FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Golden beaches, blue skies and savory food make the Caribbean a refuge for travelers from around the world. But writers Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes will tell you life for the locals is a different story. In their work, Channer and Dawes lift the veil off Caribbean culture and what they find is arguably uglier and more beautiful than you might have guessed from your hotel room. Channer is author of the bestseller "Waiting in Vain" and an English professor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York.
His new book is called "The Girl with the Golden Shoes." And poet Kwame Dawes is an instructor at the University of South Carolina. His debut novel is called "She's Gone." Colin and Kwame, thanks for coming in.
Professor KWAME DAWES (English, University of South Carolina; Author, "She's Gone"): Thanks for having us, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So I hardly know what to ask first. Both of you are already so accomplished and keep putting out these new works. But before we talk about your work, let's talk a little bit about this conference you got going on. Colin, maybe you can tell us about it.
Professor COLIN CHANNER (English, Medgar Evers College; Author, "Waiting in Vain"): Well, Calabash International Literary Festival started in 2001. And it's happened every Memorial Day weekend. It's an international festival based in the Caribbean and it's well known to the public.
CHIDEYA: Sounds hot. Kwame, what do you think?
Prof. DAWES: And this is our - we just finished our seventh year of Calabash. And it's been exciting. We started over 300 people at the first event and by the second year, we're off to thousand and now we have about 4,000 people who come out. And we just have the most amazing set of readers and writers who come into that festival.
CHIDEYA: Kwame, tell us about your book and I want to know why you decided to write in the form of a novel.
Prof. DAWES: Kofi is the main character of the novel. He's a Jamaican and he's on tour. He's a Reggae musician and he's on tour in the United States. And he meets a wonderful woman from South Carolina called Keisha. And he convinces her to go with him to Jamaica. And what looks like it's going to be a groove back kind of story turns out to be something more complicated, which leads them across North America into the complexities of love and fear.
I wanted to write "She's Gone," in a kind of a way - and I wanted to write about South Carolina. And also I wanted to write about Jamaica. And I wanted to try my hand at a love story. Probably hanging out with Colin Channer may have been part of the reason why I decided to try that.
CHIDEYA: Definitely a bad influence.
Prof. DAWES: Yeah, it really…
CHIDEYA: I can see how he would be a bad influence on anyone.
Prof. DAWES: It can do that to you, so that's how I gotten to writing this novel, which has been great.
CHIDEYA: Colin, you don't have to stifle your laughter. You're laughing silently. That doesn't work on the radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. CHANNER: You know, I know my Jamaican mother is listening. And she could see you went on the people's radio behaving badly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Your book, "Waiting in Vain," I think got a lot of people hot and bothered. Colin, how do you think about your new work, a novella, and all the themes of sexuality, which is so often stereotyped when it comes to any black people, but especially, anything having to do with the Caribbean people can have a lot of preconceived ideas.
Prof. CHANNER: You know, the thing is that am heavily influenced by reggae. And reggae has gone over its issue with sex. Reggae is a music that has managed to be political, spiritual, erotic, romantic. You know, some of Bob Marley's best love songs are love songs. And in "The Girl with the Golden Shoes," we see a 14-year-old girl by the name of Estrella Thompson, struggling with her love of reading.
She wants - she lives in this isolated island in an isolated place in the Caribbean and she wants to see why the world, which she connects to that world through reading. And her desire to read gets her vanished and she tries to head to Europe, doesn't realize how difficult it is. And her love for an intellectual life keeps her going and she has this great series of adventures.
It's a different kind of story from "Waiting in Vain," in the same way that a Bob Marley song, like "Three Little Birds" is a very different song from something "Rastaman Vibration." You know, I believe in creating work that has a broad emotional and thematic palette.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about the whole idea of having a love affair with words, which you described beautifully, of course, is such a writerly concept. Why did you - how did you come up with that particular story?
Prof. CHANNER: It's less a story about the love of words, as it is about the love of having an intellectual life. And I remember Estrella Thompson is emotionally based on my mother who when she made the decision to become a pharmacist in Jamaica in the 1950s. She faced incredible opposition from her relatives who thought that she was aiming too high. And I think "The Girl with the Golden Shoes" resonates with anybody who has ambitions that are bigger than the ambition that their family or their society has for them.
CHIDEYA: When I think about the story that you have painted, you have also very specific feeling of lost.
Prof. CHANNER: Right.
CHIDEYA: Is that something that's based on something you think your mother went through, or just other relatives, or you, yourself?
Prof. CHANNER: I think the center of lost comes from being (unintelligible) slaves. And that the journey into slave was a journey into amnesia, and I think that people who have that history will also have a preoccupation with lost, what ifs, you know? And so in this work, there's a concept of memoir(ph), which are introduced and it is a thriller experiencing this kind of feeling of nostalgia, but that's very specific to somebody with a black diaspora.
CHIDEYA: Kwame, the lead character in your book also is going through a period of lost, but a different kind of emotional texture. Why don't you tell us a little bit about that?
Prof. DAWES: Yeah, I mean, the story begins with Kofi, sort of, trying to extricate himself from an old relationship with an older woman, or a woman who has mothered him, but also they've had a relationship. And he is a character out of this kind of diasporal sense. He is, you know, born in Africa. He - you know, the lady travels around and so on and so forth. There's a whole mixed-up of things. And the anomalies about discovering this diasporal world - this world of Africans all over the world and meeting together, encroaching that in a love story seems like a wonderful kind of thing to do. So it's not a, sort of, happy, lovely love story, it's a complex and - I think more honest love story, but there you go.
CHIDEYA: You know, the whole concept of the diaspora is something that is always a work in progress. How do you relate and - Colin first, and then Kwame - how do you relate very tangibly to that when you see your audiences. What kind of audience has come to hear you read your write - you're on a reading tour right now, how did they relate to your work?
Prof. CHANNER: Well, I tell you, it all depends on where in the world I'm reading. In the U.S., I think that there is a greater desire and a greater ease of connection between people from different parts of the African diaspora. What is interesting is that people are having less of an issue with language. I think people in the (unintelligible) were music, are able to understand each other's brands of English much more easily. And so people are now reading across cultures more, largely because of the influence of music.
CHIDEYA: That's interesting. Kwame, what do you see when you look out into the audience?
Prof. DAWES: The range of people who come out to read - and I think Colin is right. I think there's a sense in which we are given permission to read anywhere because of reggae music, because of the work of Bob Marley and so on. It gives us a tremendous amount of permission because Colin talks about this a lot and it's actually true that the story telling mechanism that exists in reggae music introduces the world to the idea of telling stories from a very confident place - the place of being a Jamaican, being rooted in a place. And yet at the same time engaging with the rest of the world, yeah.
CHIDEYA: What are you guys looking forward to in the years ahead? I'm sure that you've got lots more books. You - Kwame, you already said you're working on another novel?
Prof. DAWES: Yeah, and that should be out, I guess, soon. I have another collection of poems coming out in October. It's been a mad year. This will be about - probably about the fifth book for the year. So that…
CHIDEYA: Oh my gosh.
Prof. DAWES: That is a lot to me.
CHIDEYA: Your fingers are going to fall off.
Prof. DAWES: That and other parts of me, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. DAWES: Yeah, so we're going to stop at some point.
CHIDEYA: Colin, what's ahead for you?
Prof. CHANNER: Well, I'm working on my first novel for young adults.
CHIDEYA: Oh wow.
Prof. CHANNER: Yeah, so that's coming out in 2008. And I'm working on another novel for grownups. You can't see adult novel now because when you see an adult novel, people think…
Prof. DAWES: That's right.
Prof. CHANNER: It's triple X, but no, it's the wrong folks, you know?
CHIDEYA: Excellent. Well, Colin, Kwame, thank you so much.
Prof. DAWES: Thank you for having us.
Prof. CHANNER: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Colin Channer is the author of "The Girl With the Golden Shoes." He's also an English professor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. And poet Kwame Dawes teaches at the University of South Carolina. His debit novel is called "She's Gone."
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