Literature

Al Creighton

Evelyn O’Callaghan writes in the Editorial of the Journal of West Indian Literature (JWIL) Vol.15, Nos 1&2, November 2006, a Festschrift in honour of Eddie Baugh,  that in 2006 “. . . we celebrated an amazing milestone: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the annual conference on West Indian literature.  For twenty-five years regional colleagues have gathered in a common pursuit:  from the University of the West Indies campuses, the college of the Bahamas, the College of the Virgin Islands, University of Puerto Rico, University of Guyana and latterly – reflecting the actual remapping of the Caribbean diaspora – from the University of Miami.  From its earliest humble conceptualisation by the poetic trinity of Eddie Baugh, Mervyn Morris and Mark McWatt, through hugely successful international extravaganzas, this conference has focused on the cultural productions of the West Indies in the West Indies.  Five years before this anniversary conference in his plenary address to the Caribbean Culture Conference in 2001, Eddie spoke to the rationale behind the annual conference:  ‘Not only had West Indian literature … clearly established itself, but … it was time to step back and do an audit, so to speak, of the approaches … We would step back and take a critical look at how we had been going about the business of being critics and teachers, a look at the assumptions and principles on which we had been proceeding.’  We still are.

“Versions of many of the papers from these conferences were published in the JWIL, which first appeared in 1987.  The Journal like the conference, was driven by the wish to promote and analyze the literature of the region in the region.  It has been published only through the hard (and unpaid) extra workload undertaken by colleagues in Literatures in English which you just did, following the example of senior members like Eddie, Mervyn and Mark”.

Al Creighton
Al Creighton

In that presentation referred to by Prof O’Callaghan, Prof Baugh made direct reference to the series of conferences and the literature that they sought to define and analyse.  He was talking about not only the development of the literature, but also the emerging critical theory that developed long afterwards.  He called it “Literary Theory and the Caribbean: Theory, Belief and Desire, or Designing Theory”.

“Twenty years ago when the Departments of English of the University of the West Indies held the first in what was to be a series of annual conferences on West Indian literature, the theme of that conference was, advisedly, ‘Critical Approaches to West Indian Literature’.  The rationale of the choice was that, not only had West Indian literature by then clearly established itself, but a respectable body of critical analysis was already emerging, and it was time to step back and do an audit, so to speak, of the approaches”.

It was Baugh’s view, though, that at that time the first conference “did not quite live up to the expectations of the conference theme.  We were not quite ready for it. … And yet some of our major creative writers – notably Brathwaite, Harris, Walcott and Lamming – had already been theorizing, theorizing and differentiating the Caribbean, and in ways that would turn out to be signs of things to come.  Small wonder that, for instance, the proponents of the notion of Postcolonial theory should find the writers just named to be among the sources of that theory…”

Edgar Mittelholzer
Edgar Mittelholzer

But that was twenty-eight years and twenty-eight conferences ago, and even at the time when Baugh was speaking, in 2001, a great deal more had happened in the forward march of West Indian literature and the solidification of its ‘theories’ and ‘critical approaches’.  After all that time, it is significant that the XXVIII Conference on West Indian Literature hosted by the University of Guyana on April 26 – 29, 2009, had as its theme “The Quiet Revolutions in West Indian Literature and Criticism”.  That was an important theme and a significant time to explore it because of what both O’Callaghan and Baugh had to say about the series of conferences, the literature that they celebrate and try to codify, and the critical “approaches”, the ciritcisms and the theories with which they are concerned.  It is as if the time was right “to step back and do (another) audit of those approaches”.

After twenty-eight years the conferences have achieved a great deal.  The series began because it was felt that it was time to take a critical look at the literature that had established itself.  It was time to analyse West Indian literature in the West Indies with West Indians directly involved in the evaluation and working as producers of the the criticism, because an important part of the process was new approaches with new yardsticks to define a literature that had grown independently in its own way and taken on new characteristics.  Additionally, too, several volumes of criticism had been produced through the papers in those conferences, and these have served as companions to the literature itself and the way it had changed since the 1970s.

George Lamming
George Lamming

The conference at the University of Guyana decided to acknowledge the various types of changes that have taken place in both the literature and its criticism not only since the annual conferences started but since the undisputed establishment of the literature.  These were described as “quiet revolutions”.  The theme for 2009 explored, among many other things, the several developments, preoccupations, forms or issues that may reflect “quiet revolutions” in West Indian literature and criticism, however all that may be interpreted.  Sometimes the changes have been unique and radical, often representing revolutionary advancements.  There have been new areas of study and artistic engagement peculiar to West Indian literature as well as the inclusion of related forms and pursuits hitherto excluded or kept on the fringe of conventional mainstream “literature”.  These have not necessarily all been recent; some may say the literature has been attended by quiet revolutions throughout its history.  Some have said the emergence and evolution of the literature itself was a revolution.

Participants in the conference considered many relevant areas including film, performance, language, music, the popular culture, dub, dub poetry, dancehall, theatre and drama, oral traditions, notions of orality, creole language and other forms which have come to be included in studies of the literature.  In the framing of the theme, the critics from the many different universities and other institutions were invited to analyse this wide range of subject areas.  They studied developments in the literature which has been accompanied by developments in the criticism, itself sometimes considered to be one of the quiet revolutions.  Papers were presented on Caribbean criticism, ideas and approaches and other emerging traditions, including Comparative Literature, Caribbean Francophone and Hispanic literature, fiction, poetry, narrative, the literature and culture of the East Indian ethos, the Amerindian ethos and folklore

The theme took into consideration the fact that the majority of people who inhabited the Caribbean belonged to oral traditions and it was a revolutionary act for them to begin to write and to transform themselves into producers of a literary tradition.  Related to this was another revolution which had to do with language.  Language has been a major factor in West Indian literature because of the place, the role and the use of the English language.  The literature is primarily written in the standard dialect of English which, though official, is not the first language of the majority, including several of the writers.  There was a further quiet revolution when the creoles of the Caribbean became a language of choice and work written in these languages became accepted in the mainstream literature.  A Panel on “The Politics of Language” examined the way linguistics serves literary criticism as well as the use of creole as a strategy by some Caribbean poets and novelists.  In these papers it was no longer an issue that the writers make linguistic choices, but the way these choices have become factors in their craft.

Baugh also made the point that “now we are in a moment when traditional ‘literary studies’ is transmuting into ‘cultural studies’ and the line of demarcation between the two is seminally blurred.  Some English Departments have become virtual cultural studies departments, even while Cultural Studies as a discipline is being defined.  What is more, the Caribbean seems particularly ready ground for this development.”  This development is another of the quiet revolutions which was deeply analysed in the XXVIII Annual Conference across a number of Panels.  These included “Jamette Mas and Serious Soca”, “Sexualities and the Dancehall Revolution” and “Revolutions in Performance Traditions” in which a number of papers examined aspects of the popular culture.  Carnival and soca, the dancehall tradition, Bahamian folk dance and popular theatre are elements in this blurring of the lines between literary and cultural studies and the statements that they make were analysed in these papers.

Another quiet revolution was the acceptance of other related forms as subjects for critical study within the literature.  One of the most important of these forms is film, which is also relevant to the popular culture because a few dancehall films, in particular Dancehall Queen, was analysed as a literary text by some of the papers presented.  In addition, there were papers doing comparative studies between Caribbean literature and film, as well as another Panel on “The Caribbean Film” which featured a full-length documentary on cultural industries, focusing on the music video.

Caribbean literature was for a long time a name given to the study of texts in the English language in the Anglophone Caribbean.  But the quiet revolutions included the gradual admission of texts from the Francophone  and Hispanic Caribbean into the subject area.  The Panel on “Cross-Cultural Connections” presented papers on comparative literature which studied a few of these texts.

In similar fashion to the changes that have taken place where cultural studies are concerned, there has been a comparative development in what is known as “Caribbean Studies”.  The Panel entitled “De-Centering Postcolonial Frontiers” entertained papers concerned with where the boundaries are in cultural and Caribbean studies as well as the literary work of the Caribbean diaspora and the very important element of postcolonial theory and its relevance to texts in West Indian literature.

As the conference concerned itself with The Quiet Revolutions in West Indian Literature and Criticism, it was considered appropriate to honour some of those who have made significant contributions to the development of the literature, to its criticism and to the annual conferences.  These rituals took place on two levels: the acknowledgement of writers and of critics.

The year 2009 is the centenary year of the birth of the great Guyanese and West Indian novelist Edgar Mittelholzer.  In the words of the conference organisers   “These ‘quiet revolutions’ have often centred around or driven by Caribbean writers themselves (Wilson Harris, Eddie Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott et al).  One of the phenomena of the mid-twentieth century is a Guyanese fiction writer considered to be himself one of these quiet revolutions  —      Edgar Mittelholzer.  The Caribbean celebrates his 100th anniversary in 2009.”  The University of Guyana  marked the occasion during the conference with a special public programme called Edgar Mittelholzer : A Quiet Revolutionary staged at Castellani House.

It included a plenary presentation titled  “Corentyne Thunder : A Quiet Revolution” by the main guest speaker Juanita Cox, a leading authority on Mittelholzer.  It sought to “explore the revolutionary objectives Mittelholzer set out to achieve in the writing of that novel.  This is where the influence of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony on the novel was discussed, since the work was influenced by and actually patterned itself on that musical composition.  Cox, who is the newest and one of the most prominent scholar on Mittelholzer’s work, also showed the novelist’s intertextual engagement of other works such as Moliere’s L’Avare, the work of Conrad and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

There were readings of extracts from Corentyne Thunder and My Bones and My Flute in addition to an exhibition on Mittelholzer by the University of Guyana Library along with other exhibits of relevant and related paintings from the National Collection.  Another presentation by Ameena Gafoor fixed the celebration of the pioneering author in context.

The extraordinary originality of another Caribbean novelist who emerged after Mittelholzer is another of these revolutions.  English critic Kathleen Raine declared that he changed the form of the English novel, bringing life, change and interest to a form  that had been static for 100 years.  Wilson Harris is Guyana’s greatest fiction writer is known among the foremost and most celebrated Caribbean novelists and theorists for his outstanding originality.  The University of Guyana paid tribute to him and recognised his contribution to the literature through a programme in his honour at the official Opening of the Conference called Infinite Rehearsals.

The feature presentation focused Harris’ preoccupation with the Guyanese landscape; “Landscape and the Language of the Imagination in the Fiction of Wilson Harris”.  The guest speaker Mark McWatt used photographs by Bobby Fernandes to illustrate his study of this very important element in Harris’ work, which includes his relationship with the interior, the dense rainforests, rivers and waterfalls and the roles these played in his themes, the life of his characters and the psyche of both humans and the land.

This celebration of Harris was also fixed in its context through another presentation by Prof Daizal Samad and was accompanied by a Harris exhibition mounted, as well by the University Library.  A fitting enhancement to that programme was the performance of a work inspired by the poetry of yet another Guyanese literary revolutionary, Martin Carter.  The National Dance Company performed Shape and Motion I, Shape and Motion II and Shape and Motion III at the beginning of the conference which was declared open by Prof Lawrence Carrington.

In continuing the conference’s special recognition of outstanding scholars, tribute was paid to two Professors who are known for their very important work in West Indian literature  —  work which has contributed significantly to the kinds of engagements relevant to the theme of quiet revolutions.  The two scholars have also been closely associated with the series of conferences to which they have been consistent contributors.  Their papers in this conference were presented in two specially arranged plenary sessions.

“Quiet Revolutions I”  featured the presentation “Marketing Caribbean Landscapes: The Case of William Beckford of Somerley and George Robertson”  by Evelyn O’Callaghan, known particularly for her work on women in Caribbean literature, one of the areas that constitutes yet another quiet revolution in the way the literature developed.  Her best known publication is Woman Version.

“Quiet Revolutions II”  featured the presentation “Caribbean Fashion Week: Creolising Beauty in the African Diaspora” by Carolyn Cooper, known particularly for her work on the popular culture, in particular on women and the dancehall sub-culture, another area regarded as a quiet revolution in the study of West Indian literature.  Her best known publication is Noises in the Blood.

These Professors analysed issues and introduced discourses on art, landscape, the plantation culture, fashion, class and colour which aptly demonstrated the frontiers in West Indian literary studies.  Other papers explored the conference themes by examining works well outside of any canonical notions, yet considering ongoing preoccupations in the literature such as “Masculinities”, “Myth”, “Gender” and revisions in the Writing of Fiction.

McWatt, who contributed to this conference, was one of its virtual founders, along with Eddie Baugh and Mervyn Morris.  Significantly, they are among six Professors, now retired from the UWI, who have made the most outstanding contributions to West Indian literary criticism, and to the series of annual conferences during the 28 years.  Prof Edward Baugh, Prof Gordon Rohlehr, Prof Mervyn Morris, Prof Kenneth Ramchand, Prof Maureen Warner-Lewis and Prof Mark McWatt all retired during the last five years, but they have left an extremely invaluable legacy in West Indian literature and Criticism which they have helped to shape.  They have done it as the leading critics and scholars in the field, but Baugh, Morris and McWatt have also been a part of the quiet revolutions as poets.  The recently concluded conference on The Quiet Revolutions in west Indian Literature and Criticism studied an inheritance that was in large measure built by them.

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