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Monday, 19 November 2007

Coming home

On Saturday 17 November, at the annual graduation exercises of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, an honorary doctorate was conferred on the writer Ralph de Boissière (an excerpt from whose autobiography, Life on the Edge, appears in the November CRB). Below is the citation read by Kenneth Ramchand, associate provost of UTT's Academy of the Arts, Letters, Culture, and Public Affairs.


Yes, the eyes open in childhood. But they open afresh in youth, in maturity, in old age, perceiving each time with a different understanding the bonds we call home. Trees, speech, bird calls, meandering clouds and wind and rain--all become an extension of yourself in childhood, a larger you that is both outside of you and a part of you, as you are only tantalisingly and dimly aware. You have no name for this condition which is both frightening and dear to you. The word "home" comes later like a surprise. With time it begins to seem that you are a creation of home, this patch of earth and all that exists upon it, even as home is at the same time your own creation, which you once fashioned with love and wonderment, and fear of the unknown.

--From Life on the Edge


I couldn’t decide whether my theme should be spiritual (the return of a native) or literary (the re-discovery of another jewel in the lost literature of the West Indies). So let us have it both ways.

Ralph Anthony Charles de Boissière was born on October 6, 1907. His first novel was published in 1952; his most recent came out in 2007. His first marriage took place in Trinidad in 1935; his second was solemnised in Australia on November 3, 2007.

You could say, Chancellor, he was always serious about his craft.

In his hundredth year he completed Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière. It is a compellingly honest, heartfelt, poetic, and above all courageous book. It is an epic account of the never-ending and exhilarating struggle to find out, to hold on, to make and re-make a life in a fragmented and widening world.

This autobiography is also of huge social, political and cultural significance: it makes us see and imagine ourselves in our landscape and history for a full one hundred years, in the ennobling way that only one who loves and claims a people and a place no matter what, can make us see and imagine.

Before this, he wrote five novels, over eighteen short stories, and a number of plays, including a West Indian musical drama, Calypso Isle, which played to full houses at The New Theatre in Melbourne in 1955. Mr de Boissière has lived in Australia for nearly sixty years, but the content, theme, and tone of his work from Crown Jewel to Rum and Coca-Cola to Homeless in Paradise and The Call of the Rainbow (the last two covering the period 1956 to 1970) have always been West Indian. This Trinidad Quartet establishes de Boissière as the most important writer for understanding and feeling the making of modern Trinidad.

Chancellor, our honorary graduands are presented on the day when academic degrees are conferred upon undergraduates, not because we want to test their patience but because we want our young people to find inspiration in the lives of those with academic training who have shared their expertise with their society and the world; and because we also want them to see that those who have not formally passed through the university also have gifts, skills, discipline, and commitment that have enriched our society and the world.

Chancellor, Ralph de Boissière did not go to university. He came from one of the best-known French Creole families, but this "white" boy was an enemy of colonialism and privilege. As a simmering youth he grew his hair long long long for months in inarticulate protest. He caused real dismay and alarm in his family and among his class by associating with working people and ordinary citizens in their natural habitats.

And then, in the late 1920s and 1930s, he joined up with a group of rip-roaring artists and intellectuals who had political and educational intent (C.L.R. James, Alfred Mendes, Albert Gomes, the violinist Sonny Carpenter). They produced the magazine called Trinidad and the famous journal The Beacon. They were fired up by the Russian Revolution, Garveyism, Negritude, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Harlem Renaissance, and were part of a shaking of colonial Trinidad that increased in intensity with the Butler riots, leading to one-person-one-vote in the 1940s, and the possibility of a democratic revolution.

Chancellor, James and Mendes received honorary doctorates for their Beacon activities; and the titles of their novels (Minty Alley, Pitch Lake, and Black Fauns) are familiar to many. But the name of de Boissière is kept alive in this island only by a handful of scholars.

Take notice, Chancellor. His first novel, Crown Jewel, was published in 1952, and his second, Rum and Coca-Cola, in 1956. This was the Golden Age when artists, painters, dancers, sculptors, musicians dreamed of Federation and because of Federation; a time when Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Roger Mais and Edgar Mittelholzer were beginning their careers and raising the West Indian novel high high high.

So why doesn’t de Boissière figure in the conversation about the West Indian novel? In the 1950s and 1960s London was the West Indian literary capital. With a young family and with the closing of the privileged ranks against him, de Boissière went to Chicago to train as a motor mechanic. He ended up working on the assembly line of General Motors in Australia in 1948. Who knows, Mr Chancellor, you might have driven in a Holden with the de Boissière touch.

De Boissière’s first two novels capture two watershed moments in our history. Crown Jewel depicts Trinidadian society in the years between 1935 and 1937 when men and women of the working class and of every ethnic origin began the process which led to universal suffrage, and political independence.

In de Boissière’s own words, “Rum and Coca-Cola deals with the war years when tens of thousands of American soldiers and civilians were building military bases on the island. The American military had in effect become our rulers. There is not the same tension as in Crown Jewel because everyone had a job and many had two. The conflicts were of a more subtle sort-—the breaking down of British prestige, the mockery of former British might, under American occupation.”

We are still innocent of the meaning of these two moments.

The two novels remained virtually unknown till the 1980s, when they were reprinted in London by the firm of Allison and Busby. In 1973, the late, lone Clifford Sealy called Crown Jewel Trinidad’s “most important political novel ... the fundamental work of fiction in our society”. When the book reappeared in 1981, Salman Rushdie called it “a salutary corrective to the feckless irresponsible image that Trinidadians have been given by V.S. Naipaul”. The UK Observer said: “Once in a blue moon, a lost gem is unearthed from the general rubble of period fiction. Crown Jewel is one such find.” One West Indian critic had already pronounced that Crown Jewel “combines social realism and political commitment with a concern for the culture of the feelings” and that this novel is “essential reading for an understanding of the rich possibilities of young Trinidad in the 1930s and 1940s, and for discerning the outlines of that unique emerging creature that Sam Selvon called ‘the Trinidadian person’.”

Chancellor, I commend Ralph de Boissière as one of the founders of our literary tradition, a man who overcame the biases of race and colour, a gifted writer who projected the power of the powerless, a visionary whose insight into the compassion and creativity of our men and women and of their potential to create a humane and just society has been unwavering throughout his hundred years.

Chancellor, I urge you by the authority invested in you by the Board of Governors of the University of Trinidad and Tobago to confer upon Ralph Anthony Charles de Boissière the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

--Kenneth Ramchand

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