Sunday, September 6, 2009

Writing Out of the Culture…

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.

18 comments:

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

Pam, I had intended this joke for a later post on a similar topic, but here goes:

An elderly Jamaican man lay dying in his bed. While suffering the agonies of impending death, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite Jamaican pastry, 'Gizzada' wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength, and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning against the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and with even greater effort, gripping the railing with both hands, he crawled downstairs. With labored breath, he leaned against the doorframe, gazing into the kitchen.

Were it not for death's agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven, for there, spread out upon waxed paper on the kitchen table were literally dozens of Gizzadas.

Was it heaven? Or was it one final act of heroic love from his devoted wife of sixty years, seeing to it that he left this world a happy man? Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself towards the table, landing on his knees in a rumpled posture. His parched lips parted, the wondrous taste of the Gizzada was already in his mouth, seemingly bringing him back to life.

The aged and withered hand trembled on its way to a Gizzada at the edge of the table, when it was suddenly smacked with a 'dutch-pot' by his wife......

'Move yu back-side!' she said, 'Dem ya a fe you nine-nite!

There is something quintessentially Jamaican in this joke--tragi-comedy, that Walcott says must be earned. It runs through our culture. We recognize the hard blows of life, yet affirm our dignity through humor. That may be a starting point.

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff: Howdy. Welcome back. Thanks for stopping by and for this very hard (he probably WAS going to die, and so she probably DID need the gizzadas, every last one) and at the same time hilarious tale. Yes. I agree that the ability to 'take serious ting make joke' is very much in the culture. So we can use that as one element, one variable, whatever the right term might be, in the matrix we develop, I would weight this one very heavily. 1luv pam

FSJL said...

I've come across that joke before, Geoff, except the widow-to-be was Irish.

FSJL said...

You sure you mean "their mighty pens," Pam?

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

Somewhere there is a paper to we written on Irish and Caribbean literature...

clarabella said...

Hi FSJL: How are you? Hope fine... The widow was Irish, you say? Had she made gizzadas for the wake, nonetheless? Tell you why I ask. Here I was a while back, looking up coconut cake on the internet, hunting for it with that proprietary feeling one has about our "little Jamaican dainties," as Olive Senior calls them in her hilarious story, "Do Angels Wear Brassieres?" only to discover countless English recipes for exactly the same thing! Thus am I curious as to the identity of the favourite pastry of the Irish deceased...

clarabella said...

FSJL: I do mean 'their mighty pens' – gloss that any way you want... I very much admire Latin American writers, men and women. But if one refers to the great ones, it's not Allende that's meant or that comes to mind, is it?

FSJL said...

Pam, in the Irish joke, it's generally a cake that the wife has baked. Not a coconut tart.

As to "pens" I had thought that a euphemism for a similar-looking, and only slightly longer, word.

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff: Well, there's Michael Malouf's Transatlantic Solidarities: Irish Nationalism and Caribbean Poetics and Maria McGarrity's Washed by the Gulf Stream: The Historic and Geographic Relation of Irish and Caribbean Literature. I've read neither, but the two literatures being so large and rambunctious, it probably needs lots and lots of papers AND books to deal with the subject. 1luv

clarabella said...

FSJL: I thought the Irish lady might have baked a cake. Thanks for letting me know. And yes, the mighty pens did indeed have that significance...

FSJL said...

Ireland and the Caribbean are both sites of really long colonialisms, and both cultures that have been seriously westernised without being entirely in the Western mainstream. It's not entirely an accident that if you read an early manual (say from the 1920s) of the Jamaica Constabulary Force) you find that it is patterned on the Royal Irish Constabulary. Nor is it an accident that there is a plethora of Irish surnames in the Caribbean.

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

Pam, give thanks. I hadn't heard of Michael Malouf's Transatlantic Solidarities: Irish Nationalism and Caribbean Poetics and Maria McGarrity's Washed by the Gulf Stream: The Historic and Geographic Relation of Irish and Caribbean Literature.

These are the things our critics should be xploring instead of talking about conflations, Derrida and Foucault...

Peace,
Geoffrey

FSJL said...

In this tercentenary year, we might also want to go back and look at Dr Johnson. He, after all, employed a free Jamaican manservant. Toasted "the next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies." Wrote a novel set in Ethiopia, entitled Rasselas (Ras Selassie, no less!), and tek serious t'ing mek joke in his dictionary (in his definition of oats, for example). Makes one wonder if he were really Jamaican.

Nalo said...

Food for thought. Give thanks for nourishment of the brain.

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff: I'm with you on Derrida and Foucault, both worthy gentlemen, but what dem haffi do wit Caribbean pikni learning to rejoice in literature and to write their own songs and stories? We have our priorities wrong, I think. I me-self have a sequence of sonnets in witch hi mek me owna likl quarrel wit Missa Said - 'the said man' is how he appears in the sonnet. There's a book, Caribbean-Scottish Relations: Colonial & Contemporary Inscriptions in History, Language & Literature by Giovanna Covi, Joan Anim-Addo, Velma Pollard and Carla Sassi, that perhaps BEGINS the work in this direction as far as Scottish-Caribbean relations go. Seems like a step in the right direction. 1luv pam

clarabella said...

FSJL: Much thanks for this. As Nalo says, great food for thought! (What did de good Dr. Gentlemen have to say about oats, by the way?) It's amazing, isn't it, that despite the memes in the culture of his time, Johnson could have had the breadth of interests and understanding that he did. Again, give tanks! Why are we not studying these things in the Caribbean? If we are, please, somebody, let it be widely known...

FSJL said...

Johnson defined oats as a grain that in England nourished horses but in Scotland nourished the people. He was a bit more arch in his definitions of "Whig" and "Tory", defining "Tory", if I recall, as the party which stood for England's greatness and supported the king, and "Whig" as "the name of a faction."

clarabella said...

FSJL: Thanks much. Would be interesting to hear Johnson's views on contemporary matters, as for example, on Obama and the Health Plan, Obama and the address to high school kids, Obama and Afghanistan, Obama and regulation on Wall Street etc., etc.