Many of us may know of characters like the mysterious Bogart, the posturing "tough guy" who hardly says a word; or Popo the carpenter, who is always "making the thing without a name," yet rarely building anything–just two of the characters brought vividly to life by the artistry of Trinidad-born novelist VS Naipaul in his 1959 memoir of childhood, Miguel Street.
VS Naipaul in these short stories created memorable characters through his deft way of setting up a scene, his use of creole dialogue, and his clear plots, evoking characters poignant in their colourful, flawed, tragicomic details.
But how many of us have ever heard of the writing of another older, more sympathetic Naipaul–VS's own father, Seepersad? Seepersad used these same elements, a generation before his son did, to tell his own good stories, using the more compact (and ephemeral) vehicle of newspapers, not novels. Some of his best stories were printed in the T&T Guardian in the 1930s.
Seepersad Naipaul was the centre of attention on the evening of October 9 when the Friends of Mr Biswas and the National Library hosted a talk by American professor Aaron Eastley on the elder Naipaul's newspaper writing career.
Eastley is the director of graduate studies at Brigham Young University in Utah. His talk was part of a series of events planned by the Friends of Mr Biswas to focus on the role of T&T journalists. The next in the series, later this month, will be a talk by former T&T Guardian editor-in-chief Lennox Grant on Patrick Chokolingo.
The Central correspondent
Naipaul (1906 � 1953) was the T&T Guardian's "Central correspondent" in the early 1930s. He worked for the paper for three periods, from 1929 up to just before his death in 1953.
At the time, said Eastley, the Guardian was conservative and exclusive; it wrote for the white urban elite in Port-of-Spain. But led by a new editor, Galt MacGowan, the paper decided, from 1929 to the early 1930s, to modernise, and liven up its menu by appealing to a wider audience, with more local content. Seepersad Naipaul was hired as the paper's very first East Indian reporter.
It was a collaboration which paid off, said Eastley, at least for a few short years–a time when Seepersad Naipaul discovered a whole new expressive profession–one which not only let him write stories, but editorialise through them, and sometimes even take part in them. Guardian sales rose; and readers in remoter parts of the island had something different to read.
Amazingly, Seepersad was largely self-taught. Eastley sketched for the audience Seepersad's "harsh home life"–coming from a broken home, he was farmed out to relatives; he helped raise cows and goats in the mornings before going to school every day barefoot.
In all likelihood, this Naipaul would have faced a future of rural obscurity. Yet in school, and out of it, he taught himself to read, write, and understand more of the world around him. Literacy was the key to his escape from the canefields.
That Seepersad became a writer at all was incredible, said Eastley: "The story of Seepersad the journalist is a story of perseverance and luck, audacity, delusion and resilience," he said, as he shared with the audience his admiration for a man who may have been quirky and over-the-top, but who persisted, despite various setbacks, to make his own mark in the world.
Seepersad loved a lively, unusual story. This not only delighted his editor MacGowan; it tickled T&T audiences, giving truth to the idea that sometimes, people want more than just the facts.
Seepersad loved to write engaging stories about ordinary people–often very short stories, yet well told, conjuring up vivid scenes with economy and effective sensory detail.
Eastley introduced Seepersad's writing style with quotes from his work, including this one, the start of a story about an old man: "Alone, uncared and unlooked for, save for the sentinel presence of a faithful dog that seldom leaves his master's bedside, a man crippled with age lies convalescing from a long illness in a tiny, palm-thatched cabin that he's built with his own hands among the lone coconut palms on the Caroni coast."
Right away, Seepersad gets the reader involved in this old man's plight–despite his derelict, lonesome circumstances, the old man soldiers on in the tiny cabin he's bravely built for himself.
Another quote, this time from a crime story, showed Seepersad's love of active, emotive language–the kind that uses screaming headlines, urgent verbs and sensational details to sell newspapers: "Green-eyed jealousy made this man kill the only woman he loved, hack a man to death, sever the right hand of another and deprive a 16-year-old youth of an ear." It was a lively story about domestic violence.
In some stories, Eastley said Seepersad entertained people with enthusiastic tales of personal adventures–including, once, staking out a haunted house to try to capture ghosts. Another time, Seepersad wrote about spending the night with frogs in a tree–after being knocked off his bike.
Prof Ken Ramchand, head of the Friends of Mr Biswas, in a 1987 Guardian article, wrote that Seepersad's stories "included news of...quarrels, woundings, beatings, village feuds and family vendettas...Seepersad was interested in odd or extraordinary characters: a woman 112 years old who had seen slaves being lashed and shipped; a Hindu doing penance by the river; and a man they called Robinson Crusoe"–who set out from Chaguanas to discover an overland route to Tobago.
It wasn't all fun and games for Seepersad, though. Eastley emphasised that Seepersad also wrote serious stories, covering religion, politics, natural disasters and other issues of the day professionally, while getting important interviews, following up on stories and showing intelligent initiative in helping to report on and shape the news.
Seepersad's journalism also recorded the "changes taking place in the Indian community; the errors and confusions into which it was falling in its ignorance about itself and its past, and its inability or unwillingness to propel or project itself into the future," wrote Ramchand in 1987, referring to the fragmentation of traditional Indian culture in Trinidad in the 1930s, as a new creolising world emerged–a world "without ritual, custom or ceremony." These changes dismayed Seepersad, whose response was often to make a joke of things.
"For a frightened man, he was brave," commented Ramchand: "His journalism and his short stories remain an accurate and despairing representation of a community in crisis."
Seepersad's conversational, accessible newspaper story style, his sometimes bizarre, macabre humour, and his professional curiosity were a part of his media persona. He seemed to possess a keen, intuitive sense of media as a kind of theatre, where any story can get a chance to play itself out on the stage of the page. And he used the vehicle of newspapers to not only "play himself," but to comment on and investigate his society.
Eastley described how Seepersad re-imagined the staid island journalism at the time to carve out a bold, unique voice all his own; a voice that was creative, often sensational, and certainly dramatic.
Seepersad's stories spoke (without contempt or condescension) to ordinary folk. He wrote not just for businessmen in boardrooms, but for villagers and housewives and the common man. He expanded the narrow range of newspaper writing at the time.
Eastley suggested that behind the scenes, the very act of writing for a daily newspaper quietly inspired Seepersad's own two sons, Vidiadhar and Shiva, to imagine writing careers they might never otherwise have pursued.
Eastley quoted this reflection, written by VS Naipaul: "There was a big ledger in which my father had pasted his early writings...This ledger became one of the books of my childhood. It was there, in the old-fashioned Guardian type and layout...that I got to love the idea of newspapers and the idea of print."
Eastley's talk showed that in important, perhaps largely unacknowledged ways, Seepersad helped pave the way for local voices to express themselves, and to be heard.
"He courageously refused to be controlled by public opinion," said Eastley, "...and he never devolved into bitterness. Throughout his life and throughout his journalistic career, there were absolutely moments of utter desolation, of utter disillusionment. It's true that his opportunities were severely limited, but within that, we still see his genius...And he ultimately never gave up on life...He never ceased, as a writer, to try to connect with people."
Who are the Friends of Mr Biswas?
The Friends of Mr Biswas began in 2000 to develop the Naipaul House at 26 Nepal Street, St James, as a museum and a library for research on the writings of the Naipaul and Capildeo families, and as a form of cultural tourism.
The Naipaul house is immortalised in VS Naipaul's 1961 novel A House for Mr Biswas, a classic work of West Indian fiction based on the struggles and triumphs of Naipaul's father Seepersad. The Naipaul House was the family home of Seepersad and Droapatie Naipaul, who lived there from 1946 until Droapatie died in 1991. The house was bought from the Naipauls in late 1996 and is now a national heritage building.
At last week Thursday's talk by Prof Aaron Eastley on the newspaper writing of Seepersad Naipaul, Ramchand announced a plan for a conference next year on the work of all three Naipaul writers (Seepersad, and his sons Vidiadhar and Shiva), pending support from the Sport and Culture Fund.
Ramchand also announced Eastley's generous donation to the Friends of Mr Biswas of digital scanned copies of many of Seepersad Naipaul's Guardian newspaper stories, previously unavailable.