"Man of letters," "outstanding public figure," "ubiquitous Caribbean colossus": these were a handful of the laurels used by Professor Emeritus of English (UWI, St Augustine) Kenneth Ramchand, to describe Trinidadian-Guyanese writer Ian McDonald.
Ramchand offered these remarks as part of his introductory presentation for "West Indian by conviction: Readings and conversation by Ian McDonald," jointly hosted by the Friends of Mr Biswas and Nalis, held at the National Library's AV Room on November 28.
The Friends of Mr Biswas is an NGO dedicated to the preservation and development of the Naipaul House Literary Museum on Nepaul Street, St James.
The organisation charges itself with the establishment of the Nepaul Street house as a functional literary museum.
Also among their objectives is the preservation of local literary history, and the active, ongoing support of T&T and West Indian literature.
Ramchand functions as the group's chairman.
Citing McDonald's multiple areas of expertise in writing and cultural commentary, which include fiction, poetry, essays and sport literature, Ramchand glowingly described McDonald as a "fusion man," one whose numerous, crisscrossing streams of work have produced "wonderful fruit." Ramchand emphasised that the roots of McDonald's creative development in Trinidad, the land of his birth, could not be underestimated.
"It was at QRC that the reading and writing of poetry took hold of him," Ramchand said, painting a portrait of McDonald's life in literature and language.
Here, Ramchand concluded, began the author's "fascination in the unspoken depths of the ordinary people of his island." McDonald began his own presentation by firmly avowing the strength of his connection to this island.
"I have never, ever forgotten or lost touch with Trinidad.
It has been extraordinarily kind to me," he said, referencing his honorary Doctorate of Letters from UWI, St Augustine, conferred in 1997.
In November 2014, McDonald contributed his literary archives to the permanent collection of the Alma Jordan Library at UWI, St Augustine.
"I only briefly touched Vidya's life, and he would certainly not remember me," McDonald said, describing the tenuous connection between himself and VS Naipaul.
McDonald reminisced on episodes of Naipaul's "cutting criticisms and brilliant insights," made when the latter was a Form Six student at Queen's Royal College, and the former was one year beneath him.
Later on, McDonald said, Naipaul's books would become a fundamental part of his reading life.
He ended his thoughts on Naipaul by calling A House for Mr Biswas one of the greatest English-language novels written in the 20th century.
On the subject of his own work, McDonald discussed the writing for which he is best known, the 1969 novel, The Humming-Bird Tree.
Since its publication by Heinemann, the book has never been out of print, and has been used as a CSEC English Literature syllabus option for several years: McDonald jokingly referred to it as the "bane of many an English student." Brief clips from the 1992 BBC-produced film version of The Humming-Bird Tree were shown at the event.
Despite the overwhelming success attributed to his novel, McDonald said that he predominantly considered himself a poet.
Between 1988 and 2009 he published four books of his poems and a selected collection of his poetry, edited by Edward Baugh.
"Poetry has been my greatest love," he told the Nalis audience, adding that his deepest creative urge has always been to produce poems.
Tracing the development of his "poetry gene" from a many times-over great grandfather, Edward Dacres Baynes, to his great-uncle and grandmother, McDonald decided that he, as well, had "inherited the gene." He described his weekly columns for Guyana's Stabroek News, since its inception in 1986, as some of his most important and well-considered work.
These essays of some 30-odd years, he reflected, represented a cumulative effort that was "no less a child of my intellect, if not as much of my imagination." In his final analysis, McDonald expressed the divide that often accompanies a creative life, saying that between "the full life, or the gift pursued to a perfection: you probably can't have both." Ian McDonald was officially inducted as a Distinguished Friend of Mr Biswas, by Dr Rodger Samuel, Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration.
This made him the second Distinguished Friend to be thusly recognised by the society, the first being Brigham Young University's Aaron Eastley.
To become a member of the Friends of Mr Biswas, visit their Facebook Page or their Web site: www.friendsofmrbiswas.org