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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kyk-Over-Al: 50th Anniversary issue

December 1995.

For a literary magazine to survive for 50 years is no mean feat. To survive that length of time in the Anglophone Caribbean is a near-miracle.

That Kyk-Over-Al was able to celebrate its admittedly irregular 50th anniversary in 1995 is a tribute to the effort and dedication of its founder , the late A.J. Seymour. Literary magazines by their nature tend to be one-person enterprises and Seymour, who also found time to time raise five children and hold down a Civil Service job, was a man of extraordinary energy.

In an introduction to an anthology of selections from Kyk 1-28, Seymour in 1956 wrote, "The value of a magazine like Kyk lies not in its age but in its name the here and the now, to summon up the values of the past that are imbedded in its soil and its history, and to point to the future from today's discernible trends."

Reading this double-issue, it seems that Seymour's literary offspring has succeeded in at least half its task i.e. delineating the past. The issue includes some extracts from the first issue of Kyk and special contributions which describe the history of the journal, including an article by Edward Baugh on the long literary friendship between Seymour and Frank Collymore, the founder of the Caribbean's other long-standing literary periodical Bim.

Among the articles, Frank Birbalsingh has a forthright interview with the late Martin Carter and a refreshingly honest profile of Edgar Mittelholzer (refreshing because of the tendency of most Caribbean literary critics to uncritically lionize regional writers and their works.) There is also a vivid story portrait of Sam Selvon written by Andrew Salkey.

It is appropriate that there should be so much focus on the dead in this issue. West Indian literature flourished in the 1960s and that generation of writers is now passing. Exactly who the upcoming ones are Kyk gives little clue. Certainly, Pauline Melville's short story "The Grasp of the Ant-Eater" stands out as a professional and lively piece. But for that reason she embarrasses the other short story writers in this issue. Melville, whose novel The Ventriloquist's Tale was runner-up for the regional prize in the 1997 Commonwealth Literary Competition, is a natural story-teller. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other contributors whose work is stamped as that of talented or merely competent amateurs. The poetry is usual for a literary journal: adequate but not outstanding.

So the second part of Seymour's purpose - to point to the future - is a more doubtful proposition. In the same introduction cited above, Seymour writes, "The little review is valuable and important since it can print new forms of writing which are too revolutionary for the popular press to notice." But in Kyk, the articles, poetry and stories seem to have changed little in theme and form in 50 years. What used to be revolutionary is now itself conventional, and none of Kyk's contributors seems to have realized it. But it may be that this is indeed a true reflection of the Caribbean's future: slow motion or stasis. Delineating the difficulties the journal faced, Seymour wrote over 40 years ago, "...the climate of opinion among the ablest minds in the country changed imperceptibly from tolerance to internal divisions...horizons everywhere began to narrow and there was a gradual closing of mental frontiers..."

Kyk-Over-Al is not prophetic in itself, but its founder unintentionally may have been.

The next issue, Kyk-Over-Al #48, was published in April, 1998. The long spell in between almost suggests that the editors expended all their energy on the special issue; and #48 itself stregthens this impression. For one thing,

a literary journal is not an academic journal. This simple point seems to have escaped the editors and the majority of contributors to the 48th edition of Kyk-Over-Al. This is not merely a failure of intellect - it is a failure of common sense. The issue, which honours the work of Dr. Richard Allsopp, compiler of the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, mostly has articles dealing with linguistics. Nothing is wrong with this per se, but nearly all the essays are written from a technical viewpoint which would be of interest primarily to other academics instead of the intelligent layperson who, presumably, is the target audience of a literary journal.

It is not only the content of Kyk #48 which makes it a misfire. Academic writers usually write appalling prose, and those whose business it is to study the nature of language are no exceptions. The article by Hubert Devonish, for example, is titled "Ruuts Langgwu, Nyuu Taim Saph and Filinz Fo Neeshan." The paper, which is written in dialect with an accompanying English translation, was first presented at the10th Biennial Conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, and neither Devonish nor Kyk's editors apparently saw any need to change a word for publication. What we have, therefore, is an essay which is unreadable in two languages: unreadable in English because of a prose style like rigor mortis and non-explanatory use of technical terms like "diglossia", "acrolectal" and "mesolect"; and unreadable in dialect because of the linguistic phonetic spelling Devonish uses.

Devonish, of course, has a didactic purpose in adopting this format: "If people can be made to believe that only the official High language can be written, and that the native/vernacular language cannot, they may come to the view that the former is better than the latter," he writes. But since it is extremely unlikely that the dialect speakers he is so concerned about are going to read his paper, Devonish's bi-lingual essay form is nothing more than intellectual preening.

Other essays by Dennis Craig, Ian Robertson, Rupert Roopnaraine and Jeanette Allsopp are filled with lists of dialect words and their pronunciations and meanings. Dhanis Jaganauth has a whole article on "The Habitual in Afro-American." Fascinating stuff, no doubt, full of drama and human interest for linguists, but somewhat tedious for lay readers.

The intellectual pretentiousness so prevalent in this issue continues with "A Conversation" between literary critic Frank Birbalsingh and novelist Roy Heath. Birbalsingh, a clear and forceful thinker, seems at pains not to offend Heath. Perhaps the meretricious form of the article has something to do with this but Birbalsingh inadvertently manages to reveal Heath's massive intellectual confusion. Heath makes some astounding assertions in this dialogue, such as "Humans have not yet produced a way of ethnic groups living together except by slaughter and counter-slaughter." The fact that the majority of multi-ethnic societies do exist without the people killing off one another in droves seems to have escaped him.

He follows this up with an even more astonishing statement about cultural preservation: "You only have to look at the desperate situation the French are in because of their language." Desperate situation? The French? A member of the G8, hosts to World Cup 98, possessing respected artistic traditions, still a cultural and intellectual centre for the Western world? One can only assume that Heath was referring to the French from whatever parallel world he lives in.

Editor Ian McDonald's tendentious essay on the late Martin Carter sums up the tone of this issue. After asserting that Carter's death "shocked and saddened the whole nation", McDonald quotes from Wordsworth's essay What is a Poet to define Martin's "essence": ...the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society..., Well, I am not sure this was true even 150 years ago; and a lot has changed in the world since then. But what we have here is the usual academic assumption that art exists independently of society and indeed people.

Only John R. Rickford and Jeanette Allsopp know differently: "Language does not exist per se [writes Allsopp] but is shaped by history, geography, anthropology, law, politics, the natural sciences...the social sciences...superstitions...transportation, industry, the creative arts...children's games, sport, food, clothing, the household etc. The list is endless because culture is open-ended." But Allsopp falls into the error of defining the DCEU as "a unique instrument of true Caribbean integration", whereas Rickford correctly raises the core problem of crossing "the invisible boundaries which often separate universities from surrounding communities."

Literary journals can be an important instrument for accomplishing such crossing. But this issue of Kyk just maintains the gap.

Copyright ©1998, Kevin Baldeosingh

Posted by jebratt :: Thursday, February 02, 2006 :: 0 comments

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