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Saturday, 15 November 2008

"The whole concept of sensibility"

Yesterday I posted an interview with the young Guyanese writer Ruel Johnson here at Antilles, in which he spoke about the importance of Caribbean writers' "engagement with the particular geo-social space," and criticised Caribbean-born (and in particular Guyana-born) writers who make their careers in the metropolitan elsewhere, and write "stories ... set in New York or Toronto or London" which "largely concern experiences there with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for exotic flavour."

By intriguing coincidence, the Stabroek News published a letter by Michael Gilkes--writer and scholar, himself born in Guyana but resident abroad for some years--which could almost be an oblique response to Johnson:

What are the qualities that determine ‘Guyanese-ness’? These clearly have something to do with Guyanese living, on at least an extended basis (for how long?), in Guyana. But where in Guyana, and under what conditions? As swineherder or castle owner? As Amerindian rainforest dweller or urban coastlander? As poor or privileged? Those Guyanese who live only a few childhood years in the country (how many years does the formation of a Guyanese sensibility take?) before being whisked off to live elsewhere, or those who eventually opt to live and work abroad, cannot, the argument insists, lay claim to a truly Guyanese sensibility.

This is where the whole concept of sensibility loses its sense and begins to unravel....

We are not born with an ‘authentic’ Guyanese (or any other) sensibility; that can only emerge after a long time spent discovering who we are. A Guyanese sensibility (like a Caribbean sensibility) is yet to emerge, and it will come out of all the strands that make up the complex womb of Caribbean life: social, ethnic, political, religious and artistic, both ‘at home’ and abroad. It is an act of exploration and self-discovery. The sensibility that finally emerges to lay claim to the word ‘home’ will come, after arduous exploration and self-searching, from both loss and re-discovery. The writer’s act of claiming this ground as his or hers will be either an act of repossession or of remembering.

But it is an act that must finally be grounded in generosity of spirit. For us there is no place on this earth free from the wounds of history. For the growth and development of the Guyanese sensibility within the deeper, encompassing Caribbean sensibility, there is only a long and often lonely road ahead. Our writers and artists, wherever they find themselves, are in the forefront of that difficult and rewarding journey: the search for an authentic selfhood.

Well worth reading alongside Johnson's interview (also well worth marvelling that the Stabroek News, unlike any other newspaper in the Anglophone Caribbean, actually publishes serious literary criticism in its pages). And I suspect Gilkes's letter will not go unanswered.

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