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Discussion: Heart of Darkness — Caribbean Noir

By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2012 Bocas Lit fest blogger


Lisa Allen-Agostini, Johnny Temple and Achy Obejas discuss regional noir’s qualities.
More dead bodies, please!The truly funny thing is that Trinidad Noir editor Lisa Allen-Agostini was only half-jesting when she claimed that this is what’s needed to populate an authentic noir story. Actually, Lisa’s co-panellists, Johnny Temple and Achy Obejas, agreed wholeheartedly: when it comes to writing successful, compelling, wondrously dark noir, there’s no colour-by-numbers pattern.Moderator Georgia Popplewell asked Temple, the founder of Akashic Books (a publishing house that specializes in, according to their official site, “the reverse gentrification of the literary world”) about the conceptualization of the widely popular noir series. It began, he responded, with tales of cities: the tale of Brooklyn, to be specific, Brooklyn Noir having been the inaugural title in what would come to be a series where every subsequent book printed has been successful. This is a rare feat, I thought, for anthologies: the inevitable mixed bag of style and quality you glean while reading them tends to earn mostly uneven, shaky reviews. Not so for Akashic’s Noir series, Temple pointed out, adding that people are drawn to these regionally-themed collections that explore the gritty underbelly of human motivation.

What, one wonders, is the Caribbean point of reference for noir writing, in a region not commonly associated with the genre? Achy Obejas, editor of Havana Noir, pointed out that in this avenue of storytelling, writers have the freedom to cast their city (in this case, the city of Havana prompted and inspired the stories she edited), in all its ironic and gloriously confusing contradictions. This is one of the beauties of noir work, she added: that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive, that it can describe a city or country’s maladies to the letter without feeling the burden of diagnosing one course of treatment over the other. Allen-Agostini chimed in with the grim reminder that, for an island itself founded on the scarred back of criminal conquest, it’s hardly surprising that the stories in Trinidad Noir are so crime-centric: they’re reflecting, without pulling a single punch, the dangers inherent in merely attempting to live in this complex, chaotic space.

The panellists all concur: in the best noir they’ve encountered, there is an amorality that chills.

Kingston Noir is the next Akashic title on the horizon, Temple informed the audience with entirely justified glee: it’s hard not to get excited about a collection that hosts stories from Kwame Dawes, Marlon James, Kei Miller and others. For a region without any discernible recorded noir tradition, he mused, the Caribbean is ripe for these stories, and utterly receptive to their telling. Most writers who contribute to the anthologies seemed to understand this, the panel remarked: that the telling of good tales went beyond open and shut CSI cases, far beyond Law and Order imitations. That’s the message I took away with me: that noir can mean different, subtle, nerve-wracking things across different countries… that, and that so much depends on where you choose to hide the bodies.

Photo by Annie Paul.