Editorial Volume 9 Nos 1 and 2



It is hardly a surprise to us that articles received for this ninth Volume of The Arts Journal all speak to issues of identity. The early 1960s saw the emergence of nation states in the British West Indies as individual colonies, one by one, gained independence and freedom from an identity as colonial. However, affirmations about the certainty of nation-building and notions of the unity of the nation from political leaders, are undermined by narratives of the fragility of lives lived, more so in societies of diverse cultural compositions. The contributions in this issue offer, not the official version of nationhood but the alternative, subversive reinterpretation of the novelist, the vision of the poet and the visual artist in our midst, and also the illumination of critical analyses. Discussing cultural identity
remains fundamental to human development in the region.

Emeritus Professor Clem Seecharan, in “Bifurcated Nationalism: African and Indian Identities in Colonial Guyana in the 1930s”, examines in dispassionate manner the composition of society in colonial Guiana and traces the evolution of “race consciousness” and “communal pride”, evident since the 1930s, as necessary precursors to the formation of a Guyanese national identity.
Lee Johnson’s essay, “Derek Walcott: Poet of the Exiles” brings a fresh perspective to the question of identity and belonging. While this article has distinct relevance to that large community of nationals living outside the Caribbean, away from home, it has equal relevance for those of us who stuck it out at home all these decades hoping and waiting for a better life.
This essay seeks to reexamine Walcott’s poetry, from “In A Green Night” to “White Egrets”, from the viewpoint of how it has helped to shape, codify and interpret the experience of being a part of the West Indian Diaspora, with its often-dual identities and places called ‘home’. It highlights the poet’s emphases on the tensions and contradictions of escape/exile/flight – away from the “urine stunted trees” and “malarial light” – with the resulting sense of loss and alienation such flight engenders. It shows how, over the course of his work, the initial escapee – the castaway – morphs into the adventurer or wandering Odysseus; how the anomie of departure evolves into the elation of Crusoe, the fortunate traveller, and finally to the changed, returning prodigal.
Central to Walcott’s poetry is his search to uncover those common threads that knit together a sense of what it means to be West Indian. And over the fifty years of his writing, his perspectives on race, history, language and landscape are the fundamentals that map out a vision of identity in the West Indies. They are also the same fundamentals that help lift the reader above the squalid and the cynical and offer West Indians the potential to be nothing less than “the receiving vessel of each day’s grace”.
Emeritus Professor Kenneth Ramchand’s “A Bong Coolie Poonith: A Quest for Knowledge and Self-Discovery” is a review of a book (written by Poonith’s 8
grandson, Harold Phekoo) that attempts to recapture one man’s life story, and those of his descendants, over three generations from 1885 to the 1960s. Significantly, this work covers the same landscape as Walcott’s poetry but from the perspective of the Indian-Caribbean person trying to find accommodation in the New World. Phekoo’s desire to explore the meaning of his life and his family’s in many ways also reflects the history and evolution of Trinidad itself. This article is structured in sections that make for easy reading in very accessible language and it will have resonance for all those “who came”. It is an interesting example of oral history and of community history.
Marianne Bessy’s “You are Haiti, too”: Negotiating “Haitianness” in the works of Women Writers in the Diaspora” examines writings of contemporary Haitian female authors who write, in English, about migratory experiences from Haiti to North America (USA and Canada). The aim of the article is to analyze how these authors illustrate the negotiating of “Haitianness” for the Diasporic Haitian subject and how they make us consider anew the struggles inherent to transnational identities in an adopted homeland as well as the longing for home that haunts one’s exile status. Specifically, it analyzes images of “home”/Haiti and accounts of Haitian history created by these authors so as to examine the sometimes conflicting feelings of nostalgia, rejection, pride, and celebration that seem to surround Haiti and Haitian identity in the Diasporic imagination. An overall trope in these works is the collective desire to understand the past and the present by inventing, creating, and celebrating an imagined homeland. These accounts of Diasporic imagination offer an inspirational roadmap for the shaping of both personal and national identities.
Melody Boyd Carričre “Petra’s Underworld: Rational Speech in Rosario Ferré’s The House on the Lagoon” analyzes the complexity of Petra’s character in this novel (1996). The foreword to Ferré’s novel includes a quotation from Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus, through a blood offering, is allowed to speak with the shades of the Underworld. Petra’s character in Ferré’s novel is both “Other” and godlike, for despite her African ancestry, which puts her in a subordinate position in Puerto Rico, the powerful and elite figures of the Mendizabal family descend to the house’s “Underworld” to seek counsel from her. This paper explores the connection between the Odyssean reference and West African tradition by comparing Greek myth to the Orisha gods. The paper also examines the significance of José Luis González’s essay, “Puerto Rico: The Four Storeyed Country” which underlines the racial hierarchy that exists in Puerto Rican society. The ideas in González’s essay are central to Ferré’s novel, for the layers of the house on the lagoon mirror those found in Puerto Rican culture. In Ferré’s work, her protagonist Isabel exposes the racial hypocrisy in this society through her manuscript about the Mendizabal family. The manuscript gives to figures like Petra a voice in a culture that confines them to marginalized spaces.

The Arts Journal is happy to extend its reach to the non-English speaking Caribbean, to societies with a background of French and Spanish history, at the same time offering its readers wider and deeper exposure to the region’s cultural idioms.
In “As New and as Old”, art commentator Alim Hosein makes an instructive statement about Bernadette Indira Persaud’s steady growth from the 1980s up to her current work that re-possesses and re-imagines the landscape of the “rainforest” in ways that challenge the imperial configurations of Ralegh, Schomburgk, and more recent popular imaging of tropical exotica. As Hosein notices, “Persaud’s work fuses excellent painterly and artistic skills with personal experience, political morality, strong personal opinion, and perceptive vision into paintings of tragic beauty.” Her paintings have epitomised difficult moments in Guyanese history, succinctly capturing the public and private pain of life in Guyana. Persaud makes a valuable contribution to the debate on the evolution of Caribbean society and the question of identity of its multicultural peoples.
Kenwyn Crichlow’s “Imaging Transition” discusses three Trinidadian artists whose works give expression to forces that animated the post-war period of transition from colonialism to national independence in that island: Ralph Baney’s Baptist Shouter speaks to the years of colonial persecution imagined as a source of cultural empowerment; this sculpture stands as testament and witness to an emerging vision of a liberated Trinidad and Tobago. Baney, together with Edward Hernandez whose passing is also mourned in this year, and MP Alladin whose private art collection was recently disposed of, are among the pioneers and cultural innovators who set out the imaginative terrain upon which we continue to rethink identities in the 21st century construction of multi-cultural Trinidad and Tobago. For example, Hosay Tadjah “raises questions about identity, culture and one’s sense of place in the world. More prosaically, he asks: what does it mean to be East Indian in the increasingly cosmopolitan urban place of Trinidad?”
Similarly, as founding curator of the Trinidad Museum, Hernandez articulated a new narrative of society, history, and culture that displaced arguments that the
history of Trinidad and Tobago began with the occupation of the land by European colonisers and that post-emancipation society was without tradition. In “Names and The Self”, St. Hope Earl McKenzie takes us through a process of self-discovery based on the unfolding saga of the names he has been given, his struggle to discover their origins and meanings, and their effect on his sense of identity.
Book Reviews of six new works of fiction and non-fiction close the issue. It is significant that in a Region where it is evident that people, especially young
adults, are no longer reading, a few new books still manage to be published, with two significant works by authors who live in Guyana.
Ameena Gafoor

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