Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Saturday, March 29, 2003  

"As soon as you put a black character into a book in any Western society, the novel will be perceived through a prism of race... [Yet] the fiction I write is intensely personal. There's a lot of isolation, there's a lot of thwarted ambition, there's a lot of obstacles which have to be surmounted, there's a lot about class. I could put in all sorts of signifiers about loneliness, or about worry, or about hope, but a lot of commentators would look at it and think, well it's about race."

- Caryl Phillips, in the March 25 UK Observer.

"The involvement of the Negro with the white world is one of the limitations of West Indian writing... A literature can only grow out of a strong framework of social convention. And the only convention the West Indian knows is his involvement with the white world. This deprives his work of universal appeal. The situation is too special. The reader is excluded; he is invited to witness; he cannot participate."

- VS Naipaul, The Middle Passage: A Caribbean Journey

Once again, I find myself confronting the question of literature and race. Last evening I went to a play, An Echo In the Bone, by the deceased Jamaican playwright and poet Dennis Scott. It tells the story of a black farmer who kills a white plantation owner, and in flashback, shows scenes from slavery, meant to illustrate how the cruelties of the past have led up to the present.

It was a very workmanlike production of a very workmanlike play, and I was very glad after two and half hours to be out of the theatre and in the cool night air. As I tried to clear my head of the jumble of loud drums, strident voices and violent images raging inside it, my evening's companion asked, "Why can't they ever do a play about love? Why is it always about slavery?"

In a recent post I mentioned the novel the Polished Hoe, winner of this year's Commonwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Caribbean. It too deals with the murder of a plantation owner, and it too is a very ordinary piece of work. I strongly believe its success has a lot to do with political correctness, but to say so openly would be tantamount to treason. It's about the horrors of slavery and colonialism and the white man's brutality, how can you criticise it? Easy. It's a badly written book.

But you can't say that. Nor can you, if you're black, write a book or play that doesn't deal with race. Even if you do, the critics will, as Caryl Phillips says, see it through "the prism of race". Phillips has written about race and slavery, but he's done it better than most, hence his success. Still, he is seen as a black writer, not just as a writer. As are all artists who aren't white: some adjective or other has to be prefixed to their title.

Perhaps that can't be helped. And perhaps, as Naipaul says, "the situation is too special". Certainly, if you're a writer from the Caribbean, and you aren't writing about certain themes, "your" themes, the metropolitan world isn't interested, (hell, neither is anyone here) no matter how good the work. And the converse is true. So a badly written book about slavery can do well, because no one will criticise it. But the catch is that they'll praise it conditionally, as a great work of "black fiction" or whatever.

So it's a pretty sad situation all around. No one wants to admit it, but Caribbean fiction is in the doldrums. Forty years on from Naipaul's observations, the "strong framework of social of social convention" has not been developed, is not developing in the way that would facilitate a strong tradition of Caribbean literature. Good literature. So, and for other reasons as well, we continue to churn out second rate stuff, which no one criticises, and the vicious cycle continues.

posted by Jonathan | 8:03 PM 0 comments


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