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Truth in Advertising; Or, What's in a Name?

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Novenber 22, 2002

A review of Kris Rampersad,
Finding a Place: IndoTrinidadian Literature

Kris Rampersad has written an important book for reasons that are implicit rather than explicit. Although she attempts to map "the growth and development of literature and literary consciousness among IndoTrinidadians between 1850 and 1950," her study is more interested in documenting institutions of literature (such as periodicals, newspapers, literary and debating societies, etc.,), sites that make "literature" possible, without which there can be no literary production and/or reception. Dr. Rampersad claims she is not concerned about theorizing the literature but then there is no literature to theorize since institutions of literature are her central concern.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that a sustained analysis of the literature, via language, does not arrive until we are three quarters into the book when she examines the work of Seepersad Naipaul, the first IndoTrinidadian writer of fiction. As such, it would have been more accurate if the subtitle of her book were "the literary institutions of IndoTrinidadians" rather than "IndoTrinidadian literature." It goes without saying that the adumbration of literary activity does not in and of itself constitute a literary tradition.

Yet, Dr. Rampersad has undertaken a worthwhile project. She informs us that Indians, as all other immigrant groups, brought their literature and culture to the island. This being so, the critical question arises: what conduced to the expression and fertilization of these practices. Dr. Rampersad, ala the style of Kenneth Ramchand, is big on language and Indian oral literary tradition. However, apart from asserting that there is/might be something called a "coolie English," we are not sure what Dr. Rampersad wants us to understand by this assertion. In fact, after we leave the truism that the written literature of IndoTrinidadians draws on its oral sources (such as the holy texts, the music, and the dance), the only thing missing from her book is the literature. Long on speculation and presumptions (e.g., "the Koh-I-noor was instrumental to the genesis of the IndoTrinidadian literary tradition"), the study is bereft of any meaningful encounter with the literature (language) and this is its most disturbing aspect. More specifically, the book examines the periodicals that appeared during the twentieth century. As such, it tells us about the content of these periodicals, their public reception, their agitation for Indian rights, and an their attempt to build community. So intent it is on telling us (rather than demonstrating through examples) how these journalistic writings were the forerunners of a literary tradition, it refuses to examine the literariness of these enterprises. And, even if we bought Dr. Rampersad's thesis, the literature she maps only spans fifty years since the Koh-I-noor began in 1898. It is only when Dr. Rampersad discusses the East Indian Herald (1924), the activities of the literary clubs, and the journalism of Seepersad Naipaul, Junius Junior and Diogenes that we begin to discern a body of literary production among IndoTrinidadians. Indeed, it was Minerva (1941) that exposed the talents of Naipaul, Sam Selvon and Winston Mahabir (author of The Cutlass is not for Killing [1971]). The Observer and Spectator were also important disseminators of East Indian writing.

Although this book does not offer much by way of literature, one is distressed when the author allows the politics of scholarship to intrude into her work. She observes that "one may speculate that the epic form came so spontaneously to V. S. Naipaul for his novel A House for Mr. Biswas because of his grounding in the epic tradition of the Ramayana and Mahabharata." She did not have to speculate about this matter. Fourteen years ago, in V. S. Naipaul, yours truly made the precise case when he spoke about Naipaul's "creative transformation of the Ramayana in A House for Mr. Biswas." I argued:
A House for Mr. Biswas must also be seen as a product of Naipaul's Hindu sensibility. The Hindu epic, the Ramayana, adds a philosophical dimension to the text, enabling the author to manipulate the epic form to illustrate the themes already introduced in The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira: the East Indian problematic in the Wilderness, the Hindu concept of self, and the nature of self-realization. Moreover, the contradiction of Mr. Biswas's life reflect the changing conditions of his society and his age, and in this sense he comes to represent every colonial person caught up in the transition from feudalism to capitalism (V. S. Naipaul, pp. 51-2).

If scholarship is about arriving at a better understanding of social, political and cultural phenomenon (I almost said "the truth"), one wonders how a serious scholar, writing about Trinidadian literature and V. S. Naipaul, could be unaware of my contribution in this regard. Or, does it matter that an African scholar was the first person to document this relationship? After all, the East Indian Weekly, "the vanguard of Indian nationalism" during the 1920s and 1930s and one of the most prominent forums that examined the social conditions of IndoTrinidadians, was owned and operated by Leonard Fitzgerald Walcott, an African.

The first depiction of an IndoCaribbean character by a Trinbagonian appeared in Those That Be in Bondage (1917), a novel written by A. R. F. Webber, a Tobagonian. These facts alone should make Dr. Rampersad more cognizant of African contributions to the social development of IndoTrinidadians and make it easier for her to recognize our mutual commitment to a continuing discourse about our status as Trinbagonians.

One also wonders if it were necessary for Dr. Rampersad to challenge our credulity when she exaggerates the isolation of the IndoTrinidadian writer, a preoccupation of a particular brand of IndoTrinidadian racial extremism. Hence, it is with little conviction that she asserts:
As in the Weekly, the writers in Trinidad experimented in dialect, local subjects, characters and situations. Contributors included Kathleen Archibald, Alfred Mendes, C. L. R. James, Ralph De Bossiere, Ernest Carr, C. A. Thomasos, Olga Yatoff and Albert Gomes. Like the Indian and other literary and debating clubs of the period, the group that produced Trinidad met in discussions and debates, and in order to read their works to each other. There is no evidence to suggest that the Indian voice was represented in any of these literary publications [sic], which were themselves in very embryonic stages.

To suggest that IndoTrinidadian writers of the period were left out of the literary debate, were not published in these periodicals, and/or were not heard (denied a voice) by the larger community, strain credulity. Each segment of the population was searching for avenues to express itself while the overall literary establishment sought to accommodate all the literary figures as time and space permitted. The Indian section of The Beacon, of which Dr. Rampersad speaks, published several IndoTrinidadian writers while they enjoyed other opportunities to perform their writings publicly. Francis E. M. Hosein, Mayor of Arima (1929-1931) and author of Hyarima and the Saints (1931), observes that "Lady Hollis graciously dubbed me a poet of note after hearing me speak on the occasion of His Excellency's [Sir Alfred Claude Hollis's] official visit to Arima in 1930" (Quoted in Undine Giuseppi, "Tribute to Arima"). V. S. Naipaul testified that "They Named Him Mohun," one of his father's short story, "was read, long after it had been written, to a Port of Spain literary group which included Edgar Mittelholzer and, I believe, the young George Lamming. . . 'In the Village' was printed in a Jamaican magazine edited by Philip Sherlock" (The Adventures of Gurudeva and Other Stories, p. 9). Although the evidence is not conclusive, there were many interracial gatherings where literary camaraderie took place but that does not interest Dr. Rampersad.

Dr. Rampersad also has to be careful with her facts and her assertions. West Indian literature began early in the 19th century rather than the 1930s; the Tacarigua Orphan Home opened in 1857 rather 1858; John Morton arrived in Trinidad in 1868 rather than 1869; Eric Williams (if it's the same person we know) did not leave Trinidad for England in 1929. He left in 1931. Edgar Allen Poe is an American rather than a British poet. She also has to be careful about generalizations, particular when she aligns herself with the most reactionary elements of IndoTrinidadian polemicists. She notes: "The suppression of the African culture by the system of slavery directed the early free Negroes and coloured population to adopt the dominant Eurocentric outlook, religions and culture, so it was the borrowed perspective that manifested themselves in the initial creative outpouring of the time. Documentation of the initial adjustment process of the group became lost, therefore, as they sought to imitate the dominant Eurocentric cultural forms." Such "cultural impurities" are to be contrasted with the Indians who "continued to hold on to their traditions and cultural practices in possessive assertions of its superiority to European culture articulated in some of Bey editorials in the Koh-I-noor."

To be sure, there is no documentation for such statements except for those that come directly out of "the oral lore and documents" of partisan researchers such as Kamal Persad, Noor Kumar Mahabir and the Indian Institute. Robert Young, an Oxford scholar, suggests that rather than see the culture of the oppressed as being destroyed on impact with colonialism, it is better to view it as being "layered on top of each other, giving rise to struggles that themselves only increased the imbrication of each with the other and their translation into increasingly uncertain patchwork identities" (Colonial Desire, p. 174). In Beyond Boundaries (forthcoming) I have demonstrated the resilience of African culture in its Trinidad environment and how African people used it to overcome the paralyzing effects of colonialism.

In Minerva an unnamed author argued that "The conspicuous absence of literary organizations in several elementary and secondary schools is rather unfortunate, for who can deny that debates, impromptu speeches, recitations, orations, essays, short story writing, original verse and general knowledge and other literary activities, are powerful intellectual agents that equip individuals with the necessary paraphernalia to undertake the heavy duties and various responsibilities in the community in which we live." And this, I think, is the point. It is within the institutional supports that the unnamed writer lists that one identifies the necessary preconditions of a literary culture. It is only when we have a series of writings (languages) that organizes experience in a certain manner that we can begin to speak of "the development of [a] literature." The development of a "literary consciousness" takes us into a realm of semiotics, an area of examination the author forecloses at the beginning of her study.

In 1963, in a colloquium organized by Tel Quel, a French journal founded as a platform for the theory and practice of the literary avant-garde, Michel Foucault responded to Eduardo Sanguinetti's appeals to realism with the following quip: "Reality does not exist . . . language is all there is, and what we are talking about is language, we speak within language" (David Macey, The Many Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 150). Although Foucault's position may have been extreme, the question remains: how do we speak within language to explicate the reality encoded within our cultural signs. That surely, must be the question that Dr. Rampersad sought to answer even if, in the end, she did not explore it fully nor, for that matter, does she have the theoretical tools to do so.

Finding a Place is an important addition to Trinidad and Tobago's literature, if only because it recognizes certain enabling conditions of our literature. More importantly, her systematic examination of the periodicals and her conclusions about the impact of the ideas contained therein are an important beginning for an examination of our literature. Needless to say, no society can go forward if it does not recuperate its literary and social past, a necessary prerequisite for its development.

That Dr. Rampersad has had the foresight to wade into uncharted territory is a tribute to her determination to unravel the shards of a precious legacy. Although she may not have outlined the problematic as carefully as she might, she should be commended for trying and that, in the end, is a noble experiment. It is a question any scholar has to confront if s/he wishes to interrogate our literature.

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