While I was in Barbados over Christmas and New Year, I went to a literary event – the 12th annual award ceremony for the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment, on Saturday 9 January 2010. The keynote speaker was George Lamming, probably Barbados’s best-known writer. He gave a fascinating speech on the politics of reading, which I am finally getting around to writing about!
First he made it clear what he meant by politics. In Barbados, when you say someone’s being “political” it generally seems to mean they are blindly following one of the two main parties, the Barbados Labour Party or the Democatic Labour Party. Lamming asked his audience to imagine that parties didn’t exist, and to think about politics instead as being about “social relations and negotiating the distribution of power”.
Next he turned to reading, saying “reading is like eating” and books are food. What you consume affects you, and just as eating salad or junk food affects your body, reading shapes your consciousness and the way you relate to the world. So by his definition of politics, it’s clear that “reading is a political act”.
His frame of reference for the main part of his talk was a circular sent from the British government to Barbados in 1847, when the country was a British colony, talking about the importance of the English language in “spreading civilisation”. He said that a century later, when he was at school in 1947, the circular was still very much in force – English literature was taught from Chaucer through Shakespeare, the Romantics, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens and ending with Aldous Huxley, and the purpose was still the same – to “soften the bitter pill of British imperialism, and make people believe that it was not only normal but desirable.” Although Barbados is in the Americas, the curriculum was entirely British – no American literature was read. Shakespeare, as Lamming put it, was “used as a political agent of the British Empire”.
So by 1947, not much had changed from 1847. Lamming then described the great post-colonial era of literature in the Caribbean, and framed it as a response to that 1847 circular. It was about reclaiming literature from a purely British perspective and forming a counter-dialogue that recognised other influences, from Barbados, the rest of the Americas and from Africa. There was a tendency to reach back to the oral tradition in the Caribbean, and to use the vernacular. But there was also a recognition of the divided nature of Caribbean identity, brought out in Sir Derek Walcott’s poem “A Far Cry from Africa”:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the British tongue I love?
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.
Overall it was a fascinating speech. I liked the idea of looking all the way back to 1847, to find the roots of a national literature in history and follow its progression through to independence and beyond. It would have been interesting if he had talked more about contemporary Barbados and perhaps even stretched his framework forward to 2047, to imagine a politics of reading in the future. But I suppose the past tells us a lot about the present, so maybe he wanted to lay out the ideas and let the audience imagine the future. In any case, very glad I went. Now I’m finally getting around to reading one of his novels, In the Castle of my Skin.