THE ARTS JOURNAL Vol 2 No 2
Over Seas: a transnational Caribbean
The ‘national’ in the Caribbean has always been transformatory. From the Haitian revolution, to the terminated West Indian Federation, to Carifesta, the national, the regional and the global have come together in the Caribbean in divisive, unifying and celebratory ways. This issue of The Arts Journal explores Caribbean cultural identity through creative writing, memoir, and criticism. The contributors address publishing, film, fine art, fiction, photography, poetry and radio. Only one contributor explicitly names ‘transnationalism’ (Leon Wainwright), yet all the pieces gathered here consider, in the words of Nicholas Laughlin, ‘What “Caribbean” Can Mean’. This issue shares Laughlin’s wish to explore ‘the charge of possibility’ held in the word ‘Caribbean’, as well as George Simon’s concern to reveal what there is ‘besides’ the Caribbean in the Caribbean: ‘Besides, like most Amerindians, I had not ever considered myself as a “Caribbean” person’.
As an English academic based at a Scottish university, my editorial interests betray the biases of my location – many of the contributors (with the exception of George Simon, Jane Bryce and Nicholas Laughlin) are based outside the Caribbean region; some were born or grew up in the Caribbean (Wilson Harris, Vahni Capildeo, Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen); and some have long-standing interests in the arts of the Caribbean (Anne Walmsley, Leon Wainwright, Sandra Courtman and myself).
In this issue the contributors return to the essential topic of how journeys contribute to Caribbean identity. This need not be physical travelling. Wilson Harris (returning to a Guyanese publication after a twenty-year absence) wants us ‘to approach a broken-ness in humanity of which we are perhaps dimly aware’. In the extract given here from his new novel, The Ghost of Memory (to be published by Faber in November 2006), the ‘Wanderer’ provokes the narrator to see that ‘Art speaks through us – through our appearances as painted flesh or fleshly paint – of the immense journey of life’. Mungo, in David Dabydeen’s short story, ‘The Painterboy of Demerara’, also dreams of seeing ‘with eyes of painted light’ (Harris). Dabydeen locates us in the studio of the ‘Official Artist of the Colony of Demerara and Contiguous Territories’ where Mungo paints the ‘animals and whitefolk foot as well as what Massa call still-life, that is table and chair and fruit- bowl and hurricane lamp’. Like Harris, Dabydeen and Fred D’Aguiar see imagination and creativity as precariously redemptive: Mungo paints to ‘make England shine’ and become ‘Painterman’; Corinne, in D’Aguiar’s novel, Naming the Dead, has survived Jonestown, but dreams to return to her role as gardener: ‘Touched a seed, tucked it in shallow, muddy ground and it sprouted’. All three writers search for ‘a profound practice that might really alter the frame of human behaviour’ (D’Aguiar). In a small way I hope this issue will be part of that practice; its aim to publish, in an accessible Guyanese publication, three of Guyana’s most prominent creative writers, alongside memoirs and critical articles about the Caribbean, is an example of the productive transnationalism that writers, artists, publishers, academics and readers can achieve today.
Vahni Capildeo’s and George Simon’s ‘memoirs’ explicitly tackle their border crossings ‘over seas’. Capildeo suggests in an introduction to the extract from her non-fiction book, One Scattered Skeleton, ‘that a straightforward story of growing up, or exile and re-evaluation, might not really correspond to the complexity of identity, remembering, and migration’. Migration dominates this extract: as the fictionalised ‘I’ fills in time before the birth of Ratna’s baby – the first border crossing – Leila argues, ‘This is not a hurricane. It is not that we are waiting, and that we will hear “it passed to the north of us”’. The narrator disagrees, wanting instead to batten down the hatches in Jamaica, and encourage us to pass through Trinidad and England, childhood, adulthood and motherhood in ‘the white house of waiting’. George Simon’s memoir takes as its central motif a story told to him by his mother about the Milky Way. Here we read that Simon could not be the artist he is today without, in the words of D’Aguiar, gaining from ‘Guyana’s necessarily porous borders and the interdependence of territories’. Moving from Pakuri, to McKenzie, Georgetown, London, Wickford, Portsmouth, back to Georgetown, to N’Djamena, Lyon, Canada, Kaliko and back again to Guyana, Simon (like the young man who would be a Shaman), has proved himself during the ‘sub-journeys of the master journey’. He narrates a life of departures and return that help him to understand ‘the synchronicities in spiritual practices and imagery’ that stimulate his work.
Anne Walmsley, Nicholas Laughlin and Jane Bryce reflect on their roles in the cultural practices of book publishing, magazine publishing and cinema in, about and for the Caribbean. Walmsley’s notes on a career in publishing form an essential part of a history of the Caribbean book, a border-crossing history that is only beginning to be written in Caribbean Studies. Laughlin encourages us to join him in his daily confrontation of ‘Caribbeanness’, as he edits Caribbean Beat. With ‘distribution via BWIA seatpockets’, print runs of seventy thousand copies per issue, a diverse readership of transmarine travellers, and an ambitious cultural remit, Laughlin convinces us that Caribbean Beat is a dynamic part of ‘Caribbeing’. Bryce’s article argues for ‘projecting the Caribbean’ within world cinema. As co-director of the Barbados Festival of African and Caribbean Film, she values the challenge of representation posed by film, provocatively claiming ‘a space for African cinema in the Caribbean, where so many people are still so ignorant about Africa, so resistant to the idea of its modernity, desiring only the unchanging ahistorical Africa of a dream of origin’.
Articles by Leon Wainwright, Sandra Courtman and me provide complementary cross-cultural studies of Caribbean art, photography, literature and radio. Wainwright’s detailed analysis of the late Guyanese artist, Aubrey Williams, interrogates the reception of his work in Britain and Guyana. Taking Revolt (a painting gifted to the Guyanese people) as a key work, Wainwright reveals the ‘entwined’ art history necessary to understand Williams’s work: ‘Made in Britain, [Revolt] travelled to Guyana, as Williams himself often did, to share a field of effects’. ‘Field of effects’ neutrally describes the often fraught consequences of the transnational crossing of seas that influences Caribbean identity. Division is just one of these consequences and can be construed positively and negatively. Bryce argues for a ‘split screen’ Caribbean – ‘which perpetually holds more than one thing in view’ – and Courtman explores how the ‘split self’ of emigration is revealed in Birmingham’s photographic collections. Concentrating on studio work in Birmingham, Courtman narrates a story of the hard-won democratisation of the portraiture of Caribbean people, and of Birmingham’s 1970s ‘self-aware generation of black Britons’. My article returns us to less certain times for Caribbean writers and to the 1950s poetry and radio broadcasts of Wilson Harris and his contemporaries. I argue that radio (in the words of George Lamming) provoked a ‘carnival of disputatious argument’, and sketch out how Guyanese writers and radio programmes helped to voice a ‘new world of the Caribbean’ within an emerging transatlantic public of listeners, readers and spectators.
Finally, I would like to thank Ameena Gafoor and the Editorial Board of The Arts Journal for their invaluable advice and generous help in bringing this issue to Press.