The Arts Journal

Volume 5 Numbers 1 & 2


Not quite half a century since our emergence from the colonial crucible, one of the most urgent questions posed on the rich canvas of the Caribbean literary and art traditions is, inevitably, that of identity. While the literary art tradition has kept abreast with reinterpretations of the lived experience, the “dominant” discourse of the Western-oriented critical culture of the region is often found wanting.
Assimilation into “mainstream” society is presumed even though diverse cultural strands exist in virtually every Caribbean island and the plurality of our cultural traditions is more obvious in countries like Guyana and Trinidad. The multiple strands within our multi-racial multi-cultural societies remain largely unexamined, our distinctive experiences undifferentiated.

But what is identity? Is it, on the one hand, the hollow cry of “One people, one nation” that serves politicians well, or is it, on the other hand, the quest for a sense of the individual and collective self which is bound up with the psychic need for ontological security, self knowledge, freedom and cultural wholeness?
On the question of identity and nationalism, Bill Carr's words, in his Introductory remarks to Martin Carter's Poems of Affinity, 1978-1980 (Georgetown: Release, 1980), remain relevant: “The term 'national poet' is fundamentally meaningless. In fact it might be considered a term of opprobrium in so far as it is susceptible to use by the unscrupulous: the devil, as it were, citing Scripture for his own nefarious purposes.
At best, the term is an inexplicit sentimentality likely to be employed in a slovenly fashion by persons more interested in the possible implications of 'national' rather than in the questing and complex implications of 'poet'”.

This issue opens with fresh critical thinking on Guyana's pioneering novelist, Edgar Mittelholzer. Analysis has so far focused on the writer's preoccupation with such key themes as landscape, the divided consciousness, sexuality and death in most of his novels. Mittelholzer has been recognized “as the first to examine the role of heredity in the Caribbean 'crisis of identity'” but no one has delved further to enquire into the shaping influences of the German Romantic tradition upon his writing and his struggle for selfhood.

In “Music and Symbolism in The Life and Death of Sylvia”, Juanita Cox explores the musical influences of the Romantic era that the writer seemingly brought to bear in Sylvia, discusses the role of classical music in the structure of the work and his stylistic innovations. This was, perhaps, Mittelholzer's way of asserting his identity as part German and of trying to fuse that sensibility with the “indigenous” landscape; however, this fertile area of critical enquiry remains to be further developed.

"The Guyana Landscape and the Language of the Imagination in the Fiction of Wilson Harris” is a version of a presentation to the Annual Conference on West Indian Literature, Georgetown, April 2009 by Professor Mark McWatt. While this is not the first time that the impact of landscape upon the literary imagination has been explored in criticism, McWatt's oral delivery was made more captivating by Bobby Fernandes's photographic images of the awesome Guyana landscape that one critic has termed “strangely mystical” (Jeffrey Robinson, Kyk-Over-Al 31). In 1980 Bill Carr pointed out: “Guyana shares much of her historical and social experiences with the islands [of the English speaking Caribbean] but in size and terrain she is unique by comparison.“ McWatt suggests that “It is not simply a question of how to define self, but also how to define “here”, the physical space that one calls home? This is especially true if that place is associated with cruel, alienating and involuntary labour and with the natural disasters of invading sea . . . "

This exploration of landscape encrypted with legends, myths, and supernatural entities that led Wilson Harris to deem it “a living text”, has also been taken up by Kenwyn Crichlow in “Figures Trapped at the Forest's Edge”, an analysis of Alfred Codallo's watercolour painting, Folklore (1958). Crichlow argues that Codallo uses the forest as theatre, a device not entirely original, to present the hidden and mysterious world of the folk pantheon as a means of validating the folk tradition, significantly, at a time when Trinidad is on the brink of decolonization and looking
forward to charting its own political and cultural identity. Crichlow renews our acquaintance with this critically neglected work through his discovery of its seminal influence in the carnival and visual arts of Trinidad.

Professor Frank Birbalsingh tackles the question of identity in ”Identity Formation in Ramabai Espinet's The Swinging Bridge”. By tracing the progress of her Indian-Trinidadian family who migrated to Canada in 1970, the narrator of the
novel, Mona Singh, affords readers a panoramic review of the history and fortunes of four generations of Indians in Trinidad and of Caribbean Indians generally. This article seeks to critically analyse how the process of indigenization and the fact of co-existence among culturally diverse peoples in the racially complex society of Trinidad result in cultural change that alters the process of identity formation among migrant Indians including those who later transfer to western societies.

Mark McWatt, in a rare interview with Lucy Evans, discusses the notion of home and exile and the influences that shaped his artistic sensibility and fuel his writings, in particular, the crafting of his award-winning first novel, Suspended Sentences. Of his homeland, the racially complex society that has lagged behind since independence, the writer concedes: “As far as I'm concerned I'm somehow rooted in that space and in that country. So in a sense it's mine, and all the problems are mine, and you feel a special anxiety for what's going on there . . . ”

Professor Victor Ramraj and Jitesh Parik in “Sasenarine Persaud: A Boundary- Crossing Ethnocentrist” scrutinize Persaud's body of creative writings for his perspective on identity and culture. Persaud's writing seeks to interrogate a broad range of issues that include religion, social anomalies and psychic displacement while expressing harsh judgement at what he perceives as cultural ambivalence in other writers. The two critics, in naming him an “ethnocentrist”, do not appear fully convinced that Persaud is entitled to embrace the complex Hindu philosophy that
he terms “Yogic Realism” and use it to illuminate his understanding of his world while working out the question of what underpins his identity.

In “Guyana's Dutch-Lexicon Creoles: The Demerara (dis)Connection”, Professor Ian Robertson seeks submerged traces of a Dutch-Lexicon Creole Language in Demerara and argues that there is substantial evidence to support the theory of its existence. The language situation in the colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara was a most complex one at the beginning of the nineteenth century and Robertson unearths valuable documents that allude to a bilingual language situation in the three Dutch possessions, which were merged as the colony of British Guiana in 1831. This article will be of particular interest to scholars of linguistics and anthropology and anyone with an interest in the early settlement of the colony.

Five critical reviews of poetry, imaginative prose writing and non-fictional works are included: Philip Nanton on John Agard's folk poetry and performance; Michael Gilkes on Ameena Gafoor's excerpt, “From A Forthcoming Novel”; Frank Birbalsingh on Moses Nagamootoo's Henree's Cure: Madrassi Experience in a New World; Fabian Adekunle Badejo on Howard Fergus's Love, Labour, Liberation in Lasana Sekou; and Nigel Westmaas on Selwyn Cudjoe's Caribbean Visionary: ARF Webber and the Making of the Guyanese Nation.
Three succinct poems from Professor Edward Baugh and Velma Pollard cap the issue while “Reflections in Broken Lines” stands as an evocation of a time past and a landscape that is no more.
We hope that readers will find the offerings of this issue particularly relevant in light of our continuing efforts to critically examine our art forms and forge an alternative aesthetic that speaks more directly to our multi-layered identities. Interestingly, the call for papers for this issue did not specify the theme of identity but the fact that so many of the submissions spoke to questions of identity and culture – fracture and discontinuity; trapped “at the forest's edge”; home and exile; the loss of language; cultural erosion; childhood memories of a vanished past – indicates the necessity of fresh critical enquiry into submerged dimensions of self.

Ameena Gafoor