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Literature and National Development

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: June 21, 2004

Nations, like narratives, lose their origin in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind's eye. Such an image of the nation or-narration-might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea in the west.
- Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration

In 1969, when John La Rose asked C. L. R. James to write an introduction to J. J. Thomas's Froudacity, a book New Beacon Books republished, James noted that when people read Thomas, "They will discover where we and [Frantz] Fanon and [Aime] Cesaire came from." John Jacob Thomas, better known as JJ Thomas, a jet-black man, was born in 1836 two years after slavery had ended officially. It was a time of apprenticeship. By1865, things had changed. William Hamilton Gamble, a Trinidadian who had studied at Oxford, described the diversified manners and customs of Trinidadians and noted that several African, Indian and European languages were spoken in the island. Gamble called Thomas "one of the most intelligent and learned of the Trinidadians" and observed he was in the process of writing a grammar and a dictionary of Creole grammar, a medium of thought which "the African and the Coolie, and the stranger in general, learn first, and of course, for the simple reason that he hears it most frequently spoken." Four years later, in 1869, after much intensive work, Thomas concluded The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar that "reduced that which has always been wild, vague, and seemingly accidental, to a clear concise system." In so doing, J. J. Thomas imposed an order and meaning onto a language that "was a direct descendant of French as spoken by African slaves, with additions to the vocabulary drawn from African languages and the speech of those other groups who have influenced Trinidad-English, Spanish and Amerindians." In other words, by the end of 1870, Trinidadians had developed a particular language as they located themselves in their time and place.

A tradition of imaginative literature in Trinidad and Tobago has existed since the early Africans arrived in the country. They brought with them their Anancy stories, their riddles, their carnival, their calypsos and other ways of talking about their lives. When the Indians arrived, they brought their hosay, their ramlelahs, their indentureship narratives and other forms of written and oral expressions. The Europeans and their descendants who lived here at the time possessed their poetry and other forms of written literature, some of which was displayed in E. L. Joseph's early plays and novel that were written in the 1830s and the French Creole Verse that found its apogee between 1850 and 1900. This literature was given more prominence when Anthony de Verteuil published Trinidad's French Verse that featured the work of the French Creole writers of whom Sly (Sylvester) Devenish was the most prominent.

In the 1820s, the colored people were discouraged from educating their children and creating vehicles for literary expression. Jean Baptiste Philippe, the first Trinidadian to study literature formally, complained that a "small literary society of youths was broken up, and the owner of the house condemned to pay a fine for hiring the room in which they met. A scheme for forming a public seminary of education for colored children was abandoned, because the Government disapproved of a large meeting of the persons who were to support the establishment by voluntary subscription." The struggle to educate colored and French and African inhabitants took a long time to see fruition.

In the 1850s, Maxwell Philip and his colleagues continued to write and to debate literary issues which, in the latter half of the century, culminated in literary and historical essays by scholars such as L. B. Tronchin, J. J. Thomas, Canon Philip Douglin and Stephen Nathaniel Cobham. These scholars would provide a platform from which subsequent writers would arise. These literary currents achieved a new synthesis with the rapid rise of the literary and debating societies that flourished during the first half of the twentieth century. In this period many citizens who were not formally educated gravitated to these forums of expression to express themselves and to measure their self-worth. It was almost as though the intensity of the literary and the rhetorical coincided with a deep desire to articulate a national identity; a condition that was energized by the interest citizens took in court proceedings and the events that were happening in the nation. Doreen Sealy has argued that while the petty bourgeoisie was enamored by the activities of the literary and debating societies, the citizens at the bottom of the social ladder were more interested in court proceedings. Both of these avenues of expression (the literary and debating societies and a fascination with court proceedings) provided a secondary education for citizens who were unable to attend secondary schools.

Cobham published Rupert Gray at the beginning of the twentieth century. Apart from its concern with black uplift, it was the first novel to examine the psychological complexities of the colonial situation. Just as importantly, Rupert Gray picked up the theme of black-white relations that Philippe and Philip raised in their work. In Those that Be In Bondage, A. R. F. Webber examines how the East Indians adapted to their new environment particularly in the Caribbean. Set primarily in Guyana, it highlighted the dislocation that results when the values of the East clashed with those of the West. In an afterword to a recent edition of the novel, Wilson Harris notes: "Webber's vision of 'bondage'---though apparently rooted in political and economic legacies-is determined by a psychology of fate, fate so restrictive that the characters in his novel seem unable to breach certain formulae, certain structures of ornament."

The nineteen thirties represented another important milestone of our literary development. This period saw the emergence of writers who were concerned with what could be called social realism. Obsessed with the lived conditions of those at the bottom of society, they produced literary works that examined how the colonial order impacted on the lives of the inhabitants. During this period we see the rise of writers such as C. L. R. James, Alfred Mendes and Ralph de Bossiere. Later in the century, Samuel Selvon, V. S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, Earl Lovelace and Hodge continued to explore the rich mixture of characters and relationships that arose in the society.

When V. S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, it signaled the culmination of a process that had its origins in Philippe's appeal to Lord Bathurst, an affirmation of a society's humanity through the exemplary use of language. Philippe drew upon the philosophers of his age to dramatize his condition whereas Naipaul chronicled a type of personality that was created by a system of deprivation (colonialism) and loss. Like Homi Bhabha, we might say, it is from this tradition "of political thought and literary language that the nation emerge [d] as a powerful historical idea." Such an articulation suggests that we can study the evolution of our nation through its narrations that express a philosophy via the use of images and its rhetoric.

The newspapers were also instrumental in creating a sense of nationness or national consciousness. Although The Trinidad Weekly Courant, the first newspaper in Trinidad and Tobago, was published on August 1, 1799, it was not until the 1850s that the newspapers impacted seriously upon our sense of nationness. The very title of one of our newspapers, The Trinidadian, suggests that citizens were beginning to cultivate this space as their own. In that decade, at least five newspapers were published in the country. In 1853 when the Trinidadian, a major vehicle for the promulgation of our literature (defined more broadly to include the scientific and the geographic), went out of existence, the editors lamented: "The people can support horse races and balls, and can spend half a million of dollars per annum for fermenting and intoxicating drinks, but they are too poor, too mean, or too ignorant to support four or five printing offices and newspapers, as would be done by an equal number of inhabitants in any district of the northern part of the United States."

In spite of the editor's anger, his assertion suggested that the newspapers played an important role in creating a sense of national consciousness by exposing citizens to their history, their geography, literary acts at home and abroad, and the international currents in the world. In publishing Maxwell Phillip's Adolphus: A Tale (1853), the Trinidadian, of which Philip was a major contributor, played its part in creating a sense of nationness by asking the nation to reflect upon itself. When Philip sketched his tale about the callous manner in which the colored people were treated during the first half of the nineteenth century, he was literally trying to bring that segment of the population back into the story of our nation, which is why he sounded this cautionary note in his preface:

Many voices will no doubt be raised against us, as endeavouring to rouse feelings which are supposed dead, and to revive things which some would have entirely erased from memory's tablets; but we reply, to create disagreeable feelings is not our aim. The pages of history, which unfold to us the barbarities of the past ages, are not intended to throw us back into barbarism; on the contrary, it is by reading and meditating upon the evils of the past, that we find the most enriching lessons of history.

Adolphus symbolized the incubatory work that newspapers performed for the written literature of the society. As I noted in Beyond Boundaries, Adolphus shares similarities with Jean Francisco Manzano's The Early Life of the Negro Poet (1840), a Cuban work, and Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), a tale of an American slave, in that they were part of a romantic-realist tradition that was emerging in the Americas at the time. When Public Opinion, another newspaper, arrived in 1884, it sold at a price that more citizens could afford. There from, one saw a more vigorous advocacy of indigenous ideas.

Although the newspapers did not get as much support as they expected, their presence exerted a specific pressure in how we "imagined" our nation. Benedict Anderson has suggested that national communities arise from the spread of the novel and print media, a process through which new modes of apprehending the world are revealed. Given the strength of the newspapers, particularly in the nineteenth century, one can assert that they played a powerful role in revealing the nation unto itself or, as Anderson might say, it allowed us to imagine ourselves as a national community.

Within this context, fiction played an important part in identifying specific nodes of the nation's development. Merle Hodge has argued: "Trinidad fiction traces the evolution of a people from an era of extreme social stratification, through periods on increasing self-confidence on the part of the underclass as it struggled for, and won, political power." Such an approach suggests that if it is studied carefully, our imaginative works possess an ability to assist Trinbagonians to understand themselves in historical time. In an age where the autonomy of the nation state is shrinking and "new applications of information technology, such as the internet and CNN, distort traditional distinctions between what is around the world and what is around the block" our imaginative works can go a long way to help us recapture our Trinbagonianness. Simultaneously, it allows a country to salvage its cultural capital and to preserve its national integrity, invaluable possessions as a country experiences unprecedented rise in crime, kidnappings and general lawlessness.

A year ago, the Project and Development of Mauritanian Cultural Heritage conducted an important national conference to talk about the best ways to preserve Mauritanian's invaluable collection of books and manuscripts that went back to the eleventh century. The deliberativeness with which the Mauritanian authorities came together with international institutions to preserve its literary heritage emphasizes the importance the relevant authorities placed on the power of literacy, its literary heritage and their connection to its development. Although Trinidad and Tobago's literary heritage does not go as far into the past as Mauritania's literature, a study and preservation of our past can yield enormous benefits to our society.

As early as 1932, C. L. R. James recognized the need to alert citizens of the importance of teasing the imagination of the nation's children. In May 1932, a few months after he left Trinidad, James visited the Science Museum in London and saw a boy of fourteen looking intently at one of the exhibits on display. He observed: "You could almost see the boy's mind growing. So Galileo must have looked at the pendulum, noting how evenly it swung; or Newton at the apple, wondering why it fell. What the general public learns there is a debating point. But the one-in-a-thousand boy is the justification for all such expenditure. He sees and sees and sees all that has ever been done and then, if he has the right stuff in him, his mind moves forward maybe only a little way, but still a little way."

He advanced the implications for the creation and support of such institutions: "We in Trinidad, know what the answer to any such efforts, if it is ever made, will be. No money, and probably a hint that, 'Oh, the people will not be interested,' the people this and the people that. But all this talk about the people-I have been to the National Gallery twice. Free lectures are provided daily-a lecturer goes round discoursing on points in the pictures, their history, etc. The first day I went there were about twenty people, the second not so many. The heart of London, mind you, eight million people, after centuries of civilization. Let the mathematician work out the fraction of a person would represent the Trinidadian corresponding proportionately to the twenty whom I saw representing eight million."

In 1962, at the dawn of the country's independence, luminaries such as James and Eric Williams sought to institutionalize our classics in fictional and non-fictional literature as a part of our national heritage and as a means of charting the national story through which, as Bhabha noted, our sense of nationness arises. It was, in recognizing such a possibility, that James asserted that our literature "may not be impressive in bulk but it is crucial to our self-understanding." Moreover, he recognized that our imaginative literature gives an accurate reflection of our presence in our world "as problematic beings in an unending history, whose continuity depends on subjecting reality to the imagination." If, as some recent writings insists, "that the process of social and cultural formation is effected, in the main, through literature rather than through history and philosophy," then we have every obligation to cultivate this noble discipline as a means as coming to grips with our problems of national identity.

The literature of Trinidad and Tobago reflects the emergence of a national spirit that has been cradled by a specific history and culture. Studied conscientiously, it helps us to understand ourselves as a people and to promote a deeper understanding of where we have been and why we are who we are. Art nourishes and sustains justice and freedom. "Culture," as John McWhorter observes, "lives by the generation, and words that live only in the dictionary or on word-a-day calendars are, in essence, dead." Albert Camus noted: "Without culture, and the relative freedom it presupposes, even a free society is only a jungle. This is why all authentic creation is a gift to the future." To neglect the authentic creation of generations of literary artists is tantamount to condemning one's society to oblivion and to scorn. Our future depends upon our having a better sense of our literary culture.

Fifty years from now Trinbagonians will know themselves by leafing through our magazines, newspapers, books and videos. If we do not take stock and define ourselves through our literature we would have committed a tremendous miscarriage of justice to our previous artists and our present civilization and lost precious time in trying to re-chart the ruins as Derek Walcott asserts in another context. Reading our books, reliving the culture with our authors and trying to determine just how we evolved as a people is a necessary step along the journey of self-recovery. Reading ourselves into our history is certainly one of the ways in which we can encounter ourselves in all our freshness and our newness.

When Sartre says of Camus, "You were a person, the most complex and the most rich, the last and most welcome heir of Chateaubriand, and the conscientious defender of a social cause," he pays him an enormous compliment. To be sure, his audience readily recognized the genealogy of ideas to which he refers, a point that V. S. Naipaul made in his Nobel Laureate Address. Correspondingly, if I were to say to a young scholar or creative writer in Trinidad and Tobago, "You are the last and most welcome heir of Maxwell Philip," it would mean very little to him. It could not possibly be accepted with the same force and grace that readers of Sartre and Camus greeted such an accolade. Such a compliment only assumes meaning if one understands the gravity and depth of a tradition of which one is a part. One can only achieve such knowledge by studying the past assiduously, veraciously and with a sensitivity of the role that narratives play in the construction of a nation.

It is important that we recover figures such as Jean Baptiste Philippe, Maxwell Philip, Earl Lovelace, V. S. Naipaul and the constellation of ideas around which they swirled. It is important that we organize and mobilize our cultural capital if, for no other reason, than our survival. We certainly cannot build a society if we reject (or remain ignorant of) those who went before us and those who struggled to make us who and what we are. We cannot build a society if we forget what JJ Thomas, Sylvester Williams, Dr. Eric Williams, Uriah Buzz Butler and all our heroes did to shape our political and social selves. We cannot forget what a Cazabon did our for our aesthetic education; and what Leotaud and Cruezer did for a scientific understanding of our native land; nor what our imaginative writers did to give us a sense of who we are. Apart from having to start all over again with each new generation, if we do not read our writers now, we will not benefit from their wisdom. One does not get very far if one does not learn from the wisdom of the ages.

No Trinbagonian can claim to be educated if he or she has not read the literary works I examine in this series. A schoolteacher cannot teach social and moral values if he or she does not know how our forebears resolved the moral issues that faced them over the last two hundred years of our existence. Our teachers and our children cannot speak adequately of the plight of the mulatto, the moral dilemma of Emmanuel Appadocca or Ashram Kahn, the nature of life in a barrack yard, or the implications of the 1937 labour riots, our people's transition from feudal Indian to colonial Trinidad or the use of carnival to present some of the underlying tensions of our society unless they are acquainted with these literary relationships our authors mapped and the dilemmas that these literary characters faced.

John McWhorter notes: "Written language is an artifice uniquely well suited to imparting substantive concepts." We squander our cultural capital if we do not make our literary heritage a means of entering into some of the substantive concepts to nationhood. A citizen who peruses these works will know a little more about the heartbeat of our society and the things that make us who we are as a people. No society can do without its writers, its thinkers and the imaginative re-presentation of our lives. Although we possess many resources, we remain poorer if we do not mobilize our single most important gift: the ways in which our citizens have engaged our society and how they made meaning out of the experiences they encountered over the past two hundred years.


No study of Trinidad and Tobago imaginative works can be complete without an examination of the evolution of the language the writers used. Although literacy did not become universal until the latter part of the twentieth century, one can still discern a Trinidadian language (Merle Hodge contends that the Tobago language is quite different from Trinidadian language) as the speech patterns of some of the characters unfold. Therefore, it is entirely true to say that from 1800 (a convenient point to locate the beginning of modern Trinidad & Tobago) to 1950 oral forms of literature prevailed in the society. Thus, the carnival and calypso, the hosay and the ramleelahs, the Anansi folk tales and the kheesas (Indian tales), the language embodied in the stick fight and the discourse of the midnight robber, are elements of an early oral corpus of our literature. However, the inhabitants had to embody the landscape into the national imagination before one could speak of a Trinbagonian literature that was unique to one's time and place. It was in the quest of this ideal that Joseph de Suze authored Little Folks Trinidad in 1901, a children's work that captured the flower, fauna, and the animals of our world for the first time.

In this context, it is important to remember that East Indian's first language was Hindi and that his use of Creole, as that of the African, was merely functional. This was illustrated beautifully in Selvon's richly evocative novel, A Brighter Sun, when he captured the rich cadence of Ramlal, an old Indian who offered comfort to Tiger, the main character of the text, when he noted: "Well, is dat self. You doam the same thing. You gettam house which side Barataria, gettam land, cow-well, you go live dat side. Haveam plenty boy chile--girl chile no good, only bring trouble on yuh head. You live dat side, plantam garden, live good." Noor Kumar Mahabir observed that Selvon not only discovered and exploited the East Indian dialect in his novels; he also captured "the simple vocabulary and realistic speech rhythms of the folk."

In examining the literature, we will see that Dr. Philippe's Free Mulatto, one of the earliest accounts of our literature by a native son, captured a society in which its scholars and writers were working within the ambit of traditional rhetoric that sought to make their case in a kind of "artful language use." In the early period of our history, where books were neither readily available nor within the reach of the common man and woman, literacy was a possession of the rich and fortunate. J. J. Thomas tells of his difficulty in acquiring the necessary books to write his grammar having "a few school-grammars and two third-rate dictionaries, at whose mercy I stood for everything not within my knowledge."

As we tread through the literature, we will see a gradual movement from a high-flown language dealing with issues of state and patrimony to a much more causal comfortable language of the folk as they try to map their condition in this world. Along the way, we will encounter barrack yard scenes and language and notions of stinginess, the orality of Selvon's work, bad-John language of Earl Lovelace and the quest for interracial harmony in Hodge's For the Life of Laetitia. Although the trajectory of this study cannot be seen as a smooth, unproblematic or linear process, it shows the various ways in which our authors defined our being in this land. To be sure, the aesthetic tastes of the poorer classes were not confined only to the literary. Yet, the sad truth is that the literary has not always been given the same status as other cultural and sporting practices such as carnival or cricket respectively. The enthusiasm that greeted Naipaul's achievement of the Nobel Prize in Literature paled in comparison to the accolades that were thrust upon Brian Lara when he broke all the world's record in cricket when he scored 400 runs. One would hope that just a tiny fraction of the monies that were poured Lara's way could be given to the cultivation of our literature and development of the Heritage Section of our National Library to preserve our collective literary and cultural heritage of two hundred years. And yes, Naipaul deserve as much accolades as Lara?

I hope I can demonstrate that an understanding of our literary is an important element of our national patrimony. I hope that I can demonstrate this proposition through a study of what I call the thirteen best imaginative pieces of literature that have been produced in our country. I refer to the following works to which we will turn our attention over the coming months: Jean Baptiste Philippe, Free Mulatto (1824), Michel Maxwell Philip, Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), Stephen Nathaniel Cobham (1907), A. R. F. Webber, Those that Be In Bondage (1917), Alfred Mendes, Black Fauns (1935), C. L. R. James, Minty Alley (1936), Seepersad Naipaul, The Adventures of Gurudeva (1936, 1943), Ralph de Bossiere, Crown Jewels (1952), Samuel Selvon, A Brighter Son (1952), V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Michael Anthony, The Year In San Fernando (1965), Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can't Dance (1979), Merle Hodge, For the Life of Leatitia (1994).

It is about time we looked into the evolution of the emotional life of our society and discover what it has to tell us about ourselves.

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