A question I often ask Caribbean Literature students in our first class is, “How many of you have studied literature from the Caribbean?” Responses have moved from no one answering in the affirmative, to one or two in the affirmative, to quite a few in the affirmative over the past years. Then I usually ask, “How many of you have been exposed to literature from the Cayman Islands in previous classes or schools?” Again, it has moved from no one responding in the affirmative, to one or two saying they had not studied Cayman literature but had been exposed to some local writings. This exposure is often accredited to National Cultural Festival of the Arts (NCFA) or because a creative teacher brought awareness.
The exclusion of Cayman literature in Cayman classrooms, at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels has long been a personal concern. Such an inclusion would accommodate a perusal of Cayman writings and writers, a juxtaposition of this with writings from the region, and hopefully, a sense of local writings as being part of the Caribbean collective, and even as having a place in creative expressions from the African diaspora. I remember thinking that there are surely no good reasons for this exclusion, until I decided to investigate this theory, and discovered that there are a few worth examining.
One primary reason that a creative space for Cayman writings is not prevalent in our classrooms is that high school curricula are directed by the demands of the external examiners. Since students are prepared to sit examinations like CXC (regional examination), GCSE (Welsh board), IGSE (Cambridge), it is only prudent that the focus is on the external prospectuses. Though Caribbean Literature might be a feature of these examinations, certainly for CXC, Cayman literature is not on the syllabi, so understandably, no great emphasis is placed on it. Cayman’s private schools are predicated on the American or British education system, so the writers as dictated by those examination bodies are incorporated into local classrooms.
At the tertiary level, students are on the cusp of stepping into the world of work, and Cayman's socio-economic reality – especially its establishment of a vibrant banking industry - results in arguably most tertiary-level students focusing on Business studies, as employment in this field is more prevalent. As such, some classrooms at the tertiary level quickly fill up while others – into which an examination of local writings will likely fall - are always seeking to attract and keep students.
A typical small island state, Cayman residents have a fascination with the outside, which can offer escape from the tedium of island life. This escape can be achieved through literature. However, if the outside is the ideal but Cayman literature invites a people to look at itself, then Cayman's students might not see the value of local literature even though embracing it could serve to eliminate this fascination.
Historically, Cayman teachers have largely been expatriates. Cayman's Vision 2008 looked for gaps in the education development plan and admitted that "a weakness seems to be [government's] inability to attract and retain Caymanian teachers" (Assessment 2000). Though this is being addressed, it does mean that for a long time students have been taught by capable and talented teachers who, unfortunately, might not have had the requisite knowledge of Cayman's writings to facilitate inclusion.
These are valid reasons for not having created a space in Cayman’s classrooms for intellectual discussion of local writings. Worth celebrating is that in small ways, progress is being made. While we still agitate for greater and continuous changes at all education levels, applause will come more easily when we see what students have walked away with when they have been exposed to Cayman literature.
In the same way that my first class begins with questions, I ask questions in the final class as well: “How have you been positively impacted by an introduction to local writings; what in particular resonated with you?” And, “What new truths have been realised about your society?
What Cayman’s youth say
The below responses from Cayman’s youth are presented without commentary as they profoundly speak for themselves:
• When I was introduced to Cayman writings, I felt a little disconnected at first. Although I understood the tones, lingos, and relationships of the characters, the setting and environment depicted of “old time Cayman” seemed so unfamiliar. It made me realize, I really don’t know much about the history and heritage of my country.
• I enjoyed reading and studying Caymanian writings. It was a welcomed experience being able to recognize and relate to the cultural references, dialect, and historical symbols used in the works. It has inspired me to learn more about and understand my own cultural identity and experiences.
• When I was introduced to writings by Caymanian authors, I became enlightened about how persons in previous decades thought and the many factors that played a big part in their lives, such as race. Students are at a disadvantage if they do not study their own literature.
• It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to Caribbean Literature and most importantly, I was able to read LOCAL works. I was delighted. When we read our own country’s writings, I was in such an emotional state … It is great to be able to read these works and know that Caymanians CAN be just as creative and just as funny as other famous writers, but sadly lack the recognition they deserve.
Well, the intention here is to give recognition where it is due. Join me in another fortnight when we will celebrate a local writer whom I met through my children when they were kindergarteners at First Baptist Christian School and could hardly say the writer’s name! What flows from this local artist’s pen is poignant and resonates with Cayman culture and history. It will really “take us to school” - so be sure to join me!