Caribbean literature, especially in the form of novel writing, really took off in the post independence period, mainly because people like Edgar Mittelholzer had blazed the train for Caribbean writers. The 1960’s and beyond saw the emergence a galaxy of talented writers such as Samuel Selvon, E.R. Braithwaite, Jan Carew, Michael Anthony, C.L.R. James, V.S. Reid, Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul. Caribbean writing matured to the point where the Nobel Prize was awarded to V.S. Naipaul for literature. Derek Walcott also won the Nobel Prize. But Martin Carter who by any measure was one of the most outstanding poets of the region was never accorded such an honour.
There is probably no more apt encapsulation of the Caribbean writer’s engagement with the Caribbean than those lines from Derek Walcott’s poem – ‘Islands’.
“But islands can only exist
If we have loved in them. I seek,
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water…”
From the publication of CLR James, Minty Alley in 1936, Caribbean writing has slowly been coalescing an identity around itself.
Of course, this did not necessarily mean that a definable Caribbean started with James. Preceding Minty Alley was the work of Egbert Martin, the poet in the then British Guiana who wrote up until his untimely death at the age of 19 at the turn of the century, and subsequent to that was the work of Jamaican Thomas McDermot in the early 1900s.
Claude McKay’s early work set in Jamaica, prior to his migration and his enrichment of the African-American literary movement that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, was an example of work that also preceded James’.
What Minty Alley did however, was to effectively signal what would be a sort of Caribbean Renaissance, the emergence of the work of the writers from the British ‘possessions’ in the region. The literature of the immigrant West Indian writer – which would effectively find its communal definition in that exile – had started.
Building upon pioneers like James and the Guyanese, Edgar Mittelholzer, the wave of West Indian writers that would flood London in the years after the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Port Tilbury on the Thames.
As the decades progressed however, the post-colonial era brought to the fore a parallel manifestation of Caribbean literary expression, the believers – expressed or simply enacted – in hic jacet. In Walcott’s thusly titled poem, the poet stays and writes from within the region…
“For something rooted, unwritten
That gave us its benediction, it’s particular pain.
That may move its clouds from that mountain
That is packing its bag on that fiction of our greatness…”
The sociopolitical milieu was however, never one that was ideally conducive to literary expression within the colonies of the British West Indies. Even as Walcott was growing into his considerable talents as a poet, Martin Carter was at the frontlines of the struggle for Independence in British Guiana. From the journalistic immediacy of his ‘Black Friday 1962’,
“…I was with them all
when the sun and streets exploded,
and a city of clerks
turned a city of men!”
…to the contemplative and intimate, ‘After One Year’
After today, how shall I speak with you?
I know this city much as well as you do,
the ways leading to brothels and those dooms
dwelling in them, as in our lives they dwell…
The latter which ends with the exhortation to “So jail me quickly, clang the illiterate door/if freedom writes no happier alphabet.” For Carter, the freedom of independence indeed spelt “no happier alphabet”, and he resigned from his post as Minister of Information in the Burnham government in 1970.
Carter and Walcott remained in the minority – first-rate writers who stayed and worked in the region, and even Walcott would eventually wind up migrating, although constantly traveling between St. Lucia and the United States.
Today, however, there has been a shifting of the geographic Caribbean space (and hence socio-cultural implications) to the centre of Caribbean literature. From the Trinidad based Bocas Award, to the Guyana Prizes for Literature, to the Ansa McCal Award in Arts, the crucial aspect of indigenous recognition of our literary talent is on the rise.
While certain prerequisites remain challenges – prime among which is the issue of a viable publication industry – the region’s literature seems to have, at long last, been doing what it probably needed to do for a long while: coming home.