Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is there room in Canadian literature for a Caribbean voice?

As you will know if you visit here, I’ve been thinking recently about whether there are many literatures. The differences in people’s languages, histories, contemporary experiences and worldviews, in the very fact that some people sing and recite their songs and stories while others write them down, seemed to make a strong argument for separate literatures. In the last few days, however, someone wrote me with questions that put these considerations into a precise context and I was driven beyond pondering, to try for answers. In today’s post I reproduce, with some alterations, the questions and my response.

The Questions

Where does culture specific literature fit in, in a setting such as Canada, where many attempts are made at creating a ‘Canadian’ identity that presupposes various cultures, but (for the most part) merges them together? Is the Caribbean-Canadian poet speaking with a different voice from the Caribbean poet?

The Response

If it is true that “many attempts are made at creating a ‘Canadian’ identity that presupposes various cultures, but (for the most part) merges them together,” then one must question the extent to which such attempts have been successful.

We have lived for 15 years in a neighbourhood in Toronto where, for the most part, Italian and Portuguese people have made their homes, some for close to four decades. We have neighbours who still can't speak more than a few words of English, never mind that they have lived here for so long, worked here, and raised their children here. It's true that their children learn English and many forget or never learn their parents' languages. It's true that their children learn new behaviours and so ‘acculturate’ to more or less extents. In that case, we have to ask: Are these new, adopted mores and behaviours, Canadian? Or do they derive from American TV and Hollywood movies? If they are Canadian, how would one describe this ‘Canadianness’? Maple syrup, hockey and curling?

Further, concerning a ‘Canadian’ identity: Is it English or French? And aren't both those groups of long-ago imperialist invaders merely earlier ‘immigrants’ of a nastier sort? Aren't First Nations the only people who have a true claim to a Canadian identity?

In Toronto there are clearly demarcated ‘towns’ and ‘settlements’ of Chinese, Koreans, Italians, East Indians, Portuguese, Maltese, Ethiopians, Senegalese, etc., etc. Immigrant communities, cultures and religions in many cases remain intact, even after having been here for very long periods of time. Sikh communities in Western Canada are a good example. Indeed, Canadian multicultural legislation in some respects nurtures and preserves these differences. Some languages in the former Russian satellite states, superseded by Russian in their own communities, survive in Canada.

Perhaps Canada could better be described as a mosaic society, one in which many different cultures live side my side, within their own contained sub-communities?

So many questions...

All that having been said, my task as a Jamaican born Canadian citizen who earns a living from writing is straightforward: it is to write, honestly and truly, about the things that I know best, in the languages that I know best. I lived more than half of my life in the Caribbean, emigrating when I was over 50 years old. Jamaica is my home by virtue of an extensive investment in time and experience. Jamaican Creole is one of my two first languages. It is a language of extraordinary literary power and I often choose to use it for poetry, prose fiction and for the theatre, though I write in English as well, and with equal ease, and occasionally use other languages for my purposes.

I have never ever found the fact that I write out of my Caribbean history and experience, in the languages of that region, to be a problem with any Canadian audience. Quite the contrary. I recently read DE MAN, a book-length performance poem about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ written entirely in Jamaican Creole, in a church in Calgary. It went so well they wanted to bring me back to repeat the reading on Good Friday. On each occasion that DE MAN has been read in Canada, the response has been the same – overwhelming. It’s a good poem.

So literature might well be culture-and-language specific, but it's equally human-and-earth specific. It's the same – and it's different. It is this difference-in-sameness and sameness-in-difference that empowers it. And now, something else is happening – perhaps akin to the phenomenon in music called ‘mashup’? The languages are interpenetrating (Chinglish, Spanglish) and the literature is using the linguistic admixtures, as well as traipsing across national and cultural boundaries, roping in everybody’s histories, refusing to respect traditional separations.

The business of scholars and critics and publishers is to keep up with where literature is going, and perhaps it is fair to do a little quarreling here. Is it that scholars have become less assiduous? (We’ve talked a bit about that on this blog.) Might there be a problem with the way publishers decide on the works they publish? With the people they choose to collect anthologies? (I’ve had a bit to say about this too.) Should we reconsider the basis on which the judges of literary prizes are chosen? Overhaul the criteria those judges apply in selecting prizewinners? Do something about the very fact that the literary marketplace is so prize-driven?

Now that we are faced with literatures that are crossing borders and languages and ethnicities, sometimes carrying over a particular ethnic and linguistic burden, sometimes setting the burden down before the crossing to take up a new one, or half-abandoning it, a Caribbean/Canadian writer may be doing any – or all – of these things! So might a Caribbean writer, looking north to the Canadian diaspora, or to Euro-Canada... Chances are that a Caribbean-Canadian poet might be more attracted to write about Canadian life and society and landscape and experiences, but as for a difference in voice? I’d be very careful about making hard and fast judgments about differences there. Individual circumstances would dictate particular cases. Man would jus haffe look an see!