IT is part of the Caribbean’s psyche to always question itself, says Amanda Choo Quan, winner of the 2020 Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize (JAACWP). Questions revolving around identity and what it means to be Trinbagonian were discussed in newspaper editorials as far back as the 50s and they continue to be asked today.
As she worked on honing her skills as a writer throughout the years, Choo Quan found herself asking the same questions. When she interviewed people from all spheres of life while writing for the magazine Caribbean Belle, she always asked her subjects: what does being Trinbagonian mean to you? Ironically, it was while living and studying abroad for the better part of a decade that Choo Quan spent a great deal of time ruminating on what the word ‘home’ actually meant to her.
“I was forced to reckon with what it means not just to be Trinbagonian but also to be proud of your Trinbagonian-ness,” she says.
Her experience while living in Los Angeles and trying to find her voice as a Caribbean writer motivated her to write her award-winning submission It Starts with a Shatter—an extract from her work An Emotional History of the West Indies. Choo Quan and two other Trinidadians, Melissa Doughty and Amilcar Sanatan, vied for the non-fiction category in the second year of the prize which is administered by the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Arvon in the UK.
In her work, Choo Quan analyses the Caribbean experience and she addresses the compulsion to describe Trinidadians as ‘one’.
“I don’t believe that we should be investing in the idea that we are all one when it is very clear that we are not—and that’s ok,” says the writer, who explains that a person’s idea of being Trinidadian is influenced by several factors including race, class, ethnic group and religion. “I think it’s really healthy for a society to acknowledge differences because it’s all of those differences that combine to create nationhood. And I think it’s dangerous to say we are all the same because it gives you a sense that to be Trinidadian is to be on an equal playing field or that everyone is being valued equally and the recent protests here show that there is some work to be done as far as that is concerned. We need to acknowledge that there is a part of Trinidad that is not idyllic and that not everyone has the same Trinidadian experience.”
Ever since Choo Quan can remember, she has always poured out her feelings and emotions through writing, much to the chagrin of her family, she adds with a chuckle. “Everyone has their ‘thing’, my thing is writing. Whenever I’m upset I need to express it publicly to see if people can relate to it,” she says.
Some fears, lots of excitement
Her writing inspirations are very diverse; they include Jamaica Kincaid, CLR James and Kei Miller, just to name a few.
She sees writing as an act of building a nation; an author asserts their nation’s identity through its literature, she adds. For example, great works of literature like A House for Mr Biswas is not just an artistic work to enjoy but an assertion of what it means to reckon with issues of nationhood in T&T, she says. Given the important role literature plays in our society, all of us have an obligation to encourage young ones to read more, says Choo Quan.
“Becoming a ‘whole’ person who considers one’s fellow man and engages in ideas beyond a particular field comes from being able to digest the knowledge, thoughts and feelings of different cultures and people. I believe that reading a book opens up your mind to different worlds and possibilities, goals and aspirations you might have for yourself. But I also think it tells you that your story is valid particularly for people who think their voices are not being heard,” she says.
While studying at the California Institute of the Arts where she pursued an MFA in Creative Writing, Choo Quan worked as a publicist for writers; building their careers and getting their work published. Now that she is the winner of the JAACWP, she will have the opportunity to progress her winning work of non-fiction. It’s a daunting thought for Choo Quan who in the past has been insecure about publishing her work.
“I’m really happy for my award but the fact that I have won isn’t a motivating factor for me. What motivates me is to write something that I can have faith in that is an accurate expression of how I feel. Getting the writing right is more important than winning anything,” she says.
Choo Quan holds her writing to a high standard, the fact that a panel of judges praised her work made her realise she needed to give herself more credit. But the prize also feels like a challenge, a reminder that there are people looking on at what she does next and that’s a responsibility that weighs on her shoulders.
“I’m a little bit scared but I’m also excited,” she says. All her life, Choo Quan has worked toward becoming a professional writer. She is proud to be in the company of other emerging Caribbean writers including her peers Doughty and Sanatan who, like herself, are also committed to writing and literature.
“The more Caribbean writers, the more of an industry you create,” says Choo Quan. “We need more people writing, more people taking their writing seriously, more people seeing themselves as professional writers in order to build this industry.”