by Alick Lazare

It has been observed that in many of our schools and colleges there is critical dearth of information and knowledge about writers of Dominica and their writings. 

The earliest writings about Dominica that I have been able to find were by Raymond Breton, a French missionary who came to Dominica about 1641, and spent nearly twenty-five years documenting the language and customs of the Kalinago.

He was followed by Pere Labat, a French Jesuit priest whose missionary zeal brought him to Dominica between 1693 and 1705. 

Pere Labat lived among the Kalinago for many months despite their reputation as cannibals, trusting no doubt in the rumour that they found the flesh of priests unwholesome and bitter. In his memoirs about his sojourn in Dominica, he wrote extensively about them, gave the most authoritative account of their way of life dispelled the notion that they were maneaters, describing them as most courteous, hospitable, and civilized.

It is written that one of the group commissioned by the English King James to translate the scriptures, John Layfield, a Greek scholar from Cambridge University, accompanied the Earl of Cumberland on a voyage to the new world sometime around 1596, and was so struck by the pristine beauty of Dominica that he used the island as the model for his description of the Garden of Eden. An account of this is given in the book, God’s Secretaries, a comprehensive description of the persons, events and social and political conditions that influenced the creation of the King James version of the Bible, one of the greatest works in the English language.

Thomas Atwood visited towards the end of the eighteenth century and wrote a comprehensive history and description of the island: its flora and fauna, economy, trade, government, and society.

Several later writers including H N Coleridge, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Anthony Trollope, Pope Hennessy, Thomas Carlyle, J A Froude and Alec Waugh, visited the island at various times and, looking critically at its condition and social structure from a traveler’s perspective, either extolled the beauty and lushness of its interior or deplored the seedy, miserable and ruinous conditions that they found among the towns, villages and plantations. 

Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote of a report he read in an old volume by De Rochefort who came several years before Pere Labat, which told that the Kalinago had very discriminating views about the taste of human flesh: French people were considered by them to be delicious and by far the best meat of all Europeans; the English came next; the Dutch were considered dull and tasteless and the Spaniards were stringy and full of gristle. Fermor went on to reiterate how the victims were prepared while still alive by cutting slits down the back and sides into which pimento and other herbs were stuffed. After being dispatched with a mace, they were trussed to poles and roasted over a medium fire. Fermor wrote this in 1950, two hundred and fifty years after Pere Labat had conclusively shown that the Kalinago were not man-eaters.

Besides their fascination with the beauty and ruggedness of the natural topography of the island and their disgust at the dilapidated condition of its towns and infrastructure, none of these visitors showed any interest in or concern for people of colour, the vast majority of whom were black, and restricted their study to the small circle of white colonials whom, ironically, they generally considered crude and uneducated. 

What is peculiar and common among all these writers was the force of their commentaries about the island even though their stay was usually so short as to preclude any in-depth observation of local customs, politics, and economy. 

The purpose of this book, therefore, is to realign our perspective on Dominican life and culture by identifying and introducing writers belonging to Dominica who have contributed meaningfully to the body of literature that can be classified as essentially Dominican. It is my hope that it will help to make up for the deficiency in knowledge about our national literature, especially if this work will be extended to include other writers of Dominica who have not found a place in it.

In pursuing this goal, two significant problems arise. The first is to define what we mean by Dominican Literature and the second, to distinguish between writings by non-Dominicans about Dominica, by Dominican writers generally, and writings about Dominica by Dominicans exclusively.

A similar problem arose in the mid-twentieth century when West Indian literature was searching for an identity, and it became necessary to distinguish between books written about the West Indies and literature that was native to the West Indies. This distinction is critically important when we examine the perspectives of white, ex-colonial writings against contemporary writings by native Dominicans – those who wrote from a colonial perspective (the native whites) and those who wrote from the perspective of the dominant and representative coloured population. 

Two important initiatives have already been taken in this direction. The first is A Bibliography of the Literature on Dominica, W.I. on a wide range of subjects including Geography and Environment, People and Culture, Government and Politics, Health, Education and Welfare, Agriculture, Other Industry and the Economy, and Miscellaneous, compiled by J D Shillingford, Jennifer Shillingford and Leona Shillingford. The second is Distant Voices: The Genesis of an Indigenous Literature in Dominica by Irving W Andre which sought “to place Dominican literature within a certain critical framework”.

The approach to this publication is somewhat different. It seeks to introduce writings of a literary (as distinct from technical or scientific) nature that can be considered essentially Dominican with a biographical note and an excerpt or extracts from an important work by each writer.

The task of putting together a compendium of literary works by writers of Dominica is extremely daunting. What I have been able to accomplish in this volume should be regarded as a mere beginning. Much more needs to be done. I have been able to identify more than two hundred and forty-six writers of Dominica, but in this volume, only forty-four of them and their publications have been formally introduced. Two hundred and two other writers of Dominica already identified should be researched and introduced in other similar volumes. The task, therefore, has only just begun.

In this volume, I will not attempt to document a comprehensive introduction of the many poets and writers who have contributed to the phenomenal volume of work that has built up over the years since Le Blanc’s cultural revolution for two reasons:

  1. the list is much too long; and
  2. despite Dr. Irving Andre’s extensive coverage in “Distant Voices” and J D Shillingford’s “A Bibliography of the Literature on Dominica, WI”, the list could not be considered exhaustive.

Instead, I have followed the growth of our literature from the beginning of the twentieth century and identified as many publications as are available from my personal library, the public library and from the internet.

Finally, the method of selection of writers and their publications for inclusion in this volume is not by any means sequential, but I have attempted to follow a system of generational grouping for relevance and contemporaneity. In a few cases, in selecting excerpts and extracts from published works, I have drawn attention to the least-known writings of some authors (for instance Lennox Honychurch’s poems from Green Triangles) rather than from publications for which they are best known.

The book Writers of Dominica is in its final stages of completion and should soon be ready for publication.

About the author:

Alick Lazare is a former Financial Secretary, and Fiscal Consultant, Dominica. He is also a poet and the author of two novels, Pharcel: Runaway Slave and Kalinago Blood.

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