After my unintended gatecrashing of a class with Derek Walcott earlier in the day, this was an event I was actually allowed to attend. It was an interview with two major Caribbean writers, Austin Clarke and Earl Lovelace, followed by readings from their latest work.
First up was Austin Clarke, a Barbadian novelist and short-story writer who has lived for most of his life in Canada. He named George Lamming’s Pleasures of Exile as his favourite Barbadian book, and the short story collection There are no Elders as his favourite of his own books. He said Lionel Hutchinson was the most underrated Barbadian writer.
I was interested to hear that Clarke never wanted to be a writer. His ambition was to go to Canada, study law and economics, and come back to Barbados to run the country. At another point he said his ambition was to be a lawyer, because in his day the men with the most style were all lawyers. Unfortunately the interviewer didn’t follow up and ask how and why he changed his mind and ended up being a writer.
He also said that if he’d stayed in Barbados, he’d probably have been a teacher, not a writer. Almost all of the well-known writers of that generation went abroad, to England, Canada or the USA – some for a few years or a decade, others permanently. Barbados is a tiny island, and there simply isn’t a big enough book-buying public here to support writers. This is something George Lamming also talked about when I went to a talk he gave here a couple of years ago:
Lamming ended by talking about the difficulty of forming a national literature in such a small country (about 270,000 population, of which the book-reading population is much smaller). He asked the question, “Can you have a national literature if you don’t have a book-reading class?” The sovereignty of a literature depends, he said, on books belonging to the whole people, being talked about by people, and the implication he left us with was that this is not happening in Barbados.
It’s sad, to me, and made me wonder if more could be done to link the literature of the different islands together. The book-reading population may be small in Barbados, and in St Lucia, and in Dominica, but across the whole Caribbean you have 40 million people, which is surely big enough. Yes, language is an issue, but even in the English-speaking Caribbean alone there are 5 million. Anyway, I know it’s not easy, and that these are small islands with limited resources, so much of the focus has to be on economic development. But it’s sad to hear a writer say he had to go somewhere else in order to be a writer.
Clarke said there was only one book in his household growing up, the Bible, but his father was away a lot and his mother used to invite other women over and they told stories to each other, mostly horror stories. So his early influence came not from books but from oral story-telling, which I thought was interesting. I’ve always thought of reading as essential for any writer, but it shows there are other ways (although Clarke is also a well-educated man and would have read a lot later in life).
He then read from his work-in-progress memoir, but to be honest I found it quite difficult to follow. He’d left his reading glasses in Toronto and had to borrow a pair, and he was clearly struggling to read. I empathised with him, knowing how difficult it is to give a reading, so I’ll reserve judgement on the memoir until it comes out. I think it’s going to be called Membring, from the shortened form of “remembering” in Barbadian spoken language. For now I bought a copy of Amongst Thistles and Thorns, which I got him to sign, and am looking forward to reading.
One thing I found disappointing was the lack of any opportunity for audience participation. I’m not a big question-asker myself, but I do like the way it breaks things up and introduces other perspectives: some wacky, some long-winded, but some interesting.
Another observation: so many of the big-name Caribbean writers are very old now. Clarke is 77, Lovelace 76, and Walcott 82. Others like George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul and Kamau Brathwaite are of a similar age. Who are the younger writers? I’m sure there are some very good ones, but they don’t seem to have such a high profile. Maybe I’ll find out more as the Bim Literary Festival continues…
For a roundup of other posts in my series on Bim Literary Festival 2012, click here.