Dr Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper is an Associate Professor of English at the University College of the Cayman Islands. She has a passion for promoting Caribbean, and Cayman, literature, and Caymanian Times has provided this space for her to do so on a fortnightly basis.
Being a connoisseur of books and especially having a particular affinity for regional writings and writers, when I moved to the Cayman Islands several years ago, I immediately set out to the bookstores and the local library in search of creative works by local storytellers. I found many. I found a variety of topics, disciplines and interests, as there were books on local recipes, local flora and fauna, religion, fiction and non-fiction. I found multiple genres – novels, poems, memoirs, short stories, and dramas. I found writings by multi-generational Caymanians and writings by expatriates who called Cayman home. The works were comparable to others I had been exposed to regionally and internationally. My forays into the bookstores and library revealed that Cayman had much to be proud of in its storytellers.
Then, I tried to discuss these writings with those who lived in Cayman, especially the youth. What I found was that a number of them had little to no knowledge of published indigenous writings, whether fiction or non-fiction. Though the reasons were many and many of them valid, Cayman’s youths were surprised and at times in disbelief to learn that there was a body of writings by local authors that could be considered worthy of inclusion in the national curriculum.
Fast forward to today, more than ten years later, and so much has changed. The number of local writings has grown exponentially; the education ministry, culture ministry, such influential organisations as the Cayman Islands Public Library Service, the Harquail Theatre, CLM Publishing, and the Cayman Islands Poetry Society among others, have contributed to a new and growing appreciation of local creative expressions. Since my initial probe, there are certainly more readers of local writings, and I am happy to likewise facilitate a celebration of Cayman’s writings and other art forms, through the medium of this fortnightly column with the Caymanian Times newspaper.
Even as I join those local groups and individuals who are contributing in big and small ways to ensure this growth continues, I wonder whether there is a full appreciation for the storyteller. Is there an awareness that stories exist not just in verbal art form, but also through theatre, dance, music, paintings, and sculptures, to name but a few? Is the transformational role of the Cayman storyteller fully recognized, received, and revered? Or are they – storytellers – still seen by too many as weavers of myth and the imagination – intangible therefore inconsequential? Surely their function is not integral to the overall progression of a people, a society, a country, a civilization! Should we not celebrate storytelling and storytellers, surely, we have lost extraordinarily little. Our children still grow, our societies still thrive, our country still progresses. Right?
Working on the premise that art imitates reality, it can be said that the storytellers’ task in any society, lies in more than just an expression of a fecund imagination. The storytellers’ works are an intervention into the social realities of their community, and they lead to new objectives being set, new truths being unfolded, and new models being created. Storytellers often delve into the experiences that shape the livelihood of the men and women they investigate. It is these lived experiences that they use to reflect the community members’ reality back at them. When it is able to look at itself through the eyes of the storyteller, the community draws conclusions about its reality, seeing what it has taken for granted as having enough “stuff” to grace the pages of a book.
Arguably Cayman’s most prolific writer, JA Roy Bodden believes “the role of the storyteller is critical to the development of even the most sophisticated societies. Storytellers are informants, advisors, entertainers, curators of history and culture, 'keepers of the secrets', and the best storytellers are masters of hyperbole, embellishment, and exaggeration. In the Cayman Islands, storytellers have always been admired and respected, and in old Cayman, the best storytellers were the itinerants, travelling from village to village”. Renowned activist for regional writings, essayist and, dare I say, storyteller, Barbados’ George Lamming echoes this thought, expressing his belief that the Caribbean now has a better perspective of the society, as, through its literature, as it has been provided with “a synoptic view of a whole civilisation”. He believes that storytelling, especially through the media of the novel and through theatre, has enabled the Caribbean society to be “returned to itself … the society has been called upon to look at itself”. A country’s ability to see itself reflected through the stories it produces as though looking at a mirror, emphasises the storyteller’s social responsibility and enables it to construct new identities. Trinidad’s literary critic and novelist, Merle Hodge, views writers as image-makers who are able to effectively agitate for change. Jamaica’s sociologist, scholar, and novelist, Erna Brodber, believes the storyteller has a social responsibility to his community as “…those who have social power can create images … reduce the discrepancy between image and the role performance [and] … cast relevant models for Caribbean people”. Local author and academician, Dr Christopher Williams, sums it up succinctly when he says that “the adroit storyteller always has pen pressed steadily against the pulse of the nation, ready, willing, and able to capture the interminable buzz of its frenetic human bloodline”.
Should these theories of the transformative role of the storyteller be accepted, aren’t Cayman’s storytellers then social activists, and shouldn’t they be known not just for their creative, imaginative works, but also as voices of significance and reference on many intellectual issues related to the country and, indeed, the wider Caribbean? Cayman’s storytellers help in the creation of an intellectual space, to encourage and facilitate new lines of inquiry by the community whereby ordinary citizens can study the stories, and memories of their forefathers. A people’s writings, writers, and art are an important means of documenting and preserving a nation's history and culture. It allows them to see who they are; to create an identity they can be proud of; and to share their culture with others beyond the boundaries of their shores.
If those who live in the Cayman Islands are unaware of Cayman’s verbal and other art forms, as expressed by its storytellers, they have missed out on the privilege of seeing the Cayman Islands through the multiple stories it produces. It is a nation's ongoing dialogues as reflected through the discourse of writings that will provide food for mature thought, introspection, and growth in self-awareness and self-esteem. How then can we find new and innovative ways to include and celebrate local literature and art in Cayman’s everyday experiences?
I propose to do so through this medium. I propose to bring the storytellers – and the stories - to those of us who live in the Cayman Islands. Having presented Cayman’s writings to regional and international audiences, I am anxious to present them to local audiences as well. Over the next few months, it is my intention to celebrate Cayman’s writers, writings, and the arts through this column. Meet me here every fortnight then, as I hope to explore, summarise, critique and provide a forum for intellectual discourse. Cayman has many stories and storytellers. Let us enjoy them – together!