Belize: A Reading Traveller’s Guide
Unlike its beaches, the shores of Belizean literature are somewhat deserted. Finding the gold requires a bit of exploration.
As the official language of the country, most books in Belize are published in English; though works can be found in Kriol, Spanish, or even one of the Mayan dialects. Not having to wait for English translations makes it that tiny bit easier to find Belizean books, though that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Latinoauthor.com has a rather gushing overview of the country’s literature, which talks of the “exquisite novels, magnificent plays, and splendid poetry” from authors “too numerous to mention” – though to my mind that’s a little over-selling it. The truth is that literature, unlike music, is still a developing artform in Belize; at least when compared to its Latin American neighbours, or Caribbean powerhouses like Jamaica or Trinidad.
If you want to build a Belizean library, the truth is you’ll be buying mainly anthologies and short story collections, and recently published books on social history. There aren’t any current Belizean authors who have yet built an international reputation, and historical Belizean writers have mostly slipped quietly into out-of-print obscurity.
The best place to start is local publishing house Cubola Productions, who are the primary (perhaps the only?) literary publishing house in Belize. They’re certainly the flag-holders for Belizean literature, particularly with their “Belizean Writers Series”. At the time of writing, there are seven titles in this series: 6 anthologies, and a slightly incongruous republication of a 1990 short story collection by David Ruiz, written in Spanish:
- Snapshots of Belize: An Anthology of Belizean Short Fiction (1995)
- Ping Wing Juk Me: Six Belizean Plays (1998)
- Of Words: An Anthology of Belizean Poetry (1999)
- If Di Pin Neva Ben: Folktales and Legends of Belize (2001)
- Memories, Dreams and Nightmares: A Short Story Anthology by Belizean Women Writers, Vol 1 (2004)
- Memories, Dreams and Nightmares: A Short Story Anthology by Belizean Women Writers, Vol 2 (2005)
- Old Benque, Erase una Vez en Benque Viejo, by David N Ruiz (2016)
Buying just one of these will put you in the top percentile of Belize readers. If you’re in the country, you’ll see that these seven books are relatively easy to find, including in the larger city supermarkets, and some museum gift shops. All are available online if you’re not.
You’ll begin to notice many of the same names cropping up in different anthologies, like Sir Colville Young, Evan X Hyde, and Zoila Ellis. Some of the contributors are young or elsewhere unpublished, though many are civic leader types, with university teaching jobs and voluntary roles on NGO boards.
As for a leader of this group, the nearest candidate is probably Zee Edgell, who is the only Belizean author with any significant international reputation. Two of her works are published by the Caribbean Writers Series, Beka Lamb (1982) and Time and the River (2007). Beka Lamb is where you’d start if you just wanted a Belizean novel to read on the ferry ride to Ambergris Caye.
Other notable works include Felicia Hernandez’s I don’t know you but I love you (1978), Evan X Hyde’s North AmeriKKKan Blues (1963), and Zoila Ellis’ On Heroes, Lizards and Passion (1988) – which I read for this blog.
Looking to history (or the last 70-odd years anyway), there isn’t a giant hoard waiting to be unearthed, though there are the odd gems if you’re willing to hunt hard enough. A 1982 article from World Literature Today says that before independence: “Belize attracted little attention either politically or scientifically”, and so is lacking even “those tracts, pamphlets and scientific studies that are the characteristic early prose works of the other imperial settlements”. The article points us in the direction (for example) of the speeches and plays of George Price, Belize’s first Prime Minister, and the poems of Raymond Barrow, who has been called the “only good poet” in Belize (albeit in the 1950s). Limited detail on these guys can be found online, but some of Barrows poems can be read here. Sourcing works by either of these would be a worthwhile treasure hunt.
Other names, like Henry E S Cain, Leo Bradley, Milton Arana, or Hugh Fuller, might be forgotten geniuses waiting to be re-discovered. You’ll have a hard time finding out though. If you want any of these more obscure works, you’re not going to find them on Amazon, and you’ll even struggle on-the-ground in Belize. The best place to look would be the network of public libraries in Belize, which have an outpost in most large towns.
In the public library in San Ignacio for example, I found English-language copies of some of these authors, and the quality seemed reasonable from my (admittedly quick) review.
Books about Belize are not much easier to find. Typing “Belize” into Amazon books gives you pages and pages of travel guides, with the only exceptions being some British army memoirs and “Part 2” of a grim-sounding self-published romantic novel: Belize: Bad Boys on the Beach (“this filthy talking, muscular Navy SEAL who has his crosshairs set on me isn’t backing down. I won’t be able to stand up to his hotness for long. I’m ready to surrender and let him claim his spoils of war…” Yikes.)
However if you’re in the country you’ll be able to find a recent social history on one topic or another, from public health to the Guatemala territorial dispute. There isn’t an awful lot of history to cover, but two of the most interesting (again from Cubola) seem to be: British Honduras: The invention of a colonial territory by Dr. Odile Hoffmann (2014) and an account of the old mahogany trade Family and People all Well… by Roy Murray (2006).
Read all this and, congratulations, you’re now the best-read tourist in Belize.
This article is part of my journey reading books around the world. It is a wholly subjective account of the country and the book, written with only good intentions. A marginally less subjective list of reading recommendations from this country is sometimes published separately.