica, England though, so)
The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet (Espinet is an Indo-Trinidadian writer based in Canada, her book moves between all three worlds)
Unburnable by Marie Elena John (another Antiguan writer though this book is intriguingly a journey through the socio-cultural history of Dominica – Fr., and the main character is more American, albeit African-American, than Caribbean)
The Whale House and Other Stories by Sharon Millar (not a novel, but a must-read story collection by a Trini writer)
Some of the other books mentioned by more well-read people than me were Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (South Africa), The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (India), The Vegetarian (South Korea), A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (India), Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (Mexico), Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (India), The Bone People by Keri Hulme (New Zealand), The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan), Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), The Fall of the Stone City by Ishmael Kadare (Albania), Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra (India), The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka (Malaysia). I’ll also mention that if Ireland counts I love a good Maeve Binchy; from Nigeria, I’d also add Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions; likely anything by Earl Lovelace should be part of this conversation, though his more recent books are still on my to-read list; and the original poster’s own book Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan (Malaysia).
I’m stopping there because this ran longer than intended. But chime in, what would you add to such a list?
p.s. this doesn’t include books I’ve received but it does include many books I’ll be adding to my wish list so I’m making it my Mailbox Monday.