A homecoming: On Caribbean literatures

Maya Jaggi reports for the Financial Times.

The National Library in Port of Spain, with its soaring white tiers and canvas awning, resembles a cruise liner anchored beside the Red House, the parliament of Trinidad and Tobago. A fitting symbol, perhaps, for a regional literature that has exerted an influence out of all proportion to the population, but in which departure has long seemed almost inseparable from success.

CLR James, VS Naipaul and his brother Shiva were all launched into the world from the imposing red portals of Queen’s Royal College in the Trinidadian capital. James, the author of Beyond a Boundary, left for Britain in the 1930s; Naipaul made the journey in 1950, with Samuel Selvon and the Barbadian George Lamming also sharing a boat that year. Discovering common ground in London bedsits, their generation became West Indian in Britain – as Selvon chronicled in The Lonely Londoners and Lamming in The Pleasures of Exile. Together they invented a literary tradition.

As Trinidad and Jamaica prepare to mark 50 years of independence in 2012, this leakage of literary talent shows no sign of being staunched. Caribbean literature remains distinctively transnational. The great majority of its writers are dispersed – often reluctantly – though the pull is now from North America. Among today’s most fêted US novelists are Caribbean-born Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Cristina García (Cuba), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) and Pulitzer prizewinner Junot Díaz (Dominican Republic).

“Ours is an eloquent culture,” says Arnold Rampersad, the Trinidadian-born biographer of Ralph Ellison, “but many people see a void in literary life.” Rampersad was speaking last month at the first international Bocas Lit Fest, as chair of the jury for the inaugural OCM Bocas prize for Caribbean literature.

The prize (“boca” means both mouth and sea channel) is for books written in English in three genres, by authors born in or citizens of Caribbean countries. Its judges, too, have ties to the region. For Marina Salandy-Brown, the prize’s founding director, the fact that there are “more Caribbean writers outside than in” means the scattered islands and Guyana know too little of each other’s literature. The aim is to bring them home, and even provide a catalyst for regional publishing.

What binds a regional literature whose writers live elsewhere? Rampersad perceives a Caribbean aesthetic that “resists the evils of slavery” yet has a “plein-air exuberance” that distinguishes it from African-American blues culture. For Jamaican novelist Marlon James, “it’s about a multiplicity existing within each person. That’s not to say everybody gets along, or that we morph into one. But cross-pollination is taken for granted.” Or as Lamming put it 50 years ago: “The world met here. The West Indian, though provincial, is perhaps the most cosmopolitan man in the world.”

Derek Walcott’s White Egrets won the Bocas award for poetry and the overall $10,000 prize. Anticipating his 80th birthday, the poems revisit the “sunlit surprise” of nature’s bounty, along with ageing and the death of friends. The book is “almost a cemetery”, a frail-voiced Walcott said in a videoed speech from St Lucia, “but it’s a celebration”. Homecoming is likened to sea spray bursting on a wall, “trying to fasten on everything it moved from”.

Danticat, 42, the non-fiction winner, lives in Miami’s Little Haiti. HerCreate Dangerously charts a passionate engagement with the Haiti she left aged 12 – from the despotic regimes of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier to the earthquake last year in which her cousin Maxo died.

The winning work of fiction, How to Escape From a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique, has a bold, pan-Caribbean breadth. Yanique, 32, lives in St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, and New York, but travelled as a Fulbright scholar to Jamaica and Trinidad: “I became West Indian when I went to other islands,” she says. For her generation, separation may be less vexed than it was. Writers such as Selvon “couldn’t go back to Trinidad five times a year”, Yanique points out. Today London, Miami, New York and Toronto are also Caribbean cities, whose community extends into cyberspace.

Not everyone is sanguine. In Growing in the Dark (2003), Earl Lovelace notes that “the new West Indian writers are emerging in the metropolitan centres of the world. They are sending our writers back to us, they are determining who our writers are”. Lovelace, 75, is a rare exception in never having had a home address outside Trinidad. “We living on the edge, bumming a ride. We need to be more ambitious,” he tells me in Woodford Square, a Trinidadian Speakers’ Corner, where he spoke during the 1970s Black Power movement that he revisits in his recent novel Is Just A Movie. Why, he asks, have governments done nothing to support those who stay behind?

I put this to the poet Dawad Philip, adviser to Trinidad’s minister of the arts and multiculturalism. Philip concedes that cultural funding has favoured “populist” carnival and calypso. He says a campaign pledge by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the prime minister, was to focus on publishing local writers, “but no one’s taken her up on it”.

Her predecessor, Patrick Manning, built the grandiose National Academy for the Performing Arts, spurned as a white elephant on the green expanse of Queen’s Park Savannah. The nearby Trinidad Theatre Workshop clings on – scant beneficiary of the boom its founder Walcott satirised (“like a sailor on a spending spree/we blow our oil-bloated economy”). In funding artists rather than buildings, Bocas is investing wisely in a more precious export.

Maya Jaggi is a cultural journalist and critic

For the original report go to http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/dd630178-87e5-11e0-a6de-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1Nc3890t1

Image: Camille Pisarro’s Two Women by the Sea, Charlotte Amelie.

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