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Nanton’s island voice

Published: 
Sunday, May 31, 2015
“There are literary, historical and sociological aspects to this that fascinate me,” he said, adding, “This ‘frontier society’ concept is not an original, Philip Nanton idea—it’s an old idea that I want to prove has got some legs to stand on.” —PHILIP NANTON

If you’ve been lucky enough to hear Vincentian-born, Barbadosbased Philip Nanton reading—or, more aptly, performing—from his Island Voices repertoire, you can attest to the writer’s comedic chops. Island Voices, which entered the Caribbean soundscape in 2008 as a CD written and produced by the author, has recently been issued in print by Papillote Press. A glance at the 2014 book proves that it remains as resplendent with colour and vibrancy as the audio recordings.

Art by fellow Vincentian Caroline “Booops” Sardine, adorns the cover and several panels within the book, illustrating Nanton’s outlandish, raucous scenes of island life with a broad palette of bold colours and whimsical, multi-media installations.

Yet Nanton’s well-merited sash as the amiable raconteur of island picong isn’t the only mantle worn by this master orator. Interviewed at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Nanton said, “Hopefully Island Voices is worth more than just a belly laugh!” Indeed, the collection—which straddles poetic and prose genres, hinting at the diverse intertextuality at the heart of Nanton’s ambitions in this book—contains far more than idle chuckles.

The vignettes in Island Voices do some of their best sociological work when they peer into the complex hearts of their subjects. Nanton asks difficult questions of his characters, framing their rage, isolation and dread in thigh-slapping revels worthy of premier Talk Tent bacchanal. Why the necessity for this kind of distilling in his storytelling? “Doing biography in the Caribbean is a really difficult thing,” Nanton said. His mode of getting people to best see themselves through a creative lens involves an appeal to their funny bones.

Once they’ve been well seasoned in their own amusement, he said, it makes certain kinds of truth telling more digestible. Nanton is as interested in accessing this kind of truth through nonfiction: in 2014, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize for his work in progress, Canouan Suite. He described the work as reflective of the changing faces of Canouan, one of the Grenadine islands increasingly prone to touristic development.

As in Island Voices, a convergence of narrative perspectives populate this unfinished manuscript. This is a storyteller’s delight, for Nanton. “It gives me the opportunity to work in a variety of voices, from the middle-class, to the workingclass, to the many voices of women,” he said. How do these elements across genres—poetry, fiction and non-fiction— inform Nanton’s newest work?

The writer enthusiastically divulged his current project is unlike any of his previous undertakings, calling it “a specific non-fiction piece on St Vincent that’s also conceptual, involving poems and other writings that incorporate a creative history.” This untitled manuscript is governed, Nanton clarified, by his conceptualising of the Caribbean as a “frontier society” and using St Vincent as a case study to tackle the quintessential and essential questions of island identities and governance.

“If you want to be legitimate in the world, you must define your society: to seek to know what it is, and to say it,” Nanton said. To explore an island in writing is no small undertaking, and Nanton is confident of the scope of his endeavour, monumental though it is. “There are literary, historical, and sociological aspects to this that fascinate me,” he said, adding, “this ‘frontier society’ concept is not an original, Philip Nanton idea—it’s an old idea that I want to prove has got some legs to stand on.”

This principle of reacquiring forgotten ideas and showing their legitimacy is central to his concern with interrogating the Caribbean through necessary titles. “We’ve stopped calling ourselves what we are,” he reflected, dourly adding that because of this, Caribbean spaces leave themselves open to the interpretative threat of being badly labelled by outsiders.

“Being in the place, actually being, writing and living there means that you’re bound to write differently,” Nanton said, when asked about the persistent issue of authenticity. “I always see myself as an insider- outsider, because I’ve lived away for too long, and I accept that,” he said. For all his mild self-deprecation, Nanton’s work, when read aloud to Barbadian, Trinidadian and Vincentian audiences, generously reveals what Lorna Goodison calls his “acuity of voice and vision,” making him “one of the freshest poetic voices in the Caribbean.”