In a minor key
By Philip Nanton
In Search of Asylum: The Later Writings of Eric Walrond,
ed. Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade
(University Press of Florida, ISBN 9780813035604, 254 pp)
The story of Eric Walrond the writer is an enigmatic one. He was born in what was then British Guiana in 1898. He lived a peripatetic life between Barbados, Panama, New York City, Paris, and — for the last thirty-five years of his life — Britain, where he died in 1966. In 1926, he published one critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Tropic Death. After 1928, it has appeared until now, he stopped writing. As Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade — the editors of this volume of Walrond’s later writings — explain, “The life that he led in Europe until his death in 1966 has been largely unknown.”
Their intention in publishing In Search of Asylum, a collection of Walrond’s later writings, is to “dispel the belief that he did not publish after leaving America (in 1928) and to clear up some of the mystery of his European years.” The material they discovered, they argue, is “a diverse collection of fictional and non-fictional writings, which not only belie the myth of Walrond’s being non-productive, but also greatly enrich the scope of black diasporic literature.”
The first section of In Search of Asylum introduces the man and his work. The following eight sections, the main body of the book, present Walrond’s rediscovered writing. In the pieces assembled here, Walrond revisits many of the haunts of his earlier writing, in the form of reviews and articles about Harlem, and stories and sketches that draw on a knowledge of Guyana and Barbados, and in particular his interest in the communities of West Indian immigrants that were formed in the building of the Panama Canal. There are also a few sketches of black immigrant life in wartime Britain.
The editors have diligently mined a range of sources, written between 1929 and 1957. The magazines and newspapers from which Walrond’s pieces are taken are diverse, and mainly published in Britain. They include the Spectator, Clarion, Evening Standard, West Indian Review, Black Man, and an in-house publication, Roundway Review. The latter takes its name from a psychiatric hospital located in Wiltshire, where Walrond was a voluntary patient from 1952 to 1957.
In Search of Asylum forms part of a gradual rehabilitation of Walrond’s work that has been taking place in recent years. In 1998, Parascandola edited “Winds Can Wake Up the Dead”: An Eric Walrond Reader, and he co-edited, again with Wade, the 2012 volume Eric Walrond: The Critical Heritage, which includes essays by critics such as Kenneth Ramchand, Rhonda D. Frederick, and Michael Niblett. A new edition of Tropic Death, introduced by scholar Arnold Rampersad, was published in early 2013. And a biography of Walrond is also forthcoming.
For all the hard work the editors have expended on collecting, ordering, and presenting this material, it is reasonable to ask how they have located the writing they have unearthed. And to what extent do their introduction to In Search of Asylum and Walrond’s texts themselves resolve the enigma of the man and his writing? What is the nature of that enigma? In what ways does the writing — to use the editors’ phrase — “enrich the scope of black diasporic literature”?
For the most part, Parascandola and Wade make a case based on history — filling in the blanks of Walrond’s life — and sociology, the whys and wherefores of his movements. Walrond’s writings are carefully annotated to explain words and phrases of the time that relate to the different locations in which the stories or journalism are set. Where the book is weaker is in offering any detailed exploration of the pieces’ literary merit, or other arguments for reviving the writing. It is no longer a novelty to read creative, journalistic, or academic explorations of diverse geographical locations, even when these are given from a colonial perspective. Walrond’s preoccupations with phenotype descriptions of characters and his use of dialect were certainly praised by his contemporaries for the precision and ear that he brought to them. But the writing style is also very much of its time, with somewhat convoluted sentences leaning towards overwriting.
Walrond scholar Michael Niblett, who has championed Tropic Death, argues that his contribution is the articulation of a Caribbean landscape by means of specific local and racial descriptions. How might the writings that Parascandola and Wade have discovered extend or contradict Niblett’s observations? By addressing this question, they could have engaged Niblett in a useful dialogue.
Readers with a leaning towards literary theory might also detect an elephant hiding within the text, begging to be coaxed out. That elephant is a debate about the category of “minor literature,” and the extent to which Walrond’s output might productively be considered to fall within its confines. As the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argued, such literature is not necessarily “minor” in terms of its quality. In their study of Franz Kafka, for example, they characterise “minor literature” as texts that challenge mainstream writing; texts that offer a political critique of colonialism; and texts that represent a community perspective.
Applying these categories enables us to see, for instance, how Walrond’s challenge to mainstream writing lies in his “deterritorialised” subject matter — for example, his examination of the variegated community in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone, a mix of resident Spanish-speaking colonials, born in Panama, and black colonials from the English-speaking Caribbean, whom they largely despised even as they worked alongside them. The latter had migrated, as did Walrond and his family, from one colony to the other in search of work. This first-hand experience no doubt sharpened his ear for dialect, and his ability to capture it on the page represented, in the 1930s, a radical destabilisation of the English language, to the extent that it may have hindered mainstream acceptance of Walrond’s work. Meanwhile, his leftist and Garveyite sympathies informed his exploration of the cramped collective space occupied, at first, by a racialised, shade-based hierarchy of colonial blackness, and later by the black minority in Britain.
These features of Walrond’s writing suggest an alternative — but in this collection unexplored — frame in which to re-examine his work. As a result, while the editors have cleared up some of the mysteries surrounding Walrond the man, the enigma of how to locate his writing remains open to further research.
Philip Nanton is a Vincentian writer and scholar based in Barbados. He is the editor of Remembering the Sea: An Introduction to Frank A. Collymore (2004), and writer and producer of the spoken-word CD Island Voices (2008).