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Bissoondath captured our national trauma

Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Professor Ken Ramchand, Professor Bridget Brereton and Raymond Ramcharitar discuss Neil Bissoondath’s books at Nalis. PHOTO: SEAN NERO

T&T is a society shaped from the trauma of its history with no energy left to build the mental and emotional infrastructure it needs, says Dr Raymond Ramcharitar.


Ramcharitar, a T&T Guardian columnist, said this during his feature address at the reading and discussion forum, titled the Third Generation: Introducing Neil Bissoondath. 


It was the third in a series of events leading up to an international conference on Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul next year. Bissoondath, is Naipaul’s nephew. 


The first two events in the series focused on Naipaul’s father, Seepersad and his brother, Shiva. The event was hosted by Friends of Mr Biswas and related to the Naipaul Literary Museum, recently opened in St James.


At the National Library, Port-of-Spain on December 4, Ramcharitar compared Bissoondath’s response to Canadian multiculturalism with his T&T experience. This was based on Bissoondath’s novel Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multi-culturalism in Canada (1994).


His address focused on multi-culturalism and whether it was applicable to the cultural current situation in T&T.


Ramcharitar said Bissoondath was 15 at the time of the Black Power Movement and would have internalised fear, the terrible sense of isolation and threat, and racial paranoia which he would have been privy to among his parents and relatives.


“The sense of trauma pervades his writing about Trinidad. A significant part of this unwritten and much avoided cultural history of Trinidad is the way Trinidadians have reacted to a period of trauma,” he said.


In his conclusion, Ramcharitar said T&T is a society shaped by trauma.


“The reality is, we live in a society shaped by trauma, and most if not all our psychic resources are spent denying this, or fleeing this. There is no energy left to build a nation, to create the mental and emotional infrastructure a nation requires,” he said.


He said newspaper clippings from 1960 and 1986 showed T&T was a country suffering a decades-long nervous breakdown.


“Crime shot up, but not only crime: the very fabric of society seemed to come apart. Indians were erased from the nationalist symbolic imagery. Hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians of all ethnicities left, and were replaced by about 150,000 illegal immigrants from the small islands, who created an urban underclass and a schizoid national identity,” he said.


He gave several examples of books such as Naipaul’s Mimic Men and Guerrillas, and Walcott’s poems The Spoiler’s Return and The Schooner Flight.


“Those legacies are so terrible they drove away a third of the population,” he said.


Ramcharitar claimed citizens have a sense of contempt, love or patriotism for T&T. He also said despite historical facts of repression of “Indo” culture and politics, the situation has changed.


“It is foolish to be held back by the past. Indo destiny, for the last 20 years, has been in Indian hands,” he said.


Ramcharitar said the national imagination must be freed from the constrictive yoke of Carnival and the $100 million wasted on it must be distributed to artists.


Referring to the novel, Selling Illusions, he outlined Bissoondath’s journey to Canada and his political position of being opposed to Canada’s multicultural policy.


“But from Trinidad to Canada, the country of immigrants, power is unimaginably distant, hence matters of identity and ethnicity are bereft of that element which makes them deadly. There, instead of the violent jostle for cultural and political space, and dominance, the emphasis was stability,” he said.


“Immigrants did not have to change, nor conform to fit into the society. The society respected and valued different, and would accommodate its immigrants,” he said.


Ramcharitar said Bissoondath wrote of a “racist past of Canadian immigration laws well into the 20th century were protective of its racial exclusivity and discriminated against Asians, Africans and African Americans alike.”


He said Selling Illusions was published in 1994 and things have changed, and not for the better.


At the forum, Shivanee Ramlochan, Patti-Anne Ali and Prof Ken Ramchand gave an ensemble reading from The Worlds Within Her.


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