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Monday, February 01, 2010

On not being elsewhere

I came of age in the 1980s, which with adult hindsight I can see was a very pessimistic time for Caribbean people of my parents' generation, but I remember as a schoolchild thinking that people who "went away to live" were specially lucky, even if it was an eventuality I couldn't imagine for myself. Had I gone to university abroad, it's likely I wouldn't have come back to Trinidad, not to live. I still can't decide whether that would have been a better thing.

Having reached my mid-30s, having never lived anywhere else, I'm now fairly certain I'll stay here. But that's something I still think about often — almost every time I travel to the U.S. or Britain, I spend a good chunk of my time trying to imagine an alternative life there. I think that for many Caribbean people of my generation and approximate background — middle class, relatively well-educated — the question of going or staying remains acute.

Sitting here in Diego Martin, west of Port of Spain, it seems to me that in 2010 the literary and intellectual traffic within the Caribbean — and between the region and North America and Europe — is still directed mainly by agents physically located outside the Caribbean itself. Most of our intellectuals and writers are elsewhere. Almost all our books are published elsewhere....

I don't mean to set up a binary opposition between here and there, local and diaspora, us and them, because of course the reality is far more complex. There is conversation and exchange and movement between all these nodes, and they are often fruitful. But aspects of the situation are depressing. For the better part of five centuries the Caribbean was devoted to producing raw materials to enrich already wealthy countries further north. Now sometimes it feels like we're producing cultural raw materials to be turned into books, films, lectures, etc. by intellectual agents in New York or London or Toronto.


I've long admired Scott McLemee's elegant, erudite, and incisive critical writing. We've corresponded, very occasionally and briefly, in the seven-odd years since he reviewed Letters from London, the book of C.L.R. James's early essays I edited. (Among other things, Scott is one of the nicer and more sensible Jamesians around.) I was surprised when he emailed nearly a fortnight ago asking if I'd do an interview for "Intellectual Affairs", his weekly column in Inside Higher Ed. The provocation for the piece was Haiti — specifically, the way the 12 January earthquake was being discussed in the Caribbean, and what this might suggest about cultural and historical attitudes, as well as the current state of Caribbean intellectual life. Hardly narrow matters, and inevitably messy.

Over the course of a few days, Scott emailed me two or three difficult questions, which I answered with deliberate speed. I typed quickly, didn't revise or polish, didn't specially try for nuance. The result — gently tidied up by Scott, and published last Wednesday — is here.

Our conversation begins and ends with Haiti, but digresses down some of the anxious paths my thoughts seem to trace these days. Re-reading it afterwards, I wondered if I should have tried to be less pessimistic, more tactful. But I think it accurately captures something of my state of mind this last year or two. Something of my mental grappling with — for? — context and relevance.

2 comments:

Will said...

This resonates on so many levels.

And I'm in almost complete agreement. The love of country/region - the need to contribute/give back/improve/push an evolution is so strong, but is often tested when we glimpse pieces of what could have been.

Could this very dichotomy be part of a Caribbean experience?

Lady of Letters said...

So true, so true.. I have been in the diaspora (US) for five years and it really is a difficult negotiation you have to constantly be making. The negotiation becomes even harder when you are a writer, intellectual, creative person etc. Can anything great come out of the Caribbean...and stay in the Caribbean??? Even on my own blog I struggle with this question of the relationship between my intellectual work and my identities.

Great blog, will be coming back to read more!

Summer