It’s Martin’s proposition. Some Caribbean and Latin American authors write 'out of the culture.' So yesterday we spend a chunk of driving time (between South Hadley, MA and Toronto) batting this around. He clarifies: what he means is that they write from within the culture. ‘How can a reader recognize that kind of writing,’ I ask him. ‘What are its features? Does it perhaps have to do with language? Do those writers prefer vernacular languages? Is the extent to which they use those languages indicative of how deep into the culture they are, how far down they are dipping for the story?’
We agree that language would certainly be a marker. In colonized countries or countries where there has been an imperial presence, even if there’s been no formal ownership, the writer would privilege the vernacular, not the imperial 'standard' code. The local dialect would occur in dialogue as well as in the narrative, the reportage. We mention Samuel Selvon – someone who quintessentially wrote from inside Trini culture. In addition to language, the characters, the humour, the bad behave, the liming, mamaguying, masquerading, mauvais langue are all from this Caribbean root.
So we know the story must also have history, characters and mores, ways of ‘carrying on’ that are recognizably indigenous. Earl Lovelace is the first Caribbean author he names as an example. Right away I think that it’s not only writing from within the culture that he’s noticing. I don’t tell him yet, but I know that’s not all there is to it.
I talk about fable-like qualities in story, a particular style of narrative, one different from the customary ways, so that if, say, Anansi stories are the original Jamaican way of telling tales, the writer departs from them but still devises a mode that’s recognizably local. I know this native-but-something-more-than is what occasioned the mention of Earl at the start; I’m more sure when he mentions Gisele Pineau. I suspect this is in fact going beyond the cultural root to an artistic signature, something more mannered, author-pinned, though I'm just now saying so.
We talk about the ‘tale of the telling’ and the ‘telling of the tale’. If any one knows the source of these terms, I’d be glad to hear it. I’ve forgotten and haven’t succeeded in finding them on the Internet so far. We agree that there may be something about how the tale is told that can also mark its birth inside the culture, even when the approach to storytelling is innovative. So we’re not just talking language now: this is something else, of which language is a part, but isn’t it itself.
I think there is room for debate here, as to where the author starts observably, in a calling-attention way, to mould the matter from the cultural mud.
I tell him that some of the great Latin American male writers irritate me on this score. I feel rebellious, I suppose, because the manner of the narrative is so often macho, and, never mind they woo so well, I fight to resist their mighty pens. 'Get away from me!' I say. 'Go stick them into someone else… Invade some other mind; capture some other imagination.’
That makes him laugh.
We don’t really finish the conversation.
Certainly there are many writers, men and women, that fit the ‘culture-based’ bill, some more than others, but the women that come to my mind first, as I come back now to the subject, are Erna Brodber, Olive Senior and Nalo Hopkinson. Nalo is of course a special case and does something remarkable as she spins new, fantastic language complexes and cultural forms out of the regional warp and woof. Brodber and Senior pull from their deep down acquaintance with rural Jamaica – its city life as well. What we probably need to do is study Caribbean works under this lens, maybe devise a matrix that will help us talk with greater specificity about the manifestation of the cultural wellspring in literary works.
Any and all thoughts are most welcome. It’s just a little start on a big, intractable subject.