"Nobody does it better"
Last Thursday, Maud Newton posted the text of Russell Banks's afterword to The Girl with the Golden Shoes, a novella by Colin Channer just published by Akashic Books. A review copy had arrived in the post a few days before, so I read Banks's piece there instead of online--for, dear readers, as keen as I am on blogging as a medium of communication, for my rapidly aging eyes, paper ever trumps pixels.
Banks does exactly what Channer's publisher must have hoped: he presents the younger writer to a North American audience probably unfamiliar with most contemporary Caribbean writing, and neatly categorises his work. The Girl with the Golden Shoes, he says, is "a nearly perfect moral fable", in the tradition of The Old Man and the Sea, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Red Badge of Courage. Channer has "creolised the form, giving it a strictly New World DNA". He is "clearly in the business of helping make great literature." It is a generous endorsement, with only the gentlest touches of condescension, appropriate to an older, established figure introducing an up-and-comer.
Except that halfway through this short afterword, Banks dismounts heavily onto the wobbly ground of Caribbean linguistics, and lurches in a puzzling direction. I'll quote the key paragraphs:
We ought also to admire the apparent ease and intelligence with which he has addressed a modern (actually a post-modern, post-colonial) linguistic conundrum: the problem of representing on the page the music and clarity of creolized English, which is, of course, the language his character think, argue, make love, and dream in--except when they happen to be speaking to their colonial masters or to the inheritors of the masters’ linguistic standards of excellence and correct articulation. The problem is that if one is a writer from the Caribbean, one has to write both. It’s a challenge that few of Channer’s literary forebears, even great writers like V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, have been able to meet, and few if any of his contemporaries....
The perennial question for Caribbean writers is how to represent creolized English without making of it a mere dialect, a diminished version of the mother country’s mother tongue ... to somehow use and abuse the language of the oppressor in order to both subvert the oppressor’s mentality and tell a tale that’s true to the teller’s deepest, most intimate experience. Channer is the master of this bait-and-switch.... Nobody does it better; at least nobody I know.
Channer does very convincingly portray on the page the invented "native dialect" he calls Sancoche, moving fluidly from there into "standard" English and back. But to my "native" ear, he doesn't do this with such breathtaking skill and originality as to justify Banks's imperious swipe at, well, the whole tradition of West Indian writing.
Banks has spent time in Jamaica, written a book set there, and for all I know he is thoroughly read in the major works of West Indian literature c. 1950 to the present, but I suspect not. When he mentions Naipaul and Walcott--the two names everyone knows--and suggests they have not met the challenge of mastering both standard and creolised English (and the transition between them), I have to conclude Banks has read none of Naipaul's early novels or stories set in Trinidad--in which he plays vernacular dialogue against his own refined authorial voice, to great effect, comic and tragicomic; nor can he have read, to name only the most obvious example, Walcott's mini-epic "The Schooner Flight", in which the voice of Shabine can pivot in a single line from the near-biblical sublime to the street-smart demotic.
What about The Lonely Londoners, in which with each sentence Sam Selvon brings the whole unruly continuum of West Indian English to vigorous truce? What about those poems Martin Carter wrote in the 1950s, in which he uses the slippery everyday slippage between Guyanese creole and Guyanese English to suggest profound ambiguities? (Think of the opening lines of "University of Hunger"--read as creole, they are statements; read as English, they are questions. As Brendan de Caires put it in an excellent review of Carter's collected poems, published last year in the Stabroek News: "An outsider reads doubts where the local reads declarative sentences.")
What about Robert Antoni's novel Divina Trace, in which no fewer than six characters speak in their own distinctive registers at six different points along the Caribbean linguistic scale? What about Channer's fellow countryman and fellow expatriate Anthony Winkler (who has also just joined Akashic's list), who may, for my money, be the best living writer of Jamaican creole? And many readers in the Caribbean can probably add a half dozen further examples of their own.
Now, to be clear: this is not a back-handed dig at Channer, or The Girl with the Golden Shoes, which obviously must be taken on its own real merits. What I'm really working towards, I suppose, is a question as perennial and as crucial for Caribbean writers as the "linguistic conundrum" Banks describes: how to negotiate the divide between "local" and "foreign" audiences. When Banks reads Channer, he is listening for a "voice" that sounds like the Caribbean he knows. So am I, but I am measuring the authenticity of that voice--or its convincingness--against a longer, deeper, and wider lived experience of the Caribbean. So when Banks pronounces that "Nobody does it better," I'm bound to get vexed.
A friend, emailing me after reading Banks's afterword online: "I'm so tired of this." What do you think, dear readers? Is my annoyance misconceived, or not? And, perhaps I should have mentioned this from the beginning as a kind of spoiler alert, but: best read The Girl with the Golden Shoes before Banks's afterword--I regret reversing the order, because it did spoil my enjoyment of Channer's story.
But then I'm not the North American reader Banks was clearly addressing.
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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
"Nobody does it better"