Why is our literature so different? Why?

Today (Nov 12) is the 8th year anniversary of the passing of Antiguan educator, journalist, culturalist, historian and politician, Tim Hector, one of the Caribbean’s undisputed intellectual giants one of the most clear-sighted visionaries that the region has ever produced.

As the editor of the Outlet newspaper in Antigua, Tim used his phenomenal and incisive writing skills to dissect, analyse and report on the socio-political and literary dynamics of Caribbean life in ways that exposed our strengths and weaknesses to the bone.  In the words of The Center for Caribbean Thought (University of the West Indies, Mona), “With consistency, and a dramatic flair, Hector’s sharp pen made his readers reflect on the nature of the Caribbean, not with gestures of melancholy about size but with strokes of affirmation and possibilities.”  He also fought relentlessly and fearlessly for press freedom and freedom of speech in Antigua and the wider region.

I thought it fitting to use today’s post to feature an excerpt of an article Tim wrote in 2000, one of many on Caribbean literature he had penned over the years. In fact, what better time to reflect on his stirring words than now when new literary developments in the region seem to be re-energising the Caribbean literary community, among them the launch of the online community Caribbean Literary Salon, the digital rebirth of the region’s quintessential literary flagship, the Caribbean Review of Books and this week’s launch of the The OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Interestingly, they are all unfolding at the same time that the global book trade, according to Jason Epstein, is undergoing a “historic shift” which “will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends.”

Read Tim’s article and enjoy!

The other day a friend of mine whom I taught literature more than 35 years ago asked me to assist his son with a literature assignment. And suddenly I realised Politics and Sports are the public passions. Literature with me is a private passion. I read writers from any part of the world with pleasure. It was a private passion, which probably began of itself. In that I was an only child, fatherless, though I never missed him. Mother, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles saw to it that I never missed him. For born in straitened circumstances, fatherless, they saw to it that I always had books to read. Books substituted for the biological brothers and sisters I never had. When I was nine I got a Complete Works of Shakespeare for Christmas. Later an uncle who did not live with us gave me Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Not that I understood all of what I read. But therein lies the root of the passion for literature – the not understanding. Experiences later in life clarified that which at first was not understood, but read. A method unconsciously developed.

Why am I saying all that? It is not a treatise on the uses of literature, which in our all too practical age seems like an irrelevance or an academic encumbrance. In writing for my friend’s son, it dawned on me that no people need their literature more than we do. (More on that later.) Impressive as that body of literature is, it is being disregarded, taught badly, that is, without passion, and therefore it becomes academic drudgery, or worse, a burden to be escaped.

Literature to an Englishman is to tell him of his great past: the charge of the light brigade, marauding Drake and Mighty Nelson, of Chaucer fashioning English “dialect” into English by way of the tales that gave pleasure and a vision of a future, as well as a present way of being; of Wordsworth and Coleridge using the language, English, “really spoken by men”, as opposed to pompous classical expression; it is to tell of the few who did so much for so many in building empire, and to sustain the British national personality after the loss of empire.

Literature for the West Indian is much different. No other people began their history like us. We began our history as things. Chattel. Bought and sold. Listed in inventories along with mules, asses and horses. The “self”, or if you prefer, “the personality” was imposed. The rigidities of the plantation did not allow for anything other than stereotype. And so as one of the finest modern literary critics, Gordon Rohlehr noted, we have “the role-playing Black, the jive-ass Black, the Uncle Tom stereotype” and he might have added the Black “assimilado” – the middle strata who imitated the life-style, or their idea of their white colonisers’ lifestyles.

West Indian literature could not concern itself with the latter, “the fashionable men and women whom comfort could not bless with sense”. And that is a striking fact. The novel, the most popular, modern, literary form, emerged as literary form when the middle class sought to displace the land-owning class as the leaders of society. The rule of the aristocracy lent itself to poetry, epic poetry in particular, telling of the great deeds of mighty warriors defending “the patria”. It made patricians look like the natural leaders in War or Peace, and so the natural rulers.

The Novel, is about character. It narrates the strengths, the fortitude of persons in soul-destroying situations, and their overcoming or unbecoming by virtue of character. The middle classes used the novel, as form, to show their superiority, by virtue of character. Jane Austen’s novels prove that point. Even Hemingway exalting the matador, or the Old Man enduring against the perils of the Sea are variations on the theme. Or, more to the point, the megalomaniac Ahab in pursuit of the white whale, as an end in itself in Moby Dick, like men pursue capital now, as an end in and of itself.

And yet West Indian poetry and the West Indian novel broke with all those forms and contents. The West Indian novel is about Biswas, battling to erect a house, as fulfilment of personality. It is his becoming. That is breaking out and through the rigidities of colonially imposed personality. West Indian literature, as poetry or as the novel, is not about the few who did so much for so many. It is not about any charges of the light brigade, with cannon to the left of them and cannon to the right of them. It is not about brave Kempemfelt his last sea-fight having been fought. We have no military history of our own. That absence of a military history, a history of our own wars fought, lost and won, also makes us unique. Most people have had wars civil or external. Not so the West Indies. We have been fought about, but not ourselves fighting. Our violence is the violence of the oppressed and dispossessed turning in on itself.

West Indian literature is about the fishermen, the washerwomen, and the clerk in their morning at the office, and their struggle to be other than. Other than the imposed stereotype. All those whom birth “brought no lucky dip/From which to pluck a permanent privilege”. It is about those, to quote poet George Lamming again, “who start life without a beginning” and who, therefore, “Must always recall their crumbling foundations” of “Rushing past the affliction of the womb’s unfortunate opening.”

As Lamming himself put it this time in prose, in 1958:

“Unlike the governments and departments of educators, unlike the businessmen importing commodities, the West Indian novelist did not look across the sea to another source. He looked in and down at what had been traditionally ignored. For the West Indian peasant became other than a cheap source of labour. He became through the novelist’s eye, a living existence, living in silence and joy and fear, involved in riot and carnival. It is the West Indian novel that has restored to the West Indian peasant to his true and original status of personality.”

This is a fine passage. A tremendous insight, at once literary and historical. I have though, one reservation. West Indian literature did not “restore the West Indian peasant to his true and original status of personality.” That presumes that the West Indian peasantry had that status before the intervention of the colonisers’ colonisation. And it was being restored and as such preoccupied the novelist.

The truth is the West Indian peasant was new. They were the first to emerge from the imposition of the plantation, existing as it were, in opposition, if not in negation of the plantation.

For as the authority on the subject wrote, that is Woodville Marshall: It was: “The peasants who initiated the conversion of these plantation territories into modern societies. In a variety of ways they attempted to build local self-generating communities. They founded villages and markets; they built churches and schools; they clamoured for extension of educational facilities, for improvements and markets; they started the local co-operative movement.”

Indeed the West Indian peasantry was the first class of persons to emerge in our territories, with a definite set of interests as a class. They were a new personality, the West Indian personality, as creators. Hence they commanded true artistic expression of themselves in West Indian literature.

The middle classes, “the assimilados” who assimilated the colonisers’ culture and were chosen for administrative posts in the colonial order, knowing they would have maintained that order with the convert’s zeal. Having been educated they saw and still see their “specific purpose”, as Lamming wrote “as sneering at anything which grew or was made of native soil”. Such, who even today still look outside for their literature in Harry Potter’s children’s stories, or to Stephen King and the like, could not be subjects of West Indian poetry or novels. Educated in the professions, or buying and selling imported commodities, and re-inforcing the old order they were entirely without character and not fit and proper subjects for novels or verse, with the possible exception of satire, that is, as mimic men and mimic women.

West Indian literature, in the novel or as poetry is of artistic necessity preoccupied with:

What new fevers arise to reverse the crawl?

Our islands make towards their spiritual extinction?

Remember that word “fevers”, it is a recurring image.

For we were born “in spiritual extinction”, slavery and indenture sought to extinguish the African and Indian personality, at every turn, in or out of school, church, home or work. Always it sought not just the stereotype, but the other-determined personality as stereotype. Anything other than the other-determined stereotype was a threat to the system to be demonised and hounded, as if life itself depended on the reproduction of homogeneous and uncritical persons, who elevated the imposed sacred while undermining the native secular; the economy itself was about status and not the production and accumulation of wealth for human development.

Martin Carter wrote:

“For a people like us, marooned in misery, and with naked roots, everything must be raw material awaiting transformation. The drunk man, dazed in a gutter, the criminal damned in a cell, the priest happy in his celibacy, the merchant hypnotised with profit, the politician blind with power, the mother paralysed with her child’s end, the lover ecstatic with freedom; we must accept all of these as those who constitute the stuff of an experience, the natural order, the given universe, out of which we must create what we want.”

This then is the “stuff” of West Indian literature, the raw material on which our artists must build their word images to re-arrange reality until it becomes more real.

This is not the stuff of the “Young and the Restless” or “As the World Turns” or “The Bold and the Beautiful.” There one does not find the drunk man dazed in the gutter, the mother paralysed with her child’s end, the lover ecstatic with copulation, which substitutes for freedom there being no other worlds to conquer. That is not the stuff of soap operas. We escape into the world of the soap opera, the glamoured romance of the rich and famous in scheming connivance, to escape the real world of the mother, who mothers and fathers, three children, at age 22, and who knows not where breakfast will come from tomorrow, let alone dinner. Our literature is concerned with the latter, not the former.

When I was younger, and at university my friends used to tell me that West Indian poetry and novels were too real, “too full of the emptiness of life around us” one wrote and “giving little by way of hope” another friend wrote to me. I replied we grew up on the alien “daffodils” which we knew not, on cowboys’ rustlers and assorted crooks in the wild, wild west, so literature always seemed distant. And nothing enhances the view like distance. Our own story near at hand and familiar did not seem like a story worth telling for we thought of ourselves as of little worth in the global scheme of the young and the restless or the bold and the beautiful. We were then and therefore ripe, ready and hot for American cultural penetration, with or without permission.

You can read the full article in the Music, Art & Literature section of Tim Hector’s ‘Fan the Flame’ archives here.

Click here for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature Eligibility and entry guidelines

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2 responses to “Why is our literature so different? Why?

  1. Pingback: Global Voices in English » St. Lucia, Antigua & Barbuda: A Different Literature·

  2. Pingback: Spotlight Leonard ‘Tim’ Hector « Wadadli Pen·

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