The smell of Jamaican patties and jerk chicken and the sounds of the West Indies Patois were very much in evidence during the annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Both cuisine and the language were a reflection of the popularity of Caribbean writers in general, and Jamaicans in particular, in the Brooklyn literary scene. On one night of the festival, at least 75 people lined the gallery at MoCADA, or the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art, to hear West Indian-born writers, including Diana McCaulay and Ifeona Fulani, both from Jamaica, wax poetic about how the cultural landscapes of Jamaica and America have influenced their material.
Buoyed by interest from American publishers and perhaps more importantly, readers who reflect the city's consistent growth of Caribbean immigrants, a new generation of writers from Jamaica, is finding literary, if not financial, success.
"We have to be happy that we have space at the table and happy that someone is willing to engage your part of the narrative," said E. Wayne Johnson, 45, a Jamaican arts and literary enthusiast who has lived in Brooklyn for more than 20 years. Johnson is Arts Director of the Caribbean Cultural Theatre and helped organize the MoCADA event, held on September 19, which featured seven authors from the Caribbean, including McCaulay and Fulani, reading excerpts from their books.
"We as a community are not consumers of our own work or culture. It might sound parochial, [but] the harsh reality of internationally successful writers has made it, because they were a big thing somewhere else," said Johnson, with a soft but distinctive West Indian lilt.
Census data show Jamaicans account for nearly 200,000 of New York City's Caribbean immigrants. Making them the third largest group among those foreign-born, surpassed only by people from the Dominican Republic and China.
Excited by the opportunity to interact with readers and writers from the Caribbean, McCaulay flew from her hometown in Kingston, Jamaica, to participate in the book reading. She also joined a panel discussion at St. Francis College, on Sunday, September 22, to promote her second novel, Huracan.
"I [like] reading to my own people ... my book is about leaving and going home," said McCaulay on Thursday night. The main character in her book grapples with returning to Jamaica after a loss in the family, a sentiment McCaulay believes her audience should readily understand.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, 32, originally from Jamaica, now a writing professor at the College of Staten Island, came to the festival to connect both with readers and other writers. Her novel, Run Free, about a transgender Jamaican boy is set to be published next year.
"As a writer myself, it's important for me to have a relationship with other Jamaican authors, especially given Diana McCaulay is [known] to write outside of the box," said Dennis-Benn, with her wife Emma by her side.
Despite the population numbers that seem to illustrate a picture that Brooklyn is filled with people who may be able to identify with the characters in the poems, novels and stories of Jamaican writers, "It's not like it's a lucrative business," said Johnny Temple, founder of independent publisher Akashic Books, and chair of the Brooklyn Borough President's Literary Council. Many of the authors supplement the income from their literary work with other jobs. McCaulay is an environmental activist in Jamaica, and runs the non-profit, Jamaica Environment Trust.
"There's lots of fantastic writers ... a lot of publishing companies in Jamaica are getting more established," Temple said on the last night of the weeklong festival, after wrapping up the last of 60 events from Sept. 16 to 22, that attracted 350 writers from across the U.S. as well as the international writing community.
Temple has been a key organizer of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival since its inception eight years ago. He said at least 10 writers participating this year were from the Caribbean.
"It's incredibly diverse," said Temple. "There's so many different types of stories to tell."
"I think the new Caribbean writing is much more immediate and edgy and grounded in the realities of Caribbean living today," said McCaulay. "It doesn't have this kind of misty veil over something lost in the past ... it's more grounded in contemporary Caribbean life and work."
Alex Neptune settled in the U.S. 40 years ago, after leaving his home in Georgetown, Guyana. "I don't read too many novels so when I do read, I want to make sure I'm going to finish the book that I've started," said Neptune, after the talk at the MoCADA.
He works in New York's insurance and real estate industry and he wanted Oonya Kempadoo, the British born, but of Guyanese lineage author, of All Decent Animals, to sign his copy of her book. "I don't have to think too much about what the writer is saying ... when she expresses herself on different issues, I can relate," said Neptune.
"How are you doing?" a woman asked E. Wayne Johnson, who was perspiring in his salmon colored button down shirt as he carried chairs, trying to determine where to add seats in the already packed gallery before the group, Caribbean Cultural Theatre, opened Thursday's book reading.
"Yeah mon, I'm goodish," responded Johnson, in the Patois dialect commonly heard throughout Jamaica. Largely regarded as a spoken language, Patois has over the past several years increasingly gained traction as a literary language. But in some circles, according to the West Indian author Robert Antoni, 45, its use had been considered a reflection of one's typically low socioeconomic class and status.
"We writers of the next generation have stood up, and embraced this language. It has taken over our writing. I think if anything characterizes West Indian language, West Indian novels, West Indian poetry, it's been the embracing of the vernacular ... the vernacular is always posited against another language. That language is what we call proper English, but the vernacular is a living thing and proper English is locked up in the dictionaries," said Antoni.