“YOU ARE the best writer in the West Indies,” the son writes to the father, “but one can only judge writers by their work.” Six days later, on August 5, 1951, the father replies.
“Don’t mind me,” the father says.
“I am all right. I just want to see you do the thing. And I know you can do it.” The son is Vidia Naipaul, writing from Oxford, where trees were only just turning green in the summer.
The father is Seepersad Naipaul, writing from Trinidad, where the weather that day at St James allowed him to tend to orchids. Not only would Vidia exceed his father’s mandate, his brother Shiva would do so too, completing a trio the literary significance of which is, seven decades later, now being re-assessed.
Last week, scholars, writers, editors, and others convened at a special three-day conference at St Augustine. Their mission?To examine the linkages between the work of all three Naipauls. The conference was put on by the group known as the Friends of Mr Biswas, an organisation named after Vidia’s great novel, A House for Mr Biswas.
While Vidia Naipaul, 83, has achieved fame and success – even before his 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature – the literary achievements of Seepersad and Shiva, both deceased, have arguably been overlooked.
But the increasingly prevalent view in critical circles is that the work of all three are connected and each writer is a success in his own right. In fact, Diana Athill – an editor who worked with writers such as Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Jean Rhys, and Margaret Atwood – once said there has to be “some very rare and awe-inspiring gene roaming about among the Naipauls”. The result is an uncommon thing: a true literary family.
Professor Arnold Rampersad, the Trinidad-born biographer of literary figures such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, last week drew comparison between the Naipauls and other literary clans such as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë of the Yorkshire moors; Mary Shelley – author of Frankenstein – and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft; Jane Austen and her father George; Kingsley and Martin Amis; and, significantly, Henry James Snr, father of philosopher William James and the great American novelist Henry James, author of The Wings of the Dove. A more recent example, he suggested, is Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning St Lucian poet, and his daughter, Trinidadian writer Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw.
‘TO WRITE WAS TO LIVE’ Though they were scattered across the world at various stages, the work produced by the Naipaul brothers always comes home to one source: the father Seepersad.
“Each of these writers is worth reading in his own right,” said Professor Kenneth Ramchand, chairman of the Friends of Mr Biswas.
“But, obviously, they were not passing ships. They were all three heading in the same direction. Being a writer....To the three of them to write was to live.” To the audience gathered at the University of the West Indies’ Open Campus Auditorium on Wednesday night, Ramchand further observed, “The close relationship between Seepersad and Vidia in the Port-of-Spain years between 1938 and 1943 – the year when Seepersad self-published Gurudeva and other Indian Tales – were crucial in pointing Vidia to his vocation as writer.” In the letters between Seepersad and Vidia collected in Letters Between a Father and Son, both men praise, encourage and stimulate each other to pursue their ambition, as seen in the exchanges between them in 1951. But once Vidia followed his father’s advice to “do the thing”, he arguably remained tied to his father’s work as a journalist and as a fiction writer.
Professor Aaron Eastley, of Brigham Young University, argued Seepersad’s ground-breaking work as a reporter for the Guardian newspaper (1929 to 1953) influenced Vidia’s early writing such as the Miguel Street stories and the novels, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and A House for Mr Biswas. “A lot of what Seepersad wrote in the newspapers can be seen in the early novels of VS Naipaul,” Eastley said.
“His journalism was multi-cultural, that is to say Trinidadian,” Ramchand added, speaking of Seepersad. “It covered pan-making and pan-tuning, the calypso, survivors of slavery, time-expired indentures, rice-growing, remarkable persons, local politics and political intrigue, cultural and religious commonalities and differences....
He had an instinctive way of seeing the society and its cultures and he encouraged Vidia to cultivate it....
It was the patriarch who first stumbled upon the theme of the enigma of arrival.” Yet if the ghost of the father looms large over the work of the son, so too does the brother.
Ramchand argued Vidia’s work sometimes reflects his anxiety over having to be a father-figure to his younger brother Shiva.
“Is it too wild to notice that the older brother in the story ‘Tell Me Who To Kill’ is like a mother to his younger brother?” Ramchand said.
Shiva — who would write novels such as Fireflies and The Chip- Chip Gatherers before his untimely death in 1985 — sought encouragement and writing advice from Vidia Between the brothers there was the anxiety of influence,” Ramchand said. “Vidia loved Shiva and wanted him to make good. He was hard on him. It was some time before he realised that Shiva was prone to deep depression. All three writers suffered from depression and anxiety and all three had nervous breakdowns. You cannot be a Naipaul writer if you do not have a nervous breakdown.” Just as their father was a journalist, both Vidia and Shiva would turn to journalism in the guise of travel-writing in books such as Vidia’s A Turn in the South – which examined America – and Shiva’s North of South, a book on the African continent.
“Seepersad brought the techniques of the fiction writer, a wicked sense of fun, a little malice, and a focus on character and situation to his work,” Ramchand said.
“It was with Seepersad that the crossovers between fiction and journalism began.” While Vidia and Shiva would act out family impulses even after migrating to Britain, their outsider viewpoints also arguably meant they fit into a wider phenomena.
LINKS TO AMERICA For Rampersad, despite the fact that they migrated to the colonial motherland, the Naipauls have a clearer relationship with American literary tradition, a tradition best represented by Henry James.
“The Naipaul sons obviously aspired to a sort of Britishness,” Rampersad said in a keynote address at the conference on Thursday. “But I see important links between the Naipauls and the American literary tradition.
I see connections between Vidia Naipaul and American literature in the way I do not see connections between them and the British way of writing in the 20th century.” Rampersad noted Henry James’ outlook, expressed in his biography Hawthorne, was similar to the Naipaul brothers’ vantage point.
“The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion,” James writes in that book. “American civilisation has hitherto had other things to do than to produce flowers, and before giving birth to writers it has wisely occupied itself with providing something for them to write about.” Like the brothers, Henry James migrated to Europe. However, just as they could not shed themselves of their home in their work, Henry James never ceased to be an American in Europe.
Rampersad also noted key American writers, at various stages in their careers, turned to India as the Naipauls did.
These included the great poet Walt Whitman who in Leaves of Grass (which Rampersad described as “the most consequential volume of poetry ever published in America”) writes of, “the streams of the Indus and the Ganges”. Ralph Waldo Emerson did similar, in a poem entitled, “Brahma”, with the line, “I am the hymn the Brahmin sings”.
While Vidia and Shiva wrote beautiful books, Rampersad argued Seepersad’s role has not been properly appreciated.
“Seepersad’s role has not been adequately identified, praised and noticed,” Rampersad said. “All of Naipaulian literature comes out of what Seepersad wrote.” He characterised the work as having, “democractic vitality” and compassion.
“The most American of the Naipauls was Seepersad Naipaul,” Rampersad said. “He is the one imbued with the greatest, most rebellious cultural vigour, the greatest love of the common people as he explored questions of caste.” While in praise of beautiful passages in Shiva’s writing, Rampersad criticised other aspects of Shiva’s work, such as the appearance of the work “negresses” in Fireflies. Nonetheless, the biographer concluded, “It is a wonderful family, a first family of literature of Trinidad.
The Chookolingo Event - Wed. October 29th 2014 NALIS port of Spain
In attendance/Jennifer Mc Intosh
Choko was known by the statement…”A good story is a good story”
Patrick Chokolingo who was more affectionately known by fellow journalists as “Choko” was celebrated and praised on Wednesday by Friends of Mr Biswah, whose Chairman is Professor Kenneth Ramchand.
The discussion was held at NALIS Auditorium where veteran journalist Lennox Grant spoke in honour of Choko. Mr Grant said that Choko was known for the statement “A good story is a good story” and was instrumental in bringing a new brand of journalism to Trinidad and Tobago daring to write the stories that no one else would dare and giving voice to those that had none in a developing Republic.
Well known Miguel Browne was among the attendees and he remembers a story written by “Choko”, in defense of his Venezuelan mother Elita Browne, under his column entitled “Would You Believe”. Therein, he wrote a story about a housewife purchasing a defective refrigerator and not getting a refund. Miguel recalls that his mom who is now deceased received a call the very next day from ‘Grell Torrell’ and was offered a full refund. Miguel said this was the “Choko” he remembers, a person giving a voice to those who otherwise would have none.
Choko’s son Pedro Chokolingo was in attendance and was invited to speak a few words of sentiments on his father’s behalf. Pedro said that his father was loving yet strict. He remembers that he was 9 years at the time when his father was jailed for the fictional story “The Judges Wife”. Pedro remembers that morning being hugged by his father who said to him, “Son, you may not see me for a while.” Pedro is involved in the administration of the ‘TnT Mirror’, a paper which his father was associated with.
Other sentiments expressed by attendees reflected the fact that Patrick Chokolingo was known as a fearless journalist and demanded respect by the power of his pen. Many believe that Mr Chokolingo was feared in an era when journalism in Trinidad and Tobago was developing and he changed the landscape by giving life to weekly tabloids which exist even today.
It is an honour to be here today at this the Opening Day of the Launch of the Naipaul House Literary Museum.
I would like to formally applaud the work, passion, and dedication of the Friends of Mr. Biswas and the support of the National Library and Information Systems Authority.
This initiative was first embraced by my colleague the former Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration, The Honourable Clifton De Coteau who is now at home resting comfortably. Following my appointment as the new Minister, the baton was passed to me and reveling in its symbolism, cultural significance and potential for literary enhancement, I ran with it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration was created in 2012 amidst our nation’s golden jubilee of Independence as a mandate of the Honourable Prime Minister of this Nation, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, to address the growing need for a more visible demonstration of Patriotism among the citizenry greater cohesion of the diverse cultures, groups, ethnicities and religions of Trinidad and Tobago.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is evident that the moral fabric of society that once held us together as a collective and multifaceted people has been eroding. This is ever so present in our daily newspapers and televised news reports of crime and violence, child and adolescent neglect and other social ills.
Trinidad and Tobago as a society is quickly losing the bonding elements and mechanisms of national pride, love for their fellow brothers and sisters and as a result of this the younger generation is being adversely affected by these harmful and destructive elements, resulting in an increasing disregard for our heritage, culture, natural resources, the environment, the laws of the land, ethnic diversity and national monuments.
We have been granted the remit to champion diversity in every aspect of society, by forging and harnessing a greater sense of patriotism and nationalism in the minds and hearts of the nation’s citizenry. This is also the view of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, documented in the National Policy Document which reads as one of the goals, “to embrace the richness and beauty of our people’s great diversity to nurture a more humane and cohesive society. Unity in diversity will inspire the harmony which is so vital to national progress” .
Ladies and gentlemen, the recognition of the great minds of Seepersad Naipaul, his son, V.S Naipaul and other literary geniuses in the establishment of a Literary Museum at the historical Biswas House in St. James fits perfectly into our mandate…into our vision for Trinidad and Tobago.
Our celebration today is a celebration of art, talent, family, legacy, culture, heritage, memories, and the way forward.
Seepersad Naipaul who was a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian and who wrote The Adventures of Gurudeva, a collection of linked short stories – was also a mentor to his son and a provider for his family.
V.S Naipaul once wrote in a letter after his father’s death that, “What we are he has made of us”.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Naipaul House is also what he has made of it.
With Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas” centering on his father and the embodiment of Biswas himself – Seepersad Naipaul’s relish can be summarized in the words of Dr. The Honourable Bhoendradatt Tewarie, Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development and former Principal of UWI St. Augustine Campus in a message in a 50th Anniversary Publication
“He gave significance to the house on Nepaul Street, St. James which his father built by having Mr. Biswas view it in his dying days at the end of his remarkable work of fiction as an act of creation, as a manifestation of independent identity, as an act of family love, as an assertion of will and as a symbol of national aspiration, human ambition and universal yearning”
Ladies and gentlemen, this Naipaul House Literary Museum is all of those things…it is a tribute to the great minds of our Trinbagonian authors and their expressions of culture, livelihood, and all that is Trinbago.
The relationship between Seepersad Naipaul and his son V.S Naipaul and other family members is one of mentorship…one that needs to be revitalized in our society.
As a Minister of Government and a Minister of the Word of God, I find myself wondering about the lack of emphasis on the role of the family.
Here at the Ministry, we have upcoming initiatives for re-integration through establishment of Transitional Facilities for Youth with focus on young men released from the Youth Training Centre and rehabilitated drug addicts.
We intend to house those who may have no fixed place of abode to which they can return due to inability or unwillingness of family members to take them back.
We are looking to offering the opportunity of a second chance – of becoming productive citizens once more.
Ladies and gentlemen, Seepersad Naipaul offered that to his family – opportunity. Though times were difficult and financial constraints existed – he was ever hopeful, ever positive, ever supportive of the aspirations of his children. Even though Seepersad Naipaul was described as a “defeated man” by his son, their relationship was crucial to V.S Naipaul’s childhood, success as an author and life.
The dynamics between Seepersad Naipaul and the Capildeo Family were formative and developmental in the lives of the Naipauls and the fact that Droapatie, Seepersad Naipaul’s wife and mother of V.S Naipaul occupied the home, their home for more than 40 years after his death in 1953. Professor Ramchand said and I quote, “That she didn’t run back to her family as a widow after he died was his achievement too…she maintained the independence of the family by keeping up the house”.
The launch of this Literary Museum allows for our embracing of the International Day of Museums 2013 Theme: (memory + creativity) = social change. It is a theme that allows us to focus on our rich heritage, which museums both display and protect, as they are associated with inventiveness and vitality.
We believe that the museums of Trinidad and Tobago provide an avenue for us to foster patriotism and unity in diversity through heritage, culture, and historical preservation, education, and appreciation.
Ladies and gentlemen, imagine writers and visiting literary scholars all finding solace in this symbol of creativity and Trinbagonian heritage.
Just imagine skimming through the works of the great authors of this nation.
Just imagine being inspired by the history and memories of the home, its family members, and its significance.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Naipaul House Literary Museum is a gift…a gift to us all.
I thank you once more and offer my hand as we work together for future plans for the Literary Museum and even the Lion House in Chaguanas.
Thank you and May God continue to richly bless us all and this great nation of Trinidad and Tobago.