A Caribbean person through Trinidad . . .
by George Lamming
My particular relation to the Caribbean region was to a large extent formed and shaped in Trinidad through the Trinidad experience that got me to realize that there was a cultural area –– a unit that was just not Barbados. It was the whole region and I think it had to do with the time I went to Trinidad.
I’m arriving in Trinidad at the time when [Dr Eric] Williams is not yet in politics, but he is a very seminal influence in making Caribbean history a reality.
We had grown up without that dimension, and then not only as writer of something about capitalism and slavery, but actual articulator in person, bringing together young people to look at documents.
I always make the point that the first time I heard of the Cuban poet Nicholas Guile and the French poet Aime Cesaire was through Williams who was telling me that if you are going to be a writer of and for the region, you’ve got to make this contact. This was before Williams came into politics.
So that by the time I got to England, this seed was very firmly planted and then it blossomed there in a way, because it was one of the ironies of history that here we were separated by imperialism –– Jamaica from Barbados, Barbados from Trinidad, and so on. But it was really at the metropole at London that we came together; so I first got to know Jamaica and Guyana and other territories at London, and then that was really an extension of that learning to be a Caribbean person.
[The year] 1955 was my first return to the region –– when I went right through the region and it was as a result of a visit to Haiti that was so critical, that I was then very conscious of the weight of Africa in this region. It was in Haiti that one saw this, and then perhaps my most illuminating experience of the complexities of our situation was a long visit to Guyana which really in a sense made the first anti-imperialist breakthrough when [Cheddi] Jagan and [Forbes] Burnham were in that election in 1953 and had then run into crisis.
One started to see the kind of challenge which confronted us in getting people who had come into the region with different cultural traditions, who had now been in a sense reshaped by this landscape.
How did one get those people to create a solidarity that was so coated and reinforced by their differences and not fragmented by those differences? The novel Of Age And Innocence is really based to a large extent on the Guyanese experience; the collapse of that movement of the 1950s. From then on, there have always been this movement and I think it was true of a number of the writers that although those early books were written outside of the Caribbean, this preoccupation with the Caribbean was never eroded by distance, by living elsewhere.
A very good example of it, although the persona appears to be different, is every book that [V.S.] Naipaul writes in fiction is really about Trinidad, even though it may be set in Africa somewhere. It is a Trinidad experience.
It is informing the organization of that narrative and of those problems . . . from about the beginning of the sixties. I entered the region not just as witness and observer, but in a sense as a certain kind of activist, and that started, I would say, as a result of an invitation I had received from a group of people who were then known as the New World Group.
The New World Group is a very, very important chapter in our cultural history which was founded by Lloyd Best, in very close association with James Milette, with the economist Gorge Beckford of Jamaica, [Norman] Girvan of Jamaica, [Clive] Thomas of Guyana. And, I would say that one of the great contributions they made was to change the agenda of this course whereas we talked about the Caribbean as it reacted to colonial power and so on.
If you go through all of those issues, you would see for the first time that the Caribbean is being put at the centre of the agenda, and although they were academics, the kinds of issues they dealt with then pulled the non-academic into it.
The big discussion on sugar was really initiated by the New World and the sugar planters. All sort of people got involved in that –– involved around the question of what was the future of sugar that we needed and so on and so forth.
And as we came into these Independence arrangements, what they did was to ask me to come out from London, first to Guyana and then to Barbados because they wanted to get at two special issues which were known as the Guyana Independence issue and the Barbados Independence issue and I did these then: one, Guyana issue in association with the poet Martin Carter, and then we came here and did the Barbados issue.
What was very interesting about these issues, if you got them, is that we saw the Independence of Guyana not as a Guyanese affair. This was a matter that concerned the whole region.
We did the same thing with the Barbados issue. The Barbados issue was edited from this house. I’d rented this house for the year . . . . Every West Indian writer and intellectual, whether resident here or abroad, contributed to those issues; and when you were asked questions about alternatives and so on, I would say that we have been on an alternative road for some time, that is, the foundations of that road were laid.
Alternative means that you were no longer talking to the society as it was presented to you from outside, but you were in fact identifying for yourself what you thought were the settled issues of this region and analysing for yourself what were those issues.
This interaction then, continued through the 1970s, which were very marked by the emergence of ideology in political combat; and you saw that shift in the 1970s in Jamaica where there never seemed to be philosophy; any profound difference between the two parties –– but from about the 1970s when terms like socialism, later the legacy of the return of Walter Rodney, were articulating the meaning of that power.
For the next decade or so, we were very much involved in struggles that could be called ideological, which took complete form or tried to take complete political from with the Grenada Revolution which started in 1979 and then ended in that tragically suicidal way in 1983. For some time, I was very close to Maurice Bishop during that period and to Minister of Culture and Education Jacquelyn Creft and what had also developed as a part of that agenda was the role in which the communications media would function in the rediscovery or the re-creation of what we call the Caribbean.
Throughout all of the education system, the school really presented you to yourself by an external eye, and what many people within the political culture were trying to do was to find a way in which the society could return itself to itself, through its own mediators; and in this area we found there were a lot of deficiencies.
Some time in the 1960s, I was lecturing to students on the need to hasten what I call the regionalization of the media . . . .
What I’ve forgotten to emphasize really is that the writer sometimes does not know where the influence is and where what comes to be called his work begins. My relation to Trinidad –– the visit to Trinidad in the middle and late 1940s –– proved for me to be very decisive. I don’t think that I would have been the kind of Caribbean person that I am today if I had gone from Barbados directly to London.
It was that intervening stop in Trinidad where I lived for about four or five years –– and although we tend sometimes to look back at that kind of doldrum period and so on, it was really a moment of great liberation for me after Barbados.
I cannot recall that there was very much of a cultural movement in Barbados that was indigenous . . . . So I think that without knowing it at the time, if you look at some of the novels . . . . Yes, I was saying we never really know how we are influenced in the production of work, and if you look at Season Of Adventure, which is probably the first novel and probably the only one, it is in a sense devoted to the elevation of the steel band, not only as a moment of great culture and triumph, but also showing the way in which cultural activity can be so decisive in political life.
In Season Of Adventure, the republic collapses to a large extent, due to the intervention and demonstration of the government; and I think then much later when I got to Jamaica and saw the Jamaica Dance Company, not many people realized the extent to which the Little Carib in Trinidad was almost the mother of the Jamaica Dance Theatre and it would be very difficult for me to think of the cultural history of this region . . . .
My mother, stepfather lived in Trinidad, but since I’ve been back here in a more settled way from the 1980s, in a way, Barbados has been like a base because for six months of the year, I am somewhere else and a lot of that time, that somewhere is in some part of the region responding to requests to lecture, give various talks and seminars either to workers’ groups or to schools or universities.
Whenever I think of the media in the region, I am really taken back to my earliest experiences of the media, which really was in England when I arrived there in the 1950s.
I worked for a number of years with the BBC Overseas Service and especially with the programme, people would know of as Caribbean Voices, but what came home to me was the very vital way in which you could help a society to hear and see itself through that media, and that was due to the fact that I had been engaged a lot in what was known as a documentary feature.
BBC was very a strong originator of that particular form and I then had a personal interest in writing for and working in the radio. I never really had an opportunity to do it. One occasion was in Guyana around the time of the Independence of Guyana and I made a radio programme. It was about a series of five from the literature.
That is, taking extracts of various writers and so on as a sort of tribute to the people of Guyana; and then some time in the 1970s, I attempted to do a documentary on the history of labour in Barbados through the bringing together of these voices across three generations.
This is really what in a way sometimes depresses me, because I think that in order for the writers to function in this society, a way would have to be found to make them very central to the media, very central to radio, very central to television, which is after all based on words.
And the other proposal which I had made –– and you see the beginning of it: the regionalizing of the media. It should become normal for a third or whatever programmes, radio, that have been heard in Trinidad be made in Jamaica or Barbados.
The same for Barbados –– a third or so other programmes that have been made in some other island.
In a way, what radio and television would be doing at a popular level was really in a sense what the New World Group was doing at the level of that kind of analysis; and the other thing that could be done really is that you can’t make radio from studio.
I mean if you’re really going to make effective radio, as happens also with television, you really have to go out and in fact make people who are the subject of the theme become the articulators of the theme.
Now I think that for the future, it seems to me that there is no way the literature of the region would become a part of the consciousness of this region unless that literature gets translated into film.
And that is what we really have to work on. [Samuel] Selvon, [V.S.] Naipaul, Earl Lovelace should be as normal viewing to Trinidad and Caribbean audience as the imported stock is today . . . . I do not believe it helps to intensify attacks on the imported stock because the responsibility is really upon us to replace it by what is already there, and this requires simply first of all improving the technical skills of those who work in that area and pooling the intellectual human resource of the whole region.
We have no deficiency in that area or deficiency in the areas of communication and collaboration.
Let me put it this way. Quite often people do not know what they have. It’s only when they try to examine themselves in a particular situation that they discover that they have this resource, and I think that it is a result of, in a way, the privileges of family and going across the region that I came to realize that over the years that there was a Caribbean reality which was there, which touched different territories in different ways, but which had not yet come fully into the consciousness of each territory.
I think of cricket, for example, and when you look at the history of the West Indies team, it’s very difficult to think of the emergence of a great batsman like [Rohan] Kanhai without the fact that [Clyde] Walcott went to work in Guyana for Bookers.
. . . I was at a conference for the Indian presence in the Caribbean and they brought Ramadhin and I was very struck to hear him speak about the importance that Worrell as a leader and captain had to do with helping him adjust from that present background in South Trinidad to the mystery of Lords and . . . .
So the evolution of each territory depends very much on the forging and the incorporating of that Caribbean reality into the consciousness of each. Some of the writers know it. Some of the people who analyse society would know it, but some of the people who would sometimes know it better than others are traders.
We have a tremendous kind of huckster trade that moves between Grenada and Haiti; between Grenada and Trinidad; between Dominica and Barbados and they are the most Caribbean. They are much more Caribbean than the academics; and, quite often, they are much more sophisticated in languages.
Quite often they speak more languages than the average academic. If there is any reason at all for working as a writer, it is in the full knowledge that we are only perhaps a Chapter One of the new meaning of Caribbean civilization.
(The above is an edited transcript of a 1989 interview of Barbadian author George Lamming by Banyan Television.)