Voices of the Islands

Local author Bob Antoni casts a literary net and pulls in a long-overdue compilation of Caribbean writers

This is a historic moment for Miami."
Bob Antoni is not a demonstrative individual, at least not in the physical sense. The earnest but soft-spoken 38-year-old Miami writer, whose dense, intense Divina Trace won the 1992 Commonwealth Award for best first novel, seems more comfortable letting his written words do the talking. So when he utters such a sweeping statement with such conviction, you know he means it.

Antoni is speaking about the just-released issue of Conjunctions, a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College. The title of the current edition, which he assembled in tandem with the periodical's editor novelist Bradford Morrow, is "The Archipelago: New Writing From and About the Caribbean." Thick as a two-by-four, it is stunningly broad in scope, with works by Nobel laureates Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Derek Walcott and lyrics by Port-au-Prince troubadour/mayor Manno Charlemagne, as well as contributions from Miamians Fred D'Aguiar, Adrian Castro, and Antoni, who grew up in Freeport, Bahamas, and moved here after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. A painting by Jose Bedia, a Cuban artist now living in Miami, adorns the cover.

Far from being a best seller -- a fate, not surprisingly, shared by all the so-called literary magazines -- Conjunctions has always taken risks, gravitating toward the nontraditional. Last year Morrow and Antoni agreed to collaborate on an issue that would highlight works from the Caribbean, an area that has spawned or inspired large numbers of contemporary writers but -- unlike, say, the southern United States -- has remained largely unexamined in terms of a genre. The endeavor stood to be an apt match for Conjunctions contentwise, too, with its rich mix of cultures and languages, races and religions. "It almost requires looking for and forging new forms," explains Antoni, sitting on a sofa in the sparely decorated, tile-floored living room of the two-story house on the Venetian Causeway that he shares with his wife and their newborn son. "I think this is why at this moment some of the most experimental, the most risky, writing is coming out of the region."

Morrow had published a chapter of Antoni's Divina Trace in Conjunctions, and a friendship between the two novelists soon developed. "Last year he and I just started talking about 'How do you define the Caribbean as a geographical space?'" Antoni recounts. "Even if you talk about the crescent of islands from Miami to Caracas, there's still all of those coastal regions of South America that consider themselves Caribbean. And what do you do about New York and Toronto and London, where there are huge communities of Caribbean people living and writers working?"

The answer, they decided, was to try to make their anthology as inclusive as possible. Says Morrow, who lives in New York City and founded Conjunctions fifteen years ago: "We wondered, What if we could get Marquez, Walcott, Wilson Harris, some of the pre-boom writers, right on up to the younger generation -- Cristina Garcia, Edwidge Danticat? One thing just led to another. It was an idea that was clearly very timely -- and it was a joy."

They got Garcia Marquez -- whose magical realism Antoni counts among his own most profound influences -- through that author's agent in Barcelona, where Antoni escapes each year to write when he's not teaching in the English department at the University of Miami. Persuading Harris, an elderly Guyanese writer who lives in London, to contribute was even easier. "He's probably in his eighties now, and he's been doing this postmodern stuff for years -- incredibly obscure, incredibly experimental," Antoni says. "I've always admired him, and I wrote to him out of the blue. It just so happened that he'd been to a conference where a paper on Divina Trace was read -- my book! My letter was waiting for him when he got back, and he wrote back to me immediately."

Antoni is equally excited at having the chance to disseminate the work of younger writers. He recalls faxing Morrow some of Adrian Castro's poems: "I've always loved his stuff, but not too many people outside Miami know of him. And Brad said, 'Where did you get this guy?!'

"We have a new piece from Cristina Garcia," he goes on, commencing a recitation from the table of contents. "From Julia Alvarez's new book. Bob Shacochis's new book. Antonio Benitez-Rojo -- the current piece that he's working on. Rosario Ferre's new book. Edwidge Danticat's new book. Madison Smartt Bell's new book. Fred D'Aguiar's new book. This is the new stuff!"

For Antoni the project also represents a collaboration among friends, a party of sorts. "It's almost like a family gathering. Some of my friends didn't make it, which is distressing. They didn't manage to show up, but they're there in spirit."

Some of the ones who did make it will show up at the Miami Book Fair International this weekend to share their works at a pair of "Archipelago" readings. "It's a natural," says Mitchell Kaplan, whose tireless work at the annual event and at his two Books & Books shops has gained him renown (if not a financial windfall) as a friend and patron of writers everywhere. "We're really pleased to be able to do something like this. It falls squarely in the realm of what we at the book fair have always tried to do: present writers from all over the world, and particularly the Caribbean."

Antoni's involvement, Kaplan adds, is especially gratifying: "He's one of our own."

"Voices from the Archipelago," a pair of readings at the Miami Book Fair International, will be held in the Batten Community Room at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus, 300 NE 2nd Ave. On Saturday at 2:30 p.m, Bradford Morrow hosts Rosario Ferre, Bob Shacochis, Adrian Castro, Edwidge Danticat, and a musical tribute to Manno Charlemagne. On Sunday at 10:00 a.m., Bob Antoni hosts Cristina Garcia, Fred D'Aguiar, Merle Collins, Kwadwo Agymah Kamau, and a second tribute to Charlemagne. Admission is free. For more information about the book fair see this week's "Calendar Listings" or call 237-3258.

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