Return of a Jumbie

Roydon Salick

Simon Lee reviews Roydon Salick’s Ismith Khan: The Man and His work for Trinidad’s Guardian.

As Anglophone Caribbean publishing and literature finally begins to secure a slot in the World Literature market, releasing more authors from obscurity (though possibly not penury) in the last decade than the previous 50 years, Roydon Salick’s recently published Ismith Khan: The Man & His Work, alerts readers, critics and cultural theorists alike to a seminal figure of an earlier generation, who missed the boat which took Mittelholzer, Lamming, Naipaul and Selvon to fame and varying degrees of fortune in England.

Salick speculates that the critical neglect Khan has endured to date may be partially attributable to his relocation to America rather than London, which functioned as the English Caribbean’s literary capital from the 1930s (with the arrival of Learie Constantine and CLR James) certainly up to the end of the 20th century.

While Khan may not have benefited from the informal support network offered by the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme which helped nurture and establish the 1950s cohort, or the encouragement of London-based Trini John La Rose and his New Beacon press, he did remain in contact with one of the early stars Sam Selvon, who he was related to by marriage and who was to be, according to Salick’s insider information, “the single most powerful influence in his becoming a writer.”

Ironically it is Peepal Tree, the same UK press which has almost single-handedly been responsible for the upsurge in Caribbean publishing over the last 20 years, rescuing the neglected and introducing new voices, which published Khan’s third novel The Crucifixion (written as an MFA thesis in 1970 but gathering dust until 1987), his final collection of short stories A Day in the Country (1994) and now Salick’s timely study.

The value of this slim “preparatory work” far surpasses its brevity. Dr Salick is an unashamed old school literary critic, with little time (and I suspect even less respect) for theoretical fashions which in every area of the Liberal Arts have tended to obscure rather than elucidate texts, alienating readers and students alike.

In contrast, Salick comes to the page with more than 30 years teaching experience and one has only to enquire among the extensive body of his past and present students (at UWI Cave Hill and St Augustine, now at Costaatt) to realise his pedagogic mission is to inspire and illuminate rather than simply impress (or intimidate) young and even mature minds with intellectual acrobatics. His motivation for rescuing Khan from critical neglect demonstrates a commitment to the intellectual development of the region, now sorely lacking in myopic postmodern Trinidad: “a self-imposed obligation of filling an obvious gap in West Indian criticism.”

Similarly, despite the figure of the author being dismissed from the critical roundtable in favour of the text about the same time as Roland Barthes was deconstructing wrestling and Citroen cars, Salick’s friendship with Khan allows the still-curious reader both biographical and critical insights, which a rigorous cultural theorist would eschew.

Not to know that Khan’s grandfather Kale was the life model for the eponymous protagonist of The Jumbie Bird and that the entirety of this first novel is semi-autobiographical would surely meet with condemnation from adherents of one of the latest genres now declared fashionable—life writing.

Salick’s “preparatory work” in elucidating Khan’s “major thematic concerns” and his “structural, stylistic and narrative strategies” may hopefully meet with controversy rather than consensus, in which case it will fulfil the book’s self-declared purpose: “to encourage other studies…more specialised and searching, and to generate an ongoing critical dialogue on the fiction of Ismith Khan.”

The four chapters, which follow an introductory biographical sketch, provide even the most dilatory or superficial reader the critical apparatus for entry to Khan’s three novels and his one collection of short stories. In The Jumbie Bird chapter we learn that Khan in his characterisation of Kale was unwittingly employing one of the strategies advocated in the decolonisation process: recording the stories of the colonised Fanon (my reading rather than an explicit Salick statement). Kale’s version of the history of Trinidadian indentured labourers fulfils Khan’s own sense of the Caribbean writer’s brief: “the writer from the Caribbean has to assume the responsibility of ‘teacher’ and ‘historian’ in order to record periods of history, not normally found in history books.”

Khan’s second novel The Obeah Man although paradoxically “the only West Indian novel to have as its protagonist an obeah man and to treat obeah seriously, in spite of…(offering) no insights into the nature and practice of obeah” is viewed by Salick as a “critique of West Indian culture…which defines the role of the obeah man in an island emerging from the womb of colonialism and experiencing the initial pangs of independence.”

For Khan apparently it was “a purely symbolic novel” and Salick obligingly points to the various hermeneutical levels including literary pastoral, the archetypal questing hero and the isolated artist. What will interest contemporary readers more however, is Khan’s juxtaposition of carnival and spirituality: “Carnival is the enemy of man’s inclination and urge to discover a means of spiritual cleansing and healing.” Salick identifies Zampi the obeah man’s quest as ‘the successful journey of Caribbean man to achieve a meaningful independence of mind, body and spirit.”

Khan’s third novel The Crucifixion draws directly on the Trinidadian oral tradition and a narrative which has received literary treatment by Naipaul, Selvon and Lovelace. Khan’s version however, goes beyond vignette to give the life story of Manko “the poor devil” who manipulates his own “martyrdom” on Laventille’s now notorious Calvary Hill.

Salick’s assessment productively highlights Khan’s use of dual narrative voices which reflects the dichotomy of colonial society with its insider/outsider perspectives. He also contextualises The Crucifixion as an example of the Yard Literature genre introduced by CLR James in Triumph and Minty Alley. In contrast to James’ romanticised version however, Khan “presents yard life as a theatre of squalor, of gratuitous violence, of theft, of jealousy, of clandestine sexuality, and of willful testing.”

Analysing the short story collection A Day in the Country, Salick suggests that the unifying theme of father/son relationship serves as a device to explore such issues as: “displacement from the country to the city, the negative effects of colonial education, the toll of unemployment…the old pastoral debate…the establishment through folklore of the existence of a world beyond science and reason, the need for an individual to create a private romance and mythology as a means of survival, the need to look backward and inward…and the condition and role of the artist…”

Here is the grist for any number of postgraduate theses and a validation for Salick’s challenge to critics to initiate “an ongoing dialogue on Khan’s fiction.” While we anticipate this dialogue, we must also recognise Salick’s efforts to restore the “preeminent novelist of Port-of-Spain” to his deserved place in the Caribbean literary canon and for providing exemplary comprehensive and lucid textual criticism.

For the original report go to

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