On November 1, 2022, Richard Georges, the Poet Laureate of the British Virgin Islands and Moko’s co-founder, delivered the 2022 Laureate Lecture at Maria’s by the Sea, Road Town, as part of the annual Culture and Tourism Month. The following is the full text of that address, which was first published at The BVI Beacon and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
I begin this, my penultimate address as your poet laureate, with a brief epigraph written in 1864 by the Reverend Edward Hartley Dewart, an Irish-Canadian Methodist minister, editor and author.
“A national literature is an essential element in the formation of national character. It is not merely the record of a country’s mental progress: It is the expression of its intellectual life, the bond of national unity, and the guide of national energy. It may be fairly questioned, whether the whole range of history presents the spectacle of a people firmly united politically, without the subtle but powerful cement of a patriotic literature.”
More than a century later, the eminent Canadian scholar David Taras wrote, “Canadian nationhood has been slow to evolve and Canadians slow to find collective symbols, standards and ideals. Many observers still regard the Canadian identity as incomplete and fragile. … Fear remains about Canada’s cohesiveness, integrity and existence.”
These statements bookend 120 years of Canadian writing, yet a clear desire persists for Canadian writers to affirm a national Canadian identity through their work. Somewhat ironically similar to the Virgin Islands, Canadian self-image is largely constructed between the poles of Britain and the United States. These two imperial metropoles continue to tug, along with Canada to a lesser extent, on the canon of Caribbean literature. It is worth noting that with little exception, most seriously considered Caribbean writing is published between London, New York and Toronto.
Towards a national literature?
As the world retreats from the experiment of globalism, what then does it mean to have a literature within which we imbue so much a la Dewart — our collective intellect, our energies, our very essence and ideals — produced en masse for audiences who are not us?
That is a question wrought with more than I can possibly extract for today’s purposes because I fear it is a problem we have not yet created for ourselves in the Virgin Islands. The American-Argentinian critic William Henry Hudson distills that problem in clear and brutal terms: Literature is “the progressive revelation, age by age, of nation’s mind and character.” It is, he adds, “the record of the unfolding of that nation’s genius and character.” The problem, as framed, is unescapable. Inevitable.
For now we must ask ourselves: Is there yet such a thing as a Virgin Islands literature? The question causes me great discomfort and frustration. In the trilogy of plays The Coast of Utopia by the acclaimed Czech-British playwright Tom Stoppard, the Russian literary figure Vissarion Belinsky is made to proclaim the words, “As a nation we have no literature.” The proclamation seems mad, that a country with such a rich tradition of letters as Russia could be accused of being void of a literary tradition. But Belinsky is not belabouring an absence of writing, but rather the direction or purpose of it. As he famously told the writer Nikolai Gogol, the reader “is always ready to forgive a writer for a bad book, but never a pernicious one.” My friends, with such a paucity of books being produced by and for Virgin Islanders, we cannot abide a bad one. How can we have a literature if we are not actively creating one?
We are still wrestling with a fatalist expectation that we are not participants of history or culture, but rather eternally relegated to various forms of serfdom that reinforce the colonialist hierarchies.
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said that “the stories of Africa should be written by Africans.” I similarly believe that every Virgin Islander who can, has a measure of responsibility to do their part in the writing of Virgin Islands stories. You will note that I did not deign refer to that in the singular. There is no single story to be told, and the beauty of growing a literature is its commitment to contain it all, and so we must be suspicious of distillation, of division, of essentialism in the construction of a literature.
These many figures from so many different cultures and traditions are articulating a common anxiety fixed in the cultural and identifying expectations a society places upon its written tradition. We must be careful that these expectations do not bind, do not limit, do not hinder the imaginations we are still endeavouring to nurture in potential and emerging writers.
The Grenadian novelist Tobias Buckell imagines intergalactic Rastamen. The St. Thomian Cadwell Turnbull imagines aliens descending upon Charlotte Amalie. A literature built out of this small place must be big enough to include both the romantic and the realist, the traditional and the avant garde, the sacred and the profane, the familiar, the esoteric, the mundane and the fantastic.
I am deliberately here avoiding the n-word: national. Nationality, nationhood can be a type of quicksand. The concept and its reality are too mutable, fluid, dangerous. Where is the line, the border? Who decides who is part and who is not? What is and isn’t? I grow wary and warier. It is too soon. The label “national” is an attempt to create categories.
A quarrel with history
As the Booker Prize-winning Jamaican novelist Marlon James says, “At the core of categorisation is an attempt to make something smaller.” Having produced a small library of literary work concerned with the people, landscape and histories of this place, with only a couple novels, a handful of poetry collections and memoirs, and no meaningful literary criticism, it is too soon to draw the borders around a nation of letters.
Too many of us are more in love with the product than the process, too eager to get to the finish line before the pistol has fired. Like many rough perceptions of local culture, too much of what we write has been allowed to fall into unvarnished nostalgia for a blurred period post-Emancipation and pre-World War II. We still seem afraid of nuance, of problematizing, of allowing us and our heroes to be flawed and human.
Edward Baugh best articulated this dilemma in a seminal essay in the literary magazine Tapia in 1977, adapted from a speech he had presented titled “The West Indian Writer and His Quarrel with History.” Fundamentally, we are still wrestling with the unsaid fear that we are a people operating in a void, exiled from history, from power, and from agency. At its root, it is rot within the mind, a fatalist expectation that we are not participants of history or culture, but rather eternally relegated to various forms of serfdom that reinforce the colonialist hierarchies. Simply put, these attitudes cut us off from any prospect of collective intellectual or spiritual growth, much less equip us for any discourse of political or social ambition.
Our poets seemed much more likely to push against these tendencies, and whether it was the accessibility and mobility of the form or its ability to create a healthy degree of opaqueness, our poets were much more likely to make something subversive.
The poetic traditions of the Virgin Islands, while Anglocentric in aesthetic, can be traced safely back to the Victorian era with the Shakespearian named Anegadian poet Alphaeus Osorio Norman. Mr. Norman was an obvious student of the Romantics, and while we are told that he wrote prolifically, only about seven of his poems survive. Mr. Norman’s metronomic alexandrines were rigid in rhythm but in them slaves revolted and black sailors were eulogised alongside more European tropes like Greek sea gods and Vikings.
Many followed Mr. Norman, including poets like Kenne and Roy Hodge, Sheila Hyndman, Quincy Lettsome and through to the contemporary like April Glasgow, Linette Rabsatt and Kamaal Lettsome. Others were inclined to meander across from poetry into short fiction and non-fiction, including Verna Penn Moll, Jennie Wheatley, and Pat Turnbull. Further, there are several memoirs and non-fiction era surveys of particular interest like Charles Wheatley’s portraits of the education system, Norma Benjamin’s history of nursing, and other similarly purposed works.
Worlds waiting to be written
The most popularly known and read publications are perhaps Vernon Pickering’s A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands (1987) and the books and pamphlets published by Norwell Harrigan and Pear Varlack in the 1970s and 1980s. Isaac Dookhan did much important work on both the American and British Virgin Islands in the 1970s as well, yet many of these texts have fallen out of print and are very difficult for the average person in this territory to put their hands on.
Given this dearth of widely available historical texts, and many other disparate reasons, much of our history continues to subsist in local legend and oral tradition. It is telling, then, that when perusing academic documents in pursuit of my doctoral degree, much of what I found had been written by non-locals whose work had access to university and publishing networks.
By and large, the several works now written are not produced for international publication. They exist precariously, falling out of print depending on the author’s proclivity or ability to support a book’s life, considering that too many local authors continue to pay for book production rather than pursue the traditional process of submitting manuscripts to publishers or agents. Too many authors see publication as a vanity project and not a serious endeavour worth the rigour and lack of immediate gratification. How can we have a literature if we have not grown a desire to produce the best literature we can, even if it will likely be a longer, more painful process? How can we have a literature when we make a book so easy to disappear?
I have come to a conclusion. I think the state of our literature or at least our regard for it is reflective of a similar malaise that has often affected our culture. It is a symptom that is akin to why so many of our highly considered restaurants do not trade in flavours or interpretations of traditional Virgin Islands cuisine. Surely fish and fungi can translate into dishes served at a local mom-and-pop takeaway or at any fine dining establishment. Surely it makes more sense to serve local whelks and conch in season than to import Canadian mussels? What is it that allows some to assume that not being from the Virgin Islands suggests that something is better or more worth our respect? What is it that prevents us from celebrating the greatness of our own modern luminaries before the world does it for us?
The writer might as well be an athlete. She must be willing to train, to sacrifice, to be broken and remade into the author she must be. We can no longer abide the shortcut when the stories and voices of these islands must be made to resound throughout the world. We can no longer be satisfied by a single lonely flame. We must now be ready to light a fire, to grow this flickering little literature into a towering blaze.
Our literature is alive. But we must continue to grow it. To do that, us writers must prepare ourselves. We must write boldness. We must hone our craft. We must envision worlds no one has before. This place is richer than we think, full of worlds waiting to be written and bigger stories to be told.
Richard Georges is a writer, essayist and poet from the BVI. His most recent poetry collection, Epiphaneia (2019), won the 2020 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and his first book, Make Us All Islands (2017), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He is a recipient of a Fellowship from the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study and is a founding editor of Moko. In 2020, Richard was appointed the first Virgin Islands Poet Laureate. He works in higher education and lives on Tortola with his wife and children.