Shun ethnic divisions To the Editor
Guyana Chronicle
November 30, 2001

Most letters in the newspapers about V.S. Naipaul after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature insulted the distinguished gentleman by dwelling on the ethnic theme.

Rakesh Rampertab used this East Indian-Naipaul peg to hang his criticism that East Indian writers are under-represented in chronicles of West Indian literature.

Naipaul is much more than an East Indian writer from the Caribbean. The man is a distinguished, successful, innovative and revolutionary English Language novelist! Let's not reduce him to an East Indian Caribbean writer! I am deeply disturbed that serious literary writers are stereotyped and categorised; especially limited to geographic spaces.

Literary writers are focused thinkers, keen observers of the human condition, and truth-seeking interpreters of human experience.

Literature is not a chronicling of an ethnic group's history, or a record of the artistic ability of people from that group, or of a region of the world. Literature is a sharp probing, a deep incisive ultra-sound, into the human experience. And humanity owes men like Naipaul, Dickens, Shakespeare, Wilde, Tolstoy, Walcott, A. J. Seymour, Martin Carter, Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, etc., an enormous depth of gratitude for enlightening us about ourselves. The works of literary writers transcend their societies and times and embrace all of humanity.

Whether with Tolstoy or Chekov in Russia, or Dickens and Wilson Harris (writing about the Rupununni) in Britain, or Fitzgerald and Poe and Joyce in the US, or Atwood and Ondaatje (writing about Sri Lanka) in Canada, humanity got a probing, insightful and visionary investigation into its nature, its existence, its being.

A writer inevitably writes from experience, and so writers reflect their environment. They write about the impact of human nature on their five senses and on their consciousness.

But this does not mean that their work is limited to that geographic location they experienced and reflected in the novel. Nor is their work limited to their ethnic or cultural experience or background.

Dickens' characters can be found in the streets of Georgetown, as much as they existed in England in his time. Time would have modified the characters, but the human nature, the human condition would be exactly the same; Tolstoy's jail and his Russian justice system in 'Resurrection' is very similar to jails, and many justice systems around the world today; Fitzgerald's Gatsby can be found in Georgetown every day, his colorful suit traded for more tropical clothes. And we can go on and on.

I deplore this narrow view of literary writers as representatives of a culture, or a country, that is being paraded around.

In Naipaul's novel that won the Nobel Prize, 'The Enigma Of Arrival', his background and experiences as a man who is East Indian, who originated from Trinidad with Indian ancestry, and who had migrated to England clearly mean less to him than being an English writer in England. England and its literary legacy is a much greater force in his life than being an East Indian with longings for India.

Instead I found an English writer reflecting a human condition with profound sensitivity and brilliant insight.

In fact, this book reflects a man who is a product of the British Empire, a man who as a boy in colonial Trinidad was led to idolise England as the motherland, then found his Empire in shocking decay and deterioration; a man who talked to British gardeners in English and thought and wrote in their (and his own) language.

We don't see a writer struggling to learn the language of England and wearing Indian garb and being out of sorts in a new culture.

Instead we see a writer who fits right into the society, observes and interprets in English, and wrote this beautiful, intelligent novel in English. My point here is that, like Naipual recognised, we as a people have emerged and were born out of the British system, the British culture. That is who we are. And that is who Naipaul is: an English writer born and raised in the West Indies who reflects in his literary works the experiences and conditions of humanity.

His perspective is not that of an East Indian, but of a writer who is in every way English. He felt profound sadness at the decay he saw in England. He felt it as much or more than any average English person. And his emotional response is real and sincere in the book.

For example, early in the novel, he writes that "That idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself: a man from another hemisphere, another background ... I felt that my presence ... was part of something like an upheaval, a change in the course of history of the country."

As a new product of the Empire, the colonial-born Naipaul himself is a cause of that "change in the course of history" of England; his presence had helped shaped this new England: an England that he could call his homeland. His presence is there and it affects, "like an upheaval", the country. Naipaul is a microcosm of the whole world of British colonial societies. He is no longer an Indian, but a British from Trinidad.

The Empire was decaying, and he felt it acutely, emotionally, patriotically, like any English person would about their country's decay. His mythical perception that he held in Trinidad about the Empire was crumbling and it left him feeling a stranger in his reality of England, the motherland.

Later in the novel, Naipaul meets his landlord, an Indian who writes poems about Hindu gods. But there is no real tribal connection between the two. And Naipual himself wrote in the novel that "generations of a new kind of education had separated us from our past; and travel; and history. ... we couldn't go back. There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back. We had come out of the nightmare; and there was nowhere else to go". This is an insight we can all learn from, and adapt. We have nowhere to go. Guyana, the West Indies, is home to this and future generations. We would do well to accept this and make the best of our human condition - here, now. We are no longer East Indians, Africans, Chinese, Europeans.

We are a people forged together as a nation called Guyanese. Unlike Naipaul's generation, which migrated to a new and changing England, our post-colonial generation has a free and independent country to build and call home. Let us shun the ethnic divisions and embrace each other as kith and kin.
Shaun Michael Samaroo