Obeahing the Word

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 08, 2019

“Can there be a national life without a national literature?”

—Jose Marti

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeMarina Warner, a distinguished English writer of Trinidadian provenance and professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London, read from her work, Fly Away Home, at the Bocas Lit Fest on Thursday. She argued, with tremendous encouragement from the audience, that imaginative literature possesses the capacity to capture dimensions of a society’s unconscious in ways that realist fiction seldom does.

Warner also talked about the power of imaginative writing to cast spells that can free up the national imagination. “Writers,” she says, “can cast spells that change people’s world.” She explained that good writing has the effect of “unstrangling” a nation’s voce, allowing a people to explore their innermost being. Our own LeRoy Clarke refers to such a phenomena as “obeahing the word.”

This “obeahing of the word” or “unstrangling of voices” suggests that a national literature, rather than only making us feel good, can assist in emancipating us from self-inflected wounds enabling us to reflect upon ourselves and allowing us to evaluate our being-in-the world. This is why Jose Marti (1853-1895), the poet of the Cuban revolution, asked despairingly, “Can there be a national life without a national literature?” which allowed some thinkers to conclude that “the writing of history and fiction were closely tied to nation building in the Latin American context” (Faith Smith, Creole Recitations). Such a proposition has much relevance to our society.

It was noteworthy that the organizers of the Lit Fest celebrated the 74th anniversary of the publication of Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Apart from yours truly, this panel benefited from the insights of Helen Cateau, noted historian and dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education (UWI) and Caryl Phillips, professor at Yale University and internationally renowned writer.

All the panelists recognized/applauded the path-breaking nature of Williams’ work and marveled at its continuing relevance to historical studies and practical politics. My friend, Nick Draper of University College of London, reminded me: “Williams’ argument was that slavery helped make modern Britain and at the same time underdeveloped the Caribbean. Those are the same arguments on which the CARICOM reparations claim is based. Williams’ history is reparative history, in the dual sense that he recovers the historical significance of the enslaved people and re-inscribes slavery in the history of Britain itself.”

A writer’s exploration of his world does not always produce a pleasant or comfortable sensation. It seeks to probe, challenge and discover. This is what V. S. Naipaul’s oeuvre sought to do even though, as I have argued previously, some of his analyses are tinged with racial and/or racist preoccupations. This is why I was so troubled when, at the launch of Seepersad and Sons: Naipaulian Synergies, edited by J. Vija Maharaj at the festival, the tired question of whether Naipaul hated Trinidad and how such so-called hatred affected his fictional work.

Naipaul, in the foreword to his father’s book, The Adventures of Gurudeva, argued: “A writer is doing his work well when people dislike, perhaps even despise him.” When the reviewers criticized the analysis of Trinidad that Naipaul offered in The Middle Passage, he made it clear: “I think that the books of real writers, even reports when they are reporter’s books, must be judged on their ability to stand up.” Incidentally, this is what marks the success of both Capitalism and Slavery and C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins.

When Bharati Mukherjee picked up Naipaul on what he saw as his racist comments about his homeland, Naipaul retorted: “I’m also speaking with a lot of bitterness. And much unhappiness. Because it is not pleasant to see the place where you were born destroyed, and that is the bottom of it. There are no institutions, nothing to refer to any longer. You cannot refer to any idea of law, or honesty about public money or the rights of all men, because racialist politics in a way rejects all these values.”

Naipaul uttered these words in 1997 (they are quoted in Kevin Frank’s “Muddling the Middle” that is included in Seepersad and Sons). The question is this: do any of these words ring a bell in 2019 and do they sound as the sentiments of a man who hated his country?

A literary work is not always meant to comfort or to soothe the sentiments of citizens. It is meant to make them think about their realities, subliminal and otherwise, which the writers’ depictions of character or situation send back for them to reflect upon. Literature is not meant to reflect reality. It signifies for, or as the semioticians say, it is “a signification of reality.”

The importance that Marti placed on the cultivation of a national (in this context, Caribbean literature) in terms of how it helps to organize national life was on display at the wondrous profusion of literary, cultural and artistic expressions that suffused the air over the last five days at the Bocas Lit Fest.

Some of the biggest names in Caribbean literature were on hand to usher in this magical enterprise and to cast their spells on its audience. It also reminded us that the rigorous practice of “words, songs and stories” is not incidental to our development which is why Sylvia Wynter, the grand woman of Caribbean letters warned us years ago: “To write at all was and is for the West Indian a revolutionary act. Any criticism that does not start from this very real recognition is invalid.”