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Standing on the shoulders of giants
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
I was deeply honoured to read at An Evening with the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Miami, which took place at the gorgeous Books & Books store in Coral Gables, on October 13. Bocas hosted the reading as the closing event of the 31st Annual West Indian Literature Conference: Imagined Nations, a gathering of scholars, booksellers, writers and students at the University of Miami.
The reading featured 2012 OCM Bocas Prize winner Earl Lovelace, Edward Baugh, Edwidge Danticat, and Fred D’Aguiar. Each of these other writers was someone I have read and whose work I have admired, and some of them I have also studied at secondary school and university. It was a privilege to be in such company, and I was keenly aware of how their work has fed into my own as a writer and my conception of myself as a Caribbean person.
This was a running theme in the conference, the ability of today’s Caribbean writers to stand on the shoulders of the Caribbean writers of the previous generations. Kei Miller brought it up in a keynote conversation with Olive Senior, moderated by West Indian literature scholar Patricia Saunders, one of the conference’s organisers, on the opening day of the conference.
Admitting that he had drawn from the characterisations in the works of older Jamaican writers, Miller talked about the debt he owed to Senior and her peers who have written the canon he studied. It also came up in the final keynote conversation of the conference, a panel discussion, moderated by scholar and conference organiser Donette Francis, that included a who’s who of Caribbean literature critics: Baugh, Michael Bucknor, Carolyn Cooper, Evelyn O’Callaghan, Sandra Pouchet Paquet and Faith Smith. Many of them noted that Prof Baugh had taught them as students. (Though, as Baugh pointed out, he never taught WI literature but Victorian literature. As a critic, however, he has been a seminal Walcott scholar.)
It was fitting, then, that the taxi that took Earl Lovelace and me home from the airport was filled with the music of Ras Shorty I, giving rise to a lively discussion on the need for the documentation of Shorty I’s life and music. We have our own university now, and I think it would be a worthy endeavour for UTT to foster the writing of a series of biographies of people like Shorty I—a man whose life was dramatic and interesting in itself, but also a man whose music is the very bedrock upon which so much of our contemporary music is built. That his music is neglected is a national shame; lyrically and musically it is very fine and certainly deserves to be analysed, preserved, documented for the benefit of our society and our future generations.
This is work that we must do and publish. It is part of any mature nation’s task to examine the path it took to where it is now. Shorty I sang in his song Money Eh No Problem in 1978, “Black dirty water we have to drink/WASA say it clean but it smelling stink/And my friend/ They bawling/Money eh no problem.”
What has changed? And if nothing has changed, why hasn’t it? Why is it that his words “So much old people on the streets today/And we can’t build a home for them to stay” are still as current today as they were 34 years ago? It’s almost embarrassing now to quote his lines “When it rain, Port-of-Spain in pain/Them drain under strain so is flood again”; true then, true now.
Without a project to capture and preserve Shorty I’s life and music, it is nearly guaranteed that they will be lost to future generations, and along with them the sense that a musician could be popular and still be analytical, the knowledge that what we call social commentary and what we call soca could ever be as skilfully intertwined as they were in Shorty I’s hands.
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Many times a day I realise how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labours of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” Without knowing more about those labourers in our past, the foundation they built, the foundation on which we stand, we hamstring ourselves.