In spite of the many debates that there have always been about it, there is generally fair consensus about what constitutes a national literature. The subject comes up occasionally on the anniversary of Independence to reflect on the Guyanese nation and, inevitably, on the literature that defines it. Yet, discourses on what is Guyanese literature, and on national literatures further afield, persist with continued interest and can still hold attention in literary criticism.
This is so because there are many different ways of looking at it; it often goes deeper than merely identifying the nationality of a writer and which country he is writing about, to become genuine parts of criticism of that writing. Poet and critic Edward Baugh once engaged in an extensive examination of what is West Indian poetry in which he cited a number of different opinions by other writers and critics (West Indian Poetry 1900 – 1970: A Study in Cultural Decolonisation; n.d. ). Some of these were judiciously rejected, while Baugh himself settled on the conclusion that it is not be so easily decided by any one set of criteria that it had much to do with what the better poets were doing, and how comfortably they spoke to and were received by their national audience.
And if one argues that I have just made too much of an old document that Baugh might even have forgotten that he wrote, be reminded that he took up the issue again several years later. Neither was that seen as a revisit, since there were many new and deeper things being said and the discourse was on the nature and character of Caribbean literature as it had emerged (and was still emerging) coloured by a history of colonialism and independence (Critics on Caribbean Literature). Furthermore, other attempts to define the literature had engaged the attention of critics such as Louis James and Cameron King (The Islands In Between) and Gordon Rohlehr (My Strangled City and Other Essays and The Shape of That Hurt and Other Essays). So, it was no simple matter, nor was it to be easily disposed of.
The matter surfaces every time an editor or anthologist is about to publish a collection of national poetry. Consider the case of poet W H Auden who agonised over who to include when he was editing a book of American poetry. As did T S Eliot. One might laugh at the fact that Auden wasn’t even sure whether to include himself in the volume. Auden crossed the Atlantic and was a citizen of both England and America.
Claude McKay is included in collections and studies of American literature, but he was a Jamaican poet and novelist who wrote Constab Ballads (1911) and Songs of Jamaica (1912) while he was still a policeman in Jamaica, and Banana Bottom (1933) long after he had left. No poetry or fiction can be more Jamaican than those. Yet McKay was very much a creature of the Harlem Renaissance, published poems in American publications, and wrote the poem “The Lynching.” No poem can be more American than that. Add to it his other novels about living in New York, or living in Paris, for that matter. It was as an American poet that he was involved with Marcus Garvey in Harlem, USA, and wrote the international sonnet “If We Must Die.” But it was as a communist that he went to Moscow. Was it then fitting that he could write the nostalgic sonnet “I Shall Return” with his memories of rural Jamaica?
Derek Walcott, meanwhile, was quite unlike McKay, Eliot and Auden. He is considered the exemplary Caribbean writer despite his long residence in Boston, USA. But at the same time, a great part of his achievement is his international appeal – the universal humanist. It was even reported that he was considered for British Poet Laureate. But his drama, and great volumes of his verse are rooted in the West Indies, and he considered himself such a ‘nowherean,’ that he was the quintessential West Indian – “either I’m nobody or I’m a nation;” he is Shabine in “The Schooner Flight.”
But those are not even the most interesting things about Walcott. His lengthy residence in the USA never made him American, he has always been unshakably St Lucian. What is most striking is that he has at no time been included in Trinidadian literature. After living in Jamaica from 1950 to 1957, his career in Trinidad stretched from 1959 to 1978. The drama company that he founded and directed was The Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Out of it he wrote and produced such plays as Pantomime (1978) set in and inspired by Tobago; In A Fine Castle (1970) reworked as The Last Carnival (1982) about Trinidad’s carnival, French Creoles and black power ‘revolution;’ The Joker of Seville (1974) his Trinidadian re-working of the Spanish Don Juan play; A Branch of the Blue Nile (1983) quite autobiographical about a theatre in Trinidad; Beef, No Chicken and Remembrance (1978). No drama can be more Trinidadian than those.
Note as well how the ‘Trinidadianness’ of his work persisted years after he left Trinidad. Moreover, his Trinidadian poetry is also to be considered. “The Spoiler’s Return” is one of the classics, immortalising a Trinidadian calypsonian and using the poetic form of the calypso. Naturally, one might say, several poems in In A Green Night (1962) and The Castaway (1965) are Trinidadian or have Trinidadian reference since he was living there at the time of publication. “The Saddhu of Couva” touches Hinduism and the troublous contemporary life in Trinidad. Then there are the several later poems in which he seems to be reflecting on where he used to live, on Diego Martin, Maracas, and the Trinidadian landscape. The roots of that island go deep in such songs from his musicals as the memorable “La Divina Pastora.”
There is much that goes into creating a national literature. After the then Ministry of Culture founded the National Drama Festival, then minister Dr Frank Anthony decided that it should as far as possible contribute to leaving some enduring contribution to national literature. He introduced a prize for the Best New Guyanese Play, with the intention that each year new plays would be added to the corpus of local drama. Originally it was stipulated that the plays must be set in or be about Guyana, but that was suppressed and the regulations remain silent on the matter, with good reason. In 2008, Dr Anthony’s plan was actually carried out to have a new Guyanese play written and performed for Carifesta X. The result was Legend of the Silk Cotton Tree, scripted and directed by Al Creighton, with story and concept by Barrington Braithwaite.
Of course, in all of this, it is acknowledged that national literature is much more than setting, theme or the nationality of the author. But consider the following. When Jamaica became independent in 1962, the annual Jamaica Festival was created to celebrate it. A national literary competition was also established to be a part of it. There, too, the stipulation for entries was that plays should be set in Jamaica or “reflect contact with a Jamaican environment.” The thinking there was the same as Anthony’s: that it would create works which enlarged national literature. But, really, works do not have to meet that criterion to be considered Jamaican. That is why the stipulation was dropped in the Guyanese Drama Festival.
Recently in Guyana there was some discontent among a few local writers who felt that foreign-based Guyanese writers who were already privileged in the metropolis were being given unfair favourable treatment over those who live in Guyana. They carried this over into critical positions on writing and the nature/definition of Guyanese literature. They argued that Guyanese literature had to be produced by those who live in the country and could write about it and its immediate issues at home. One could not reside overseas and properly capture the local environment because of the factors of time and distance. That is, however, a very narrow interpretation, a fairly shallow notion of what constitutes a nation’s literature and does not reflect accepted definitions anywhere.
Were that to be taken seriously Guyana would have to go back and redefine its literature. That is so because of the firm acknowledgement that Guyanese literature did not begin with a Guyanese writer, resident or overseas. It developed from the work of English knight, courtier, explorer and poet, Sir Walter Raleigh, whose visit left him obsessed with the colony. He was responsible for writing The Discovery of Guiana, and setting in train the unending search for El Dorado. The written document, the obsession and the quest all, gave Guyana its written literature.
That, however, was after the oral literature provided by Amerindian mythology and folk tales.