Interviews

Interview with Jamaican Marcia M. Mayne Founder of the Peenie Wallie Book Club

Written by Xavier Murphy

Books play an important role in the Jamaican and Caribbean Diaspora to keep the heritage alive. Three year ago Marcia M. Mayne founded the Peenie Wallie Book Club which is based in New York City. This month we interview Marcia about the book club and Caribbean books. 

q: When did you book club start?
The formal book club, Peenie Wallie, is in its third year but I have been hosting literary salons since 2000. I am a book publicist and literary events planner. Over the years, I have hosted or planned events for several Caribbean authors, among them Anthony C. Winkler, Beverley East, Carol Taylor, Carolyn Cooper, Christopher John Farley, Colin Channer, Donna Hemans, and Elizabeth Nunez.
The book club meets on the 3rd Sunday each month, except August and December, at venues that are announced prior to the meeting. Currently, membership is free and open to anyone interested in Caribbean literature. The only requirements: a commitment to read the books, a willingness to participate in the discussion, and agreeing to host a meeting.

q: How big is the club now?
We have 10 members, which is about average for a book club. We also have other people who don’t attend meeting but read the books.

q: Can you give us an idea of the countries some of your online members are in?
We are working on developing an online community. In the meantime, anyone can sign up at www.peeniewalliebookclub.com
 
. They can also see what books we’re reading and leave their feedback.

q: What nationalities are represented in the book club?
Antigua, Barbados , Guyana , Jamaica , St. Kitts and the US

q: How do you choose the book for the month?
Over the summer, we come up with a selection of books (new releases, classics, non-fiction, fiction, etc.) – at least one from each country. The list is sent to members for them to choose the books they’d like to read. The ten books that get the most votes are the ones we read. Each year, we read 9 books by Caribbean/Caribbean Diaspora authors and one from an African or African American author.

q: What Caribbean island are you from? 
Jamaica

q: What Jamaican books are your favorite?
Wow, that’s hard!  I have several favorites. These are the ones that come to mind:
The Painted Canoe and The Lunatic, Anthony C. Winkler
The Harder They Come, Michael Thelwell
The Children of Sisyphus, Orlando Patterson
From Harvey River, Lorna Goodison
 
q: Who is your favorite Jamaican author?
It’s difficult to have just one absolute favorite. I have several who I love for different reasons. Here are a few that jump to mind:
Lorna Goodison
Anthony C. Winkler
Michael Thelwell
Neville Dawes
Christopher John Farley
Nalo Hopkinson

q: Many of us have watched these movies and tv where book club members do not read the book of the month and come unprepared to the discussion. What is the consequence for this in your book club?
There are no consequences. I think everyone knows that it is critical to read the book in order to be able to participate in the discussion. Bottomline, if a member doesn’t read the book, s/he will have little to contribute and will, I’m sure, feel left out of the conversation. To my mind, it’s the least a book club member can do.

q: Do you think Caribbean authors have gotten the recognition for their great work?
Yes, I think some definitely have. I’m thinking here of authors like Edwidge Danticat , Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Diaz, Maryse Conde, etc. These are highly accomplished, well respected authors who have won awards and have made a name for themselves.
Unfortunately, some really fine writers still struggle – with finding that audience. For any writer, it’s not enough just to write a good book. Publishing, like any business is concerned with making money. It depends on finding books that have the potential to sell well. A writer needs a smart agent, an erudite editor, a good publisher, and a savvy publicist to translate that book into a saleable product. Each person, from the writer to the publicist, plays a critical role in generating buzz about a book that will result in sales.
There is a belief held by some in the industry that white readers cannot relate to the work of black writers. And if a work is considered “literary,” the thinking is that black readers won’t buy it. This is the perception of black writers across the board. If that argument is accepted, you can see the challenge that our writers face.
I believe that Caribbean, to be more specific, West Indian authors would do much better if they had the support of their natural audience, more of their own people buying more of their books. Think about it, in the New York area alone, it is estimated that we number approximately 2 million. If any West Indian author is able to sell to even 1% of that population, can you imagine what that would mean? 20,000 books might not sound like a lot but if a publisher knew that this market could be relied upon to purchase books, I think we’d see a different dynamic. So would our writers. Our community hasn’t learnt yet how to leverage our buying power, how to create demand, at least not when it comes to books.
I don’t buy the argument that we don’t read. Almost everyday I meet people who are hungry to hear stories that reflect their experience. But many people just don’t know who our authors are. They’re surprised when they hear that such-and-such an author is from the West Indies. That’s partly a failure of our educational system. Many of us can quote Shakespeare or some such writer but have no idea who Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys, E.R. Baithwaite or Marie-Elena John is. It’s also partly our failure. We’re not getting the word out to the community in a clear and sustained fashion. But I think that’s starting to change. Through the work of people like Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell, we have the Calabash International Literary Festival, which began in Jamaica in 2001. Joy Bramble and company started the Antigua Literary Festival about three years ago. We also have the 5 year old St. Martin Book Fair which was started by Shujah Reiph in St. Martin, and several opportunities to hear Caribbean/West Indian authors throughout the year.
A book club can play a vital role in getting the word out about our authors. Members learn about books and share them with friends and relatives. My dream is to make the names of our authors as recognizable as the names of our musicians.

q: Do Caribbean authors seek reviews from your club?
We have not yet begun to review books although I have been asked several times to do so.

q: Technology is changing and many  people listen to books versus reading them.
I don’t know what percentage of people listen to audio books as opposed to those who buy regular books – most people I know still buy them. There’s something about feeling a book in your hands that you can’t get from other media. But there’s no denying that audio books are convenient, especially for people on the go. Typically, though, they are more expensive than paperbacks though I don’t know if the price is going down.
At the other end of the spectrum are digital books. Amazon is betting that they will overtake audio book sales and has put its money on Kindle, its wireless reading device. The Kindle is not for everyone because of its $400 price point, but I suspect the price will eventually decrease.
These are all wonderful conveniences but I doubt there will be enough of a selection of titles by Caribbean / West Indian authors to choose from.
 
q: The Caribbean authors seem to be behind on this because of the cost.
I wouldn’t say that Caribbean authors are “behind.” The decision to make any book into an audio book is based on profit. The popularity of a book in paper form will be a strong indication of sales in the alternative medium. Any author, Caribbean or otherwise, who doesn’t have a book that has wide appeal will probably be ‘behind.”
 
q: Do you see a trend towards this in the future as cost going down?
Yes, it certainly has the potential to become a trend, because of portability and convenience. For younger readers, who are used to technology and are thus more comfortable with manipulating it, it could definitely become so, unless of course, something better crops us.
 
q: Would you allow members to listen books on tape?
It’s not important how members get the story. The most important thing is that they know the book we’re reading and can discuss it.

q: Many Caribbean writers seem to be going the route of self publishing their books because technology has made it easier. Do you think it is a route to having a successful book?
Yes, technology has made it easy for anyone to publish a book. But the author, whether self-published or not – who does not have a compelling story and does not find an audience for that story will not find success. The work truly begins after the book is published, with finding interested readers and most times we have to think outside the box to get the word out.
There’s something to keep in mind with self-published books. To me, they’re a lot like the step-children of the publishing world: most newspapers and online book reviewers won’t review them and I don’t know of any public libraries that carry them.  For some people, that’s not a concern but it’s something to keep in mind, especially for those writers who dream of seeing their book reviewed by the major newspapers.

q: Who do you believe will be the next great writer of Jamaican Descent?
I’m watching Kei Miller (poet and fiction writer whose book of short stories, The Fear of Stones, was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2007 in the Best First Book category). I’m expecting great things from him.

q: Thanks for the interview. Any final thoughts?
You’re very welcome. No, that’ll be all for now. We could certainly go on forever but I don’t want you to lose your readers.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about books. They have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My greatest thrill is to be able to share that love with others. My greatest pride is that we have so many brilliant writers who are faithfully writing our stories for us to read, remember and share.

About the author

Xavier Murphy