On the Naipaul Conference by Mr Andre Bhagoo

Like father, like sons 

By Andre Bagoo Sunday, November 1 2015 

“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.  


They have given us extraordinary gifts.”  





The ‘Cult’ in Multiculturalism



Neil Bissoondath was born in Trinidad in 1955. He was educated up to the high

school level here and left in 1973, at age 18, for Canada, where he studied French,

and launched a successful writing career. From his initial collection, Digging up the

Mountains, to his latest work in 2008, The Soul of All Great Designs, he has

published two collections of stories (the other is On the Eve of Uncertain

Tomorrows), six novels, and one work of non-fiction, a collection of essays on multiculturalism:

Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (1994), which

will be the focus of my talk tonight: Multiculturalism and its applicability to the

cultural situation in Trinidad & Tobago today.

I don’t intend to examine his career as a fiction writer. But his three works of fiction

which directly address the land of his birth, in various disguises, are important – these

are Digging up the Mountains, A Casual Brutality, and The Worlds Within Her – in

that cultural information is embedded here, which I’ll try to extricate, but more on

that later.

The talk will proceed as follows:

• I’ll outline the fundamentals of Bissoondath’s response to Canadian

multiculturalism vis a vis his Trinidad experience

• I’ll sketch the contemporary cultural situation in Trinidad to investigate

parallels and the possible usefulness of Bissoondath’s position here, and

• I’ll make a few historical observations about the Trinidad cultural situation

which seems evident from his fiction, but which has not yet, to my knowledge,

been discussed.

Bissoondath and Canadian Multi Culti

Selling Illusions opens with an autobiographical sketch, outlining Bissoondath’s

journey to Canada, and to his political position of being opposed to Canada’s

multicultural policy for which, he says, he has been dubbed “a kind of traitor,

unwilling to play the game” [25].

He sketches the multi-racial cultural mishmash of Trinidad from its colonial past, to

its early post-independence configuration. It’s a familiar story – pre-independence,

many ethnic groups with distinctive traditions, jostling for firm ground to on which to

stake a claim. Then the post-independence wave of black nationalism, and the

ossifying of race, ethnicity, and culture around the poles of political power. Postindependence

the problem of power exacerbated the problems of difference.

Bissoondath’s Trinidad story ends there (post-Black Power), interestingly, and does

not evolve further – this archetypal cultural tableau from the late 60s and early 70s is

embedded in and defines his consciousness of Trinidad. We see this clearly in his

fiction, of which more will be said later.

But from Trinidad to Canada, the country of immigrants, power is unimaginably

distant, so its acquisition does not arise. Hence matters of identity and ethnicity are

bereft of that element which makes them deadly. There, instead of the violent jostle

for cultural and political space, and dominance, the policy is different. Immigrants did

not have to change to fit into the society. The society respected and valued difference,

and would accommodate its immigrants. No pressure to conform or integrate, no

overarching, bullying definition of what is and is not Canadian culture. [24].

Of course, it’s not that simple: this seemingly generous gesture implicates many

elements of society, identity and citizenship, in less-than-innocent ways. First of all,

writes Bissoondath, multiculti is a Canadian strategy, or more to the point, an

Anglocentric/white/English and not French Canadian strategy to neutralize the

Quebecois issue, by transforming French Canada into one group among many

Canadian ethnic groups [40-41].

It is not a policy that is met with alacrity by Canadians, and in fact Bissoondath

describes it as “activist government”, a policy undertaken on behalf of the governed,

not necessarily with their consent, as many Canadians resent it. (Remember, this book

describes the culture wars of the 80s. Canadian resentment of “newcomers” as they’re

nowadays called in a euphemism that smacks of Orwell, has evolved and is quite a

grotesque phenomenon today.)

There is also the backdrop, writes Bissoondath, of a racist past of Canadian

immigration laws which, well into the 20th century, were “protective of its racial

exclusivity” and discriminated against Asians, Africans, and African Americans alike


As a compensatory policy, though, multiculturalism shoots itself, and Canada, in the

proverbial foot, writes Bissoondath, because it

• Creates a paranoiac backlash from white Canada who fear they are being

drowned in the multi-coloured tide, [67]

• It assumes people who leave countries wish to retain the culture of those

countries, and ignores the fact that they leave those countries to escape them.

It also takes a naïve view of ethnic cultures, that they’re all benign, even the

bits with child marriage, genital mutilation, and honour killing.

• Multiculti hamstrings Canadian institutions, and Canadian society, by

preventing the formulation, or evolution of a common system of Canadian

values. It encourages a nostalgia for homelands which impedes integration and

the necessity for immigrant groups to negotiate with their own society.

• It reduces and simplifies “culture” into a static artifact or performance to

display and consume without risk or commitment. It discourages discussion,

imagination, and transformation of cultural identity. It turns ethnic / immigrant

communities into “museums of exoticism” [111].

• Culture and ethnicity are inextricable. To create a cultural enclave is to create

an ethnic enclave – “at the heart of multi culti bob these ‘bits of driftwood’,

communities shaped by notions of ethnicity, most particularly, a heightened

sense of their own ethnicity.” (102) Bissoondath relates that he has been

attacked in writing by AfroCaribbean and IndoCaribbean writers for “shitting

on his country” via his fictional representations.

• In the end, he writes, multi-culti creates a “psychic apartheid” [156].

This, I think, sums up Bissoondath’s position on multi-culti. This might also be a

good time to say that this mirrors my own position, but mine diverges somewhat, in

that it continues after Bissoondath’s has concluded. Remembering again, that Selling

Illusions was published in 1994, two decades ago. Things have changed, and not for

the better.

The Multi Culti Situation in Trinidad

Now let’s look at Trinidad and multiculturalism. As we all know, the word and

concept of multi-culti in Trinidad is a relatively new addition to the official and public

lexicon. At a public consultation in 2012, a draft arts and multi-culti policy was

circulated which provided definitions and so on, which use many words to say very

little. Since my time is limited, I will not detain you with any quotations here. Suffice

it to say, the ministry’s website announces its mandate as “to provide an environment

where each culture can flourish in a spirit of understanding, tolerance and harmony”.

Without much irony, I would restate that to be an environment where War and Peace

can co-exist, since the cultural policy of the previous regime, and four of the five

previous decades during which the regime controlled the country, were dedicated to

ensuring animus, asymmetry, and strife via culture.

In fact, Trinidad & Tobago had practiced a crude and unarticulated form of multi culti

since 1996, when the much feared eschatological event of an Indian government took

office – an event much discussed and which had generated much paranoia in the

Creole cultural lore, and indeed, explicitly stated by people like James Alva Bain.

Upon the accession of the UNC government in 1996, an “African” cultural movement

immediately emerged, coalesced around the latest evolution of the Black Power

movements, by then, the Emancipation Support Committee. People like Leroy Clarke

and others began making explicit statements about the “Indian” presumptuousness at

seizing the African’s birthright / power. Talk Radio began its campaign, and it had all

the hallmarks of violence, threat, and rage, which fed into the minds of the underclass,

and created the violent, chaotic, enraged society we live in today. (It’s important to

remember here that crime was down, and all other social indicators were moving in

approved directions during the first UNC.)

This moment is important, since this eruption of racial hatred has never (except for

my book) been acknowledged or discussed. The media fully participated, by

encouraging angry Indian columnists, and African columnists saying things like

Indian doctors tied African womens’ tubes. The person who published this in the

Express was subsequently placed on the Central Bank Board as a reward.

More importantly, it set the tone and mode of ethnic discourse, that there was an

African position, articulated by the Leroy Clarke, and the ESC and various other

satellite organizations, and an Indian position, articulated by the government and its


The public was encouraged to believe by the media, the press, the radio and so on,

that this was an acceptable way of talking about racial and ethnic issues which

suddenly assumed paramount importance. Naturally, US Afrocentrism was adopted

wholesale as an emotional and ideative model. Black people were oppressed, and now

the oppressors were Indian. Interlocutors claimed the same rights as African

American Afrocentrists had. The Nation of Islam set up shop here, and its

representative David Muhammad, was present in these convocations, and hosted a

radio show called The Black Agenda. Louis Farrakhan visited Trinidad in March

2012, and met with the leader of the opposition.

In a real country, what was going on would have been labeled “hate speech” but in

Trinidad, this cultural energy, manifested in media discourse, was allowed under the

rubric of press freedom, which was being threatened by the Indian government. A

major theme of media content was its being shaped into a Moral Panic, as

commentators, and editors, through selection and manipulation of mews, strove to

show the Indian government as manifestly unfit and unschooled in the subtleties of

Western democracy and Creole society, and therefore a threat to “our” way of life.

However, Press Freedom seemed to be limited to people supporting the media’s and

the Creole position, since the critique mentioned above was never articulated.

But culture. That new cultural regime brought a new cultural policy, which was

visibly Afrocentric – designed to foreground and authorize the “African position” as

the legitimate, natural and normal one. Carnival, Emancipation, and various other

forms and groups dedicated to African culture and its preservation sprang up. From a

fringe group, the ESC became a central ethnic-cultural clearing house for ideas and

discourse. Politics and culture became fused into a single structure. To talk about one

was to talk about the other. This had always been so, but now it was formalized.

(Selwyn Ryan, in his books, The Jhandi and the Cross, and Deadlock, examines this.)

I’ll cite a few examples here of what was going on. The first is Trini artist Eddie

Bowen describing his experiences on a Carifesta IX sub-committee IX in the Express

on May 21, 2006. Bowen wrote of his withdrawal from the sub-committee on art, then

chaired by Earl Lovelace (artistic director). One reason was that committee seemed to

be obsessed with the theme of “resistance”, and that several officials treated him as a

novelty – a white Trinidadian on the committee. Bowen described the enterprise as

“an opportunistic appropriation of this regional festival by this government as a …

cheap and insulting political platform”.

A more detailed account of the PNM’s approach to culture was articulated by Claire

Broadbridge, a former curator of the national museum and art gallery, in a letter to the

Express on 13 September, 2009. She described the previous regime’s approach to

culture as prescribed by civil servants to her:

“They were not bashful, these would be the inventors of local culture. They were

going to prescribe everything we [the cultural institutions] did – dictate TV and radio

station programming. Best Village type-dance and drama to be give primetime space.

Music was to be controlled. Creative art was to concentrate only on local subjects.

Carnival was to be closely directed. Guidance given to dance companies and even

creative writers.”

Two years later, Annette Dopwell of the Classical Music Development Foundation,

writing in the Guardian of March 27, 2011, described the official attitude to music:

“Our children are being actively dissuaded from having contact with the classical

genius of Mozart, Beethoven Tchaikovsky. Instead, what our children are exposed to

is what was referred to as all we need: ‘ah lil Marley, chutney, soca, and calypso’.”

There’s more, of course, but let’s leave it there.

But at the centre of the 21st century PNM government’s cultural thrust was Carnival.

There is a Carnival Studies Unit at the UWI, and a Carnival Arts MA at the UTT.

Books were published – Milla Riggio’s Culture in Action, Nurse and Ho’s

Globalisation Diaspora etc, there were conferences on Carnival and so on the latest

was “Th?nk” – which all repeated the same thing: Carnival is an African festival. It’s

necessary to tourism, it’s of economic value. It’s the quintessential Trinidadian thing.

It’s inclusive, everybody welcome. But it’s African.

What happened between 2001 and 2010 was actually a historical repetition. Carnival

as state culture was invented, promoted, and embedded as an ethnic device by the

PNM from 1962 for much the same purpose: to propose a national culture that was

ostensibly African and not Indian in the service of electoral politics. There is actually

a moment this happened: it was reported in The Guardian of Jan 11, 1959, that Eric

Williams, in response to complaints of “many people”, regarding ostensibly to the

Guardian’s Carnival Queen competition, had decided to “nationalize Carnival”.

Carnival in Transition

From it being a fete, enjoyed by the colonial classes and white Trinidadians, as well

as AfroTrinidadians, it became, increasingly in the sixties, the loud, violent, orgy we

know today. And in true Orwellian fashion it developed its own logic.

Psychiatrist Dr Michael Beaubrun wrote, in 1953 (TG, Jan 20) that Carnival indicated

a mental state where “we live not for ourselves, but for what other people think of us.

There is a frustration implied in this reckless pursuit of pleasure. The symbol of this is

our Carnival.” Nonetheless, by the mid-1960s, Carnival was the centre of nationalist

consciousness. The Guardian, the bastion of conservatism, itself made the point about

the Steelbands being the symbol, if not icon of a new nation. Sparrow went from a

calypsonian with a history of violence to a national icon in public consciousness. By

1968, the good psychiatrist Dr Beaubrun had revised his opinion, and was declaiming

Carnival as the pressure valve we could not live without (TG August 6, 1969).

I could go on, but the larger point is that nationalist culture was created and designed

to be Afro-Creole. Rohlehr, Peter Van Koningsbruggen, Kevin Yelvington, Louis

Regis – this is widely acknowledged. Alongside or interwoven with the Carnival, a

great deal of state culture was dedicated to maintaining and strengthening the idea of

Creole paramountcy, a euphemism for Afronationalism. This meant, in praxis, the

promotion of ideas, art forms, personalities, and state endorsed ritual as national.

Neither do I need to labour too much the fact that Indo culture was erased from the

nationalist visual and rhetorical lexicons in the 1970s. To repeat, my time is short, so I

don’t want to belabor what we already know. I want to move on to the present.

So we come from a past of aggressive black nationalism, promoted deliberately to

negate the cultural presence of a large section of the population which posed an

electoral threat, over a generation.

A few things can be said about this cultural programme:

• one, an awareness by the PNM of the force of culture as a power maintainer;

• two, a fortuitous dovetailing of Trini black nationalism’s growth and

importance with the growth of US Afrocentrism as a political/academic/social

movement via the simultaneous growth in transnational mass media and its

affinity to black American culture (like hip hop);

• an apparent complete lack of reciprocal awareness of the force of culture as a

means of power acquisition and retention by the Indo opposition, once they

acquired power in 1996 and 2010.

Indeed, the Indo-based responses have been identically, fatally, wrong, in that

immediately upon acquiring power, they government strove to reassure the

proponents of nationalist culture that “national culture” remains safe. In keeping an

election promise to increase the prize money for Dimanche Gras in their first year in

office, the present Prime Minister handed over $2million to a child singing one of the

vilest songs in recent memory, “Be Careful What You Wish For”, which likened the

accession of the present government to “Guyanese” wife murderers and child killers.

Since then, the government has been attempting to persuade the devotees of

“nationalist culture” that they are benign and no threat to it, with ill-advised and

foolish initiatives like the 50th anniversary celebrations debacle, the Hoops for Life,

the continuing increasing subventions for Carnival (about half-billion dollars by

2015). In general the government has shown no awareness that it has a right to

manage and operate the symbolic machinery of the state to propose another vision of

culture, nationalism, or even to critique the existing vision.

This was the backdrop to the formal proposition of “multi-culturalism” in 2010 in

Trinidad. It was both politically logical and certain to fail. Even if there were some

attempt to change conceptions of culture, there is also the issue that to change requires

more than 5 years, and an immediate reversal of any counter policy is guaranteed

once the PNM resumes what its culture teaches is its “rightful place”. Hence many

nationalist cultural agents are simply waiting the government out, if not ridiculing and

undermining them outright, while taking taxpayers’ money.

Multi Culti in Translation

To sum up the Trini flirtation with multi culti: it is proposed as a solution to a cultural

problem which no one wants to name: Afrocentrism, ethnic fascism, metastasized

black nationalism is de facto official nationalism, and all the assumptions and

emotional responses that go with it. Afrocentrism confronts Indo- and other forms of

culture, with what appears to be a congenital hostility – struggle and conflict are

indispensible elements. It is evidently the hope of the present government, that multculti

will create self-contained enclaves in Trinidad where the animus will be contained.

This is a false, foolish hope.

Because in Trinidad & Tobago culture, political power, and ethnic entitlement, to

repeat, are all fused together to protect a political dispensation. The fusion of ethnic

nationalism, political and social power, and cultural symbolism is the main reason

anger seems to underlie much of Carnival culture, and which erupts into violence so

readily, and which authorities always hasten to downplay and explain away.

This propensity to anger as a part of the multi-culti experience was noted by

Bissoondath in describing responses to his work. Some Trini and West Indian writers

who are now based in the US and Canada and the UK apparently thrive on the

opportunity to rage and flail at the power structure there. Indeed, Bisoondath

mentions two writers, Nouberse Philip and Dionne Brand, who have railed at him.

Metropolitan societies might actually encourage this, it seems. Catharsis, one might

say. The problem is, it’s brought back in suitcases and vacation packages, and spread

among the local population.

Two issues arise: to repeat, that endless anger is fine where it can do no harm. It’s a

very different issue in societies where space is tight, law and order embryonic or nonfunctioning,

rage is the most ready weapon, and the population is small, poorly

educated and highly susceptible to ad hominem appeals.

The other issue is, those postures of rage, and automatic ethnic solidarity to one,

largely Afrocentric position founded in trans-Atlantic Slavery, are inapplicable to the

IndoCaribbean experience, which is not mired in the emotional political minefield of

slavery and its later manifestations.

This (IndoCaribbean perspective) allows what should be a new and interesting

critique of West Indianness, but it is one Afro-West Indians apparently have no

patience with. Naipaul has been a lightning rod for this impatience. My own

journalistic and critical work, has also been beset. The only reason my creative work

is not similarly criticized is because no one reads it. In the UWI collection, Created in

the West Indies, essays on Naipaul, Evelyn O’Callaghan and Edward Baugh both

mention this critical posture to Naipaul, Incidentally Walcott’s critiques of

Afrocentrism are much more vitriolic, but Walcott himself has criticized Naipaul for

being a “racist”.

In fact, it’s interesting that once it acquires a position of power, the nature of

Afrocentrism shows this impatience clearly. This is suggested by Jamaican academic

Carolyn Cooper in a NY Times op ed, titled “Who is Jamaica” on August 5, 2012.

Prof Cooper proposed that Jamaicans “reject the homogenizing myth of multicultural

assimilation”, since “the roots of our distinctive music, religion, politics, philosophy,

science, literature and language are African”. I would posit that what is happening in

the DR and its Haitian born citizens is a logical extension of Prof Cooper’s

enjoinment, restated more succinctly– “all o we is not one, get the hell out”.

The Trini multi-culturalism proposition is clearly proposed as a solution to that

latent, but always present, threat. That threat of violent and expulsion and gratuitous,

omnipresent violence is real. It was real in Guyana, and it was real in Trinidad – if not

formally stated. IndoCaribbean people were painfully aware of Uganda and Kenya in

the 70s. The exodus from the country and region to the US, UK and Canada, were not

undertaken because homegrown nationalism was popular or comforting to the

300,000 Trinidadians who left between 1960 and 1990. And this leads me into my

conclusion: the consequences of this anxiety is generational and far more destructive

than anyone realizes. The consequences and nature of this anxiety are embedded in

Bisoondath’s three works, Digging Mountains, Brutality, and The Worlds within her.

Culture in Bisoondath’s fiction

To repeat, Bissoondath’s novels are imbued with a consciousness formed in the

Independence decade, when aggressive black nationalism was rampant. A few things

are noticeable his three works of fiction which are located in Trinidad:

• The Indians are all in a state of acute trauma, in anticipation of some extreme

violence, or in the thrall of some overarching, pervasive terror, which

materializes in guerillas, revolution, and murderous violence. The first book

ends with such an explosion. It appears in the eponymous story in Digging up

the Mountains. Worlds Within Her takes place in the aftermath of what is

evidently the 1990 coup, and there is a guerilla attack on a hotel where the

protagonist stays. The character, Ash, a young man, is apparently traumatised

by the possibilities of ethnic violence. The older characters are numb.

• The black characters are simplistically drawn in the immediate environment.

The Indian characters are more detailed, but hollow, incestuous, and crude.

The author never manages to disguise his contempt or fear of these ostensibly

fictional Indians. Rarely does he manage to create a convincing black

character. The possibility of interracial rapprochement is virtually non-existent

in Bissoondath’s novels, since the psychology of the island environment is

like a prison or cage. The environment does not allow the evolution of finer

and complex emotions.

• Only upon escaping to the order of Canada do the characters, black and

Indian, seem to solidify, develop the ability to self-reflect, grow, and define

themselves. The black characters fit into prevailing Afro-American

conceptions (as in The Revolutionary), or sink into ordinary, banal lives (A

Lot of ways to Die or Dancing). Some degenerate, as in The Failed Artist, and

Xmas Lunch. The entire theme of The Worlds Within Her is the restrictive,

repressive nature of the cultural environment, and the flowering of humanity

that escaping it allows.

Bissoondath’s complete cultural statement

To end where I began, Bissoondath was born in 1955. He would have been 15 at the

time of Black Power and would have internalized the fear, the terrible sense of

isolation and threat, and racial paranoia which he would have been privy to among his

parents and relatives. This sense of trauma pervades his writing about Trinidad. The

unwritten, and much avoided cultural history of Trinidad is, significantly, the way

Trinidadians have reacted to this sustained period of trauma.

Before I go any further, let me say trauma studies is a new area of cultural studies. It

is dedicated to exactly what it sounds like: how trauma shapes cultural behavior and

national destinies. The same can be said for the new field of emotions and culture.

Among the things trauma and emotion affect, powerfully, is memory, personal and


So trauma, history, and memory are implicated in Bisoondath’s writing about

Trinidad. Because there is no history of post-independence Trinidad – let me repeat

that: in a country which has gone through nearly a trillion TT dollars in a decade,

there is no history of post-independence Trinidad – there is no sense of what the

independence experience, and its emotional and psychological legacies are. The

effects are there, but not the causes.

There is a great deal of mythologisation, especially about Eric Williams and

independence. But the people of this place, and especially IndoTrinidadians, know

nothing of themselves. Their existence is comprised of Bollywood, inept and pathetic

historical representations which remain in the canefield, and the margin of nationalist

discourse, and visual clichés.

I want to emphasise here that whatever this historical facts of repression of Indo

culture and politics, this is no longer true. Indo destiny, for the last 20 years, has been

in Indian hands. And the rest of the society is no better off, and equally reliant on

foreign, foolish myths. The moments of Black Power and 1990 are distant monoliths,

which are now romanticized, and about which no profound or useful knowledge

exists. I could propose several plausible reasons as to why this void exists:

• Because amnesia was a necessary condition for the thievery and corruption

which proceeded from 1956 to 1986.

• Because all the talent was chased away, leaving the untalented and damaged

to man the institutions, like UWI, who have managed, in an Orwellian

fashion, to produce exactly the consciousness the regime needed

• The creation of a citizen of a state requires sophisticated political and social

technology, which is supplied by moral, artistic, and social education, none of

which existed, hence most of the citizenry are unfinished, uneducated

automata, who delude themselves they are real and complete

• Because the artists were chased away or intimidated into silence, or

smothered in the cradle, hence there has been no imaginative examination of

history or the present to expand the collective memory or imaginary

• And my personal favourite, Eric Williams had the unique opportunity to

impose his will on a nation and transform its collective mind into a reflection

of his own – tortured, self-loathing, narcissistic, and ultimately suicidal.

Conclusion: Culture and Anarchy

The reality is, we live in a society shaped by trauma, and most if not all our psychic

resources are spent denying this, or fleeing it. There is no energy left to build a nation,

to create the mental and emotional infrastructure a nation requires.

I recently went through, for reasons I won’t go into here, the newspapers from 1960 to

1986, and I was astounded by what I saw. Trinidad from 1960 to 1986 was a country

suffering a decades-long nervous breakdown. Crime shot up, but not only crime, the

very fabric of society seemed to come apart. Indians were made scapegoats, and

erased from the nationalist symbolic repertoire. Hundreds of thousands of

Trinidadians of all ethnicities left, and were replaced by about 150,000 illegal

immigrants from the small islands, who created an urban underclass and a schizoid

national identity.

The only acknowledgement and examination of these decades, and their unique

psychosocial legacies that I know of, are three: Naipaul’s Mimic Men and Guerillas,

and Walcott’s poems from the period, like The Spoiler’s Return, The Schooner Flight,

and poems from the collections written when he lived here.

Those legacies, to repeat, are so terrible, they drove away a third of the population.

Yet, because of the manipulation of culture, memory, and media, many Trinidadians

react in either of two ways when reminded of them: revulsion and contempt of

Trinidad and all it represents; and the others loudly and stridently declaim a love for

Trinidad, even though they have chosen to live elsewhere, and their patriotism

becomes like a weapon they deploy when anyone reminds them of the trauma.

And this leaves us at the present position: no viable, realistic culture for Trinidad and

Tobago can exist without a few things:

1 Enough citizens must have a workable, factual knowledge of the past, by which I

mean from 1956 to the present

2 The present cultural regime allows an enormous amount of ignorance and racial

hatred to be disseminated in the name multiculturalism, it must be remedied, to

removed the sense of entitlement attached to PNM culture. Trini Afrocentrism must

stop simply dressing US rhetoric and anger in a Carnival costume and pretending it’s


3 The national imagination must be freed from the constrictive yoke of Carnival, and

its attendant false history and politics. A good place to start would be that the $100

million wasted on Carnival must be redistributed among artists and artistic projects.

Though, from what I’ve seen of contemporary art and artists, that horse has already


We tend to assume progress is automatic, and we will eventually work our problems out in the

end. Actually no: we forget that many more civilizations, and nations fail than

succeed. Trinidad is extremely lucky in that it seems to get chance after chance. But

after this generation, I doubt there will be any more.

Friday, October 31, 2014 9:12 AM

For G-News on Fri-31st-Oct-2014 at 11:00 AM

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.

Address by Dr. The Honourable Roger Samuel Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration on the occasion of the official opening at NALIS, October 2nd 2013

Posted by Raphael Ramlal, Monday, October 21st, 2013 @ 4:55pm

  • 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.

Friends of Mr Biswas

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