I just recently got back from one of the world’s best book sales, the Ithaca Friends of the Library twice-annual (May and October) sale. While there, I found a copy of Jan Carew’s Children of the Sun, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon in 1980. The story seemed familiar, so I did a little digging in my collection and found a version by Carew, also entitled “Children of the Sun,” in Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, edited by Andrew Salkey, also published in 1980. The two versions are similar, but not the same, and the differences bear examination because they point to the differing publishing concerns of the American mainstream and British independent markets.
Carew was one of those West Indians who grew up under the shadow of the British Empire (he was born in Guyana in 1920), educated in the West but always using that education to embrace his roots. He broadcasted his work on the BBC’s “Caribbean Voices” program during the 1950s (he and V.S. Naipaul used to go to the pub after the programme), and he taught Race Relations and African-American history at British and American universities, while at the same time getting involved in Black Power and Civil Rights activities. He once said, “I am not interested in stirring up race hatred . . . but I am interested in exposing it” (see Margaret Busby’s obituary for Carew in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/dec/21/jan-carew). He was also interested in promoting the deep heritage of the people of the Caribbean, and the many ways that their histories (sufferings and triumphs) intertwined and overlapped.
The story that Carew presents (in both versions) is of a beautiful human woman, Tihona, impregnated by the sun, who gives birth to twin boys. The twins are unalike in personality, one (Pia) being gentle and the other (Makunaima) who is reckless and bad-tempered. When they grow up, the Sun asks them if they would rather be great or good, and sends them on a quest to find out what kind of person they will choose to become. The story comes from the Carib myth system, but I did not learn this from reading the forewords, jacket flaps, or introductions to either the Dillon or the Salkey book. In fact, the way that these two versions of the story are presented is the first striking feature about the books.
The fact that neither mention the Carib tribal origin is not unusual; even today, the “warlike Carib” are placed in stories for children as counter to the “peaceful Arawak” as the two groups (there were others, but never mind) that greeted Columbus in the New World. The Carib, who had a (probably legendary) reputation for cannibalistic rituals, were not the children’s book tribe of choice for myths and legends (yes, give us raping, pillaging Roman or Greek gods any day!). But the way that these books describe the origin of the legend is important. The picture book version of Children of the Sun describes the tale as one that “subtly weaves the threads of several universal myths into a tapestry of startling originality” (or so says the jacket flap). Andrew Salkey, on the other hand, is much more specific about place. In his editor’s introduction to Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, he writes, “from Guyana, the beautiful, haunting Amerindian legend of the entry of the gods into the real world, presented by Jan Carew in his epic, Children of the Sun” (8). The difference between these two is at first surprising—the Dillons’ version universalizes the story, not even giving it a regional origin, whereas Salkey specifies it to a place and people.
The key to understanding the difference is in terms of publisher and audience. The Dillons’ illustrated version was published by the mainstream Boston press, Little, Brown and Company. The audience for the book would be largely American—which is to say, North American and mostly child readers in the US and Canada (where the book was simultaneously published by Little Brown). The Dillons were known for their illustrations of African and African-American subjects, and their illustrations for this book are no exception. Calling Carew’s Carib-based legend a “universal” story and keeping the setting vague allows the Dillons to depict the children of the sun with African features, and gives the story a wider audience (something that a major American publisher probably would have pressed to achieve).
It might seem problematic that the Dillon version erases the Amerindian roots of the tale in favor of a universalized (but vaguely African) tale. After all, the obliteration of the tribal people of the Caribbean and South America that began with Columbus has frequently been a topic of criticism; the Dillon version might be seen as one more step in this direction. But it is unlikely that Jan Carew saw it this way. Carew was interested in encouraging the unity of all formally colonized and oppressed people. Proof for this can be found in the other version of “Children of the Sun,” in Salkey’s book. Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, unlike the Dillons’ version, was published by Bogle L’Ouverture Press, an independent Black British press that had a small but specific audience: the children of West Indian immigrants to Britain who never saw themselves in British literature. Jessica and Eric Huntley, who started Bogle L’Ouverture, were keen to make these new British subjects aware of their Caribbean roots. Hence Salkey’s introductory comments about Carew’s Guyanese and Amerindian text. But additionally, the version in this book brings in African people. Tihona, the twins’ mother, finds herself with new neighbors, the “ebony people” who have brought their own gods with them—including “Anancy the Spiderman, a god and trickster all in one” (94). When Sun complains of these new gods to the Great Spirit (who is the god over all other gods) answers him in a way that sums up Carew’s philosophy: “My Kingdom of the Sky is so vast, there’s room for any stranger-god who comes in peace” (94). Carew, through both versions of his story, found a way to bring together all the children of the sun.