Thursday, September 10, 2009

Anancyism... and sluggish systems

Thanks to Geoffrey Philp for a great story in response to the last post, as well as the observation that: "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."

I agree that 'taking serious tings make joke' is characteristic of our culture and should certainly (in some degree) be part of the stories that come out of it. Anancyism, as articulated and operated by our folk hero, Anancy, the original Spider Man, is perhaps another marker.

That brings me to a question. I'd like to know what folks understand the term "Anancyism" to mean. I've encountered some definitions that disagree (I'll come back to them in due course) and I know how I've always understood the term. Because there's lack of consensus, I'd be glad for wider feedback.

So to another, and quite different matter. There are some who say that one of the signs of impending apocalypse is the collapse of world communication systems. Seems that in some parts of the world, broadband, touted as the solution to 'super-fast' delivery of data, is failing to live up to its big promise. According to today's BBC World News:

"... in South Africa it seems the web is still no faster than a humble pigeon.

A Durban IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest web firm, Telkom.

Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles - in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.

Telkom said it was not responsible for the firm's slow internet speeds."

Not entirely sure why Winston should be characterized as 'humble'... Seems the epithet in this case might better apply to the web firm's lackadaisical service; certainly it would not be inappropriate for the firm's attitude, in the face of its poor performance. (Vain hope!) But it's worth bearing in mind that old ways are worth preserving. After all, birds flew before planes and messages crossed distances before there were fibre-optic cables. Selah.

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.