Margot Van Sluytman: Why did you choose these particular essays and writers? Also: what was the view or sense you were trying to convey with this work?
Frank Birbalsingh: The authors and texts in Guyana and the Caribbean convey a sense of variety and multiplicity in so far as the whole Caribbean is concerned --the islands in the Caribbean sea, as well as territories on the American Main that border the sea.
Altogether these countries share a rich combination of ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity produced by a common history that brought Africans as slaves, Indians (from India), Chinese, and Portuguese as indentured labourers to work on Caribbean plantations. European plantation owners and Middle Eastern traders also added to the mix.
As you know, some Caribbean countries are Anglophone and others are Francophone; yet others are Spanish-speaking or Dutch-speaking. This is the result of Caribbean plantation colonies being maintained by several European nations --Britain, France, Spain and Holland-- during four centuries, until colonial rule ended around the 1960s. The book deals only with former British colonies, that is to say, English-speaking Caribbean nations. The principal theme in the book is a tension between the ethnic and cultural variety of these nations and their need for collective identity and closer cooperation. The main English-speaking nations formed a political federation in 1958, but it disintegrated in 1962. In 1967, a Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) was established. In 1973, it was transformed into the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). This is an organization that promotes economic integration, a Common foreign policy, and shared services.
MVS: What does an essential encounter with contemporary Caribbean literature mean to an individual from Guyana or the Caribbean and to a non-Guyanese or a non-Caribbean?
FB: I believe that Caribbean literature holds up a mirror in which Caribbean readers can see a true reflection of themselves. Since the reflection is shaped by the inspiration and insight of gifted writers, it is likely to be accurate. The self-knowledge gained in this way should increase, not only the self-awareness of individual West Indians, but awareness of a shared, collective, Caribbean or West Indian identity. In the same way, Caribbean literature projects a more reliable image of the region to Canadian or other non-Caribbean readers who might be surprised by the difference between the image of the Caribbean found in Guyana and the Caribbean, and what they see in tourist brochures or magazines.
MVS: How does Guyana, considered part of the Caribbean, but sitting on the continent of South America, express its affinity with the rich, vibrant, and at times violent intensity of the islands? Also: How is its literature and poetry the same and different?
FB: One of the chief aims of the book is to probe the ambivalent relationship of Guyana, as a mainland territory, to the islands of the Caribbean. This relationship has significance for Caribbean unity or identity in general, since Guyana is by far the largest Caribbean territory (in size, not population).
Also, Guyana has the largest number of people descended from indentured Indians. The similarities and differences between Guyana and other Caribbean territories pose a fascinating conundrum. Similarities include a shared, British colonial history, and a broadly similar language and culture.
Yet, while Indians account for more than 50 percent of the population of Guyana, they form less than one percent of the population of Barbados. There is a similar ethnic imbalance between Guyana and most other Caribbean islands except Trinidad. In his interview in my book, Martin Carter, Guyana's finest poet, explicitly states that Guyana is more South American than Caribbean. And there is at least a hint that Carter's poetry is devalued because of its Guyanese subject matter. Certainly, poets like Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite who come from the islands of St. Lucia and Barbados, respectively, are much better known. By raising these and other issues, Guyana and the Caribbean reflects and celebrates the variety and multiplicity of the Caribbean.
MVS: Explain your view on how a Third World country can produce such first class literature? What does this say, for example, about the Guyanese people? About their education system? Also: what does it say about the similarities and differences of human interaction --and their perceptions and reactions to their experience of their culture?
FB: It is astonishing that nations that are so small and impoverished should have produced such distinguished writers, two of whom, Sir Vidia Naipaul and Derek Walcott, have won the Nobel Prize for literature. By comparison, Canada which has five times the population of the Anglophone Caribbean, and distinctly superior resources of wealth and technology, has not yet produced a Nobel Laureate in literature. This suggests, I suppose, that there is no strict correlation between artistic production and social conditions. It also suggests a continuing debate on the relationship between art and society. The reviews, essays, and interviews in my book should contribute to the debate. Perhaps the mixed, polyglot culture of the Caribbean or West Indies is an artistic advantage. It certainly seems that the pungency of Caribbean or Creole English is an asset to literary creativity.
MVS: What role (if any) should a First World country like Canada play in breaking the iron-clad grip of economic devastation that makes it difficult for Guyana and the Caribbean to participate more fully in the world of publishing? If any sort of support or aid is given, might it affect or influence the content of the literature?
FB: Canada has always had a close and cooperative relationship with the Anglophone Caribbean. For example: through the historic trade in salted cod with Eastern Canada, and the work of Canadian Presbyterian missionaries, especially in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. In my book, the Guyanese novelist Roy Heath discusses implications of the shortage of publishing houses in the Caribbean. You put your finger on the main implication of Caribbean publishing being financed from outside: the fear of strings being attached. Casa de las Americas is a rare example of a local publishing company in the Caribbean. But it is owned and operated by the Cuban government. Local publishing is desirable, but difficult in countries whose population is too small to buy books, in sufficient numbers, to make publishing commercially viable.