It is unfortunate that the first full-scale published work of West Indian Literary criticism should be a book of unlinked comments on individual writers by a variety of hands, It raises the question of what West Indian literature is ‘about,’ its place and its meaning. If it is assumed that West Indian literature is simply the latest extension of the long honourable and well-documented line of the ‘great (English) tradition’, well and good; Mais, Vic Reid, George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Andrew Salkey, John Hearne, V.S. Naipaul and Wilson Harris (the West Indian writers selected/or examination in The Islands in Between) might then simply be seen as eight new talented ‘English’ writers, not very well known to the English-reading public at large, and therefore deserving of special attention, If this assumption is correct then the critics in Islands in Between have fulfilled their function, and done so with considerable credit to themselves.
All the essays in the collection are well written, persuasively structured and the ‘literary’ merits of their subjects are made clear. The only criticism one would make of the book, on this score, would be that its writers have failed to show how and where their authors fit into ‘the’ tradition. John Hearne writing on Wilson Harris, for instance, says that Harris’ technique seems to lie ‘in the symbolist tradition’ (p.143). Cameron King and Louis James, writing on Derek Walcott, make reference to his ‘heady Elizabethan delight in the sound and potential of words’ (p.90 ), and not a little energy is spent on indicating Walcott’s evolution out of ‘Marvell and the metaphysicals’ (p.88). Jean Creary points out that Roger Mais’ style had been formed by “D.H. Lawrence, the English classical poets, Shakespeare, Turgenev, a little Dostoyevesky and Conrad, and above all, the Authorized Version of the Bible” (p.56); though in this instance the contributor went on to add that “This last – the Bible – was a cul¬tural influence as much as a literary one, for (the) sixteenth century prose of King James’s Bible is part of Jamaican Creole speech itself. And Mais drew the mystical element in his writing from the rhythmical, figurative style of both Bible and Jamaican patois “(p. 56).
But in general there is no sustained attempt to justify these statements; to illustrate, in the way that critics do so well, (Miss Creary’s separation of ‘cultural’ and ‘literary’ we shall have to come back to later), parallels of style, examples of influence, etc. So that though the accumulated impression of reading this book is thar West Indian writers, despite their local concerns, and despite the presence in their work of ‘other’ elements, are part of the English-European tradition, there is no clear demonstration of the nature of their participation; if and how they add to or modify the tradition; or if, within the context of the tradition, they have any real relevance or not.
Perhaps this was not what those writing in The Islands in Between divined it their task to do.
It is, after all, a book introducing writers to the general reader. There was clearly not enough room for ‘full treatments’. Nor is there any question of our critics seeing their writers as anything other than West Indian. The book is a celebration of this point. What needs to be considered, therefore, is the impact of the book as a whole, and what, within it, its writers conceive ‘West Indian’ to be.