Saturday, July 23, 2005

Fifty years on, To Sir With Love can be read as a narrative of triumph over adversity concerning one highly unusual man's eight-month-long experience of an inner-city school that enables him to grow and occasions some of the people he comes into contact with to put their prejudices on hold. But clearly it is more than this. The author is keen for us to understand that the Ricky Braithwaites of this world cannot, by themselves, uproot prejudice, but they can point to its existence. And this, after all, is the beginning of change; one must first identity the location of the problem before one can set about addressing it.

The author is also keen to remind us that in this postwar Britain, as in our own contemporary Britain, one wrong step and teacher "Ricky" is just another nigger on the street. To Sir With Love leaves the reader in no doubt about the degree to which British society has, for centuries, been wedded to prejudice. Reading it reminds us that in the early 50s, as tens of thousands of easily identifiable "others" were beginning to enter the country in an attempt to rebuild Britain after the ravages of the second world war, this deep-seated problem of unquestioned hereditary prejudice was waiting to greet them in the streets, in the work place and in institutions of learning.

--Caryl Phillips on E.R. Braithwaite's novel To Sir With Love, in this weekend's UK Guardian Review.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Calabash 2005 was a confidently Caribbean occasion. However, the surprising theme to emerge was how contentious the term "Caribbean literature" has become. Is it a genre characterised by its subject matter, or by sensibility? Does geography define it, or can it be written from anywhere in the world?

For the festival's founder, Colin Channer, a Jamaican novelist based in the US, "it doesn't mean anything. Nowadays there aren't enough similarities for the name to have any meaning at all."...

To Channer, Caribbean literature isn't a literary label as much as a colonial stigma, invented to keep writers in their place. "It suggests empire still [provides] the prevalent identity."

Every minority genre reaches a point when it wants to test its success by declaring it no longer exists. It is easy to see why Channer would like to be rid of the label. Nevertheless, his words sounded more like an ambition than description as the weekend wore on, for writer after writer kept returning to the same central themes--displacement and history.

Robert Antoni, 47, was a typical Calabash author--a novelist born in Trinidad, raised in the Bahamas, educated and employed in America. He holds three passports, and says his latest novel, Carnival, is about "always fleeing from home, and returning home. The characters don't quite fit in where they live, nor where they return to. Identity becomes something fluid; something you pack in your suitcase. That's an essential part of being Caribbean. It's about geography, but the geography that we carry with us.

"I have no problem calling myself a Caribbean writer," he added. "I always talk about a Caribbean of the imagination that we inhabit."

-- From a thoughtful piece on the 2005 Calabash International Literary Festival by Decca Aikenhead in the UK Observer, which I missed when it appeared a week & a half ago.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

From the Guyana project

I was beginning to feel the excellent health of jungle life. Providing one keeps free of malaria and dysentery (there is no need, in Guiana, to boil drinking water except near settlements), no more healthy, even invigorating climate exists than that of the South American rain forest.

-- From Nicholas Guppy's Wai-Wai, p. 137

The depression of the forest was heavy on me--the sheer untidiness and volume of twigs, leaves, and bark that surrounded and pressed upon me, the flickering half darkness, the wetness, the spider-webs that enwrapped my face, the nameless countless insects that crawled and bit, the sweat, the branches plucking at clothes and hair....

-- Ibid., p. 282

I remembered my last return from an expedition. It had taken me days to recover. My movements, used to the outdoors, had been disproportionately strong--I had blundered about in rooms; I had been rough and domineering, so accustomed had I grown to forcing my way against unwillingness. I had been a formidable creature for a civilised person to encounter. Then gradually the forest ways, the things that had seemed important, the strange ideas that loneliness and silence had bred, had faded away--but never completely. Something had happened. One was made isolated, fierce inside. One would bear the mark throughout one's life.

-- Ibid., p. 349

Friday, July 08, 2005

The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: "I walked on Waterloo Bridge," "I rendezvoused at Charing Cross," "Piccadilly Circus is my playground," to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning: "Last night in Trafalgar Square..."

What is it that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What is it that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything--sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why is it, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of thing about this and that, why is it, that in the end, everyone cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?

In the grimness of the winter, with your hand plying space like a blind man's stick in the yellow fog, with ice on the ground and a coldness defying all effort to keep warm, the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners.

--Sam Selvon, of course

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A Fable about Time

One summer day I wanted to check out something. So I put on my heaviest coat and went outside and stood among my neighbors. The day was very hot and soon I was sweating lava. all the while, I asked everyone who was near me, "What time is it?"

They answered either that they did not know, or they gave me an approximation, or those who had watches told me the hour.

No one told me that it was the wrong time for a heavy coat.

On the next hot day I checked out in a higher socio-economic neighborhood. It was said that the people there were better educated. They had more culture. So I went and stood making sweat where they had to pass. Again I asked what time it was.

Not one of them answered me. They crossed to the other side!

MORAL: Any Time Is Better Than No Time At All.

--Kelvin Christopher James

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

From the Guyana project

Many nations fashion for themselves a "myth."

It is often a picture compounded of some fact and a great deal of imagination, of a glorious period in their past history when heroic deeds were done and their forefathers were adventurous and conquering.

Or, it may be a "myth" about the future of the great potentialities that lie in the womb of their country, ready to be brought forth if the present generation would only act as a willing midwife.

This, too, is compounded of facts and dreams and its function is to stir men to acts of creation and adventure.

Guyana has never had a myth of the first type.

But for some time now it has enjoyed portraying to the world a "myth" of the second type.

And that myth has a geographical location--a local habitation and a name.

Guyanese call it the "hinterland" or, to bring that name a little more up-to-date, "our continental destiny".

Whenever Guyanese have been disturbed by the realities around them they have tended to retreat into a mood of wistfulness.

It helps to deaden the ache of knowing that in this large land the lauded potential sits cheek by jowl with real poverty; and that we spend our lives between the waters before us and the bush behind us, grumbling about a lack of space but fearful of lunging into the vast "frontier".

-- From Bobby Moore's brief essay "Frontier--Myth and Reality" in the May 26, 1966 Guyana Graphic Independence Souvenir