Sunday, March 29, 2009

More on whether there is one literature, or there are many...

In this post, I'm using a comment from Geoffrey Philp (as ever, thanks Geoff) to further think through the matter of whether there is one literature or there are many literatures, and, as an example, whether there is room in Canadian literature for a Caribbean voice.

Geoff says:

"... a literature has to do with community and memory, so to the extent that a poem/short story or novel captures something that is important for that community to remember, then it becomes something cherished. SNIP (New paragraph) This does not, however, take into consideration community politics, etc. where a writer's work may be ignored for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work. This is along way of saying yes, there may be room in Canadian literature for a Caribbean voice, but it will depend upon the Canadian community to decide whether that voice will become part of their collective memory."

I keep saying that twenty men in the world now decide much of what the rest of us get to read. (Okay. It may be a few more than twenty, but not that many more.) It is they who decide what gets into books, and books are the modern collective memory. Thus, in many cases, the community may never get to hear the poem, short story or novel of a particular writer, and so may never get to choose to remember or to forget it.

American poet, Emily Dickinson helps to make the case: Fewer than a dozen of nearly eighteen hundred poems that she wrote were published during her lifetime. Had her sister Vinnie not found the poems and been determined that they should be published, the community might never have known of Dickinson's poetry. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, "The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time..." Indeed! And, "Until the 1955 publication of Dickinson's Complete Poems by Thomas H. Johnson, her poetry was considerably edited and altered from their manuscript versions..." Ha! Those twenty men at work...

Out of her story, some points to be made. (1) Many writers are recluses. (2) The community needs to value those who make songs and stories, support them, and seek them out, if necessary, or else it is they who will lose the prize of the work. (3) Scholars, when they function well, do what Johnson did. They find the work, respect it, make it available. (4) Good presses are needed to complete the process of delivering the work to the world.

A community is not twenty men. That's why the small press movement is such an important one. It gives people other than those twenty men the power to make the choice about whose stories and poems get sent out into the world, whose songs have a chance to be heard so that the community may make its choice about what to remember and what to forget. That's why the Internet is so important as well. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems that it's the Internet that will cut through this Gordian knot by making everything available to everybody.

There has been a fuss recently here in Canada about literary prizes, and who gets them, and who decides on who shall get them. It has been noted that only one of the three judges for this year's Griffin prize is Canadian. And that that is good. It's certainly to the point of our present discussion, for it's a way of working us towards that big fat global notion of what is song and story. The fact that the Griffin is awarded not just to a Canadian but also to an international poet of distinction is also a step in that direction. Nor does that international poet need to be a poet who writes in English! We should note that in 2006, Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite was the Griffin international prizewinner, thus demonstrating at least that Canadian ideas of the very best poetry certainly do include Caribbean voices.

This discussion isn't done, by any means. For instance, here in Canada we need to talk about why Québec does so much more publishing than the rest of Canada. It's not a matter of size, so it must be something about how the community values song and story, how it arranges for the discovery of singers and storytellers, and enables their works to reach the people who will choose to remember — or not. For sure we can't ignore that it so happens that the community is French.

So. Canadian literature. French Canadian literature. English Canadian literature. French Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices. English Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices. French Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices in English. English Canadian literature that includes Caribbean voices in French. And, good people, we've only just begun to look at the songs and stories of Canada...

10 comments:

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Pam, you've listed the many things that critics, editors, and scholars should do.
Whether this will happen is another issue.

clarabella said...

Geoff: I think that's my point. There's an older post up here about the recent Penguin anthology of Canadian short stories. It was greeted by comment, criticism, and, in some quarters, deep upset. A couple of periodicals published special issues to redress what they regarded as omissions. All that is to the good. People must talk about literature, care about it, look to discover and preserve it, or whatever of it they deem worthy of preservation. Of course, writers go in and out of fashion (Pope comes to mind) but that's another matter! At the bottom of all this is a simple concern. Songs and stories are as natural to us as drawing breath. They have kept us going all along. As an English teacher, it matters to me that fewer and fewer people know the best songs and stories. Maybe if Mr Madoff had been better acquainted with Aesop's fables, he would have behaved differently.

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Pam, what is considered the "best" often depends on passions and money. Look what they did to Shakespeare in Jamaica! Though I must say that many who were throwing out the Bard in public schools were making sure that their children were learning about him in private schools.
All we can do is hope and pray that others will continue as we do to keep these simple flames burning.

clarabella said...

Geoff: LOL. I knew that 'best' was going to get me into trouble, even as I wrote it. I should have said, perhaps, "Fewer and fewer people know their own songs and stories." My life would have been far less rich for not knowing, "Mosquito one, mosquito two, mosquito jump inna hot calalloo." Interestingly enough, when I just researched it on the Net, the top site upon which it featured cited: "Y[ear] 2 Unit 5: Stories and Poems from Other Cultures: Mosquito. © London Borough of Barking and Dagenham." So, my Mosquito is being celebrated somewhere in the world! Give thanks! BTW, what did they do to Shakespeare in Jamaica? 1Love

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Remember when many learned men were saying that Shakespeare was irrelevant to modern Jamaica.. the whole argument about the canon when the baby, the bathwater, the bath, the cook and the candlestick maker were all part of the colonialist plot against black people.

The candlestick maker, I agree, was part of the plot, but Shakespeare?

clarabella said...

The candlestick maker was part of the plot? How I never hear dat? Please, please, tell me di tory!

FSJL said...

What plot is the candlestick maker part of? Dem never use candle inna Jamdown?

An expert on Cicero, whose dates in his introduction to the Cireronian text were in the Roman calendar, I was delighted to learn earlier this year, was not only headmaster of the Potsdam School (Munro College) but was paid by having the right to graze his cattle on the school pastureland. Are the classics part of our literature or not? Recent events have had me citing Aesop's fable about King Log and King Stork -- and discovering that no one I know is familiar with the story, or its moral. That worries me a lot.

To the point: Back when I was an undergraduate, Nicolás Guillén visited the Mona Campus and addressed the assembled students of Spanish. He told us that one of the first things that the Cuban Revolutionary government did when it took power in 1959 was print up an edition of Don Quijote. I laughed. He fixed me with a glare and said 'Young man, it is no laughing matter. It is an important part of our culture.' I've cherished those words ever since.

Shakespeare is an important part of ourculture. We tend to forget that for all that we're not Europeans, we're also not Africans. Our culture is a Creole culture. Even though the African part of the culture was forced to take a back seat for too long, the European part still deserves respect and still deserves to be cherished. Besides which, I missed the bit about William Shakespeare owning slaves in Jamaica.

clarabella said...

FSJL: Your expert was in the wrong calendar, was he not? And as for fables, in a proper world, all our children would know all our stories, Chinese and aboriginal, Lemba and Twi, Jewish and Japanese, Greek and Georgian. The Cubans were right about Quixote as we have been wrong about Shakespeare, if we have indeed thrown him out. But we are a very wounded people. Still, I'm not sure why we invest so much in being wounded, the intellectuals among us, and not enough in celebration, for we have triumphed in so much. The crime rate in Jamaica, I understand, went down over the period of the Olympics. Somebody should take that information and run with it. I remember Shakespeare at Paul Methuen's Garden Theatre on Hope Road, I remember playing Goneril in a Noel Vaz production of King Lear with Reggie Carter as Lear, Judy Willoughby as Cordelia, Shiela Carter as Regan and Louis James as the Fool. I know the mechanicals' scenes in the Bard's plays slide into the Creole with amazing ease, and parts of Thackeray's ROSE AND RING read as if they were written in Jamaican Talk. But we are not detached enough to see straight, and emotion has never been a good basis from which to design policy. Kudos to Barack for understanding that!

FSJL said...

His dates were in the right calendar for Cicero. It was just a little disconcerting to see Cicero living in the 700s. Amusing to read a little later that Mr Pearman MA received part of his compensation as Headmaster of the Potsdam School in the right to graze cattle (btw, you can find the 1906 Handbook of Jamaica online through Google Books, it makes fascinating reading; no Ledgisters in it, but I did come across a Mordecai).

Goneril, eh? I had better say nothing about the casting.

The idea that Shakespeare isn't part of our culture, that we have no part in the larger culture of the English language is, frankly, insane. In particular, since one of the most powerful metaphors about the Caribbean condition, that of Caliban, is drawn from Shakespeare. To be fair, it was initially drawn by a white Cuban, Roberto Fernández Retamar, and in imitation of José Enrique Rodó's earlier use of the metaphor of Ariel to describe Latin America versus the United States. But it's a metaphor that's been used effectively in a number of ways by Caribbean people. And Caliban does have the best lines in The Tempest.

I keep being astonished by the blindness of people who ought to know better, the historian Verene Shepherd, for example, who reduces all master-slave sexual relations to rape. That has to have been far from the case, no matter how deluded massa was about the affections of Quasheba.

clarabella said...

FSJL: I did get the bit about grazing cattle as part of the remuneration! I have been reading a little about calendars, and the changes they have wrought, and that have been wrought upon them as systems for counting the days and years. Fascinating stuff. I think that long-ago casting of Lear may have had to do with many things, including the fact that I had just come back to JA, while Noel had more experience of the Thespian stuff of which Judy and Sheila were made. Disavowing Shakespeare is of course just silly. I'm prefering to hold my piece (sic) for a bit where UWI intellectuals are concerned, but I am hard put to believe that, Professor of History as Verene Shepherd is, she reduces all master-slave sexual relations to rape. I know there's evidence to the contrary. I've edited and published some of it.