LITERATURE: CARIBBEAN CRITICS The Islands In Between: Essays On West Indian Literature, Edited With An Introduction By Louis James, Oxford University Press (1968)


Writing on the poetry of Derek Walcott, Cameron King and Louis James take up this position:

the West Indies have no definitive and exclusive culture. Its peoples have come to the West Indies as travellers, forced or of their own will from Africa, Asia and Europe. Any claim that there is one West Indian voice at least as yet, does not bear examination. Secondly, for better or for worse, although the great majority of West Indians have an African background, the peculiar circumstance of Caribbean history, its slavery and its emancipation, its educational and governmental systems, have all been within the European system. Further, the concept that ‘European’ culture has a nationalist identity in opposition to that of the Caribbean has the dangerous elements of racial mythology. The ‘literature of England’ reaches backwards and outwards to the cultures of Greece, Rome and medieval France. It touches the thought and civilizations of Europe, the New World, even Asia and Africa. Its pre-occupation is with man as a human being, and for this reason a culture that becomes isolationist and inward looking can paradoxically cut itself off from the means of knowing itself. It is not simply chance that the greatest nationalist writers in French and Spanish as well as English, in modern Africa as well as the West Indies, have been those who have been able most fully to come to their own predicaments through mastery of the European literary experience. (pp. 89-90 ).

This, one can’t help feeling, is a terrifyingly simple and Eurocentric view of the matter and one which The Islands in Betsceen, as a whole, appears to substantiate in its selection of writers and more especially in the critical methods used in discussing them. No one is claiming that European culture ‘has a nationalist identity in opposition to that of the Caribbean’. What one is asking is that the mind be left open for the discussion of the possibility that the Caribbean, in spite of the operation upon it of ‘the European system’, in spite of-indeed, because of -‘the peculiar circumstances’ of its history, contains within itself a ‘culture’ different from, though not exclusive of Europe. If this culture is weighted in the balance and found wanting, it is more than likely that its social and literary expression will be found so too.

The use of the word ‘culture’ by King and James assumes ‘it’ to be some kind of unified, articulate system with a clearly defined and identifiable ‘voice’, coming out of a fully developed set of institutions. But this, surely, is an ‘establishment’ view of culture – culture as an agreed on and imposed pattern. In the case of the West Indies, which is a (post-) colonial society without recognized autochthonous centres of its own, this definition can only lead to the discovery of no West Indian culture. Only Europe appears to be present. But what happens if we define culture as a complex of voices and patterns held together by geography, political force and social interaction. Under these terms, the concept of exclusiveness is ruled out, or at any rate is seen to be operative only when a particular culture is static or dead. In a dynamic, working sense, each culture becomes definitive not only in itself, but in relation to others on which it impinges. West Indian culture, from this point of view, is identifiable in relation to the culture, say, of Latin America, of North America, of West Africa, of Western Europe; but it also exists as West Indian in terms of its social structures, its politics, its deposits of history and the life of its people as seen to be persisting separately, often, from the life of the elite.

There will be no ‘one West Indian voice’ because there is no ‘one West Indian voice’. The West Indian voice is a complex of imposed ‘establishment’ tongues (Standard English, French, Dutch, etc.) and the mainly submerged patterns of ‘the folk’ – the peasants and illiterates who carry themselves a transformed but still very real and essentially non-European tradition of Africa, Asia and the Amerindians. ‘West Indian culture’ is the expression of these interacting traditions, making their wa out of a broadly ex-African base – as a look at the work of say, Herskovits, Simpson, Raymond Smith on Guyana, M.G. Smith on Carriacou, Beckwith and Curtin on Jamaica, Ortiz on Cuba, Price-Mars, Courlander and a host of others on Haiti, will confirm (1). Secondly, it is a wilful destruction of history to dismiss the cultural influence of slavery in the Caribbean, or to stress only its negative effects; or to bold (as in the King-James quotation), that slavery was ‘within the European system’. Europe contributed a framework-the plantation-for West Indian slavery; and it contributed to much of the degradation involved. But Europe did not contribute very much to the spiritual energy, the social forms (2) or the dichotomous sense of destiny that came out of it.

In the same way that West Indian culture must be defined in terms of the process of creolization, so too must this creolization be understood against its background of slavery. King, James, and nearly all the contributors to this first critical survey of West Indian writing, ignore this view of (West Indian) culture and so present a book in which individual writers are commended to our attention without our being given very much indication of their artistic skill or significance. For to have satisfactorily illustrated the artistic skill and significance of the West Indian writers under their review, our critics would have had to demonstrate, it seems to me, not only their authors’ use of European elements, but their use and transformation of their own local material. It is not what Mais got from Turgenev or Conrad that is finally important, but what he got from the people of Kingston and the way he was able to use it.

The Islands in between is not able to help us very much in this regard, however, because as already suggested, its contributors appear to have worked within a cultural context and definition where the writer appears as an artistic individual, rather than an angel or agent of his society. This (to me) is particularly disappointing since West Indian creative writing (an enterprise undertaken mainly since the Second World War) has been, on the whole, the only means through which the complex pattern of West Indian culture has expressed itself; and in undertaking this expression, West Indian writer have, on the whole, abjured individualism. They have not, as in most modern European and American literature, been concerned to show how different they (or their personae) are from their ‘corrupt’ surrounding societies. They have been exploring the communal nature of their environment, attempting, in doing so, to liberate the consciousness of the submerged ‘folk’. Because of this, the speech of the folk dialect – has played a crucial part not only on the surface, but within the very structure of the West Indian novel. The importance of this has been stressed (since the publication of Islands in Between) by Kenneth Ramchand (3), Gordon Roblehr (4), and it has received extended treatment in my ‘Jazz and the West Indian Novel’ (5); but nowhere in The Islands in Between, except in Louis James’ encyclopaedia Introduction is the question of dialect raised, far less examined; and the one West Indian writer, Samuel Selvon, whose technique and predilections might have made such an examination unavoidable, is not only not among those studied, but is described by one contributor as ‘the delightful Selvon’ whose work, it is held, is over-rated (p.85).

We are therefore faced with the strange situation where the work of a body of writers, mainly concerned with the communal values of their creole society, is examined in a more or less ‘academic’ fashion by a body of critics trained to respond almost exclusively to European influences, and whose main concerns are with ‘the artist’, and ‘the individual’. Jean Creary, for example, sees the culmination of Roger Mais ‘work not in The Hills were Joyful Together (1933) or Brother Man (1954) – Mais’ ‘folk’ novels – but in his last published work, Black Lightning (1955). This may well be artistically the case. But Miss Creary does not make out this kind of case. “This novel”, she writes, “is concerned with the predicament not of man in society, but with the artist” (p.59) … “The ending has a sense of Greek tragedy about it. When Jake goes out to die in the flowering wood, we are reminded of the tragic peace of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colon us … And against the particular, personal tragedy of Jake the artist, Mais is careful to counterpoint the fecund beauty of pastoral nature, the idyllic scenes of George and the mare, the unclouded love affairs between Miriam and the apprentice Glen, with whom the book ends” (p.61). What this kind of criticism fails to tell us is how far (if at all), Black Lightning deepens our understanding of the West Indian psyche.

Or take Mervyn Morris’ piece on George Lamming. Morris asserts, at the very beginning of this article, that “In West Indian literature there is surely no finer work than In the Castle of My Skin (1953)” (p.73). But all we learn of the significance of Lamming’s book is that it is “about a Barbadian village, about colonialism, poverty, class, colour, nature and the world of the senses. The central event is growth, change.” (p.74). But telling us what the novel is ‘about’, looking for ‘The main narrative thread, such as it is’ (p.74), tells us no more about a novel which is primed and fired by folk rhythms and a concern for the communal life of the folk (and this is what distinguishes Lamming’s work from a sociological treatise on West Indian society and from a conventional English and American novel), than John Hearne’s brave and articulate attempt in ‘The Fugitive in the Forest’ (pp. 140-153) to explain the work of Wilson Harris in terms of ‘story’ and ‘characters’. Both Lamming and Harris, working through a mainly non-European, non-establishment view of the ‘folk’, have transfigured the conventional novel of narrative and character (6). Meaningful contemporary assessment of their work must be arrived at, not through the application of Eurocentric cultural norms in the King-Jame sense, but through reference to the work, say, of Alejo Carpentier in the Caribbean; and those Nigerians: Tutuola, Okara, Soyinka, Duro Lapido, Okigbo and the Congolese U’Tamsi – soul brothers also building out of a living folk tradition.

But Africa, the major constituent element in Caribbean folk culture, comes off (not too surprisingly) rather badly in Tiu Islands in Between. For none of the contributing critics under review docs Africa or African influence exist by itself, in its own right, at the basis of Caribbean folk society. Whenever ‘Africa’ appears in The Islands in Between it is immediately set off against a countervailing and favourable European influence. In their exegesis of ‘Goats and Monkeys’, Derck Walcottt’s poem about Othello and Desdemona, for instance, King and James state that ‘It is a poetic fugue played on the conflicting pairs of images Europe- Africa, light darkness, moon -earth, spirit- lust’ (p.96) Yet even if it could be made out that this is Walcott’s view of the matter (and a study of his early and some of his most recent work would seriously undermine this position) a similar case could certainly not be sustained where the majority of West Indian novelists are concerned. But Mervyn Morri perceives an Africa-Europe polarization in Lamming’s Season of Adventure (1960) and Bill Carr notes of Salkey’s A Quality of Violence (1959), that it emerges as a shapely, patterned fable on the conflicting possibilities-Mother Johnson (representing Africa) or Brother (representing European qualities) – that ultimately make up the Jamaican consciousness. (p. 104)

The point in dispute here, however, is not the presence of this dichotomy, but the valuation given to its African constituent by the critics being considered. There is a passage in Quality of Violence, for instance, when a family, the Marshalls, talk to their friends, the Parkins, about the possibility of emigrating to Haiti in order to escape the Jamaican drought. The Parkins discourage them with tales of Haitian ‘voodoo’. Carr’s gloss on this is that Haiti,notoriously (7), is not only the first Negro republic, but the Caribbean home of Voodoo cultism. The facts of contemporaneous Haitian history imply not fulfilment but defeat. (p.103)

But is this what Salkey, in the novel, meant by Haiti? Or is it all he meant by Haiti? During conversation, Brother Parkin, despite his middle class, Anglican prejudices, makes this point:

There’s nothing wrong with Haiti. The poorer classes love the land. The land and its mysterious gifts and wealth is the life of the people. Try to take it from them – even try to tell them that it might be taken away – and you start a revolution. Impose laws and taxes on the Haitian peasant and he’ll meet them because he won’t part with the land. The land is his religion and security. It is his own way of claiming to have a history which includes past and present and insures the future. (Quality of Violence, p.35)

And Mother Johnson, the central character of the book, who ‘represents’ Africa, and ‘the poorer classes’ says at the climax of the work:

We is in you mind when you sleeping and when you wake up. We is you past and present, any day at all, argue or not. We is part of you, ‘cestors, and you children to come after you. You can’t lose we at all … You can’t escape you own blood. (Quality, p.202)

But for Carr, as with King-James, Africa and what it is represented by in the Caribbean, is something less than viable:

‘The African presence in the West Indies is difficult to define. As has been pointed out in the introduction to this book, there is a wide range of anthropological survivals, such as dialect, certain religious habits, folklore and dance movements. But the emotional significance of Africa is an odd blend of attraction and repulsion … Africa’s presence is transformed by slavery, the cruel repression of the Morant Bay rebellion and religious impulse, into shame and arbitrary violence. Emotions become misdirected into compulsive hysteria. (8)

As long as, jt seems to me, one sees ‘Africa’ in the West Indies as a ‘survival’ a shame and a shambles -in relation to a European cultural norm against which it is also, in opposition, the position as cited above follows; and so does one’s interpretation of books like Season of Adventure and A Quality of Violence. But is it ‘Africa’ that creates this Caribbean ‘compulsive hysteria’, or the pressures of colonialization (‘the cruel repression of the Morant Bay rebellion’) upon it?. Is the conflict in A Quality of Violence and Season of Adventure really between Europe and Africa. or is it between Africa and its debasement, in the Caribbean, through the nature of its creolization? Do the folk really derive their ‘rationalism’ (9) their ‘law’ (10) and their ‘purity’ (11) from Europe and the opposites of these from Africa? Or, more pertinently, do West Indian novelists think they do? If so, we are forced to explain why Salkey makes Mother Johnson (Africa) the focus of Quality; why Crim, the drummer,(12) is the central consciousness of Season, and why the children in Lamming’s novels and Salkey’s Quality, seek so constantly and tremulously for a past that is not European.