Two Emerging Caribbean Writers

For the second year of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, writers from across the globe engaged their imaginations in discovering intersectional worlds of generational healing and community-based solutions. This year’s three winners and nine finalists bring new perspectives to the vital genre of climate fiction, with short stories that offer visions of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Join us in celebrating an uprising of imagination with 12 stirring, surprising, and expansive looks at a future built on sustainability, inclusivity, and justice. Read all 12 stories here.

Today, two of the finalists talk about their work as young, emerging Caribbean writers – Nadine Tomlinson, author of the winning storyThe Metamorphosis of Marie Martin, and Akhim Alexis, author of The Lexicographer and One Tree Island.

Akhim Alexis: Hey Nadine, I’m really excited to chat with you about your winning story, The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin. Every time I read it, something new and magnificent jumps out at me. It’s a tender, vivid narrative that rings authentic from beginning to end. One of the first things that stood out to me was the seamless incorporation of major societal issues such as generational differences, mother-daughter relationships and the plight of the working class, all while keeping the main theme of illegal fishing/overfishing at the center of the story. What were your motivations behind these narrative choices?

Nadine Tomlinson: Hi Akhim! I’m happy that you enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the beautiful compliment. I’m thrilled that we get a chance to talk with each other about our stories.

I’ve noticed that mothers and grandmothers are a developing motif in my pieces, which I’m curious to explore and see where it leads me. When I write about grandmothers, in particular, it’s my way of remembering and venerating my ancestral mothers. The mother-daughter relationship can be fraught in both real life and fiction, so it was refreshing to envision the close and healthy relationship between Bubbles (Marie Martin) and the women in her family as I outlined the story. In crafting her as a young woman from the working class in a male-dominated industry, I needed her to be physically and mentally tough. She reminds me of Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”. So, it was a happy synchronicity that she presented herself to me as a fierce, vulnerable, beautifully imperfect being who draws her greatest strength from her mother and sister. Her desires and goals for her and her family’s survival were instrumental in positioning her as an anti-heroine to be understood.

How about you? Your story “The Lexicographer and One Tree Island” awakened me to the threat that climate change poses to language loss. Dialect is my jam, so I appreciated its inclusion in your story and enjoyed learning some Trinidadian patois. What inspired you to juxtapose language death with ecological extinction?

Akhim: Dialect is my jam too! Language has always been at the centre of what I do, I studied linguistics in undergrad and developed a more holistic appreciation for issues such as language death. With climate change being synonymous with loss, I felt that identifying the disastrous domino effect it can have on all aspects of life, especially culture. I wanted to juxtapose language death with ecological extinction in a manner which left room for unmooring from catastrophe through diasporic resilience, one of which is the prioritization of language documentation. So making Toni a lexicographer and having him create a dictionary as the story progressed was not just fun, but it was part of giving language some much needed space in climate change discourse.

This is why I was so captured by your story. You touched on something that has always been a point of contention in the Caribbean, standard english as the perceived correct form of english. You go so far as to show how members of society judge you for speaking your very own language (Jamaican patois).It’s the same here in Trinidad. Do you see the ways in which we as a people perceive our respective dialects changing in the future? And what role do you think fiction has to play in tackling issues like language confidence and climate change?

Nadine: Oh, that explains a lot! That was genius of you.

It’s wild, the chokehold that Standard English has on some people, to the extent that some parents forbid their children to speak Jamaican Patois in their homes. It’s mind-boggling! How about teaching children how and when to code-switch instead of vilifying our Mother tongue? I’ll go even further. How many of our youth know that some words in Standard English owe their existence to the indigenous language of our islands’ original inhabitants?

Duolingo recently added Haitian Creole as one of its beta languages. That’s huge! That’s why I’m hopeful that our respective dialects will each receive official status as a second language and be integrated into the educational curricula in the near future.

Caribbean fiction writers at home and abroad have been boldly promoting their dialect in their works. Jamaican icon and cultural ambassador, the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley, paved the way for authors such as Nicole Dennis-Benn, Marlon James, and others to confidently and liberally flavour their writings with our patois. Some of them stood up to agents or publishers who were against the use of dialect in their books, which went on to become bestsellers and win awards. With that level of belief and confidence in self and the integrity of one’s mother tongue, I don’t think language confidence will be a worrying issue.

I haven’t read Diana McCaulay’s Daylight Come yet, but I know it tackles climate crisis in a post-apocalyptic Caribbean setting. Now that I’ve read your story, which serves as an urgent warning for us not to wait until a dire event threatens to eradicate our indigenous languages and dialects, I’m curious to see if and how she explores the impact of that crisis on language. Because when peoples disappear, so do their languages.

In your post-apocalyptic setting, the Garden-of-Eden theme is compelling. I particularly loved that you depicted the snake as female, because it’s a symbol of the mystical feminine, way before organized religion demonized serpents. Was this theme, complete with Tonie, Sahoora, the “oceanic rapture”, and the snake intentional, and what was/were your intention(s) for using it?

Akhim: Thank you so much for your ruminations on language, Nadine. I need to get Duolingo and learn Haitian Creole, ASAP!

Feminizing the snake was a conscious decision. I wanted to usurp the expectations of the reader. The Bible, the popular religious text that it is, has created pervasive ideas of good and evil that govern how many of us operate. Put a talking snake in a  story and immediately the reader’s mind goes to The Garden of Eden and its attendants; evil and banishment being the main mental touchstone. I wanted to shake that story up a bit by twisting the notion that evil (as symbolized by the insidious masculine snake-devil) would invade paradise.Instead I opted to turn the snake’s arrival into something more hopeful.

In many ways, the divine feminine snake works to help the two men on the island by providing a fruit that serves as a rare gift and nutrient. She brings with her a measure of calmness, kindness and stability to the island. Injecting her spirit into the story felt mandatory. I am of the opinion that many of the problems in the world would not exist if more women were in positions of power. The fact that the snake, arguably the largest entity known to the inhabitants of the island, does not use her size and perceived dangerousness to take the island back as her own, but instead works together with the bird and the boy, in a way, speaks back to the snake in the Garden of Eden and speaks toward a future that rejects combativeness and war (in all its forms).

Oceanic rapture for me is something that I believe is looming, always right around the corner. Port-of-Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago was originally an area of coastal wetlands and mangrove forests. A series of land reclamations took place over the decades to get it to the highly developed city it now is. But over time the water is going to want its space back. Oceanic rapture can play the slow and steady game, and we know that slow and steady tends to win the race. Humanistic transformations must happen in order to curb the future chaos that looms ever so quietly around the islands. We have to reassess how we operate on the land we live on and want future generations to live on.

This leads me to the major transformation that happens in  The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin. Did you go into your story knowing that the main character would undergo such an internally pivotal and ecologically effective transformation, or did it unfold as you wrote?

Nadine: I love that you had that insight about the snake and the divine feminine. It wove the plot elements in your story together so beautifully and seamlessly.

And I agree that the water is going to reclaim the areas it once owned. I see the same thing happening in Jamaica. It’s just a matter of time. It’s scary to think of the consequences. You’re absolutely right. Instead of the powers-that-be giving the green light for ripping up the land and tearing down trees to build more hotels, they need to reassess, as you recommended, and implement action plans to prevent, rather than try to cure, disaster.

Yes, I did. It was one of the first things that came to me before I started outlining the story. People say that things happen for a reason. That may be true, but in Bubbles’ (Marie’s) case, there’s no rhyme or reason to her transformation. That’s deliberate. I wanted her metamorphosis to be open to interpretation, which I think makes things interesting because it creates opportunities to have enriching discussions on life, the natural environment, and our symbiotic relationship with Nature.

It’s dope that we’re both from the Caribbean and featured the sea, creatures, and types of transformation in our stories. In “The Lexicographer and One Tree Island”, I see Tonie’s metamorphosis, arising from ecological adaptation, echoing Bubbles’. How cool is that! The synchronicity!

It was my first time writing a climate fiction story, and I can safely say that it won’t be my last. As we look forward to a future brimming with hope and creative solutions, how do you envision young, emerging Caribbean writers tapping into this energy to develop an interest in writing climate fiction or climate stories that are creative non-fiction? What can be done to encourage and guide them on this aspect of their writing journey?

Akhim: I’m with you on writing more climate fiction! I loved challenging myself to write more hopefully and to think toward solution. Young Caribbean writers should think about what issues–whether within their own lives or on a macro scale (countrywise or regional–needs further narrativization. What about home should become more present in contemporary Caribbean narrative? What stories need to become as common as folklore? That sort of creative thinking must reveal the need for more climate fiction and creative nonfiction. Guaranteed they should also not just think about it as “climate fiction.” Labels are important but can also be limiting. We know that many things can be true at the same time. Life happens simultaneously. You can write about: love, marriage, divorce, UFOs, academia, the rum shop, car accidents, lonely widowers, unemployment, Carnival, and still find a way to insert the climate condition into the story. We are only limited by our own imagination.

Also, challenge yourself and try to get out of your comfort zone. That’s what I did when I entered the Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest. Forcing myself to sit down and drum up a story so far from what I usually write has helped me become a better writer. I suppose as emerging Caribbean writers, becoming  a better version of your creative self is always a good thing.

It was a pleasure talking to you, Nadine, about The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin, writing, character and the climate. I hope we can do this again sometime!

Nadine: I hope so, too, Akhim. It was fun, and I learned lots from you.

Imagine 2200, Fix’s climate-fiction contest, recognizes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Read all 12 stories here.

Nadine Tomlinson is a Jamaican writer and speculative storyteller. Her short fiction and poetry explore themes that include the natural environment, and African and contemporary folklore in Jamaican culture. Her writings are published in adda, The Gold Anthology, and elsewhere.

Akhim Alexis (he/him) is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago who holds an M.A. in Literatures in English from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. He is the winner of the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival’s Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean and was a finalist for the Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction and the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize. His work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Transition Magazine, Chestnut Review, and elsewhere.

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Solutions Spotlight

In the YA dystopia Islands by Jacob Sackin, students do trail work in nature to plant native species and get closer to the natural world.

“We have three full crews of high school students now from the outdoor school that work a few nights every other week. They don’t get paid that well, but they get school credit, and they love the work. It’s been a solution to so many of our problems; the kids who have to take all the drugs because they can’t sit still in class love it cause they get to move around a lot, and it’s a great way to expose them to the outdoors. We’ve cleared out a good deal of the scotch broom around here. You know, I’ve spent my whole life feeling powerless to do anything to help heal this unnatural world that we’ve created; but I’ve learned that the secret is not to let yourself get discouraged trying to fix everything all at once, and I don’t mean to just make the most of it, but to create your own little island universe that feels good and right, whether it’s on the side of a mountain or in the room of a tiny apartment.”

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the Carnegie-longlisted British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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