|Flanagan's New Novel Reflects Changing Politics and Culture of Her Caribbean Homeland
September 28, 2009
Contact: Bill Giduz
Editor’s Note: Armfield Professor Brenda Flanagan and noted novelist alumna Sheri Reynolds ’89 will read their recent work in the annual “Davidson Reads” event on Tuesday evening, October 6. There is no charge to attend the event, which will begin at 8:30 p.m. in the Alvarez College Union Smith 900 Room.
Brenda Flanagan explains that her new novel, Allah in the Islands, is an example of how links in her extraordinary life are coming together. The book, published by Peepal Tree Press, picks up from the end of her 1996 first novel, You Alone Are Dancing. It returns to the character Beatrice Salandy and her village of Rosehill on the fictional Caribbean island of Santabella, where corruption flourishes and people struggle to scratch a living.
|The cover promo for Flanagan's book was penned by novelist Edwidge Danticat, winner of a 2009 MacArthur "genius" grant.
But there is a new and hopeful element in their lives—a radical Muslim movement with a growing appeal to the poor. In particular, there is the Haji, the movement’s charismatic, mysterious leader. He exerts firm control over his followers, and both fascinates and alarms Beatrice and the population. Allah in the Islands comes to a head as Haji’s veiled political ambitions come to light.
Flanagan has come a long, long way from the scenes that are invoked in Allah in the Islands. Born as the 12th of 14 children in a village family in Trinidad, she moved to New York at age 19 and left her island heritage. But she has continually returned in person and in memory to write about its rich culture and tumultuous history.
Flanagan has steadfastly employed her love of language, first-person familiarity with island culture and stubborn work ethic to become a foremost scholar and interpreter of Afro Caribbean literature. She has taught writing, literary analysis and African American literature at Davidson College since 1996, and was named as the college’s first Edward Armfield Professor of English in 2006. She has published about 25 short stories, poems, plays, journal articles and novels, and won several prominent grants and prizes for her work.
In addition to her work at Davidson, Flanagan’s prominence in her field has opened doors to her around the world. The State Department has hired her regularly since the mid-1990s as an American cultural ambassador and sent her a half-dozen times to present her work and other literary programs to audiences in almost a dozen other countries. In 2003 she became the first American writer to be sent to Central Asia since the demise of the Soviet Union, speaking to audiences in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The State Department has recently published her book In Praise of Island Women in Russian.
Flanagan’s State Department assignments have also taken her to Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Panama, and India. She found that most of her international audiences identify closely with the struggle for rights and freedom expressed in African-American literature, and are eager to learn more about the African-American experience.
What most excites her about these trips aren’t the sights she sees, but the impressions she gathers. “I always bring back an understanding of people from listening and conversing with them that feeds my own work,” said Flanagan.
|Flanagan is an expressive and passionate classroom teacher.
“I pay close attention to faces, especially. A facial expression may disturb me for weeks. Then I will try to create a life through my writing to fit that expression.”
Her writing often concerns the condition of women, and travel has shown her that women’s struggles for fairness and equality in the workplace and in education are universal. “Women’s lives are conditioned by political systems in ways that we don’t always understand,” she said. “It’s important to learn about different cultures to better understand those struggles.”
In addition to her State Department travels, Flanagan has also traveled abroad to attend workshops and do research in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Cuba.
Her own life story is an unlikely scenario of struggle and success. She scrimped and saved to be able to leave Trinidad in the late 1960s for New York City. With almost nothing to her name except a firm conviction from her childhood home that education was the key to success, she got lucky in immediately finding employment as an au pair for the great jazz singer Nina Simone.
Flanagan not only traveled around the country with Simone, but met many of the singer’s friends who were prominent figures in the arts and civil rights movements. Among them was Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, who invited Flanagan to help arrange her late husband’s files and papers.
The experiences opened up a new world of literature for Flanagan, who had grown up in a British colony studying only classic English writers like Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Flanagan came to appreciate African-American and Afro-Caribbean literature as distinct, valuable genres in which she could best express her own experiences and feelings.
After 10 years in America she was able to begin her education at a community college in Texas, but was living with an abusive husband. She and her three children eventually escaped the relationship, and Flanagan finally earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1986.
Allah in the Islands marks another return to her native culture for this writer who has enjoyed exploring so many cultures around the world. The plot focuses on Islam and reflects a real and growing influence of that religion in the Caribbean. But Flanagan said she was careful to express the particular Caribbean manifestation of Islam. She also enjoyed writing from a male point of view, which was a departure from her usual practice of approaching the story through female characters. She started the book while attending a Headlands Writers Workshop last spring in San Francisco, an opportunity made possible through a grant that accompanied her Armfield Professorship.
This prolific writer is now at work on another novel, this one set in America concerning the relationship between two sisters as one suffers breast cancer.
But she’s also involved with two non-fiction projects arising from her intriguing life experiences. One is a non-fiction book on the late Czech writer Eva Svankmajerovia, analyzing her use of surrealism to tell stories about life under Communism. The other is about her old friend and heroine, Nina Simone.
During two years in Simone’s household, Flanagan noted that the singer was deeply concerned about the civil rights movement of that era, and it seemed to affect her concerts and attitude toward American audiences. Flanagan has conducted interviews with several people who grew up with Nina Simone in Tryon, N.C., and plans to write a biographical analysis of the singer’s transformation. Flanagan has recently received a $10,000 North Carolina Arts Council grant to support that project.
Her rich variety of experiences has provided Flanagan with ample material for her work, but her success has been based on the discipline with which she approaches writing. That’s the basis of the advice she passes on to students and other aspiring writers. “Don’t wait for the muse to hit you because it is somewhere hitting someone else,” she said. “The ideas are all around you. Pay attention to people because every face tells a story. When you start typing, the words will flow.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.