Saturday, 23 May 2020


Opal Palmer Adisa is a Jamaican writer, poet, academic and the director of The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. In 2015, she launched Interviewing the Caribbean, a project to spotlight Caribbean “artists at home and in the Diaspora”, getting them to discuss their work and the arts of the region in general. 

Writer and scholar Opal Palmer Adisa.
After receiving wide acclaim from the beginning, the project now has a home at UWI, becoming an official journal of the university's press. 

SWAN met up with Palmer Adisa in Paris, France, last December, following her attendance at a conference on gender. 

We discussed her work - she has written some 20 books including novels and collections of stories and poetry, almost all of which are set in Jamaica or are about some aspect of island life - and in our conversation, we explored the importance of Interviewing the Caribbean as a long-term project and publication.

Describing herself as being “Jamaican to the bone”, Palmer Adisa also endorses and advocates for Caribbean federation. The following interview was completed via email.

SWAN: How did Interviewing the Caribbean begin?

Opal Palmer Adisa: I had been nursing the idea for 10 years, hoping to get a windfall to publish a yearly, fully coloured journal. I kept putting it off, then when Steve Jones agreed to partner with me and do design layout, we met and I concluded that online was the most feasible route, and that it would still be beautiful. So, in 2014 I decided to see who would respond to my call. Also, I believe the first issue had to have an important Caribbean name to set a precedence, and when Junot Diaz agreed to my interview, then I was on. Interviewing the Caribbean was launched and premiered in 2015.

SWAN: What were your main aims with the project and subsequent publication?

The first issue of Interviewing the Caribbean.
OPA: My primary goal was to give Caribbean writers and artists a place to talk about their own work.  There still isn’t a lot of critique on and about Caribbean writers and artists.  But also, as a writer whose works have been reviewed and critiqued, I often feel: I wish the person writing about my work had interviewed me to get some things right. I wanted to provide the platform for writers and artists to talk about their own work, to explore their process and intention in writing a piece, or creating a piece of art, and in general to have them share ideas about their work. This objective has not changed, but I am more deeply committed to the inherent value of this self-critiquing process.

SWAN: The Caribbean has produced numerous writers and artists. How has the project been able to highlight their contributions to a more global audience?

OPA: I remain firm in my belief of wanting to provide space for new or emerging writers and artists as well as established ones, and each issue of the journal has fulfilled that commitment. This is an exciting time for Caribbean literature at home and throughout the Diaspora. Although most of us are still unable to make a living from our work, more of us are winning awards, being recognized on the international market, and the work of more diverse writers are being heard and shared. I would like to think that we are a part of that trend. We have received submissions from Caribbean writers in Asia and New Zealand, so I believe the word is getting out there. We are striving to access the global market more.

SWAN: Interviewing the Caribbean now has an institutional home at the University of the West Indies (Mona campus). What does this mean for its longevity and impact?

A novel by Opal Palmer Adisa.
OPA: I am truly grateful that the UWI Press agreed to partner with us and commit to the journal. This is huge because of the solid reputation of the UWI Press, and also its reach. As we continue to expand our readership and membership, the position of the journal will be solidified and its continuity, after I no longer edit it, will be guaranteed. There is no other journal of its kind in the Caribbean, and it fills an important need. The UWI Press recognized this; being one of its journals will, I believe, enhance the stature and provide entrée into more academic spaces for IC to be used as a text in literature and art courses.

SWAN: The project also supports Caribbean publishing, a sector that comprises many dynamic professionals - who nevertheless face both new and longstanding challenges. What can be done to provide greater support for Caribbean-based publishing, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic?

OPA: There are two factors here: readership and the cost of printing that makes the purchase of books prohibitive in the Caribbean. With more attention to e-books this might support such efforts. We have to get people in the Caribbean to read and buy books for their children outside of school texts. We have to get the general population reading more. Some people do, but not enough, and cost is a factor, but also, in general, we are not a reading society. Ministries of education throughout the region have to invest in Caribbean books for children, and fund the library system so more books can be purchased. It will take a multitier approach - advertisement promoting reading among adults.

SWAN: Countries in the Caribbean region have a shared history and common concerns, and the literary reality can be a range of projects with similar themes. Ideas are like the wind - free to everyone. How do you retain originality, while maintaining your creative generosity?

The cover of the latest issue of
Interviewing the Caribbean.
OPA: What is original is how we tell the same story, about the same place and the same people. Simple, I focus on the story I am telling and try not to eavesdrop or tell someone else’s story. All writers borrow bits and pieces we hear and then we stitch our own composite. It’s your voice, however you define that and keeping true to that, that makes you original. You and I will hear the same story, but given our personal history, we will tell it differently that at times it is not even recognizable. I remember once writing a story about a woman from details she provided me with. However, when she read the story, she didn’t recognize herself or her story. I don’t think I disguised or distorted what she said, but I told it through my own lens and it transformed into a story not about her, even though it was based on details she told me, but rather a story about a woman conjured up from my imagination.

SWAN: How has the project affected your own work as a writer, poet and teacher?

OPA: A great deal. I am not writing as much, but I discovered that I love editing, and interviewing, and I feel as if I am making such an important contribution. I am really okay where I currently am in life. I am not teaching anymore, at least not full time so that is not impacted. I am still writing poetry, because I must, because I am driven, because without it I might not remain with my two feet on the ground. However, doing a journal is a full-time preoccupation. Before you are done with one issue, you are thinking about the next - who to interview? Is the theme relevant? Will you get enough good submissions to produce an issue, ad nauseam? And then there is the constant challenge after numerous emails to get writers and artists to submit their bios and photos… the nitty gritty work; it requires so much effort, back and forth, to receive all that is required to get the issue done. 

SWAN: What is the focus of the current issue, and who are the personalities featured?

The journal invites submissions for a special
issue devoted to late poet Kamau Brathwaite.
OPA: For the first time I had a co-editor, Juleus Ghunta, and that was such an amazing help and collaboration. I had decided on the theme in advance and because Juleus is an emerging writer, with a children’s book, and I liked his insight, I invited him to co-edit with me; he brought a lot to the project and was more in tune with those publishing in this arena. The issue we just completed is the 2nd of a two-volume feature on children’s literature and features some amazing writers, publishers and illustrators of children literature for the Caribbean.

SWAN: How do you visualize Interviewing the Caribbean in 2030?

OPA: That it is a coffee table book in every household that reads. That it is translated in all the major languages spoken throughout the Caribbean, and funded to offer more prizes to contributors.

SWAN: What is next for you, as a writer, poet and academic?

OPA: I want to make films of my work and other works. I want to write about 10 more novels and children’s books. I want to launch a literary journal for children of the same caliber as IC; it is a goal I have been working on since 2012 when I was living in St Croix.  I want and plan to continue to be open to life and live fully. - SWAN

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