Sunday, January 31, 2016

Give the Ball to the Poet - Racism in Caribbean Literature?

Give the Ball to the Poet; A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry

If anyone has any doubt that the literature of the English speaking Caribbean still reflects the, almost, endemic partiality – if not the racism - of the Caribbean and the continued projection of the Caribbean as a place of Afro culture, this latest anthology of Caribbean Poetry should dispel this. Perhaps, the critics and the professors of West Indian Literature, attempting to conceal these biases and would cry, “hypersensitivity to perceived slights.” This anthology demonstrates, yet again, how real this bias is.

Almost three decades ago, this bias was highlighted in the Caribbean poetry anthologies of the time. Voiceprint comes readily to mind. Poetry Review in London was gracious enough to publish my piece pointing out this bias in the anthologies of that time as it related to the English speaking Caribbean. There seemed to be an abeyance and correction of sorts. The operative word here is seemed. Many still remember Viv Richards’ 1990 statement – a racist one many contend - when he was captain of the West Indies cricket team, that the West Indies was the only “sporting team of African descent” able to win against all international teams. Such a statement by the white captain of any US sporting team would likely see riots in the US, and certainly the resignation, or removal of such a person from the captaincy of such a team – witness the recent resignation of both President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri. And there is the current controversy in regard to the lack of Afro-American diversity in the Academy Awards – forget Asians, or Asian-Americans, who don’t take to the streets, or rock the boat. In total disregard for the Indians and all other ethnic groups of the West Indies, Richards was allowed to continue as captain. He was even subsequently knighted by the British. A knighthood that never should have happened; perhaps, a knighthood that should be revoked pending an unambiguous apology from Richards. None was ever offered, as far as I am aware. But who has ever heard of a knighthood being revoked, even of rogues and slave traders such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake. 
Why is this relevant? A number of British and Anglo-American critics, academics, editors and publishers, who have, by and large, influenced and published most of the major literary anthologies of the English-speaking Caribbean, have been, and continue to be, collaborators in dissing the Indians, and persons of other ethnic backgrounds, of the region. There have been exceptions such as Crossing Water (1992), edited by Anthony Kellman. Perhaps, it is pertinent to note that for the purposes of this piece, the English-speaking Caribbean is used interchangeably with English-speaking West Indies, or simply West Indies, or Caribbean, and includes Guyana. This former British colony, which is in South America, is not quite an “island” in that section of the Atlantic Ocean between North and South America sometimes called the West Indian – or is that Caribbean? – Sea. And, of course, the very title of this anthology echoes one of the things which binds the West Indies: cricket. A cricket analogy is, also, relevant.

Let us look at the facts of this anthology. Give the Ball to the Poet, which is published by Commonwealth Education Trust Books, is a collaboration of the University of Cambridge and the University of the West Indies. The anthology has three editors: two from the University of Cambridge and one from the University of the West Indies and includes fine illustrations by Jane Ray. Every poem is accompanied by a colour illustration/painting. Perhaps, some these illustrations could have been done by several of the fine painters from the region; Stanley Graves, Bernadette Persaud, Suresh Hanoman to name a few. There are ninety (90) poems in this anthology. Only three (3) are by Indian poets – four if we count one poet, who is of mixed parentage. If we exclude my poem (included almost at the last moment – a note on this later) and giving the editors the benefit of the doubt (and assuming that the other two poets were not, also, included at the last moment as a result of my response on the composition of the project) – then this might well have been two (2) poems out of ninety (90). Perhaps, it is mere coincidence that of these 2 poets, one is also known for his prose works on Blacks in the UK and the slave trade; the other (deceased) known for her collaboration with the repressive, illegal, and (to be mild) Afro-centric regime that ruled Guyana with an iron fist for the first 26 years in the post-independence period, with the tacit approval of the rest of the Caribbean, until the first free and fair elections in 1992.
Three poems by Indians out of ninety! Let me add a clarification that I would not want to be included in any anthology solely because of my Indian ancestry. Nor am I advocating that anthologies have ethnic, gender, religious, or geographic considerations as criteria unless the anthology is ethnic, gender, or, as in this instance, geographic specific; even so, if there is any one overriding qualification for selection, it should be for those subjective things we call craft and artistry and passion and appeal. Within such parameters, anthologists have an obligation to make selections that reflect the diversity of fine voices – especially in the West Indies, where Indians have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised, and especially when such an anthology is being used in schools to represent the poetry of the region.

The facts of this anthology again: Three (3) poems by three (3) Indian poets out of 90. Not a single one (do we ever need redundancy!) of these three Indian poets have more than a single selection. By contrast, a staggering sixteen (16) of the other poets have more than one selection; of these sixteen, there are four (4), who are represented with five (5) selections each (super poets, these are not – and, as if to underscore this, neither Derek Walcott, nor Martin Carter – our greatest poets - are in this group); one (1) poet has four (4) poems; eight (8) poets have three (3) poems and two (2) poets have two (2) poems each.

Fifty-four (54) poems, more than half in the volume, by sixteen (16) poets, with only three (3) Indian poets included, and several other fine non-Indian poets excluded, is inexcusable. The exclusion of Cyril Dabydeen, who - like myself - has published more than eight (8) poetry collections primarily with the two most important and established publishers of West Indian poetry in the World (TSAR/Mawenzi in Toronto and Peepal Tree in Leeds – “Home of the best in Caribbean and Black British Writing”!) is incomprehensible. Cyril Dabydeen has received awards – like myself – for his poetry. He has also received the Guyana Prize for Literature; granted that this prize - like most literary prizes - is a corrupt, self-serving and incestuous one, with judges who become entrants/winners, then judges again, then entrants/winners again, then judges again should be abolished and reorganized, as should its Caribbean Award – why should Guyana alone bear the entire Caribbean on its destitute shoulders – and the Committee dissolved and reconstituted in a diversity that reflects Guyana (a la the current Academy Awards diversity). After almost 30 years, in a country where people of Indian ancestry form the largest ethnic group, the Guyana Prize Committee has yet to have an Indian secretary, or Chair. But more on this subsequently.

Of West Indian poets writing today, there can be no question that Cyril and myself are among the major and preeminent poets from the region - and I didn’t say among Indian poets. Invoking Richards again, who has noted that there wasn’t a bowler that he could not face – a batsman with supreme confidence in himself! This does not mean that Richards did not play his share of injudicious strokes and did not have his share of bad scores and, yes, ducks in international cricket and Test matches. I have noted elsewhere; there is no poet writing in the English language who is better than I am. I didn’t say I am better than anyone else. This does not mean that there has not been injudicious and even, like Richards, ducks along the way - the same as with any great and prolific artist. I suspect, it is the same with Cyril’s work.

Let us look at the facts of this anthology from another angle. There are forty-two (42) poems in this anthology by Jamaican poets – almost half the anthology – perpetuating yet another fallacy of the region and its culture. Many outside the Caribbean tend to equate Jamaica, and more specifically Afro-Jamaica and Afro-Jamaican culture as the Caribbean. That Afro-Jamaicans have been among the most aggressive of West Indians and in promoting themselves have, no doubt, contributed; this is also apparent in this anthology. The West Indian editor of this anthology is based at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

Perhaps, I should consider myself lucky to be included in Give the Ball to the Poet and just be quiet! To be fair, the Chair of the project, the Caribbean Poetry Project (CPP) sought a last minute accommodation. It is easy to forget that only by chance in January 2013, an acquaintance who heard of the Caribbean Poetry Project (CPP) sent me a note asking why I was not a part of this project and why no Indian poet from the Caribbean was involved in this project. One of the odd things regarding the advisors of the CPP was that three of the seven advisors (all West Indian writers) know of me, have met me, and are aware of my work. I am sure they also know Cyril and/or his work. Was it a coincidence that these three writers/advisors are Jamaican? Another advisor was a poet of African ancestry born in Guyana. There could be, can be, no excuse for the almost total absence of Indo-Caribbean participation in this project.

In May of 2013, a note, with a link to a Stabroek News article that the project was in Guyana and Guyana was to benefit from this project found its way into my inbox. The 10 facilitators of the project in Guyana included the following: “Dr Jennifer Obidah, Director School of Education, UWI Cave Hill; Professor Morag Styles, Chair of Caribbean Poetry Project, Cambridge University; Dr Georgina Howell, Cambridge University; Professor Mark McWatt, Poet/Facilitator; John Agard, Poet; Grace Nichols, Poet; Esther Phillips, Poet/Facilitator; Sam Soyer, Facilitator; Dr Sandra Robinson, Coordinator, Caribbean Poetry project, UWI Cave Hill and Gina Burnham, Project Research Assistant.”

There is no Indian name among these ten persons. But then, Indians have been known to anglicize their names, or have had their names anglicized during colonialism. The three Guyanese poets/facilitators on the team being Agard, Nichols, and McWatt. Perhaps, a coincidence that this last was the chief judge in the Guyana Prize concluded two months ago in which my poetry collection, and Cyril’s, were shortlisted. These three poets (none Indian) read from their work during this trip to Guyana. What is wrong with this picture? People of Indian ancestry still constitute the largest ethnic group in Guyana (and Trinidad). We don’t forget and yet we do forget to “let trifles got to trifleland”* All of this is almost as three decades ago.
We retreat to our quiet corners. Who amplifies thoughts of the unvoiced? It is said that no one should take anything for granted. No one should feel entitled – except, perhaps, the entitled who say: no one should feel entitled! You give the ball to the poet; he opts for the bat. That this anthology originated out of the Caribbean Poetry Project at the University of Cambridge in conjunction with the University of the West Indies with the aim of fostering the teaching of Caribbean poetry in the UK and the West Indies is laudable. But teaching and perpetuating the same old biases of what is the West Indies, and who is the West Indies, most certainly, isn’t.  

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