In my early life, that stretch when Tradewinds began, a young man from Linden, living in Toronto, got very annoyed with me over a song. It was one of my early calypsoes, ‘It’s Traditional,’ and it disturbed him that I had not only compiled a fairly comprehensive list of the many foibles of Caribbean man but, worse yet, that I had put them in a song that was being played all over the place. The encounter happened in the Tradewinds We Place nightclub in the city, and the young man was genuinely upset with me. He was one of our regular patrons, usually coming alone and leaving alone, and he stopped coming for a few weeks, but he returned one night, greeted me with a wry smile, and said, “I understand now what you doing in that song; you’re saying those are things we have to fix.” We had a long searching gaff about it afterwards; listening to the lyrics, the young man had been confronted by the song in a way that had caused him a rethink.
I was reminded of the incident just recently when attending a Moray House discussion with the writer Rahul Bhattacharya regarding his book on Guyana The Sly Company of People Who Care. The gentleman’s work based on living for almost a year here, while widely acclaimed has also ruffled some feathers and it is interesting that in both cases – my song and Rahul’s book – what we are seeing is an irritation, even anger, propelled by an artiste describing what he was seeing in a culture. In both cases, as well, the writer was not condemning or chastising – he was merely describing us to ourselves.
In whatever culture he/she lives the genuine artist is holding up a mirror to show us a condition. To quote CLR James: “I believe that an artist, a first-class artist, is an individual who cannot be abstracted from the social environment in which he works. And the greater the artist, the more of the social environment he embraces. So a number of artists expressing individual responses in that way ultimately result in a broad and total view of the society being expressed. Ultimately, an artist will reflect, in one way or another, the life that is being lived around him.”
Whether one is dealing with Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of war, or the photographic images of Afro-American Gordon Parks, or the Baltimore ghetto life of the television series ‘The Wire,’ or the gritty images of some honest dancehall lyrics, we are dealing with that reflection from the creative person. The artist is not overtly condemning or chastising or proposing. He/she is simply showing your life to you and saying, “Get up close. Take a look at your world. How do you feel?” He/she is not telling you what to feel or how to feel – it’s a nudging process. Of course, it is also in the nature of the artist to be hoping somewhere at the back of his/her mind that the depiction might propel change, but in general that hope remains unexpressed; the situation is laid out bare, good and bard, warts and all, as a reflection in a mirror.
That’s precisely what is going on in Sly Company. There are of course some writers who will indeed take the step of also making an assault or a criticism – Vidia Naipual for instance in his journalistic works – but the artist as a rule, and Bhattacharya here, simply uses the artistry to point. The very illumination of the thing, however, can cause problems for the person holding the mirror. In this case, the writer has been criticized, even by persons who liked the book, for the negative images – ill-treatment of women; descriptions of squalor; drunken behaviours; public vulgarity; frequent obscenity; etc – and even, in some instances, for not taking the time to suggest remedies or approaches for such things.
To begin with, apart from some minor dialect points, the book is accurate. Those things exist in the mirror; they haven’t been inserted there somehow digitally. Rahul has come here and had an extended look and he’s showing us faithfully what Guyana is. The excesses that embarrass us, as they should, are here. They are ours. Rahul didn’t invent them or distort them. The problem, as with the young man in Toronto with the calypso, is that we have been confronted with unpleasantries. The fact that it is being done by someone who is not Guyanese may be contributing to our discomfort, but, as CLR says, that’s the artist doing what the artist does. If we are made uncomfortable, it is now our dilemma.
Secondly, the artist is not the one to suggest remedies. Indeed, there would have been a Nagasaki firestorm if Rahul had been so bold, particularly since he has no credentials here. If we don’t like the reflection of ourselves that we see, and that is the expressed case here to some extent, then we have to set about fixing it. I don’t know if Bhattacharya sees it this way, but to a great degree what I take from the criticisms is something positive in the sense that, from this confrontation with who we are, persons are showing concern, albeit from discomfiture, for certain aspects of the picture, and that is a positive sign. It has to be a good thing whenever these concerns are raised, however propelled – be it in a book or a photograph or a pithy poem or a song. Sly Company is a piece of art confronting us. The question is not “who is this guy” or “how can he write like this”; the question is what do we with our discomfort? Ironically, the very sardonic title of the book, referring to persons who claim concern, is very much in play. Do we allow our concerns to fade, as such things have a tendency to do, or do we try to do something about it?