The new government, free of racial divide, represents a modern Trinidad far from Naipaul’s mocking contempt, writes Richard Sudan in London’s Guardian.
‘There is no doubting Naipaul’s mastery of the English language and his ability to weave compelling narratives.’
The Caribbean island of Trinidad has produced no shortage of notable figures – from great thinkers such as its first prime minister Eric Williams and the social theorist CLR James, to legendary sports personalities such as the Olympic gold medal winner Hasely Crawford, the cricketer Brian Lara and the sprinte Ato Boldon.
The nation’s diverse cultural makeup stems from its colonial past, with a population largely of Indian and African descent. One of the most recognisable sons of Trinidad is the writer and Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. In 2008 Naipaul was listed 7th in the Times’s list of the greatest postwar British writers. He was knighted in 1989 and received the Nobel prize for literature in 2001.
His work draws from his experience of living in Trinidad. There is no doubting Naipaul’s mastery of the English language and his ability to weave compelling narratives. But what becomes overwhelming when delving into the depths of his prose is a dark undercurrent of racism – an almost barefaced contempt for the people of his own country. This is not new and certainly not unique to Naipaul.
Trinidadians are more united than Naipaul depicts. They voted for the new People’s Partnership coalition administration and Trinidad’s first female prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at the general election last year, from a desire to see change in the old political status quo rooted in Patrick Manning and the People’s National Movement (PNM). The People’s Partnership swept to victory through a renewed sense of identity and in a bid to see a political system reflective of the will of many, free from charges of corruption, and representative of all races in Trinidad.
The remaining racial divides are a hangover from the days of slavery and the British occupation. They reek of the inferiority complex that many Trinidanians had drummed into them from birth – and this is what Naipaul panders to in his novels Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr Biswas (1961), in which the underlying mockery of Indian Trinidadians is the defining thread. It leaves the reader with a bitter taste.
Such sentiments from Naipaul were not limited to Trinidad. The writer Paul Theroux, once a friend and protege of Naipaul, cited him during their time together in Africa as having “a fear of being swallowed by the bush, a fear of the people of the bush” – referring to Naipaul’s fear of Africa and African people.
It is opinions like Naipaul’s of Trinidad – and of Africa – that have been given the most attention. There is, however, another perspective, one that better sums up Trinidad and adheres more to the reality of life for its people – and how they feel about it.
My family’s home is next to the house that Naipaul grew up in and used as the basis for A House for Mr Biswas. My late great-uncle, Roy Sudan, wrote an essay on life growing up in the street, published in the early 1990s. It paints a different picture of life and speaks of the sense of pride that Trinidadians feel toward their country, a pride felt in the warmth that resonates from the people of Port of Spain today. One extract from the essay best sums these sentiments up; Sudan, writing about the hustle and bustle of the city, speaks of “the friendly participation of every creed and race, especially when the suburb of St James celebrates our two cultural events, Hosay and carnival” – indeed, carnival celebrates independence from the British empire and Trinidadian pride. But Naipaul’s writing has never reflected this.
We must challenge opinions such as Naipaul’s, especially when they are indicative of wider views, which are only reinforced if they are taken seriously. We need to question any prejudice rewarded, especially by such a potent symbol of empire, the coloniser, which gave Naipaul a knighthood. Dealing with such controversial neocolonial views is paramount to changing people’s perceptions.
For the original article go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/10/vs-naipaul-trinidad-racial-divide