A literature of our own

By John T. Gilmore

The West Indian Novel and Its Background, revised edition,
by Kenneth Ramchand
Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-151-2, 299 pp

Generations of students have used Kenneth Ramchand’s book The West Indian Novel and Its Background (hereafter WINB), and the pioneering importance of the work can scarcely be overstated. As the author describes in his introduction to the 2004 edition, his earlier research and the publication of this book helped to bring about the teaching of the first full course on West Indian literature at the three campuses of the University of the West Indies, a first stage in the shift from a Department of English where the undergraduate syllabus “was still a copy of the syllabus of an English provincial university” to what is now “a Department of Literatures in English whose core is the literature of the West Indies and whose research strengths lie in West Indian literary studies.”

The strengths of the first edition of WINB, which appeared thirty-five years ago, were considerable. It gave a lucid explanation of some major aspects of the historical and cultural context of the literature discussed. Perhaps most importantly, it gave a simple description of the linguistic situation in the region, and argued that there was such a thing as “West Indian Standard,” a language shared by the increasingly educated populations of the former British colonies in the region. For Ramchand, and for his many readers over the years, this argument had three consequences. First, this West Indian Standard was a language suited for literary purposes — indeed, he laid out for the reader’s inspection the literature which had already been created by using it. Second, while Ramchand did not deny that there were linguistic differences between and within individual territories, the West Indian Standard was one language, whatever its local variations. West Indian Standard was not distinct from, but overlapped with, “English Standard English” and “Dialect” and “Creole,” to use Ramchand’s terms. Ramchand recognised, and indeed emphasised, that individual writers could and did use the interplay between these various forms of language (including the purely local ones) for artistic purposes, but the language itself remained one. As a result, the third consequence (not so much explicitly stated, as assumed throughout the work) was that the literature written in this language was one literature — and that literature was a West Indian literature, not to be claimed by or divided among narrower nationalisms. To quote Ramchand’s new introduction once more:

. . . the book has an ideology and a very conscious one which clearly determined the arrangement of its content. It was an ideology of being West Indian, a legacy of the Federal era.

The ideology was an inclusive one. Literary works by writers from different parts of the region and from different ethnic backgrounds were treated as all contributing to the development of a West Indian literature.

While there are those who would quarrel with Ramchand’s exposition of Caribbean linguistics, the concept of a West Indian literature, to which this book made a major contribution, has been an important and enduring one, and this literature has become a subject of academic study in many places outside the region.

Nevertheless, it is possible to wonder if WINB has not in some ways become a victim of its own success. Although arguments about “good English” and “bad English” are still encountered from time to time in the letters pages of the region’s newspapers or the pronouncements of government ministers, there are probably few nowadays, in the Caribbean or elsewhere, who would seriously suggest that the different varieties of English used in the region are not capable of being used for literary creation of the most sophisticated kind. Concepts such as “literatures in English” or “englishes” are now familiar in academic circles from Bridgetown to Beijing. It is sometimes necessary to make a conscious effort to remember that what seem like commonplaces now were revolutionary ideas when they were first put forward.

However, there are other ways in which WINB now seems more than a little old-fashioned. To begin with, it was first published in 1970. What was described as a “revised and updated edition” appeared in 1983, though the preface to that edition stated that “the 1970 text has not been interfered with, neither has the original arrangement been altered” — the only significant change would appear to have been updating the author and annual bibliographies. The 2004 edition offers only minor changes to the original text. The word “Negro” (still acceptable in 1983) has been changed to “Black” or “African.” A few authors no longer with us now have dates of death supplied. The author and annual bibliographies have again been updated, though neither comprehensively nor consistently. The “Secondary Bibliography” present in the 1983 edition has simply been dropped. Even the occasional typo present in the earlier edition has been preserved (eg “dust” for “dusk” in the quotation from Black Lightning on page 150 of the 2004 edition). While an attack on the “Neo-Africanist” critic Jahnheinz Jahn has been cut, as having outlived its usefulness, there are only two significant additions: a section on Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, taken over from Ramchand’s introduction to his 1985 edition of that work, and a section on Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, which appears to have been written not much later, as it speaks of “twenty-five years after the death of the West Indian Federation” (which ended in 1962) as if it were the present. In other words, even in the 2004 edition of WINB, Dragon (first published 1979) is still the only literary work published since 1970 to be discussed. Many other outstanding works have been published in the past thirty-five years.

The very title of WINB poses problems. Do we still think of “West Indian Literature,” or is it “Caribbean Literature in English”? Can we consider Caribbean literature written in one language in isolation from Caribbean literatures written in other languages? We can accept Ramchand’s emphasis on the importance of cultural specificities and still wonder if the aspects of history and culture which the peoples of different Caribbean territories have in common do not do more to unite us than the linguistic barriers imposed by the colonial past divide us. Increasing travel within the region, better knowledge of other languages, and the growing numbers of translations of Caribbean literary works have enormously enhanced mutual awareness in the last few decades. Nevertheless, WINB remains focused exclusively on the territories of the former Federation, with the rest of the Caribbean barely mentioned.

When WINB was being written, the novel was — at least in the universities of the English-speaking world — widely regarded as the pre-eminent literary genre. This is no longer the case. Where the Caribbean is concerned, viewing the region’s fiction purely in terms of the novel is unnecessarily limiting, as some of the most outstanding achievements (particularly in more recent years) have been in the short story form. Ramchand himself says that “the short story is the most indigenised of the literary forms introduced to the region by Western education,” and promises a forthcoming book arguing that “the history of the West Indian short story is the history of all West Indian prose.”

While we might wish that WINB had been more thoroughly revised and enlarged so as to take into account some of the many excellences of more recent Caribbean writing, this would be to call for a completely new book rather than the republication of an old one. As it is, WINB contains much of value (including, but not limited to, excellent discussions of A House for Mr Biswas, Jean Rhys, and Claude McKay) which will repay rereading, and which will help to stimulate our thinking about other books which it does not comment on. The new introduction gives an interesting account of the book’s origins, and some sharp comments on the practice and function of criticism in the modern academy, which will annoy some readers and delight others.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2005

John T. Gilmore is a lecturer at the University of Warwick, where he teaches at the Centre for Caribbean Studies and the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies. He is a former managing editor of Caribbean Week.