Edgar Mittelholzer


Guyana's Greatest Novelist (1909-1965)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006



"Shadows Move Among Them" by Edgar Mittelholzer


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Edgar Mittelholtzer - a wife's memoir

Two elements have always lived within me . . . The Idyll . . . The Warrior . . .' Edgar Mittelholzer, A Swarthy Boy.

I met Edgar on the coach on the way to the Writers' Summer School in Derbyshire. 'Is this seat taken?' he asked, and I replied: 'No.'

Our first conversation was about graveyards and old churches, reincarnation (in which we both believed) and writing. He told me how he liked to make the characters in his novels 'a little nutty', for he felt that this would excuse any extraordinary views they expressed or any extraordinary incidents he invented. In The Weather in Middenshot, for example, there is an old man who believes - or pretends to believe - that his very living and present wife is dead. Whenever he needs to communicate with her, he stages a spiritualistic seance. And in A Tinkling in the Twilight (which Edgar had just published, in 1959, when I met him) many ideas about which the author was really quite serious are put across in a mocking fashion - yoga, reincarnation, and views on crime and punishment.

Was it the down-to-earth side of him, or was it an inconsistent lack of sureness, which made a person who usually wrote and spoke with such conviction use this mocking cover? Either way, he cannot have been content to let his beliefs rest with this light-hearted tone; for later came the outspoken The Piling of Clouds, The Wounded and the Worried and The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham.

I remember being impressed by the way Edgar (who, in that year when I met him, had fourteen published novels and one non-fiction work, With a Carib Eye, to his credit) behaved at the summer school with all the modesty of a beginner.

Born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1909, he was living in London, Maida Vale, when I met him. He had four children by his first marriage, but was divorced. His first wife was a Trinidadian. After World War II, when he was demobbed from the Trinidad Naval Reserve, he lived for six years in Trinidad. Then he managed to come to England where he worked for the British Council, helping in a 'typing pool', until he began to try to live entirely by his writing.

In Georgetown, Guyana, he had once worked as a meteorologist. He was fascinated by weather, and at home we had a number of charts, thermometers, barometers and hygrometers. One sees his interest in weather in many of the novels. The Weather in Middenshot and The Weather Family are obvious examples.

He had always had a chequered career with his writing. His first novel to be accepted, Corentyne-Thunder, was published only after a series of 'ups and downs'; and there was an interval of nine years before the appearance of his next published novel, A Morning at the Office, in 1950.

Although he became known as a leading 'West Indian novelist', he never liked the label. In fact, he used to point out that Guyana is not, strictly speaking, part of the West Indies. All his later novels were set in England but one of his own favourites among his novels was a Caribbean one - Shadows Move Among Them.

Edgar had always felt he would be more at home in England than in his native country. He had been educated to think of this as the mother country, and therefore, in a sense, the homeland. Also, he preferred the British climate to the tropical one. Yet, after a while in England, he seemed as if he thought he would be even more at home in Germany. The trace of the German in him seemed to conflict with everything else, trying to come out stronger - or his idea of what was German in him. It was the contrasts in Edgar which made him so interesting as a man - and as a writer.

For the five years of our marriage we lived in a rented flat over a store-room in the grounds of a larger house. We used to collect wild flowers. We did not have a garden of our own, although in the time of our first landlady we were allowed to use part of the garden. Edgar planted some of the wild flowers in a pot at the top of the steps just outside the flat. We had spent our honeymoon on the Rhine, and I picked a sprig of privet in Boppard. We brought it home and Edgar planted it. I have moved four times since then, but have a privet hedge taken from a cutting - all from that first sprig.

Edgar used to make dandelion and blackberry wine. We went for walks along the lanes and sometimes in the fields. Our home was in Surrey - near the Surrey-Hampshire border. He painted water-colours, mostly of trees, and we had several of his paintings of views we could see from the window or nearby.

'Nothing evil, you felt, could be abroad when the wind thrust its fingers through the swayed bearded lines of green solidly massed on solid earth.' (The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham). Here, in this poetic approach to a barley field, we see Edgar's restrained love of nature. It was a restrained love. He was not very fond of animals (did not believe in keeping pets) or of walking in wild countryside. But it was part of the gentler side of him.

His death was violent, horrific. He has been described as having a streak of violence which found its outlet in demanding that violence be used against violent criminals. In writing and in speaking, he expressed his views passionately. He stressed the theme of strength versus weakness. This is a theme of many of his novels - notably the well-known Kaywana trilogy. It is significant that he himself has been called both 'strong' and 'weak' according to the viewpoints of the people who have talked to me about him.

It is interesting that his preoccupation with violence and criminality was something that Edgar had in common with the better known writer, Colin Wilson, though from an opposite point of view. Wilson's sympathy for the criminal can make him hard towards the victim; Edgar's indignation on behalf of the victim leaves no sympathy for the criminal. Wilson's main concern is to explore the mind of the criminal, in which Edgar does not openly express interest. Yet the two writers seem to have something in common, and Edgar refers in his own novel, The Piling of Clouds, to Wilson's Ritual in the Dark of similar theme.

Edgar may have hated the violence in others all the more because of the deep conflict in himself. Many people were impressed by the gentle aspect of his nature - an aspect which was apparent to me. As a husband, he was protective and domestic. He used to be a familiar sight in Faroham where we lived - a tall, spare figure, striding rapidly doing the shopping with his 'hold-all'. I was much younger than Edgar, and not as strong-willed. Neither was I very confident or practical. I used to be afraid that I would never have the chance to learn to do things for myself.

The flat we lived in had trees - beeches and elms - round it in the grounds of the bigger house. It was quiet. But Edgar loved his routine. He got up before I did, and prepared the breakfast; shopped and went to the library in the mornings; wrote in the afternoons; read or listened to the radio in the evenings. He also liked a brief afternoon rest and a brief evening walk.

In the evenings we sometimes listened to records. His favourites were those of Wagner. Edgar and I liked many of the same kinds of books, music, plays. He introduced me to many such things. We were both interested in the occult; read books about yoga, reincarnation, astral projection, supernatural phenomena. Among our fiction reading there was always a sprinkling of ghost stories.

Contrasts in our life together were the contrasts between Edgar and me. There were differences in our ages, experience, temperaments, viewpoints. I was a member of CND which he thought was part of the 'would-rot' - his name for the 'rot' which he said had set into society. Although it was he who had the 'coloured' blood, it was he who would put the case for the whites upon heating any news item about racial friction.

Scolded by Edgar for not being sufficiently orderly (I have since realised how maddening I must have been), I found it restricting, yet occasionally steadying, to live with someone who liked so fixed a routine. Of course, the routine changed a little after the birth of our son, whom we called 'Leodegar', a family name of some kinsfolk Edgar discovered who had lived for centuries in Appenzell, Switzerland. It was always the name of the first-born son.

Edgar was forty-nine when I met him, but my first impression was that he was somewhere in his thirties. He did not seem much over forty when he died - when he was really fifty-five. The passing of the actuality of Edgar was the more heart-rending because of this extreme vitality of his. Edgar was as real as the daily routine, and is now to all appearances just something about which I am writing. The past is never quite 'recapturable'. It can be remembered as vivid, but the actuality goes. The actuality of the freckle on the rim of his right ear, and the one on his lower lip.

He had many freckles, arranged like constellations on his face, showing up in their darker shade than the rest of his brown. His large ears stuck out and as a boy he had been nicknamed 'Bat-ears'. By the time I knew him, his straight, dark hair (which he always wore cut very short) was thinning. His dark, bright eyes had a powerful range of expression from hard, flashing, to incredibly soft.

Edgar asked me once during our summer school week: 'Does my age alarm you?'

'I don't know what your age is,' I pointed out. I had been afraid to ask him before because I knew this would force me to tell him my own age. I was ashamed that people usually thought me about sixteen. It made me feel foolish when I had to confess that I was really twenty-one. A short-hand typist who missed the opportunity to go to university, I lacked confidence in various aspects of life, including with men. I have written about this at greater length elsewhere, but am not in such a masochistic mood at present. I was an only child, a mother's girl, whose actor father died when I was aged nine.

I remember Edgar saying in one of our first conversations: 'Well, I never went to university either.' But that was not his or his parents' aim, nor a likely aim in British Guiana at that time. The main ambition in a 'good class' family seems to have been to get a 'government job'. At first Edgar was taught by a governess, then at a series of private schools, and then won a scholarship to Berbice High School.

'Good class' . . . Edgar's father was a town clerk - and Edgar the only dark-skinned member of the family. This swarthy complexion was resented by his father. Edgar's parents, younger sister and two younger brothers were all comparatively fair-skinned.

I was always interested in writing and had won a scholarship to the summer school the previous year. Without this, I would not have known of the summer school, nor have met Edgar.

Why did Edgar kill himself? He felt a misfit because his views on life were not generally accepted - or in the circles where he thought they ought to be. While most people he met in the daily round seemed to agree with the views he held on crime, and a letter he wrote to the Daily Telegraph brought a dozen letters supporting him, yet he felt that the intelligentsia were against him - those who would nowadays be called the 'politically correct'. His views, and his uncompromising way of expressing them, were what made it so difficult to publish two of his later works - The Piling of Clouds and The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham.

He felt isolated, too, in his views upon the occult - views expressed the most seriously in The Wounded and the Worried and, again . . . Mrs. Chatham. This was early in the 1960s. People seem much more interested in such things nowadays.

It mattered to him when many disagreed with him or did not take him seriously (his humour had to be on his own terms). But he would not have killed himself if he could have supported our son and myself, and his other family, as he wanted. He wanted to do it all himself. I felt guilty for a long time afterwards because I had not persuaded him to use more of my own small income. But he had firm ideas about the man being the provider -- and the deciding factor.

Discussions, the household set-up . . . everything was gradually becoming freer between Edgar and myself. Discussions, I think, became completely free in about the last two days of his life. He seemed natural about everything; about things over which he would previously have been rigid. He seemed so much more relaxed. It awoke in me, too optimistic, a hope for the future and for his returning optimism. I realise now that the warrior was stilled in him because in his own mind everything was settled. Life had always been a battle. Now there was nothing left to fight, because he was leaving it. Or any warrior's thoughts which might remain were keyed up to the final act of will. Also, of course, he must have put on some false cheerfulness for my benefit, as the letter he left me indicated. I must have been blind! I was laughing and playing with the baby boy on May 5th, 1965, the day Edgar died. Edgar suddenly exclaimed in a strange way: 'Oh, you two!'

'What is it?' I asked, going over to him, knowing how depressed he had been of late, and how he had commented sometimes, as if from a far distance, on the life-loving qualities of the boy and me. 'All this frivolity around you?' 'Yes. Yes, that is it. Yes.'

We had house-hunting difficulties because we had a new couple of landlords who wanted us to move. I think Edgar's complexion had something to do with it. They had come from Rhodesia, as it then was.

I was excited, like a little girl when she is given a grown-up task, that I seemed to be taking my full part in the search for somewhere else to live. I suppose I did not realise how much Edgar had lost interest in life, and that he was leaving some things to me because of this.

Any semblance of interest he showed I realise now was so much star-dust thrown in my eyes, and he said as much in the letter I found after his death.

Death had always been a possible way out. He could not understand why people wanted to come to terms with life when it persisted in not going according to plan.

His last diary entry struggled valiantly to be normal, typical:

'Got up 6.15 am. Occasional sunny periods, Variegated cloud . . . 45 (90). 50 (93).'

Many little things I remember from the last few days: things which I now know must have been planned so that we would have a happy leave-taking without too many regrets. It is not his fault if I consider now ways in which I must have failed him: how even differences over the housekeeping probably would not have occurred if I had been a more confident, competent person. It was good of him to bring the conversation round at cocoa-time, one of those last evenings, to how much we meant to each other.

There is not space here to give all my last impressions, but Edgar had lately formed a habit (obviously on purpose) of taking a late evening walk alone. One evening, he did not return from this walk. I was in a forewarned state and, finding a note in a drawer, did not stop to read it properly before phoning the Farnham police:

'I THINK MY HUSBAND HAS TRIED TO KILL HIMSELF.'

'Yes, madam. What is your name?'

They found him in a field. He had set fire to himself - with petrol.

Edgar was fascinated by death, frequently quoting T. S. Eliot's:

'O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark . . .'

I always disputed with him his attitude. Yet, in an odd way, I seem to have been on his side. A sense of achievement comes thrilling back to me sometimes nowadays, when I remember that he got the strange thing he wanted in the end.

Publication Information: Article Title: Edgar Mittelholtzer - a Wife's Memoir. Contributors: Jennifer Pointer - author. Magazine Title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 269. Issue: 1568. Publication Date: September 1996. Page Number: 143+. COPYRIGHT 1996

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Lutheran Church in Guyana

The Lutheran Church in Guyana was originally founded by Dutch settlers in 1743, making it the second oldest Lutheran church in the Caribbean and the South American continent. During its early history, the church was served by pastors from Holland. In 1803 the colony changed hands from the Dutch to the British, and in 1841 the Dutch severed links with the Lutheran church in what was then British Guiana. That left the church without pastoral services, and the church began to decline in membership. All the Christian congregations organized in Dutch times died out except Ebenezer Lutheran Church.

In 1878 John Robert Mittelholzer, the first Guyanese pastor, began serving the Ebenezer congregation. He served not only the Dutch descendants but also those of African, Amerindian, and East Indian origin. Five congregations were established in the Berbice region. In 1890, Mittelholzer and the Ebenezer congregation became part of the East Pennsylvania Synod of one of the ELCA's predecessors, the General Synod. When the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) was formed in 1918, British Guiana became one of its mission fields. During the next half century, many Lutheran missionaries were sent to British Guiana, which became Guyana in 1966.

In 1944 the Lutheran Church in Guyana became an associate synod of the ULCA, and in 1950 it was received into membership in the Lutheran World Federation. When Guyana became independent in 1966, the church also became independent During the 1970s the former Lutheran Church in America began reducing its financial support and mission personnel in Guyana, and the last missionary left in 1983. The LCG experienced a period of decline and "brain drain" as the country was in the throes of a rapid downward economic spiral and political uncertainty.

The Lutheran Church enjoyed a long and strong tradition of church schools which trained people for active church membership and service. At its peak, the church (with some government assistance) maintained 18 elementary and two high schools.

The LCG is now in the process of rebuilding and restructuring. It will be a slow, arduous and challenging task. At the present time there are eight pastors to serve 48 congregations in fourteen multi-point parishes. Pastors care for their own congregations and serve as "acting" pastors in other parishes, which is a drain on their time and energy. In addition to fully trained pastors, many catechists and ordained deacons provide leadership in the church. The tradition of capable lay leadership is strong in the Lutheran Church in Guyana.

All pastors receive their theological training at the United Theological College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, which is within the Caribbean context. In recent years, several strong and capable seminary graduates have taken their places among the church's pastoral staff, bringing new life to the church. The Lutheran Church in Guyana ordained its first female clergy member in 1993.

The church, with its 11,000 members, has been notably successful in bridging differences among East Indians, Africans, Chinese, Amerindians, and others.


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Monday, February 27, 2006




The author as ethnographer: A Morning at the Office

Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office (Mittelholzer 1979), first published in 1950, can be read as a micro-sociological analysis of social relations at an office in Port-of-Spain. The office has 14 employees who between them span virtually the entire scope of variation with respect to social classification in late colonial Trinidadian society. The classificatory dimensions of ethnicity, class, gender and locality are all covered through Mittelholzer's very varied cast, which even includes an anomaly, namely a homosexual coloured man.3

The simple idea behind the novel consists in describing what happens in the office between four minutes to seven and lunchtime, in order that the reader may observe how a particular pattern of social classification is confirmed and reproduced through the difficult and subtle art of social interaction. Like any good ethnographer, Mittelholzer tries to fuse the universal with the particular and thus accounts for individual idiosyncracies, as well as structural and cultural defining characteristics of the different situations. His cast introduces the secretary Miss Yen Tip, who "was a creole Chinese who could not speak Chinese"; there is Mr Jagabir, the East Indian accountant who unsuccessfully tries to feel at ease in the urbane creole environment of the office and continuously fears that his superiors will send him back to the cane fields; there is the creolized Indian girl Miss Bisnauth who is in love with a coloured artist and rejects the constraints of caste; there is the young black boy Horace whose Uncle Tom attitudes will no doubt help him to a successful career in independent Trinidad a decade later, and so on. Although my fieldwork took place four decades after Mittelholzer's, I have met all these characters.

Read as ethnography in the 1990s, the novel indicates that ethnic relations have changed, and one of the author's most impressive achievements is his depiction of the ambiguous and complex relationship between the colonial white upper class and the indigenous coloured middle class. Since many of them were beneficiaries of the "jobs for the boys" principle, the whites in Trinidad were often of more humble origins than the local coloureds. As the light-brown secretary Miss Henery muses on page 93, after having been humiliated by her boss:

A dirty lot of people. And who was Murrain at all! For all she knew, she had much better class than he. Most of these English people who came out to the colonies were of the dregs. But the instant they arrived they turned gods. Who knew if Murrain had not been dragged up in some London slum? His white skin was all that made him somebody in Trinidad. Her parents and grandparents were ladies and gentlemen

Today, the relationship between whites and coloureds is less important in Trinidadian social classification than it was then, although it remains ambiguous in a similar way. In this novel, further, a great deal of attention is granted to the fine distinctions within the coloured segment; the distinction between kinky hair and light brown on the one hand and straight hair and olive skin on the other is considered important. In contemporary Trinidad, it would seem inappropriate to grant such a distinction great social importance.

Mittelholzer's concern with rank and social classification is evident throughout the book. Through descriptions of bodily movements from gracious and elegant to clumsy and inept, through depictions of the characters' speech, from gross rural Trinidadian creole to Queen's English, and in his descriptions of the relations between the sexes, he also gives the reader abundant information about cultural differences between the rank categories. On this score, Mittelholzer could be challenged if his book is read as an ethnographic description, according to which premisses he might be criticized for portraying the local cultural variation in an exaggerated and biased manner.

Since Mittelholzer's book is a novel, convention dictates that it is not used as hard ethnographic evidence. However, A Morning at the Office is doubtless based on first-class ethnographic field material; it covers many fine nuances of inter-ethnic micro relations, and it is surprisingly comprehensive. It can teach us, for example, that small-islanders from the Lesser Antilles constituted an important category of significant Others for the Trinidadians blacks and coloureds at the time, but not for the Indians and whites. This remains true today.

If one compares its insights and virtues with sociological research carried out in Trinidad during the same period, such as Lloyd Braithwaite's well-known study Social Stratification in Trinidad (1975 [1953]), one is compelled to conclude that the novel defends its place as an important piece of Trinidadian ethnography. In fact, Braithwaite's arguments concerning ethnicity and rank resemble Mittelholzer's, and his evidence is frequently anecdotal and thus similar to that of the novelist. Braithwaite's study lacks some of the detail and introspective qualities of the novel, but contains more comprehensive and accurate descriptions about rank categories, historical circumstances and features of Trinidadian society. Braithwaite's explanations follow the basic Parsonian schema fashionable at the time. In sum, the novel and the sociological study are complementary, and they tend to support each other. Mittelholzer's ethnography is superb, and his examples are striking and rich in connotations this should not come as a surprise, since he has himself invented them. Like a sociological or anthropological treatise, a book like A Morning at the Office can be distorting as well as liberating as an addendum to one's own ethnography. It is littered with ethnic prejudices and attempts to persuade the reader about the validity of a particular model of Trinidadian society. Since its central assumptions are not made explicit and since the argument, as it were, is clothed in the poetic and suggestive language of literature, it can be seductive reading. Since scholars try to present their argument in a clear and unambiguous fashion, it may be easier to argue against a sociological study than a novel because it is easier to discern its central contentions.

There is a second level at which Mittelholzer's novel functions as ethnography. At this level, it can be read as an ethnographic source rather than an ethnographic description. As already suggested, the book is an inadvertent statement of the author's biases and ideological position in multi-ethnic colonial Trinidad. At this level, the author makes spontaneous, non-reflexive and frequently implicit statements about his cultural universe; in Holy and Stuchlik's (1983) terminology, he performs an act rather than uttering a statement. In order to appreciate this aspect of Mittelholzer's novel, one must know something about the author. One will need to know that he was an immigrant from British Guiana to Trinidad, that his social identity from boyhood was that of a lower-middle class coloured, whose main ambition since adolescence had been to live in England and write books for an English audience. Mittelholzer's own positioning in Trinidadian society can thus contribute to explaining his unusual sensitivity to ethnic processes. As a foreigner, he could adopt a fairly detached view, and as a coloured person from a poly-ethnic society similar to Trinidad, he belonged to an ambiguous ethnic category himself. In order to understand the significance of the author's social identity here, one must have additional knowledge of the societies in question. Only then can one discern, between the lines, how Mittelholzer produces through his novels a version of a world where good manners and proper language matter more than racial origins, and where Indian culture is ultimately a crude peasant culture which is justly marginalized in confrontation with the sophisticated, witty and gracious creole culture characteristic of the coloured bourgeoisie.4 At this level, the book cannot be evaluated as ethnography by a reader who is not already familiar with West Indian societies.

Mittelholzer's novel is not very well known in Trinidad, and it is certainly not widely read. Its direct impact on Trinidadian society can therefore be considered negligible, unlike that of the next novel which I will consider.


Thomas Hylland Eriksen

In Eduardo P. Archetti, ed., Exploring the Written, Scandinavian UP.,1994

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Thursday, February 23, 2006



Detailed Information About This Book and Its Jacket


Author: Mittelholzer, Edgar.

Title: Uncle Paul / Edgar Mittelholzer.

Place of Publication: London :

Publisher:

Date of Publication: 1963.

Imprint: London : Macdonald, 1963.

Edition: [1st ed.]

Size including Pagination: 222 p. ; 22 cm.

ISBN:

Series:

Notes and Collection:

Subject Headings: H.D. Carberry Collection of Caribbean Studies (University of Illinois at Chicago) ICIU

UIC Bibliographic ID: 1733085

UIC Call Number: PR9320.9.M5 U53 1963

Biographic Information: No

Designer:

Graphic Artist:

Price:

Condition: Poor

Publisher's Information:

Plot Summary: Yes

Annotations:

Carberry curator notes: A German Jewish man who, after belonging to a neo-Fascist organization, wrecks it. [PF]


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Front Flyleaf Image (click twice to zoom)


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Uncle Paul by Edgar Mittelholzer


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Author Image


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Detailed Information About This Book and Its Jacket

Author: Mittelholzer, Edgar.

Title: Swarthy boy / by Edgar Mittelholzer.

Place of Publication: London :

Publisher: Putnam,Yes

Date of Publication: 1963.

Imprint: London : Putnam, 1963.

Edition:

Size including Pagination: 157 p. : ill., ports. ; 23 cm.

ISBN:

Series:

Notes and Collection: Autobiographical.

Subject Headings: Guyana Social life and customs. H.D. Carberry Collection of Caribbean Studies (University of Illinois at Chicago) ICIU

UIC Bibliographic ID: 657348

UIC Call Number: PR9320.9.M5 S87 1963

Biographic Information: No

Designer:

Graphic Artist:

Price: 21s net

Condition: Good

Publisher's Information:

Plot Summary: Yes

Annotations: No

Carberry curator notes: A memoir of growing up in British Guiana. [NC]

Brief Description of Jacket: Black and orange abstract design. [NC]



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Back Flyleaf Image (click twice to zoom)


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A Swarthy Boy by Edgar Mittelholzer


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The Old Blood by Edgar Mittelholzer



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Wednesday, February 22, 2006



New Amsterdam:
Ancient capital of Guyanese literature
An interview with Rex Nettleford
Stabroek News
April 6, 2003


Introduction

What follows is an edited version of a paper presented at the New Amsterdam Town Hall at one of the municipality’s landmark celebrations, at the request of Mr Errol Alphonso, who was Mayor at the time.

The urban centre of New Amsterdam holds a very special place in the cultural history of Guyana and has managed, a bit more than other areas, to retain much of the atmosphere and character from the country’s historical heritage. Its name is a significant vestige of the Dutch past, which is also reflected in the common description of Berbice as ‘The Ancient County.’ This history and powerful colonial heritage became the main preoccupation of one of Guyana’s best known writers, and this is not surprising. His work has helped to define Guyanese literature and to immortalise New Amsterdam as well as the history of Berbice, but this is only one of the reasons why New Amsterdam holds such an important place in the history of Guyanese literature.

It has produced a remarkable list of major writers and is associated with a number of others who were not actually born there. This list includes many writers of national importance ranging from those, internationally celebrated, who are among Guyana’s best and most established with works included among West Indian canonical texts, to those who are important for their place in the history of Guyanese writing; from some of the nation’s literary pioneers to some of the leading contemporary authors.


History, race, romance and Mittelholzer

One of the best known is Edgar Mittelholzer who is the writer most associated with New Amsterdam. It is his work that serves best to immortalise the town, while his ethnic and mixed race background makes him almost a true representative of the place. In addition to that, Mittelholzer set out in his fiction to record history, heritage and social attitudes. This very prolific writer who was born in New Amsterdam, lived on Coburg street and was known to have published much of his own work and to walk around from door to door selling his publications. That story is often told to underline the steadfastness and perseverance of a man determined to be a writer.

But the story also relates what was a necessary occupation for one at the centre of a fledgling literature. Mittelholzer was one of those who helped to establish the foundations of Guyanese and of West Indian literature in the 1940s. His growth as a writer ran parallel to and personified the growth of the West Indian novel itself. This includes the experience of exile since, like most of the leading writers of the time, he migrated to England. His career was built around several novels, in particular, his monumental historical works such as the Kaywana series: Children of Kaywana, Kaywana Blood and Kaywana Stock as well as the highly sociological A Morning at the Office. But his best and most entertaining single novel is the haunting mystery thriller My Bones and My Flute which combines his documenting of the social, racial and class attitudes of colonial New Amsterdam with the legendary/mythical supernatural adventures of the Berbice river and the secrets of its Dutch past. In that novel, and in the autobiographical A Swarthy Boy, the kinds of racial, colour and class snobbery that characterized the colonial society while the author was growing up are illustrated while he represents himself as radical artist and social maverick in those books. In others, such as the Kaywana series and A Morning at the Office (set in Trinidad), the contemptuous attitudes to slaves and the black race in plantation society as well as the colour/class snobbery of Trinidad in his time are treated.

Mittelholzer was an extremely meticulous and organised personality and, according to critic Michael Gilkes, when he committed suicide by torching himself in England in 1965, it was the planned self-sacrificial act of a Buddhist.

He is resurrected in contemporary times through the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture Series sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.

Harris of Coburg street

Sacrifice, rebirth and continuance in a Jungian life cycle are major preoccupations of the most renowned of all Guyanese writers, Wilson Harris, who, like Mittelholzer, belonged to Coburg street in New Amsterdam where he was born. Although he is famous for fiction, his earliest writings were poems and his volumes of publications in criticism, theory and philosophy which include The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination and his most recent selected essays, The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, edited by Andrew Bundy (1998) are profound and impressive. Yet, professionally, during his life in Guyana, he was a qualified land surveyor who gained much of his experience and inspiration working throughout the awesome hinterland of British Guiana.

Wilson Harris is regarded as the most original of West Indian novelists and, as critic Kathleen Reine puts it, he is unique among the world's contemporary fiction writers for his revolutionary transformation of the form of the modern novel which has remained static throughout this century. His work straddles the postcolonial and the postmodern and communicates his great vision throughout this century. It communicates his great vision through a dynamic blend of myths, cultures, history, past, present and future time. His pre-occupations are universal and cosmic and have continued in cycles since his first book, Palace of the Peacock published in 1960, three years after he moved to England where he now lives in Essex.

His first group, The Guyana Quartet, made up by Palace of the Peacock, The Whole Armour, The Secret Ladder and The Far Journey of Oudin use the Guyanese base to launch his wider concerns and his reputation increased through his many other works up to The Carnival Triology (Carnival, The Infinite Rehearsal, The Four Banks of the River of Space and Jonestown). The still increasing critical attention to his work is extended over 186 publications by critics in Britain, Europe, North America, the Caribbean and Australia. This includes at least five books of collected essays and special issues of international journals dedicated to criticism of his work. This wide acclaim and great interest in Harris has to do with the levels of innovation in the narrative techniques in his fiction, which are also responsible for his reputation for being difficult. These include his success in theory and application of true inter-cultural devices and the mathematical principle of Chaos, a system of natural order and the inter-relatedness of seemingly minute, disconnected elements. His use of this theory is not surprising given his scientific background. He is an outstanding universal humanist writing out of Britain who consistently returns to specific Guyanese settings such as Sorrow Hill, Bartica and Jonestown for stimuli in his global and cosmic preoccupations.



David Dabydeen

Another New Amsterdam-born writer whose rise has been meteoric as a British Caribbean novelist and poet is David Dabydeen, who, like Harris, is established in the postcolonial, particularly in Disappearance, and the postmodern (in his latest novel, The Harlot's Progress). David Dabydeen, an academic whose work has earned him professorial status, has lived most of his live in England but slavery, the Middle Passage and the history of blacks have been his major research concerns. These have been subjects in a critical work Hogarth's Blacks, as well as The Harlot's Progress and in his poetry, in Turner and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize Winner, Slave Song.

Turner, which is his best work of poetry, extends his preoccupations into Indian indentureship as well, which is also dealt with in The Counting House (shorlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize) while the novel which most focuses New Amsterdam specifically, is The Intended, his first novel and the one that won him his first Guyana Prize. He achieved his second award with Harlot's Progress.

Yet another British-based fiction writer who was the winner of a Guyana Prize is Janice Shinebourne Lo, who went to school in New Amsterdam. Her two novels are set partially in the town and although, like Mittelholzer, she treats questions of race and ethnicity, her large interests involve change, independence, the place and progress of the woman and the politics of a society in flux, which are paramount in Time-Piece, the Best First Book of Fiction in the 1987 Guyana Prize.

The harsh ethnic and political conflicts are broached as well, but focus on them is greater in her second novel, The Last English Plantation, set in Berbice. Here Shinebourne Lo explores her own mixed race origins artistically while dealing with social change as the plantation regime is challenged and a colonial system confronts new spirits of independence. Shinebourne Lo, who originally lived in Rose Hall, Canje, is the foremost woman writer in this group, but she has joined a strong core of British Caribbean writers in London whose backgrounds and contact with European society have strengthened the rise of postcolonial literature. Following a brief journalistic career, leadership in a writers group in Georgetown and a degree at the University of Guyana, she has settled in London since the 1970s.

The various factors of race, mixtures and ethnic inter-relatedness which are personally and thematically linked to Shinebourne Lo, Harris and colonial society in New Amsterdam, are also personally related to another Guyanese writer of international acclaim. Jan Carew, who has lived for a long time in the United States where he built a career at North-Western University, is of the same racial mix as Harris, to whom he is related, and has also lived in New Amsterdam.

He has written a number of well-known poems and has been a radical political thinker with close connections to the Bishop regime in Grenada. But Carew is best known for his novels, The Wild Coast and, particularly, for Black Midas. This latter fiction explores all aspects of the culture of the porkknockers in Guyana, drawing on history, legend and local myth. A rich store of these resources has grown around the activities of these gold-diggers of the past. However, other aspects of the Guyanese heritage have concerned Carew. These include the Amerindian experience and mythology about which he has written in such poems as Tiho the Carib and his recent version of The Legend of Amalivaca (1998) and Children of the Sun.

The wide international reach of the Berbice writers and their impact in the Guyanese diaspora continues with the work of the very prolific Cyril Dabydeen who was actually born in East Canje. He is the uncle of David Dabydeen and had a very close association with New Amsterdam before moving to Canada where he still lives.

He is a poet and fiction writer who has produced collections of short stories and poems which have brought him more acclaim than his work as a novelist. Yet, he has produced a widely known novel, The Wizard Swami. Over the years, a number of his books have made the Guyana Prize shortlist. These include Islands Lovelier Than A Vision, To Monkey Jungle and another short story collection, Black Jesus.

That volume illustrates the range of his concerns about the exile of West Indians in Canada and the cross-cultural impacts of the two environments upon each other.


The first Indian writer

While Daby-deen marks the outer extremities of the contemporary writers with New Amsterdam backgrounds, the Ruhomans are outstanding examples of those who were pioneers of writing within the municipality. Among the earliest native writers is Joseph Ruhoman, a cultural activist who lived all his life in New Amsterdam. He was the author of India - The Progress of Her People at Home and Abroad and How Those in British Guiana May Improve Themselves, published in 1894 and ranked as the first publication by an Indian in the West Indies. He played an active and leading role in the cultural life, not only in his promotion of the East Indian heritage, but in a more global fashion. He was editor of a radical newspaper called The People, founded between 1900 and 1903 by HJ Shirley who was such a radical that he was sent out of the country.

Joseph Ruhoman was also sub-editor in New Amsterdam for the Argosy, a national newspaper while Peter Ruhoman edited an ‘Indian Page’ in the Daily Chronicle Sunday edition in the 1930’s. Peter, however, also published his own major text, A Centenary History of East Indians in British Guiana, and while the writings of both Ruhomans are of great historical interest, poetry written by Joseph is anthologized in an Anthology of Indian Verse compiled by Ramcharitar Lalla.

Such work transcends the New Amsterdam setting, and even though it contains items of significance to local history, it is an important factor in the writing of Guyana and the Caribbean.

And while that work belongs to the literary and cultural pioneers, another writer with New Amsterdam connections produced an outstanding novel that became a household word across the world in contemporary times.

ER Braithwaite was a contemporary of Mittelholzer and worked for a long time at the telecommunications office in the town in the 1930s. He wrote To Sir With Love, the famous novel that became the even more famous film in the 1960s with Sidney Poitier in the legendary lead role, and the yet more famous theme song by Lulu. It is the well-known story, based on personal experience, of a qualified black engineer unable to get a job because of his race, but turned out to be a successful teacher. Braithwaite also wrote a second novel about racial prejudice: A Choice of Straws.

Even in the genre of popular theatre in contemporary Guyana, a native of New Amsterdam, Michael Duff, has made a name for himself as a dramatist in Georgetown. Duff, a graduate of the University of Guyana, has been a teacher of English in Guyana and St Lucia. His particular strength as a playwright has been in his handling of farce which was evident from his first stage success, Asylum to later plays including one of his most recent, Country Girl.

The great value of the writers cited above is not to be found in their production of anything that can be overtly identified as New Amsterdam literature. Such a label runs the risk of superficiality, and the literature is stronger for its universality and the absence of homogeneity among the various authors.

They have, in their different styles and preoccupations, defined themselves; and the fact that they have rather helped to define Guyanese and West Indian literature saves New Amsterdam from parochialism and makes it significant for being a single town that has produced three Guyana Prize Winners and some of the leading West Indian and world writers.

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Privately funded National Archives building progressing slowly

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Monday, February 20, 2006



Curiosities by Dennis Lien


My Bones and My Flute, by Edgar Mittelholzer (1955)

GHOST stories in the M. R. James tradition rarely work at novel length, and at any length they seem to find dark, cold scenes most congenial. Here's an exception: a Jamesian novel that plays out in daylight at a jungle station in British Guinea, during a hot summer.

The narrator, a would-be Bohemian, accompanies the Nevinson family (father, mother, and adolescent daughter) on their trip upriver to the camp. Mr. Nevinson has come into possession of a manuscript left by an occult-dabbling Dutchman who died in the jungle almost two hundred years ago. Anyone who touches the manuscript falls under a curse and begins hearing music of a flute where no flute can be found. It gets nearer each time, until the victim feels compelled to follow the music.

Narrator Milton is the only person Nevinson knows who might possibly believe so wild a tale. Credence grows, however, as each of the main characters handles the manuscript and falls under the spell. The only way to free themselves is to find and bury the Dutchman's bones and flute — but the search seems hopeless, even before sinister entities begin to manifest themselves in their dreams:

"And then just suddenly that bony hand clutched my arm and something whispered in my ear. It said ‘No farther today.' And then I woke up."
The flawed characters are prone to petty disputes, and all the more believable for that, and for the fact that some of them have read Poe and other fantasists and try to base strategies on lessons learned thus. Mittelholzer (1909-1965), like his characters, was a British Guinese of mixed race; his successful literary career soured, and, like his ghostly Dutchman, he died a suicide.

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Friday, February 17, 2006



Book Shelf
guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com

Corentyne Thunder

Enduring News From The Past

Posted January 11th. 2005

By Wyck Williams

Some books become classics because of their power to capture in a tour de force of writing the essence of a particular time and place. Think of V.S. Naipaul's House for Mr. Biswas, that dense portrait of colonial Trinidad; or Roger Mais' The Hills Were Joyful Together, the masterpiece of Jamaica yard fiction. A similar case could be made for Edgar Mittelholzer' Corentyne Thunder as a classic in its own right, the book that more than any other signals the birth of the novel in Guyana.

Back in those distant years popular perception of Essequibo cast it as the cinderella county, bush-plenty, teeming with rivers but neglected; Demerara was where our fledgling institutions engaged the colonial powers, where among ourselves we argued and fought our way to Independence. In Berbice county, amidst the sugar estates and rice fields, in the savannahs under blazing blue skies, our country folk were engaged in life-draining travails. Mittelholzer writes about their personal struggles with the land, with poverty, inertia, empty nights and forced concessions.

He wrote Corentyne Thunder in 1938 at the age of twenty nine. At the time he was living and working odd jobs in New Amsterdam. The manuscript was sent to England and had a perilous existence until finally it found a publisher in 1941. This information is from the fine introduction by the scholar Louis James when the book was published again in 1970. Louis James points out that at the time Mittelholzer was a total unknown. There he was a would-be writer wrapped up in the (self-) belief his novel would somehow, one day be published; "filling exercise book after exercise book" with his observations; his subject, Guyanese East Indians on the Corentyne.

Corentyne Thunder is out of print again but the firm realism of its prose, the author's accurate evocation of character and landscape might just permit it another incarnation.

One of its central characters is Ramgolall. "He was an East Indian who had arrived in British Guiana in 1898 as an immigrant indentured to a sugar estate. He had worked very hard. He had faithfully served out the period of his indenture, and now at sixty three years of age he minded cows on the savannah of the Corentyne coast, his own lord and guide." (p. 9) Mittelholzer's novel takes off from this point in history, from this "work-racked" body of a free man, now "his own lord and guide".

But the opening pages suggest another point of departure. Ramgolall is driving home his cows one day, "thin brown body naked save for a loin cloth". His wife who is with him stops suddenly, groaning in pain, "her breathing came in heavy gusts as though her soul were fatigued with the things of this life and wished to leave her body in gasp after gasp of wind." (p. 11).

It is an epiphanic moment many Guyanese would recognize, a man discovering his impermanence in an indifferent landscape, who will now look out on life as if he were alone in the world: "Ramgolall stood up in panic, looking all around him. He saw the cows, a group of moving spots, headed for their pen and getting smaller as they went. He could smell their dung mingled with the iodine in the air. He could see the tiny mud-house, with its dry palm-leaf roof, where he and Beena and Kattree lived. It stood far off, a mere speck." (p. 11)

Ramgolall discovers how inexorably like those high clouds in Guyana's skies life passes. His time of indenture will fade into insignificance. His children living on this earth will carry on without him, making what they will of incidents of the future. Making what they will, too, of his inheritance, the shillings he hoards in a canister; for "money coming in" gives Ramgolall an enormous sense of security.

Counterpointing Ramgolall is the other central character Big Man Weldon, a rich white cattle owner. His view of life is narrowly rapacious. He says at one point "The damned world wants reorganizing. That's what's wrong. Less talk about morality and religious myth and more simple, practical commonsense." (p. 92) His world view collides with the world of Ramgolall in a predictable way. He takes a liking to Ramgolall's eldest daughter (from his first marriage), a pretty East Indian, one of many Indian girls invited to the white Overseers' Quarters for sexual diversion.

With little protest from Ramgolall he lures her away from her mud-house home. Seizing the chance to escape a life of permanent deprivation she goes with him and becomes installed: "a healthy female slave whom [Weldon] brought into his house to satisfy his sexual needs and to reproduce his kind". (p. 94) Out of this common-law union come seven children but Big Man Weldon's great love and pride is in his eldest son Geoffrey (Ramgolall's grandson), a light-skinned young man who like his father is made of "stern stuff" (his other children he views as "mere animals: intelligent animals who had not yet emerged from the oblivion of their immaturity" (p.93)

Interplay between fathers and their willful offspring runs through the novel. Big Man Weldon's mixed-race son inherits his father's predilections. Tel pere, tel fils, he impregnates a young woman (his father arranges an abortion); he impregnates Ramgolall's daughter (he offers her hush-hush money). Born into privilege and Queens College educated, he hopes to win the Guiana scholarship and envisions a future far, far away from the Corentyne, on a trajectory that leads to cold England and academic laurels.

Ramgolall's daughters on the other hand, mired in poverty on the Corentyne and going nowhere, must worry about their prospects, about their father's hoarding of money and the limits it places on their threadbare lives. (As if to demonstrate what untried life possibilities exist away from their father's miserly habits, Ramgolall's son by another woman shows up midway through the novel. He owns a rice mill and property; he plans to marry with Christian, not Hindu rites - "it carry more influence in business"; his wife to-be subscribes to American magazines like True Romance, True Confession; he drives a dark-blue motor car).

Important to the book's structure is the turbulent stuff of Mittelholzer's life-breeding narrative: scenes of naiveté & seduction, pregnancy, talk of abortion, murder, courtroom drama arising from the murder (in which the oratory of dueling Guyanese lawyers almost overshadows the crime); scenes of everyday drudgery and muted desperation. And interbraided in all this - not as colourful backdrop, though here and there bits of prose embroidery seemed aimed at the overseas publisher's eye - is the external landscape: the black chimneys of Speyerfeld Estate, "white heat and sudden wild showers in the late afternoon", dead animals floating in canals, the grey waves crashing on No. 63 beach; jumbies, blue sakies and 'people waiting by the roadside'.

His prose emerged from direct contact with these fertile places. With no video/audio distractions back then he paid close attention to the life around him. He did not flaunt his knowledge of 'East Indian culture'. He strips away all that and shows us the ordinary humanity of men and women bound like destiny to the land. The reader is pulled in by writing that is spare and unsentimental in its explicitness, controlled and powerful in its reach into the Guyanese imagination.

Here, for instance, is Mittelholzer (in 1938) keeping his lines lean and tight: "Ramgolall parted the flour-bag curtain that hung in the doorway, and the dim light of dawn came in, making them all grey like clay-mud near the cow-pen gleaming dully after a shower of rain." "Rain go fall plenty today," said Kattree, blinking at the east. "Grey cloud pile up high." "'E might pass off," said Beena who thought of going aback with Jannee and preferred to be hopeful. "Wind go start blow soon as sun come up."

His characters are sentient, cramped beings. They rattle about in chains of superstition; sometimes they find cause to celebrate; left to themselves they grapple with post-indentureship and eke out lives on the periphery, far away from New Amsterdam, far removed from imperial calculations in Georgetown and London.

And always the grim sense that, despite or because of decisions taken in those far off places, very little will change in their personal lives. When Ramgolall dies, "cold and stiff and staring glassily at nothing", his daughter steps outside their mud house and looks around her. "The savannah still had its look of calm peace. The air still smelt rank with fish and cow-dung, and the breeze still brought with it's the strong refreshing odour of sea-weed and Corentyne mud."(p. 229). (Today's readers might find her cool response too neat and 'literary' a closure to the novel, but given the hard miseries Ramgolall imposed on his daughters the ending would seem appropriate.)

So what makes Corentyne Thunder the classic Guyanese novel? And why not the highly praised Palace of the Peacock (1960), for instance, with its impenetrable prose and thriving scholarship industry? And isn't this after all a matter of personal taste?

You could make the case this way: Mittelholzer's novel, were it made available today, would touch chords in many more readers from the general public. Its depiction of landscape (internal and external) offers insights into the Guyanese psyche: the colonial crucible in which our identities took form, the rippling effects down through generations.

Folk who grew up outside Georgetown would understand the intimate connection between estate and people, plantation and village; how our lives for better or worse have been shaped by these places with their English/Dutch names (and their affectionate Guyanese resonance). That bond between land and people was never stronger than in Berbice county, never more boldly depicted than in Corentyne Thunder. For those born after Independence Mittelholzer's novel has the verve to forge emotional links with the past, to broaden our understanding of a region traditionally identified with one ethnic group.

In Corentyne Thunder Mittelholzer has left us more than just a classic Guyanese novel. (You marvel at the faith he placed in his characters. He must have wondered at times: did anyone outside Guyana in 1938 care about these Corentyne folk? their at ease creole conversations? was anyone outside Guyana in 1938 even aware they existed?) We can learn again from him how to embrace the land where so many worked and died; and, if we aspire to write about it today, how to pay close attention.

Book Reviewed:

Corentyne Thunder: Edgar Mittelholzer: Heinemann, London (1970)


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Thursday, February 16, 2006



Please visit...

Geoffrey Philip's Blog Spot

Jamaican author Geoffrey Philp has written five collections of poetry, a novel, Benjamin, My Son and a book of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien. His short stories and poems have been published in The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse and The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories. He lives in Miami, Florida.

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/

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#1 - Children Of Kaywana ..... Bantam Edition 1976
"
A savage novel of slave rebellion - of untamed sex and unspeakable violence"


#2 - Kaywana Blood ..... Bantam Edition 1978
"The savage saga of two brothers whose hot passions destroyed a tropical slave empire"

#3 - Kaywana Stock ..... Bantam Edition 1978
"
The raging saga of raw passions, incestuous love and rebel slaves"

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006



The Virgin

I sat one afternoon and watched
A virgin pass,
A virgin, poor lass,
Withering slowly on her Dead Sea shore,
Where the tide of years ahs lapped before
And left her now to plod,
Alone, alas -

Edgar Mittelholzer

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Meditations of a Man Slightly Drunk

I came, and they drunkened me lightly

With a medley of liquors.

There was falernum,

There were literary disagreements,

Poetical dissonances.

Yet, but chiefly there was rum

They talked to me of stanzas,

The ancient and the very modern.

They broached even painting,

Haggled about form,

Over Epstein concorded with reverence.

Yes, but chiefly there was rum.

We jabbered of pendulums,

Pendulums that swung like my vision.

They gesticulated and bawled -

Ranting about matter,

Eulogizing imagery.

Yes, but never forgetting the rum.

We slashed at Swinburne,

And we justly kicked old Kipling.

We grimaced dreadfully at Pater,

How we hacked poor Donne,

And sniffed at Rupert Brooke !

Though, always, always, mind,

There was the rum !

Edgar Mittelholzer


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Monday, February 13, 2006



Heterogeneity of Psyche: New Necessity, Old Compulsions in West Indian Literary Thought

Daizal R. Samad

I should like to beg your leave and begin this paper in a somewhat unusual anecdotal fashion by reading part of a letter that I wrote two months ago to a friend of mine, Dr. Mohamed Tunsi, from Libya. I met Mohamed at a conference hosted by Yarmouk University in Jordan. After the conference and just previous to my departure from Jordan, we visited the ancient ruins of the city of Jerash. This is what I wrote:

"I remember well the sensation that I experienced as we ... stood before the southern gate of that ancient city. I felt acutely the age of the place, the rocks beneath my feet and those rising above my head, raised in honour of fragile human beings who make up for that fragility by erecting structures in honour of themselves. And as we stood (or as I stood) there in awe at the age of the gateway, more in awe that it was described as only 1800 years old, a more recent addition to the ancient city, stood in trembling insignificance with the renewed knowledge that we human beings are so easily outlived and so fearful of our transience that we erect wondrous structures that we be remembered. Such fantastic monuments to our fleeting glory, things structured so intricately so very long ago. Each huge square of rock fitting so neatly into another that the gateway seemed to be in a perpetual, frozen embrace of itself. Its frozen narcissism in defiance of the blazing heat of that Jordanian day. The arrangement of rock on rock and inlay of rock in rock seemed like neatly interlocked fingers of hands clasped in anxiety or in prayer. Magnificent, yet but ruins. Ruins. Even the poppy that I picked, freshly blossomed, seemed old. Its youth not so much youth as youth preserved.

I was reminded in the most painful way imaginable ... that I am from a culture that could hardly conceive of such age, of such time or timelessness. The West Indies, so very young, so very fragile, not even five hundred years old from the moment of its involuntary conception or wilful misconception . But having passed through the crucible of history, the most cruel the world has ever seen, having survived at all is nothing short of a miracle. When we were in the amphitheatre, I remember you telling me that there were such structures, and as old, in Libya. And I envied you your history, though with reservations. For upon contemplation, I thought that since we do not have such structures I am given the chance to feel these before and around me more keenly. I thought also that since we West Indians are without such monuments, we cannot be imprisoned by them and the sense of history they offer like a sickly nostalgia We cannot be victims of their ruined dignity. There is nothing to which we must return or from which we must escape. And I am confident that such edifices will never be built in the West Indies, for we do not have the self-confidence nor the economic muscle. And we shall never have it. Rather, the West Indies must endure the ultimately more difficult task of building its structures in its humanity, in literature and in the arts outside of expensive architecture, in modest carvings shaped like a new heart, like love. It must carve its dignity from the rock of history into the human image, tiny in the eyes of the universe. I look upon the new nations, the new vanities--Canada, for instance, with its admittedly muted boast of having the tallest free-standing building in the world, the CN Tower; or Malaysia, for instance, with its new boast of having the world’s tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers, joined by the world’s tallest sky bridge--with some pity, with no envy whatsoever, but with an understanding of the impulse. These buildings will not outlast Jerash, and they will not even make noble ruins."

This passage, I believe, has a profound bearing on what I am about to say regarding old compulsions and new directions in West Indian Literary Thought. I quote it because it demonstrates two points: first, the unpredictable and paradoxical manner in which the fundamentally but complexly foetal sensibility of the West Indian may be affected when confronted by traditional, historical or mythological artifact. Even a sensibility which has been refashioned somewhat by the climate of North American culture, refashioned in shape while retaining its fundamental properties, much like water is reshaped to ice. Second, I quote it to demonstrate the interlocking relationship between art and history, especially in the case of West Indian Literary and critical enterprise.

This paper will be without context, I am afraid, unless I recall briefly some of the history of the region and the implications of that history. As many of us know, Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. He was greeted by what anthropologists agree to be one of the gentlest peoples to have graced this planet: the Arawakan peoples. These were a people who were gatherers: they fished, played games, ate fruit which were in abundance, made music and made love. Their welcome and friendliness were reciprocated in the most brutal of ways by the Columbus expeditions and those that came immediately after. In fact, the Spanish priest, Bartholomew de las Casas recorded one of these events. The Spanish landed on one of the islands, and the natives, laden with gifts of pottery, rushed upon the shores to greet these god-like beings. De las Casas, an eye-witness, records that they were cut down by the Spanish who were more interested in gold than in things of clay. He records that pregnant women were cut open from throat to groin, and bloody foetuses held aloft in triumph by the visiting Spanish. Later, when it was discovered that tobacco could be grown here to great profit, the Arawakans were held in slavery and made to work in the plantations. But these were a people unsuited for such labour; and caught between the twin demons of forced labour and European diseases, they were squeezed into near extinction. Millions of people were exterminated.

Other European nations joined the race to conquer the New world by this time, the English and the French, especially. With the virtual extermination of the Arawakan peoples, rapacious eyes were turned to their more war-like cousins: the Cariban peoples. This alternative source of labour also died from disease and captivity. Many, rather than being taken into captivity, threw themselves in a ritual of suicide by the thousands off cliffs. All in all, the world saw--or maybe it did not see, for these are facts that do not appear in many history books--the virtual extermination of an entire people, an entire culture. I say virtual, because there are a few thousand of these people whose ancestors fled into the jungles of Guyana. Theirs is a history largely ignored in the writing and even more largely ignored in the reading; for, even today, many so-called post-colonial scholars must suffer the indictment of being too imprisoned within national and racial boundaries to bother themselves too much with such trivia. Such is the bliss of the ignorant or myopic. Or else, they render histories the same; colonialism, after all, they say, is colonialism. But nowhere was the pathology of colonialism more deadly. Not before, not since. Today, the West Indies are a witness to statistics of awful proportions: there is no record of an Amerindian person on any of the islands where once they had lived so well and in such numbers.

The point of recalling this holocaust, unequalled still in the twisted history of this planet, is not to stress the cruelty of Europeans. Nor is it to stress the pain of a people whom I regard as my spiritual ancestors. That would be a futile gesture. Rather, what I want to point out is that the history of the region is unique in social and mythological terms. As most of us would be aware, mythologies or religions explain the beginnings of humanity and society as something created from something else: from something base or simple-- whether it be clay or egg, chaos or night -- cometh forth something noble or complex. West Indian society as we know it began in quite a unique and contrary fashion: the gods who landed found something inestimably precious, and they created out of it nothing, a void, in human, cultural and mythological terms. It is as if they found a most precious, fragile and fecund egg, then proceeded to suck the life out of it. Having devoured the indigenous meat, they sought to refill the shell, to remake the West Indies after a fashion into a wealth-generating thing. White peasant and criminal labour was brought in, but by then tobacco had been deposed by the more demanding King Cane. Since sugar cane needed more hardy human machinery, Africans were culled from their continent. I would imagine that most of us are familiar, many of us in abstract ways, with the horrors that accompanied the enslavement and murder of millions of Africans. Suffice it to say that these people were rooted out from a place where they had a sense of home and self, a sense of their rightful place in a continent rich in history, culture and tradition, where birth, life and death made sense. They were shackled and placed in the bellies of ships, with no more space to breathe in or move in than Europeans gave to their dead. Slave ships were spiritual coffins; human beings were packed spoon fashion, and it was in this tiny space that they ate, defecated, urinated, sweat and bled. And the fear was so clamant, so imperative that even the gods fled; or, at best, were driven underground and transformed into other than themselves. After this horror ended, the horror of plantation life began. Each dawn broke like a whip upon the back of the slave; each night threw a pall over everything that was decent and dignified. Freedom was a grave away.

After Europe, stricken by conscience after a few hundred years, and now newly awakened to the idea that slave labour was no longer profitable, emancipated slaves into economic slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, Indians and Chinese were brought in as indentured labour. Other new "immigrants" were North Africans, Portuguese, Jews, Japanese, Syrians, and so on. By the nineteen thirties and forties, the stage was set for the only man-made culture on that scale in human history: many peoples, all unwilling to be where they were, all longing for other lands, all pulled towards different cultural imperatives and "purities". Each group antagonistic to the other. What they shared like an unvoiced pain was the consistent erasure of their humanity, the corrosion of the human person. The master himself was not exempt, for the cruelty which he visited upon others meant the diminishment of his own human stature. The luxury of the creation of whole and harmonious societies is a recent phenomenon--phenomenon, because survival itself was nothing short of miraculous. Heterogeneity, even up to the sixties, meant that one obtained different groups living alongside each other but separate from and in great suspicion of each other. There were a series of cultural garrisons, a series of racial solitudes. After centuries during which the human person was but an economic commodity and was as expendable as a coin, self was fragmented and unformed. And when self has yet to be recreated, society cannot labour into being. It is little wonder, then, that Anthony Trollope wrote of the West Indies: "No people there, in the true sense of the word." And closer to home, it is little wonder that V.S. Naipaul could have spoken of the "storylessness" and Orlando Patterson, the "historylessness" of the West Indies. To Naipaul's exclamation that "Nothing was created in the West Indies", Walcott has replied that if nothing was created in the West Indies, then there was everything to be made.

What education was received made sure that White values and European civilisation remained paramount. Contiguously, all that was Black or local was disparaged. Consequently, the actual landscape of the writer was at odds with the landscape which inhabited the creative imagination. Self was at odds with self. The individual was psychically fragmented and culturally schizophrenic, reflecting the condition of the society as a whole. The landscape itself seems to mirror this sense of futility: the West Indies, a fractured archipelago, a broken backbone. The point here is that writers, when they looked around for a language, for metaphor, in which to speak their wholeness into creation, found nothing but that which was borrowed from or imposed by Europe. When they sought landscape, they found only jungle, volcano, plantation, beaches and sea, a landscape barren of the caveats of "civilised" society. When they groped for tradition, they found fragments, half-buried, half-excavated. When they glanced back for history, they found only indignity. Any quest for mythology yielded gods disappeared, broken or reshaped for having been placed upon the rack of experience. The only dignity, it seemed, was in Europe. Consequently, there was a great deal of imitative stuff written during the thirties and forties. They all wanted to be Keats or Shelley, Tennyson or Coleridge, Wordsworth or Arnold. They wrote blissfully of autumn, winter, snow, and daffodils--elements quite foreign to their actual landscape, but which belonged to the landscape of their imaginations. They wrote in a language that was contrived, wooden, alien to what they felt, to their hopes, and to their mission, a mission not imposed by some political, policing body, but by the necessity of history itself. And this task, above all else, was the reintegration of the individual into a thing of dignity, wholeness and worth. The superb novelist, Wilson Harris, writes about the West Indies as a "cultural environment whose promise of fulfilment lies in a profound and difficult vision of the person--a profound and difficult vision of essential unity within the most bitter forms of latent and active historical diversity" (Tradition, the Writer and Society, 45). And that diversity, that bitter antagonism was both inner and outer, both social and psychical.

With the fifties and sixties came a renaissance of sorts, an eruption of the imagination which witnessed a recognition of worth outside of the metropolitan centres. But because writers were padlocked within the castles of their skins, because they were imprisoned within racial garrisons, the tendency was to write for or on behalf of narrow racial groups, their eyes glazed over with different nostalgias for racial beginnings outside the Caribbean. Always, home was elsewhere. Writers of African descent wrote as spokesmen for those who shared their racial heritage. The longing was to return to Africa, a movement that was solidified by Marcus Garvey, and that yielded what was to be a world-wide movement called Black Power. Those of East Indian descent looked to India, for what Naipaul terms an "Aryan" purity in Mimic Men; and everyone continued to look to Europe generally and England specifically. This movement was triggered in part by the mass departure of writers from the West Indies: Edgar Mittelholzer and Jean Rhys led the way, and they were followed by the likes of C.L.R. James, George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, Samuel Selvon, John Hearne, Martin Carter, Roger Maise, Michael Anthony and Austin Clark. Derek Walcott was among the few to remain at home, writing out of Trinidad and St. Lucia. Generally, it took distance from the West Indies and a close-up look at the "centre" to allow the scales to fall from their eyes. Each writer engaged in the painfully lonely task of writing himself or herself and the society into being, each in solitude putting back together the shattered vase of self and society. It is significant to me that not one of these was state-sponsored, although the temptation must have been great to accept such sponsorship. The one considerable talent which yielded, it occurs to me, was that of the poet Arthur Seymour, who headed the state-sponsored Guyana History and Arts Council which oversaw language and literature in that country. It is also significant that, of all, he is a failed talent, producing little more than politically sanctioned stuff which seldom rose above self-conscious nationalism, ideological absolutism. Yet, Seymour was among the first of West Indian poets to have excavated fragments of the Indigenous Amerindian past in his poetry.

The mould into which the body is cast may be superficial, but it is not an easy thing from which to break free--so imperative is race, so tempting the old compulsion to return to the original state. The self-conscious, skin-conscious idea of belonging caused the restriction of art and literary thought to an ideological order based on race; thought and art predicated upon and predetermined by skin colour. To some extent, literary thought was affiliated to racial politics, both serving to polarise further a society which was fractured into so many pieces in the first place. Political militancy and coincidental artististic militancy may have been a necessary step in the evolution of literature, the individual and society, but it was a stage that presented the gravest dangers to all aspects of life, artistic and otherwise, in the West Indies. This compulsion to write for one's skin is as grotesque as it is disturbing. In "What the Twilight Says", Derek Walcott writes:

"The future of West Indian militancy lies in art. All revolutions begin amateurishly, with forged or stolen weapons, but the West Indian artist knew the need for revolt without knowing what weapons to use, and just as a comfortable self-hugging pathos hid in the most polemical of West Indian novels, so there was in the sullen ambition of the West Indian actor a fear that he lacked proper weapons, that his voice, colour and body were no match for the civilised concepts of theatre.... The West Indian mind, historically hung-over, exhausted, prefers to take its revenge in nostalgia, to narrow its eyelids in a schizophrenic daydream of an Eden that existed before its exile. Its fixation is for the breasts of a nourishing mother, and this is true not only of the generations of slaves' children, but of those brought here through indigence or necessity.... " ("What the Twilight Says", 18-20)

Literature subsisting merely on ideology is little more than propaganda, things to persuade others and ourselves that our cause is great and just, our pain and deprivation tragic. Such a whine is emitted still in post-colonial societies to elicit the sympathy of the captors/slavers/masters and mistresses. And West Indian literature is littered with such stuff, sooner forgotten; and, indeed, forgotten for the transience of their appeal. Derek Walcott, referring to this time when political posturing was very popular, writes:

Most of our literature loitered in the pathos of sociology, self-pitying and patronised. Our writers whined in the voices of twilight: "Look at this people! They may be degraded, but they are as good as you are. Look at what you have done to them." And their poems remained laments their novels propaganda tracts, as if one general apology on behalf of the past would supplant imagination, would spare them the necessity of great art. ("What the Twilight Says", 10)

The artist, then, needed to have turned away from this cloying temptation to stagnate, to rest easy in the lap of an illusory wholeness and healing, a place which offered immediate localised reward and recognition. West Indian artists needed to break free of consolidated postures of protest, of flag-waving and fist pumping. Great art, as Walcott and Wilson Harris would agree, necessitated V.S. Naipaul's return to Miguel Street before he may return again to the enigma of his arrival; Edward Kamau Brathwiate's return to the West Indies after his rights of passage, his spiritual journey to Africa; Jean Rhys's imaginative turning back across the wide Sargasso sea to Dominica, especially, and to the West Indies generally. West Indian artists return to find themselves coming forward. It meant Wilson Harris embarking on an arduous journey, his characters engaged in a muscular struggle against themselves and their old racial and racist compulsions and roles which history had dictated to be theirs, a journey over many lives and deaths for the sublime pleasure of having intimate intercourse with the landscape rather than inflicting rape upon it. It meant also poets like Walcott and Martin Carter stringing together with words--with the genius and patience born of love--the disparate islands with all their disparate peoples. Each bead a thing of worth, but only part of the jewellery recreated. It meant a simultaneous stringing together into one fantastic and precious item those beads or fragments within their individual selves. The beads are different; the jewellery sparkles with the colours of a rainbow.

But in order that this be done, West Indian artists needed to have removed their pursed and longing lips from the breasts of cultural mothers who were theirs and not theirs. They needed to have descended from the laps of luxuries, as it were, and crawl on their hands and their knees, searching the land, listening to its tremors which were as the rumble of their own thoughts; feeling its pulse which was but the beat of their own hearts; harkening to the rush of surf, the torrent of their own blood.

If the vase of individual self lay shattered upon the stage of the West Indies, and if the society lay likewise, broken like islands upon the floor of the world, then so did language. Pieces of English, French, Dutch, Spanish. Pieces of Hindi, Arabic, Chinese. All these great languages; but they were but shards; shards, sharp, everywhere. And when the poet--crawling, humble assembler of things--picks up each shard, blood is drawn. But this is a sacrifice of necessity: the artist in search of form and language to envelope and convey artistic substance--form and language born of other forms and other languages, but different from all that went before. Each putting together, each reintegration, is a triumph of creation, unique creation. For broken things, however painstakingly reassembled, bear the marks of breakage, of fracture and fragmentation. So that the joy of completion is always marked with sorrow; what is found anew is the child of the old, but free from too great a resemblance to the parent. This is what I meant by not being entrapped by a single tradition or culture. Granted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, the second West Indian (Saint-John Perse being the first) to have been so honoured, Walcott spoke of,

"The calligraphy of bamboo leaves from the ancient languages, Hindi, Chinese, and Arabic, on the Antillean sky. From the Ramayana to Anabasis, from Guadeloupe to Trinidad, all that archaeology of fragments lying around, from the broken African kingdoms, from the crevices of Canton, from Syria and Lebanon, vibrating not under the earth but in our raucous, demotic streets."

Each writer sat with an individual vocabulary to capture the story of broken humanity, stories to capture the "storylessness" of a people. There was the fundamental metaphor, but no uniform use of language; for uniform use, like uniform tradition is alien to the Caribbean. As I have said, language--like the person, like the society--was composed of shards on the ground. Pieces that bore the promise of a fractured wholeness, something "torn and new", to use the words of Edward Kamau Brathwaite in The Arrivants. Like paradox, always paradox. For the place began with an end, was born in death. And twilight contains the contours of the morning. Language, then, which has served to revitalise tired old tongues, was theirs to create. And this they did, each writer and critic bringing forth some kind of theory which was not theory but vision, a vision of survival in the sun, in the cauldron of their discontent. Each writer fashioned metaphor with healers' hands in a vocabulary different from the other, though the image be the same. It is impossible to mistake the language of Wilson Harris for that of V. S. Naipaul or that of George Lamming, the poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwiate with that of Martin Carter or Derek Walcott.

In much the same vein, Walcott lays claim to the multiplicity of heritages that have plagued and blessed the West Indies:

"I was entitled to the feast of Hussein, to the mirrors and crepe-paper temples of the Muslim epic, to the Chinese Lion Dance, to the rites of that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street. I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad." (305)

A remarkable confession indeed from someone who is a Methodist-Christian-Mulatto. And one of the greatest poets of our time. This issue of tradition, of choice of tradition, has been and is of vital significance in West Indian literary thought. Cultural tradition is frequently yoked to race and subsists largely on homogeneous constraints, an idolatry of absolutes. They offer the temptation of wholeness, of a time, place and people without taint by contact. West Indians offered themselves up to cultural motherlands (or fatherlands) depending on the race to which they affiliated themselves: Chinese traditions for the Chinese-West Indian; to the Indo-West Indian, India; to the West Indian of African descent, Africa. And Europe offered a tempting model for all to live and write or paint or act by.

Yet, it was not simply a matter of "to the colour of your skin, choose". In Walcott's brilliant play, Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970), for instance, Makak is tempted by the vision of a White woman to seize upon his kingly African heritage. His reward would be to taste of her white flesh. But Makak is an old West Indian wood-cutter, and he may don princely African robes and live out his dreams of revenge, but his power is both illusion and delusion. He is, after all, still being manipulated by the White woman, the symbol of European cultural tradition. It is not simply a case of becoming white, of bleaching the mind and the skin; rather, it was to become more African than the African while contorting the mind ignominiously to European rhythms. On the other hand, Makak is tempted by Moustique, his friend on Monkey Mountain, who offers yet another absolute model by which to live and kill: capitalism. But Moustique is Black. These are the kinds of demons, in the end, which the West Indian must wrestle and vanquish.

The great challenge which West Indian artists have taken up is not which tradition to choose, which cultural imperative to obey, which traditional monolith before which to genuflect. Rather, the great challenge was not to choose at all. For to have chosen one tradition was to have betrayed all others. Conversely, if they reject each, they have all from which to choose. The truth is that no heterogeneous civilisation--and, today, the whole world is heterogeneous--can afford to accept a total or implacable model upon which to base art or life. Yet, outright rejection of all models, or any model for that matter would be the folly of the vacuous. In "The Phenomenal Legacy" Wilson Harris ties together the issues of the old compulsion to choose one model of tradition with the more demanding new direction that art makes:

My uneasiness with the conventional character of the arts and of the novel goes a long way back. One aspect of this uneasiness springs from a growing anxiety over the nature of choices and the extent to which one is genuinely at liberty to make choices in the context of certain cultural and social and political forces. The constriction one feels may be traced to certain psychological biases, the principal one residing in our ingrained habit, the ingrained habit of a material civilisation, to extrapolate assumptions of character from a dominant model, to assume that a people or an individual ought to conform to particular models whether imposed or wished for--as if one could conceive of some advertising model of character from which, or upon which, all other private conditions are built. The tragedy of will with which one is involved--in this respect--lies in the contradictory forces which are set in train, since the true complex of one's time is open and transformative rather than static and imitative, multi-racial rather than racial. And the necessity of entering a transformative area of assumptions beneath one's safe crust of bias becomes increasingly imperative if we are not to succumb to monolithic callouses and complacencies in the name of virtue or purity. (Explorations, 44)

In drawing what he calls the "proportions of the ideal Caribbean city", by which he meant Port-of Spain, but which might well be Kingston or Bridgetown or Georgetown, Derek Walcott moves me to where I want to go, to where I was always. He writes:

"Its docks, not obscured by smoke or deafened by too much machinery, and above all, it would be so racially various that the cultures of the world--the Asiatic, the Mediterranean, the European, the African--would be represented in it, its human variety more exciting than Joyce's Dublin. Its citizens would intermarry as they chose, from instinct, not tradition, until their children find it increasingly futile to trace their genealogy." (309)

This complex and provocative issue of genealogy--of losing one's way to find one's way, of losing oneself to discover one's self--this issue of untraceable genealogy is important, for heterogeneity has come to mean other than what it did, has moved into an uncharted and unfathomable territory. First, it meant a heterogeneous society in which people were living or refusing to live alongside each other, sharing a landscape which they despised since their hearts beat for lands different from that which their feet touched. Then heterogeneity implied a society that left their cultural garrisons for the wider space inhabited by a society reconciled to their paradoxical nature of being different and the same. Then it came to mean a mixture of the races, an intermingling of blood, moving towards untraceable genealogy. But now, no matter if genealogy may be charted to a single cultural or racial source, no matter in what colour is painted the skin--white, brown, red, yellow, black--it has become a profound issue of psyche, that place where we may witness a phenomenal accommodation of all influences, all races, all cultures. Is it not miraculous that one may establish or recognise a kinship with someone else that is far removed in looks from oneself? Is it not possible that someone in your midst may read and respond to my poetry, laugh with my laughter, weep with my tears, though he be not West Indian at all? May I not respond to his in like fashion? This inexplicable thing, this complex, has nothing to do with shared traditions of religion, history, language, or race. These may help along that which is there already: a shared fragmentation and reassembly of self, a shared heterogeneity of psyche. I am not saying for one minute that the Asian or African or Southeast Asian who reads West Indian literature need not do his or her homework. Or vice versa. What I am saying is that the world of the latter twentieth century, like the artistic consciousness of this time, may respond to intuitive impulses far deeper than the "givens" to which the sociologists, anthropologists, genealogists, and literary critics gesture with such frequency and freneticism.

And yet, in the very centre of this heterogeneous psyche of the West Indian resides a blank space, a potent gap that pays echoing homage to the history of loss suffered by the region. The artist becomes the work of art--sculpture, music or literature--with a pregnant hole in the centre. None is complete, but ceaselessly unfinished, evolutionary. This is the kind of legacy written into the tormented consciousness of Rhys's protagonist in Wide Sargasso Sea (1967).

Each work, apparently completed, is but a fleeting visualisation of reintegration, for certainty dissipates like fog in the face of the sun. Each work, or at least each great work to have come out of the West Indies is an omen from the Picasso-like Muse of the Caribbean, like her paradoxical embrace signalling, at once, farewell and greeting. By this I do not mean that we are the children of Sissyphus, to borrow the title of Orlando Patterson's novel. What I mean is that each work is a temporary triumph of creation and self-creation. A moment as tiny as a star in the eye of the artist.

The literature of the West Indies and its corresponding literary thought have broken free of ossification in the face of a Medusa-like history. They have evolved beyond chattering despair, bawling vengeance and self-embracing narcissism. They have gone. also, beyond the paved road of conventional prose, derivative poetry and posture of remorse. Instead they have turned away from the temptations offered by singular models of culture and tradition, choosing all instead. What is left is obedience to a much more demanding aesthetic which seeks to capture and dramatise the recreation of self and a society which that self may call home. Recreation from the fragments of psyche into heterogeneous psyche, something "torn and new" (Jouvert, 270). Yet, the legacy which they give to the post-colonial world is not theirs to keep so much as it is ours to claim, if we would claim it.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. The Arrivants. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Harris, Wilson. Explorations. Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1981.

-----"The Phenomenal Legacy" Literary Half-Yearly XI.2 (July 1970):1-6

-----Tradition, the Writer and Society.

Walcott, Derek. 1992 Nobel Lecture: "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory." Southeast Asia Writes Back: Skoob Anthology No. 1. London: Skoob Books Publishing, 1993: 302-317.

-----"What the Twilight Says" in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970.

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