Friday, 18 December 2009

Christopher Vanier's Blog

Featured in the next cycle of Exclusively Independent, is Caribbean Chemistry by Christopher Vanier, from Kingston University Press. Here's a few words from Christopher, describing how he came to writing his book.

I bore in mind two warnings when I started writing my memoir. The first came from a famous American novelist who was asked how young graduates should go about becoming published writers. “It’s simple,” she said. “There’s only one imperative: don’t smoke! That way, you will increase your chances of living a long life. And perhaps, in the latter part of that long, eventful life you will find an interesting jewel to relate, a story based on experience.”

I satisfied this criterion, since I waited until retirement before beginning my memoir about life in the Caribbean fifty years ago. But later, my son – journalist – tried to steer me away from autobiography. He pointed out that I was not a famous (or infamous) politician, that I had never killed anyone, and that I had not even been to prison. Who would want to read about a happy life? I decided to ignore this.

I picked up my pen and set down on paper the mischief that a growing boy gets up to on a small island. I discovered that what I had lived as games and excitement were really dangerous escapades, from fighting with monkeys to breaking out of boarding school at night, to getting lost on the slopes of a volcano, to rocketing down a sugar cane chute, to assaulting vehicles, to being thoroughly caned, and finally to making serious explosives. Were it not for a warm and understanding family environment, plus a dollop of luck, I might not have survived.

Looked at from another angle, my book is a voyage of discovery about growing-up in a small, exotic community, shut off from most of the world, a tiny speck in the Caribbean ocean. The encircling island shores are at the same time a wall of protection and a prison. My young protagonist thought that the world was against him, hiding its secrets, whereas the real secrets were inside him – his search for identity. His skin reflects the diversity of the region: neither black nor white but brown, in a world where the debate about colour is ever-present. He learns that he has inherited Carib blood from Guyana, but on his island the Amerindians were brutally exterminated by the colonists three centuries earlier. Which ethnic group should he cleave to? He also has French blood in him, but unfortunately French is the subject he dislikes most in school. There remains a mixture of English and Danish genes going back to the usurping colonisers, and some African heritage, from the slaves who painfully replaced the rebellious Caribs. He is rooted in the sun-drenched tropics, knowing only St. Kitts-Nevis, Antigua, and Barbados, but the books which shape his mind are all about wintry England and America, places that he has never seen and of which he sometimes doubts the existence.
As he reaches his teens, the challenges become more intense. The colonial system in the Caribbean is breaking down and the sugar industry is coming to its end. His father, a lawyer working for the planters, is embroiled in labour strife, and as politics turn black he will soon lose his job. His tries to push his children out into the wider world. But how can his son escape from his island jail if his family does not have the resources to pay for him? And where should he go? And, above all, why? The protagonist has a foretaste of exile when he unexpectedly wins a Lincoln essay contest that takes him to Washington and confronts him with American racial politics, quite different from those on his island.

At any point, from examination intrigues with his friends, to his personal struggle over religion, to his passionate sexual blossoming, his future may take a different direction. Behind the conflicts, I hope that this book radiates the warmth of Caribbean life that I felt. It is a hymn to the emigrant, or why young people leave their beloved countries and families for the unknown.


Anonymous said...

Hi Christopher, It's an honour to
simply get in touch as it was back in the early 1990's i visited your parents home in Fortlands St.Kitts to gather some background information on Leeward Islands Scholars. I don't need to remind you that you were indeed the 1959 LI Scholar your younger brother whose name eludes me being the 1963winner and Noel being the first State Scholar in 1967. An unprecidented achievement in our island's history. I was very fortunate to meet your parents and your sister who graciously gave me some very useful details about your time at the then St.Kitts Nevis Grammar school. Sir with your permission and without impinging on your time, I would be delighted to tell you about my project researching LI Scholars from 1950 to 1966 when the system was changed following the gaining of Statehood for St.Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla.I would appreciate if you could contact me on email as a premis of an introduction. I would then be able to give you my personal details so that we could become familiar. My name is Sylvester Leader and when you were the Head Prefect at SNGS by older brother Leonard was the youngest student at the new modern building at victoria Road. That is well over 50 years now.
I would save the rest for later and do humbly ask that you get in touch please at a time convenient to you. I am very anxious to obtain a copy of your book on the chemistry of growing up on St.Kitts

Chris said...

Hello Sylvester,
Great to hear from you - I'm fascinated by Kittitians' response to "Caribbean Chemistry". I dedicated it to "my childhood friends of St. Kitts and Antigua", though it is destined more widely to all those who emigrate and all those who make mischief while growing up.

I'll reply to your email,