Witchbroom’s magic rises again

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A report from Trinidad’s Guardian.

In paying homage to Lawrence Scott’s ground-breaking debut novel Witchbroom, which first appeared 25 years ago, prize-winning novelist Earl Lovelace welcomed a new edition of the Caribbean classic, saying, “One of the things that the republishing of this novel does is return us to tales we have read before, to old problems, that if we look at them now we might see something new”

He posed the question: “What does this humanness that we talk about mean, especially when confronting a work in which Lawrence, in breaking the ceiling of silence surrounding gender and sexuality, points us to the need also for an attentiveness to many more suffocated truths?”

Lovelace was speaking on March 18 to a packed house of enthusiastic readers in the literary space PaperBased bookshop in Port-of-Spain, created by Joan Dayal who has just been awarded the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for her enduring support of Caribbean Literature. The event was one of several planned pre-festival events in this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

Readings from Witchbroom by Ken Ramchand, Barbara Jenkins and Marina Salandy-Brown were warmly received as was the key address by Earl Lovelace. The novel, described by Sam Selvon in 1992 as “rare and magical”, is now re-published by Papillote Press for a new generation of readers who might have otherwise been deprived of an extraordinary work of fiction that tackles subject matter in a tone and style unknown in Caribbean writing quarter of a century ago.

Earl Lovelace who was at the original launch in 1992 told the audience: “Lawrence has been a devoted writer, and Trinidad has remained his focus, and in particular the largely unexplored world of the French creoles to which family the central character belongs. But what I think is peculiar to Lawrence is that not only has he been able to call upon his childhood of blood family to authenticate his offering, but that he has, in adulthood, engaged a Trinidad, indeed, a world of a more cosmopolitan hue.”

Witchbroom is a family saga told by its last surviving member, the shape-shifting hermaphrodite, Lavren, whose memories evoke a multilayered Caribbean magical reality down the centuries is lush, seductive, harsh, full of hysterical parrots, the noise of pan, mas, calypso and robbertalk, and of passions and nightmares, deep in the cocoa and sugar.

Witchbroom’s compelling prose has stood the test of time and paved the way for many subsequent explorations of gender, sexuality and identity in Caribbean fiction. Since the novel first appeared in 1992 it has attracted international attention, being read as a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book. It has drawn plaudits from distinguished writers, and academics praise the novel’s valuing of the relationship between Trinidad’s colonial past and today’s reality.

The celebratory occasion welcoming the republication of Witchbroom was tempered that evening by the sad news of the death of Derek Walcott the day before. He had been an inspiration and mentor to Lawrence Scott. It inspired Lovelace on Saturday to preface his remarks on Scott’s novel by a moving and powerful evocation of the importance of Walcott to the Caribbean, its artists and the people of the region. Lovelace was visibly moved as he spoke.

“Trinidad was lucky to have him when we did, a shabine from St. Lucia, with no cocoa in sun, belonging to no club, with nobody’s fire-rage to take up, free to be allowed to represent a vision, to make his own enemies and to choose his friends He would become a presence here, a pillar before the twin towers or the malls, young poets making pilgrimage to his home in Petit Valley, seeking asylum in his shade. And here we must mention Margaret (Maynard-Walcott the mother of his daughters) in whose debt we remain.”

The evening was a rich mix of laughter and sadness, celebration and remembrance.

The new edition of Witchbroom, is now available at PaperBased Bookshop at the Hotel Normandie, Metropolitan Books and elsewhere, with other novels and collections of stories by Lawrence Scott. The NGC Bocas Lit Fest runs form April 26-30 at Nalis in Port-of-Spain.

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