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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Revealing an interesting landscape

Arts On Sunday

(The Arts Journal, Vol 2, No 1, September 2005, special issue, Guest Editor Victor J Ramraj (General Editor Ameena Gafoor). 114 p)

It is never an easy exercise to attempt a statement that will cover the current landscape of what may be called 'writers with Caribbean attachments' or 'West Indian authors residing in Canada and the UK.' One usually gets few thanks for the effort. It is also sometimes true that few are deserved. What is without doubt is the outstanding achievement of this writing that has claimed a prominent place, not only in Canada and the UK, but in the literary world. Opinions are less settled about whether the 1950s and 1960s were 'the golden age of Caribbean literature'; whether the writers should be identified by such awkward hyphenations as 'Afri- can- Caribbean/British'; or whether Naipaul sees himself as a 'British and Indian writer.' Such garments must sit fairly uncomfortably upon them and it might be a better idea to hedge towards the Marxist line of looking into the unconscious sub-text of 'literary production' to identify them.

Literary critic Victor J Ramraj may be remembered for a public lecture in Guyana some years ago in which he joined the camp of those inclined to 'dis' critical theory. He may twist his ankle a little bit while walking that perilous path to general theories about that body of writing or 'school' of writers, but he is too astute an analyst to fall into its trenches. He knows where the potholes are and how to avoid them. That is why in editing the latest issue of The Arts Journal, a special volume on "recent writing by West Indian authors" in Canada and the UK, he avoided trying to "produce an issue that would give a comprehensive understanding." Instead, he tried "to give readers of The Arts Journal an idea of the current research interests of upcoming and established scholars in Canada and the UK, whose articles and reviews would go some way to indicate what our writers with Caribbean attachments are producing and achieving."

And Ramraj is very well placed to assemble such a collection. He has been the editor of Ariel, a most respected literary journal, and Professor of Literature at the University of Calgary in Canada. Most recently he was Chairman of the jury for the Guyana Prize 2004, following on his service as a judge in the Commonwealth Literary Prize. He was invited by the founder and general editor of The Arts Journal, Ameena Gafoor, to be a guest editor for the September 2005 issue, Volume 2 Number 1, devoted to that area of West Indian writing developed in the diaspora.

Ramraj's choice of a sensible path through that troublous terrain, however, did not totally protect him from some minor questionable controversy. For example, the Naipaul issue never grows stale or goes away. Ramraj writes that Naipaul in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech saw himself as a British and Indian writer; but his amnesia concerning his Trinidadian origins does not negate this essential aspect of his ancestry that continuously informs his writing.

Victor Remraj

Since so many noble critics are prepared to enlist in the several legions in besiege of Naipaul, it is almost a pleasure to defend him. It is also a bit surprising, if not ironic, that a researcher on Naipaul as scrupulous as Ramraj is known to be, should make such a remark about the Nobel Lecture. Far from any amnesia and any claim to be British or Indian, this acceptance speech was a singular statement by the prize-winning author in praise of his Trinidadianness. In fact, in the presentation, he argued against that very amnesia that alienates and that can leave one bereft of identity. Naipaul went back to his roots in Chaguanas, Central Trinidad in order to interrogate the effects of that environment on him, linking it to his later discovery of a neglected area in the history of Trinidad, showing its immeasurable value to his development as a writer.

Issues such as these are very thoroughly engaged in a range of contributions in The Arts Journal. Questions of identity, belonging, self-consciousness, alienation, 'otherness,' migration, class, race and gender are addressed in a wide range of eight critical papers. In addition there are two "review articles" on a major book (Seecharan's Sweetening Bitter Sugar) and a major conference (on Caribbean Migrations). The journal also performs its role of keeping in touch with recent publications through its inclusion of five books reviews. It also throws in two poems by Kwame Dawes to keep us a little bit in touch, as well, with at least a sample of new work.

All the discussions amplify Ramraj's statement in this introduction about what writers are producing and the critical engagements that accompany the production. The volume is thus rich in critical material and a useful contribution to both Caribbean and post-colonial writing. It treats, both in terms of the creative writers and critics, the work of the established, the emerging and the new, connecting them to their audience.

We seem to have safely negotiated the early period when we look nervously to see whether a new journal will survive. The Arts Journal has transported us past that to be one of the coming literary journals in the region. In this special issue, if Victor Ramraj was trying to indicate what writers with Caribbean connections are doing, he has quite adequately revealed an interesting landscape.

Stabroek News

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