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A critical look at Naipauls’ intertextuality

Published: 
Sunday, November 8, 2015
Journalist and poet Andre Bagoo.

Depending on whom you ask, VS Naipaul is either a point of contention or a pillar for praise. Naipaul, whose rhetoric of Trinidad, the land of his birth and early development, has been damning from day one, has described the nation as “simple, colonial, philistine.” It is from this very nation, however, that the major preoccupations of his life’s work have been drawn.

This was the near-universal consensus of scholars, academics and researchers who presented papers at Seepersad & Sons: Naipaulian Creative Synergies, a conference hosted by the Friends of Mr Biswas on the work of Seepersad, VS and Shiva Naipaul. The legacy of VS’s writing speaks volumes, but one of the conference’s chief goals was to highlight the under-represented literary achievements of VS’s father, Seepersad, and brother Shiva. 

The three-day symposium was held from October 25 to 28, at the UWI Open Campus, St Augustine, with satellite trips to the Lion House in Chaguanas, and the Naipaul family house at Nepaul Street, St James. 

Naipaulian Creative Synergies might seem to be an academically abstruse concept, but the three days of conference revelations proved its ambitions to be much simpler, cleaner and straightforward than the term reads on paper. In the main, its goal was on interconnectedness: in giving three remarkable writers their due, and in showing the intertextuality of father and sons’ writings over time. 

In his keynote address at the opening ceremony, Prof Emeritus Kenneth Ramchand highlighted the Naipaul family as its own creative entity, one that was unprecedented in the then literary development of T&T. 

Ramchand’s keynote took close looks at the inner lives of each Naipaul male: Seepersad’s passionate literary ambitions, rigorous journalistic life, and anxieties over balancing responsibilities with vocation were first highlighted. “Seepersad was an early outstanding man of letters in Trinidad and Tobago, the first person of Indian origin to achieve that status. He was a writer all his life but he did not have the required ruthlessness or irresponsibility,” Ramchand read, setting the stage for an exploration of how Seepersad’s sons benefitted from both his sacrifices and influences. 

Governmental interest in literary preservation and sustainability was on good show, in Minister of Communications Maxie Cuffie’s address at the opening ceremony. It contained a pledge of support to the endeavours of the Friends of Mr Biswas, and a desire to see the Naipaul House become Trinidad’s own Stratford-upon-Avon. 

The dramatic resonances of Seepersad’s work were given centre stage in an Iere Theatre Productions presentation of The Trials of Gurudeva, from Gurudeva and other Indian Tales. A colourful spectacle focusing on the foibles of religious leadership and the fallibility of men’s hearts, the production was interspersed with slapstick humour, melancholic pauses and a rendition of Sundar Popo’s Don’t Fall in Love.

Papers presented across the span of the conference focused on individual Naipauls, as well as the combined influences of the three writers’ works.

In a comprehensively-plotted argument, journalist and poet Andre Bagoo explored the film noir composition of VS’ Tell Me Who To Kill, exposing homoerotic possibilities, as well as the indebtedness of the text to suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock influences. Bagoo rooted his thesis, too, in concerns of exile and belonging, concluding by stating that for VS’ characters, “homelessness is always a symptom of the fact that they remain tied to their country of birth in memory and in spirit.”

Ranging beyond VS himself, Nicholas Laughlin’s presentation on editing the Naipaulian letters between father and son prompted a consideration of the literary family’s lesser-considered members: namely the brothers’ sister, Kamla.

Sharing his thorough excavation of formerly unpublished letters, his decision to include them in a more comprehensive manuscript that was ultimately rejected, Laughlin mused on the very nature of a text’s authenticity. He asked provocative questions that tackled VS’ hubris and authorial tendency to self-edit, closing his presentation with a wondering on what sort of novels Kamla herself might have been allowed to write, had she been similarly encouraged and guided. 

The current crop of postgraduate students’ presentations, chaired in a panel by Dr Vijay Maharaj, were perhaps ultimately the most sanguine of the conference: not inherently because of their subject matter, but because they evidence the fact that scholarship on Naipaul continues, and is unafraid of tackling both frequently considered and less scrutinised areas of interest. 

Meghan Cleghorn’s suitably audacious and paradigm-restructuring paper on Sex and the Naipaul Brothers delved into textual and biographical contemplations of sadomasochism, incest and power relations. It was a window into an arena of Naipaulian thought that clearly, judging from the nervous laughter and awed silence in the audience, few had considered with such scrutiny.

The importance of scrutiny, indeed, cannot be underemphasised in examining the Naipaulian pantheon. This seems to be one of the strongest resonances of the Friends of Mr Biswas’ mission statements: to promote active, energetic thought into not only the Naipaul clan, but the thematic scope and depth of their writing.

In VS’ work, Shiva’s and Seepersad’s, there are rich tools for unearthing our deepest preoccupations with identity, anxiety, colonial influence and postcolonial possibility. 

The Seepersad & Sons: Naipaulian Creative Synergies conference steered clear of being a praising ground for the power of VS Naipaul. While not eschewing VS’ extraordinary talent and influence, the symposium’s focus was critical and interrogative, moving beyond the Nobel Laureate himself to embrace the wider worlds of significance that the writing of his family continues to engender. 

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