Edgar Mittelholzer

Most of the leading critics and several scholars in the field of Caribbean literature will assemble in Guyana this week for an international conference on West Indian literature hosted by the University of Guyana.  The activities of this meeting will focus on three themes: a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Edgar Mittelholzer, a programme and academic panels in honour of Wilson Harris, and the main conference theme ‘The Quiet Revolutions in West Indian Literature.’

Under that theme the conference will discuss papers and presentations which analyse a wide range of cultural forms, literary studies, literary works, performance texts, traditions, the popular culture and themes of human and social interest arising out of the preoccupations and the wide-ranging frontiers of what can be described as West Indian literature.  The literature has begun to embrace several of these over the period of its development.  It has created sub-texts and has accepted many forms which were previously not regarded as literature and were not considered for research, study and analysis as mainstream literature.  The boundaries between these, sometimes radical, forms and the conventional writing have been drawn in, have become blurred, or have disappeared altogether.

These new developments, which the conference is calling the “quiet revolutions,” have been driven by several different forces and have taken different forms.

Some of these influential factors have been driven by the Caribbean writers themselves, based on their styles, their concerns, their types and levels of innovation, and the degree to which they have instituted or inspired change in the literature.

In this regard, a writer who was one of the pioneers in the development of Guyanese literature and who was revolutionary in many aspects of his life and work is Edgar Mittelholzer, one of the celebrated Caribbean writers.  The conference describes him as “a quiet revolutionary” and there will be a major programme mounted by the University of Guyana in collaboration with Castellani House, called ‘The Centenary of Edgar Mittelholzer: A Quiet Revolutionary.’    This programme will be held on Tuesday April 28 at 7 pm at Castellani House.

The Theatre Guild of Guyana will also be celebrating the work of Mittelholzer during this same week.  The Guild will stage a programme of readings and dramatic renderings of extracts from the various works of the legendary writer at the Playhouse in Kingston on Monday, tomorrow night, starting at 8 pm.  Members of the Guild, including some of the prominent actors and directors in Guyana, will read from Mittelholzer’s many novels and other works of fiction and poetry, covering his career, themes and interests.

Another major West Indian writer whose work and theoretical ideas created a few ‘quiet revolutions’ in the literature is another Guyanese, highly celebrated fiction writer and critical theorist Wilson Harris.   Harris, rather like Eddie Kamau Brathwaite, has been recognized as one of the most original Caribbean writers.  He has influenced such radical departures from the former trends in modern fiction that he has created more than a quiet revolution; his style of narrative and “fictional autobiographies” have swept up such a storm among critics and writers that they have shaken up the complacency of the English novel.

The opening ceremony of the West Indian Literature conference, which starts this evening, has been dedicated to him.  That programme, which is titled ‘Infinite Rehearsals,’  after the name of one of Harris’s novels, the second in the group known as  The Carnival Trilogy, will include feature presentations on his work.  In addition, there is a special panel within the conference itself in which papers will be read which study different aspects of his novels and critical texts.

To further enhance these occasions, the University of Guyana Library will mount two exhibitions with the cooperation of the National Library.  One is on the work of Mittelholzer including novels, documents and critical material, and the other is about Harris, displaying similar publications and relevant critical material.

Meanwhile in the conference itself, the visiting and local academics will interpret their different notions of what have been the quiet revolutions in West Indian literature.  They will study several of the mainstream and major writers, as well as many minor ones who have either treated subjects of interest and relevance to the less conventional and problematic issues in Caribbean society or whose treatment of these is regarded as different or innovative.  They will look at the many revelations emanating from these works, giving fresh interpretations to canonical texts while interrogating old and new emerging writers and works that represent change in the literature.

Besides those there are panels in the conference devoted to other types of works which have changed or revolutionized the way literature is studied in the Caribbean.  During the past 30 years, the notion of literature has changed and it now includes other creative disciplines and traditions, parts of which do not express themselves as written texts.  The oral performance is now considered part of the output and scope of Caribbean literature.

When the performance text began to be included in the study of West Indian literature, a “quiet revolution” is said to have taken place in the attitudes of the criticism of the literature.  There was an understanding that the Caribbean creative expressions involved the oral literature and the oral traditions; that the oral poetry was produced in some of these traditions and that this was so important to the culture of the region that no account of the literature would be complete or comprehensive without an inclusion of these forms.

This gave rise to serious critical studies of the popular culture with its corpus of cultural forms such as the dancehall, the reggae and DJ performance, following the comprehensive studies of dub poetry before them.  The study of these forms also includes the sub-cultures in the societies in which they emerged and literary interest began to include the various social and political issues generated in those arenas.  This interest also embraced the calypso and soca along with the main stage for their performance which is the carnival.  The carnival also has its various dynamic social engagements including many other acts beyond those musical forms.  Then to go further, these cultural traditions are themselves looked upon as literary commentators in the sense that they are used by the people not only to express themselves, but to comment upon their society.  In this way the literary criticism is studying the oral and performance texts, in other words the ‘literature,’ which is in turn studying the society.

Long before they were ever thought of as relevant to literary study, several folk forms and enactments were practised in the Caribbean region.  Since these ‘revolutions’ took place in the literature their contributions were admitted to the extent that many of them are to be the topics of discussion in a literary conference.  Other areas of academic study have now been brought closer to literature, including music and film.  The critical investigations into film and cinema are now parts of the business of literature departments and this is reflected in the conference.

Cultural Studies as an academic discipline has always been close to literature and in some cases would have been an off-shoot of it.  Cultural Studies actually branched off to pursue its separate existence from literature, but now it is being brought back in the fold, so that topics belonging to cultural studies are included in some of the panels with no notion that they do not belong.

This West Indian Literature Conference therefore takes this field to its cutting edge since it specifically focuses on the new, the developing, the unconventional, the innovative, the popular, the dynamic and the ‘revolutionary.’

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