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Wednesday, 20 February 2008

R.I.P. Ralph de Boissiere, 6 October, 1907-16 February, 2008

Ralph de Boissiere--who died last Saturday, at the age of 100--lived the longer part of his life in Australia, almost as far as you can get from Trinidad without leaving the planet, but he never ceased to be Trinidadian. The proof is in his work, especially his best known novels, Crown Jewel and Rum and Coca-Cola, which portray Trinidad society in the 1930s and 40s with a vast historical scope and ambition very few West Indian writers have attempted.

Had de Boissiere's major novels not been published by a small Australian press in the 1950s, had they not languished in relative obscurity until the 1980s, he might have been a major influence on two generations of West Indian writers and substantially changed the direction of West Indian literature.

Even though his work was all but forgotten for so long, his place in West Indian literary history is secure. Along with Albert Gomes, Alfred Mendes, and C.L.R. James, de Boissiere was one of the chief figures in the Beacon group, a circle of young, talented, ambitious writers that formed around the Trinidadian magazine of that name in the early 1930s. Even then, among such liberal peers, de Boissiere stood out for his radical politics, and his socialism was always a motivating force in his writing.

In November 2007, the University of Trinidad and Tobago conferred an honorary degree on de Boissiere. In his citation, Kenneth Ramchand, associate provost of UTT, described him as "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."

Publishing an excerpt from de Boissiere's forthcoming autobiography in the CRB last year was one of the great honours of my time with the magazine. It pleases me immensely to think that he saw his prose in our pages just a few months before he died.

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