Hopefully the parties involved in organising literary festivals where such conversations exist are listening, because the issue of what makes a Caribbean writer seems to be hot on the tongues of many. My last article on Monique Roffey’s blog post and Wasafiri article was in a way one manifestation of that and so was a recent exchange via two Caribbean writers on a facebook thread and I am sure it is happening elsewhere. I am not terribly swayed by the trend of resisting definition, or the popularity of a kind of tortured relativism. I believe there exist definitions malleable enough so that being a Caribbean Writer does not have to consist of a checkpoint and the presentation of a pass of any sort.
The first thing I actually resist completely is ironically, determining WHO is a Caribbean writer. I am much more concerned with the question of WHAT is Caribbean writing, what is a work, as I said in the Roffey piece that is attempting a deep probing of Caribbean society or of Caribbean lives, or one that shows an adequate amount of awareness to the deeper Caribbean while writing a story, whatever its theme. Although academia is not the best or safest example, but one notes the mourning of a European scholar who had contributed much to the research of religions in St. Lucia by the Information Officer at the Folk Research Centre as a loss for St. Lucia, or the importance of figures like Allan Lomax and Melville Herskovitz to several Caribbean writers. For some of them, the work done by these would have been as important as James Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ for writers in Modernist Europe. The question is a difficult one but is made exceedingly elusive by trying to pin PEOPLE down. How do we look at texts like ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by Baldwin, or Kwame Dawes’ ‘Wisteria’, or Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Tell My Horse?’ Persons could argue whether these works are truly Caribbean works, or works of American Literature or even Black-American Literature. Or what of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’, British or American Literature?
The point is, just as we do on twitter now, we follow a writer, we observe. We know that the black-american identity politics and civil rights were not all that bugged Baldwin, and for a man who had lived for such a long time in Europe, the society he was dealing with had changed and so there were different things to deal with, things that figured more prominently than others in this new space. What of Naipaul? Is ‘Among the Believers’ Caribbean Literature? It is written by a Caribbean person, born and raised but is it something we care to claim? In looking for Caribbean Writers, we really may follow the deception of the thrush and consider Twitter, that we follow this and that person because they talk about things we are interested in, but understand that that will not be all they will talk about or that they will not talk about this forever, but we have seen their profundity of insight in one particular area and trust them in a sense to at least be insightful all, if not most of the time. Yet our interest is our interest. We may scroll past the posts that don’t cater to them.
Can it be that writing from a British writer could be Caribbean? My answer is yes, but it will take so much out of that British writer that he will in a sense ‘become Caribbean’. The same goes for an African or East Indian writer. I do not know much of his story now, but I had come across Louis James, who penned the contentious book, ‘The Islands in Between’, while reading Anne Walmsley’s book on the Caribbean Artist Movement. I recall being very impressed and taken by his diligence and commitment to the group. Could I see someone like that later churning out a major Caribbean work, born out of a profound engagement? Certainly. And for the record, that sort of thing is more likely to happen this way than the other way around.
A writer assumes a responsibility, (especially poets :p), when he decides he is going to recreate life, when he decides he is going to re-member his society in a work of fiction or a poem (which is its own work of fiction). That writer cannot feel entitled, by birth, to be considered as someone penning Caribbean works. Some of my first work, like I am sure many writing in my generation have experienced, was rejected for, among other reasons, not being Caribbean enough. This of course can sound terribly offensive—- for it feels like pigeon-holing, sounds reductive. And in some cases it is all of those things. But there is something worth taking from such an experience. Literature is about concern, or concerns. Its feet are very much on the ground, whether Careme or in snow. Kei Miller on a Facebook thread gave an excellent example using Kwame Dawes. Born in Ghana to Jamaican and Ghanian parents and having lived there for the first ten or so years of his life, but has lived in Jamaica for a large part of his life and also in the United States. Kwame himself has spoken about his residing in the United States and the connections to and through his work. The issue is complex but it is being made difficult by the tawdry metrics of birth and race and place of residence and on the other end, excessive urbanity and a fawning eagerness to accommodate, to be of the World. Some good questions are: How much has a writer been shaped by such writing that has concerned itself with the Caribbean? How much has their sensibility been shaped by the peculiar drama of the Caribbean whether they live there or not? Isnt, for instance, the pertinence of T.S. Eliot and his adoption as a model for Caribbean poets, because he spoke to a particular Caribbean drama?
One of the worst ways of measuring it is by place of residence. Many of our best and most prolific writers reside outside their home countries, outside the Caribbean and in various metropolises around the World. That has its limitations and its strengths for analysis of a society. The belligerent provincial Papa-Doc critics who grandcharge and boisterously insist on the superiority or authenticity of the on-the-ground perspective do not understand the complexity of the issue and their own limitations for privileging their on-the-groundness.
I myself found it much easier to write about St. Lucia from Trinidad. And I am sure many have had that experience. In fact, the writer’s trudge into his/her room can take on an aura of migration, can bring him into a space where s/he does not feel the pressure of the society in a certain way. Some may use aroma therapy, or candles, or prayer, but s/he is seeking some form of solitude, some form of clarity that is gleaned from but ultimately above the day-to-day experience. Sometimes, for some personalities maybe, fairness requires that; sapience and compassion too.
The fact that the Caribbean is now selling citizenship to the outside world means that the whole issue may become distasteful and nasty. Even before this, we have the perverts of any movement or intellectual strain who see the Caribbean as firstly, a black people’s home or an indian people’s home or white people who believe it is firstly their home. It is very dangerous to not be able to discern the perverts of any movement. Not being able to do this prompts us to jettison the entire endeavour, to miss the point, to discourage others from finding the value that was there to be had in the more honest and fair explorations taking place. So it is that several terms have egressed to signify the victory of such perversions which make genuine and integral concerns easily dispensable, become things we have or should have graduated from.
The search for the Caribbean writer will not lead us to an essence. And if it does, it is an essence we would have to look back upon to see the ground covered, not something we can determine prima facie in the here and now or from even looking at a writer’s first few books. If we want to do the latter, then we can be prepared for the fact that this person may or may not always be a Caribbean writer. Any definition of persons is always partial, always limited, always something that can be changed or overwhelmed. That is the beauty life and even of essences, that they have their own judgement day which looks back on a life or a career or vocation, in its fullness and then assigns a person their place; a place that is always complex, always debatable. A proper cogitation on what essences are obliterates all the experts on human beings. This is why I love this quote from CLR James which is the overarching epigraph for my debut collection and in some ways, my life:
“Essence is a movement. It is the analysis of ground which tells us what that movement is: Our abstract little spirit who didn’t know what he was by his futile becomings was by degrees establishing some ground.” (emphasis mine) Notes on the Dialectics
In the present tense(ion) though, I find it really more useful to read the works. To look at this and that work as Caribbean writing. Of course the Caribbean can be a lax space that accepts things too easily, and may be overeager to welcome the visitor from the metropole, or to give honorary or real citizenship. But Literature is about concern, and it reveals persons’ level of engagement and even care for a society; care which will not always take and should not take the form of apologism. This concern will not always take the form of content, will not always be a direct engagement with the most austere or apparent politics of identity or history, but may address it in tone, may include it somehow in the inner-time and inner-place of the narrative.
How writers define themselves some times are based on myths that they create or perceive to guide their journey. Kwame Dawes again gives a really wonderful example of the complexity of the issue in a recent interview with The Missing Slate:
“I embrace multiple identities and see no problem with that because they have the coherence of my past experiences in the world, and also have a philosophical coherence that is useful to me. I was born and grew up in Ghana. I have many relatives who live in Ghana. My mother is Ghanaian. For many years I traveled on a Ghanaian passport. Indeed, I did not secure US citizenship until 2010, despite having lived here for many years. At the same time, my father was Jamaican and I had my formative years in Jamaica in high school and university and beyond. My immediate family lives in Jamaica. I sound Jamaican and speak Jamaican. I believe that I am a product of the Caribbean or West Indian literary tradition. At the same time, I lived in South Carolina for many years, and there is little question that the experience has shaped my work. I have understood myself as part of the long tradition of Africans in America, and that legacy is important to me. The African American community embraced me in South Carolina and I welcomed that embrace and the things I learned about this part of the African Diaspora. These connections have grown out of the pressure of racial construction that has been aggressively punitive and exploitative in the world, a pressure that has shaped a wonderful culture of affinity and solidarity. At the same time, it is academic in the sense that the historical lines of migration that have given rise to the current shape of Africa and its diaspora are rich with cultural dynamics and truths that deserve celebration and exploration.
For a writer, these deep historical connections, these narratives, if you will, are a rich source for creative possibilities—for myths, for a sense of identity and place and for narratives of survival and achievement. Finally, in a historical moment that has produced such remarkable creative phenomenon as reggae, jazz, art, theatre, and much else, emerging from this diasporic tradition, I welcome that opportunity it gives me to find affinity and possibility. I do not feel divided in anyway.”
To name down Caribbean writers in the present tense I suspect, is more unfruitful than looking at the work. Will it be legitimate for us to claim a work written and published in Britain, by a British born and raised writer (or French or German for that matter) as a piece of Caribbean literature (honorary or rootsical)???? I say, yes. But that writer has a lot of work to do.