Wednesday, November 09, 2005

At the root of my artistic practice is the exploration of my identity in relation to that of a nation; that is, the dialogue that exists between me as an artist and my social space.

-- Rachel Rochford, from her short statement in the "catalogue" of her show of paintings & drawings, Atelier, currently on display at CCA7.

Last night I went to hear Rachel--who's just graduated from the University of Reading & moved back here to set up a studio--give an "artist's talk" at CCA. During the discussion period, the question of the relevance (fraught word) of her work to contemporary Trinidad was raised by the moderator, the formidable Pat Bishop. I suggested that the kind of self-scrutiny Rachel claims--& which is apparent in some of her strongest recent work*--is vitally "relevant" here & now.

*[Rachel's earlier work was largely abstract, it seemed from her career-overview slide-show. But in the last two years or so, as she's moved towards a conscious engagement with her "social space", human figures have begun to appear in her paintings & drawings--stylised figures in repeated poses, their otherwise unremarkable postures & gestures asked to assume some wider & as yet uncertain significance. Pay attention, this detail is important, the work seems to suggest--at least to my inexpert eye.]

There's a general & growing consensus that Trinidad is in a state of crisis--& "crime" is just a symptom of the real problem. To my mind, our prolonged crisis is one of national self-identity--the dilemma of what it does, can, could mean to be "Trinidadian", now that so many of the old Independence assumptions have proved flawed or false. Who are "we", what do "we" have in common, is there even a coherent "we"? You could argue this is nothing new, this "crisis" is the story of modern West Indianness, but it seems to me that the query--& the imperative to try to answer--is becoming increasingly urgent as we strain & twist under the forces of global politics & economics. Simply: we do not understand ourselves.

I thought about this again, from a different angle of approach, when, after Rachel's event, I was talking with a young editor from the Venezuelan magazine Plátano Verde about the current literary scene here in T'dad. I began by explaining that many--most?--of our best or best-known writers still live elsewhere, in bigger, colder countries. Then I began to follow the thread of an idea that started when I was reading B.C. Pires's recent book Thank God It's Friday: that some of the most interesting work by contemporary Trinidadian writers does not come in conventional fictional or poetic forms--the forms mastered by the "canonical" West Indian writers of an older generation--but rather in the form of fragmentary, discontinuous, first-person non-fiction narratives in the periodical press, i.e. newspaper columns, which we may have some difficulty identifying as "literary"--or identifying as "narratives"--because of the format of their publication.

I'm thinking here of B.C.'s short essays--originally written for various newspapers--the best of which I have no qualms about describing as literature. And the best of Keith Smith's columns (some of them collected recently in an Express supplement). And the best of Wayne Brown's "In Our Time" pieces (such as those collected in The Child of the Sea), & the best of Raymond Ramcharitar's earlier newspaper pieces.

These writers, I've been thinking, are or were* creating characters based on themselves--"B.C. Pires", "Keith Smith", etc.--& showing us how they respond, in real time, to the social forces at play around them. And these short stand-alone pieces eventually, it seems to me, add up to narratives of a sort. Ostensibly this is "journalism"--writing for today about today's questions--but, at their best, these writers are or were writing with a breadth of vision, depth of concern, & virtuosity of style that gives their narratives the permanence of literature (if we accept Pound's idea that "Literature is news that stays news").

*[I use this clumsy duo of tenses because, of the four writers I name, B.C. Pires no longer writes a weekly column (& his monthly space in the T&T Review does not allow the same rapidity & flexibility of response); Wayne Brown now writes for a Jamaican audience in the J'ca Observer, & only infrequently about his home island; & Raymond Ramcharitar, after many embattled years, seems to have lost the gladness of prose that made his biting commentary essential reading. Only Keith Smith continues to spin his "narrative" five days a week in the Express.]

Rambling, inconclusive, & not entirely coherent thoughts....

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