Teaching V.S. Naipaul in the Caribbean


Vijay Maharaj (The Conversation) writes on the complexities and challenges of teaching V.S. Naipaul in the Caribbean. He concludes his article by saying, “To paraphrase the author himself, Naipaul was a complicated man bearing all the complicated strands of his own complicated pasts. In the Caribbean, accepting this V.S. Naipaul is a task indeed, for teacher and student alike.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this article to our attention.] Here are excerpts:

Like everyone else in the world, people on the twin-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago learned on Aug. 11 that Trinidad-born Sir Vidia Naipaul – better known as V.S. Naipaul – had died. While newspapers in the U.S. and Britain ran tributes to this titan of English-language literature, reactions in the Caribbean have been more complex.

Naipaul is perhaps Trinidad’s most famous offspring. But many here consider the 85-year old writer a prodigal son, because he often disavowed his origins. After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul claimed England as his “home” and India as the country of his ancestors. He neglected to mention his birthplace and the setting for so much of his work: Trinidad and Tobago.

But Naipaul remains a celebrated part of the Caribbean canon, one of just three Nobel Laureates from the region. In 2007 he even participated in many events at the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean’s premiere public university, when it celebrated what it called The Year of Sir Vidia Naipaul.

As a lecturer in literature at the university’s St. Augustine campus, it’s my job to help students appreciate his conflicted literary legacy.

Naipaul the decolonizer

Naipaul’s family, like nearly half of Trinidad’s population, had Indian roots. Though his early novels were often comedies set in the Caribbean, the author left home to study in England. His later works – bleak reflections on India, Africa and the Muslim world – reflected Naipaul’s global outlook.

Caribbean schoolchildren first meet Naipaul as teenagers. One of his books is usually included in the public secondary school curriculum, which is specifically designed to make education a part of the region’s decolonization. Currently it is “A House for Mr. Biswas.”

Fifty-six years after independence from the United Kingdom, the Caribbean is still sloughing off a legacy of colonial rule: the perception that Caribbean culture is less rich, relevant and important than other cultures. [. . .]  The namesake of Naipaul’s picaresque “A House for Mr. Biswas,” for example, is bent on escape from living with his in-laws, the Tulsis. Even as his lot in life improves with residence in each of the Tulsis’ new homes, Biswas is never satisfied.

As Naipaul’s prologue makes clear, his protagonist is like the Caribbean in that way: He pursues sovereignty and personal freedom at the price of security.

[. . .] Naipaul the pop culture creator

As many scholars have asserted, Naipaul’s writing style shares a great deal in common with that most Trinidadian of persons, the calypsonian. “It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality,” Naipaul writes in his long travel essay, “The Middle Passage.” “The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider.”

But, like the traditional “calypsonian,” whose aggressive lyrics often offend, Naipaul’s work can raise a reader’s hackles.

This is particularly true of the author’s many nonfictional texts.

In last semester’s advanced seminar in West Indian Literature, I taught “The Middle Passage” – Naipaul’s 1962 attempt to unveil the long-lasting aftereffects of slavery on the the Caribbean. It is Naipaul’s very first travelogue, when he cut his teeth on the form, and it was a government commission. Trinidad’s first-ever prime minister, Eric Eustace Williams, asked the young writer to explore the post-colonial Caribbean and write a critique that would lay a basis for nation-building. Instead, the devastating tome may well have severed his relationship with the region – and with generations of Caribbean readers to come.

Naipaul’s critics

Among other controversial takes on Caribbean history, “The Middle Passage” includes such indictments as “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies” – this in newly independent region in the midst of rewriting its history. For my students, the book’s reputation as a national betrayal was a real obstacle. Most told me they disliked the text. Some said it was offensive to West Indians.

And that was before they had even read it.

These same students had enthusiastically engaged with similarly difficult questions of slavery, race and Caribbean history in the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. His BBC video series “Redemption Song” asserts that whites and blacks lived together on plantations in “a mixture of cruelty and intimacy.”

But, with Naipaul, the students were less amenable to such ideas. [. . .]

For full article, see https://theconversation.com/teaching-v-s-naipaul-in-the-caribbean-101653

One thought on “Teaching V.S. Naipaul in the Caribbean

  1. To add candor to this ‘titan’ literary son of the Caribbean (encrypted in British-ness after the Nobel Prize), take a read of this excerpt on A Materialist Reading of V.S. Naipaul by Selwyn Cudjoe (1988):

    Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in August 1958, Naipaul articulated his views about the society that would shape his work:

    Superficially, because of the multitude of races, Trinidad may seem complex, but to anyone who knows it, it is a simple philistine society. Education is desirable because it may lead to security, but any unnecessary acquaintance with books is frowned upon. The writer or the painter, unless he wins recognition overseas, preferably in England, is mercilessly ridiculed. This is only slowly changing. Respectability and class still mean very little. Money means a good deal more, and the only nonfinancial which are recognized are connected with sport and music. For these reasons Trinidadians are more recognizably “characters” than people in England. Only a man’s eccentricities can get him attention. It can also mean that in a society without traditions, without patterns, every man finds it easier “to be himself”. Whatever the reason, this determination of people to be themselves, to cherish their eccentricities, to reveal themselves at once, makes them easy material for the writer.


    ~ Leonard Dabydeen

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