I received the review you did on my How to Escape from a Leper Colony on your blog Signifyin Guyana. I’m not a big internet person and so received it via post from my publisher. Thank you for writing a review that highlighted quite of few of my stories in detail. Young Caribbean writers, most especially us women, sometimes have a hard time getting positive attention, even amongst our sisters, so I do thank you for the review. Given this, however, I was deeply hurt to visit your blog and see that in addition to your review you also wrote an essay suggesting that one of my stories was plagiarized.
Firstly, thank you for introducing me to Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw—a writer I had never heard of before reading your blog. While I did do a Fulbright at UWI Walott-Hackshaw was not a writer I was introduced to, nor was her work found on any syallabi or lists given to me my by UWI professors. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t know her or her work, as I do think it’s important for Caribbean writers to do our best to know each other. However, such lapses are impossible to avoid, given that Caribbean writers, albeit marginalized in American and European cultures, are incredible productive. It’s hard to keep up. Rather than accusing me and connecting me to a tradition of plagiarizing authors, I wish you had instead introduced two clearly kindred writers to each other. I would like to know her.
[Click on the above link to see Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw's ties to UWI].
An accusation of plagiarism is often career ending for young writers, as you note was nearly the case with Nella Larsen. Perhaps you did not consider that you were accusing me of something that may well end my career. As a young writer (this is my first book) my writing career is especially in jeopardy. Knowing this I have actually gone to incredible lengths to thank and acknowledge each person who contributed to my writing. At the opening of many of my stories there is a dedication to a person who had an overarching influence on the story’s characters and content. In addition, I have a very long thank you list of names at the back of the book. Indeed, a close look will find that listing influences is more important to me than it is to many other writers. I go as far as to acknowledge even my middle school English teacher. I thank the boss who let me use his copier machine to send out my earliest poems when I was in high school. Most of the names are of writers who directly or indirectly influenced the stories in my book. If Walcott-Hackshaw had been a writer who influenced any of my stories, her name would have been among the very many I listed.
Actually, the one book that may have most influenced "The Bridge Stories" (which is the story you are concerned with) is a book whose name and author I have forgotten for the past 15 years—someone who’s work I read in high school. That story has haunted me since I was fourteen and stayed with me, though I had never remembered the name of the book or author. In particular, the sticking element wasn’t even the story but the questions my high school English teacher asked us about the book: Why does this bridge have to fall at this time? Why is it these people’s time to go? I have never forgotten the questions or the teacher.
I do thank the teacher at the back of my book. In many interviews I have mentioned this high school story and no one has ever been able to recall the title or author. Finally, I was able to recall the name during a recent interview with Kim Foote for Mosaic Magazine. Ms. Foote had, coincidently, also read the novel in high school. The book is The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thorton Wilder. We chatted about it at length though it only makes up one line in her interview. In truth my stories, as is the case with all stories, have many godparents—some remembered and some forgotten. Walcott-Hackshaw, alas, is not one of them. I did not know she existed.
In your blog essay you also suggest that I would never allow my students to do what I did. Your statement not only jeopardizes my writing career, but in the wrong hands may risk my career as a professor as well. Such accusations are taken very seriously in academia and are often looked into deeply. As I am yet untenured, even a supposition like yours may hurt my tenure prospects. Thus, as a professor, I must I must also defend what is allowed in the classroom and in writing in general.
Note that in just my response here there are already two stories that use bridges to connect peoples of desperate backgrounds. In the Wilder there are also the same religious and ethnic issues that both Walcott-Hackshaw and I explore. Did Walcott-Hackshaw plagiarize off of Wilder then? Is everyone doing it? No. A bridge connecting diversity is a trope in literature. This is why Junot Diaz might say in an interview that he was influenced by Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texacos tructure when writing The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but he need not cite this in his book. This is why a poet who writes a poem about visiting the Vietnam memorial need not cite Yusef Komunyakaa. Chamoiseau was not even the first to use the voice within a voice structure, Komunyakaa is not the first person to write a poem about Vietnam war vets, and Walcott-Hackshaw is not the first to use a bridge to connect otherwise disconnected people. A writer cannot be expected to cite influences that she or he does not know exist; but moreover, a writer need not and likely would not, cite influences that are part of the common literary culture. To clarify with a very obvious example; there are many stories that end with star-crossed lovers taking their own life—most of them do not thank Shakespeare for writing Romeo and Juliet. Nor should they. In Shakespeare’s time the story was already old. Even he got it from somebody else.
I hope I am clarifying that your suggestion of plagiarism was not only unfounded in my case, but unfair in general. Many stellar students discover similarities between two texts and flesh them out in their essays. Many excellent PhD dissertations address just this reality. Stories that have much in common often have different sources. It is understood as one of the pleasures to explore about our literary and cultural reality—not plagiarism.
If you were curious about the connections you could have contacted me very easily. We live in the same city. We attend the same events. We have even met in person. Now your readers, many of whom have not yet read my book, have already formed their ill-informed thoughts about my stories and have influenced their reader friends. The damage you may have caused will be difficult to rectify. It is especially painful coming from a Caribbean woman who I would like to call my sister.
I would love your faithful readers to try my book with an open mind. I hope you will be willing to post this email communication in its entirety on your blog so that your readers may have a broader picture of me and my writing. If you are willing, I would most like if you not simply post this as a response to your initial blog. Most readers don’t read all the responses. Instead, I hope you will give my response the same attention given your initial essay so that readers of your blog will have the opportunity to hear me out.