The work of celebrated Guyanese author Wilson Harris was once again brought into focus recently when the British decided to show recognition for his contribution to English literature by honouring him with a knighthood. The relevance, importance and impact of his work once more became issues and there was reason to reassert why he is considered such an important writer. The reasons include the novelty of his approach to writing, the originality of his styles and form, the relevance of his preoccupations and the intellectual depth with which he treats them. Very prominent among these are his attitudes to Europe and the revolutionary fashion with which he engages Europe in the context of the West Indian writers’ engagements with that continent.
The University of Warwick’s Centre for Caribbean Studies, recently renamed the Yesu Persaud Centre of Caribbean Studies, following the Conference on Indo-Caribbean literature and Culture that they are now hosting, have put forward a concept for another conference that would generate new Caribbean studies. This focus is going to be New Approaches in the Caribbean Writers’ Engagement with Europe. This is particularly inspired by the work of Harris and Derek Walcott in particular, who have gone into different areas of the Caribbean’s relationships with Europe outside of or over and above the traditional anti-colonial concerns and looking at Europe as hostile colonizers or being preoccupied with the English and those countries that had built empires in the West Indies.
For a long time the literature has been concerned with empire, colonisation, colonialism, and the history of Britain as the ‘Mother Country’ and the subjugation of the West Indian people. Quite understandably, there was a great deal to be exorcised from that long and devastating experience which included African slavery, indentureship, racism, exploitation and underdevelopment. Writers then went into another important movement in the historical process and contemporary times, which included voluntary migration or emigration pushed by factors of poverty and underdevelopment at home which first motivated Caribbean workers to migrate to England. Apart from dealing with the condition of the immigrants themselves in the United Kingdom, a very important literary development was the concept of ‘exile’ when major writers joined the exodus and sought to develop their careers in Europe.
The predominant subjects included the ills of colonialism with Europe as an exploitative power and a hostile environment. The themes were of mental enslavement, the destabilising effects of colonial education and the ill effects of the colonial heritage, with emphasis on the bad elements inherited from Europe. There have been variations on the themes of neo-colonialism which persisted after Indepen-dence, the ironies of independence and the unprogressive politics that came in its wake, including imitation, mimicry and corruption.
These themes and subjects have included the works and interests of the best writers in the Caribbean as well as those in ‘exile,’ and they have not necessarily become tired, dull or passé. VS Naipaul and Jamaica Kincaid have treated mimicry and the cultural effects of underdevelopment; Erna Brodber has treated mental colonization, spirit thievery and liberation in novel ways and Eddie Kamau Brathwaite has been among the most original and sophisticated in his attention to immigrants, the New World and the sociology of empire.
However, there have been other, newer developments in the West Indian writers’ European concerns, some of which have created new forms of art, criticism and theories.
These have involved imaginative, sometimes unconventional and occasionally revolutionary forms, approaches and preoccupations. These were the forms of post-colonial literature emerging among writers with a background in the former British colonies. Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul and Wilson Harris have been foremost writers in this development, which involved not just the writing but the theories which surround it and the appropriately adjusted criticism. Among the many other writers associated with it have been David Dabydeen, Earl Lovelace, Austin Clarke, Walcott and Brathwaite.
One important branch of this description of engagement with Europe by the former colonial writers is ‘the empire writes back,’ a theory advanced by critic Helen Tiffin. In this the former colonies in the ‘empire’ were no longer subjects of colonial rule, if not abuse, but were now making their voices heard and speaking in their own language, often in response or reaction to history and colonial rule, including their brands of literature that they used to receive. Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha further expounded on the political implications of this writing, advancing such theories as mimicry and hybridity as ways in which a colonial people resisted the power of the ‘masters.’ Similarly, Edward Said articulated the concepts of ‘orientalism’ and ‘otherness,’ a term related to ethnic and cultural minorities in the metropolis.
Dabydeen, historian Trevor Bernard, Letizia Gramaglia of the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick along with Ann-Marie Bhola of the Indo-Caribbean Alliance are formulating the theme of the new conference which will focus new and different (not necessarily new) ways in which West Indian writers have engaged Europe. Walcott, for example, is known for such approaches which do not fall in line with the popular anti-colonial trend, since Walcott does not see all that is involved in the colonial heritage as bad or destabilising.
He accepts the best qualities of the English language with its usefulness and advantages, and does not reject it as a colonial imposition. His poems about Italy communicate refreshing experiences with no resentment of Europe. He has expanded a thorough inter-relatedness and several resemblances between the archipelago of Greece with its several islands and sea, famous for Odyssian myths and the Caribbean archipelago with as many islands and the importance of the dividing and uniting sea. Then, of course, there is his appropriation of Greek mythology found not only in Omeros and The Odyssey, but numerous other poems and plays. Yet another aspect of his approach is the value and significance placed on the receipt of an education grounded in the Classics.
Harris’ approach to Europe has many different and related dimensions. He, too has engaged the Classics from his very early writings which include Eternity to Season which draws on the story of Odysseus or Ullyses and the king disguised as a beggar. His employment of Classical mythology is, however, deeper than Walcott’s, including his interrogation with other myths. These approaches to myth, history and relations to Europe add to the complexity, and indeed, the perceived inaccessibility of his writing.
Harris goes back to pre-Columbian times in his engagement with Europe, so that while he is a part of post-colonialism and exposes European expansionism, conquest and exploitation, he brings in what he sees as relevant historical connections in ages before colonisation. The arrival of Europe in the Americas and their confrontation of such forces as Quetzalcoatl, the deity and power of the “plumed serpent,” mixture of bird and serpent, wisdom, freedom and power from ancient civilization are instructive about the Aztec psyche and the conflict with European invaders such as Cortez. His theory of “the bone flute” clarifies what was mistaken for cannibalism among Caribs.
As far as Europe is concerned, Harris makes links between the wars and hazards of contemporary times and a cycle of history in which man confronts himself wearing different costumes, personalities and appearing as different characters. In this way he commits self-destruction, so that Europe committing genocide against an Amerindian race is an act of destruction against itself.
No approach by a West Indian writer to Europe has been as original or as profound as that. It is these various approaches by the wide range of Caribbean artists that the organisers intend to be the themes for study at the proposed conference, which is to follow the current meeting on the subject of Indo-Caribbean Culture and Literature.