Literary freedom in an educated society By Terence Roberts
Guyana Chronicle
February 3, 2002

LITERARY freedom, in this essay, focuses only on works of imaginative literature, namely fiction, poetry, etc., not journalism, autobiography, biography or any other form of factual reporting. Poetry and fiction are literary forms or conventions which specifically allow writers to explore themes and ideas with language. In other words, whatever happens, or is said, occurs only on the page and nowhere else.

Even though writers may have had true-to-life experiences which influence their poems or stories, all sorts of changes usually occur during their writing in order to surprise, excite, or prove a point to the reader. This is why some works of literature say specifically at their beginning: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously” etc.

Most educated readers usually understand that when they pick up a book of fiction or poems, they are about to experience something in language only, something about to happen in their minds only as they read.

If readers of fiction and poetry do not understand this, then they may read words which they feel attack them personally, whether as a race, a homosexual, a lesbian, a politician, a rich person, a poor person, etc., etc. Written language is like someone speaking in everyday real life, but with this big difference: literature, whether read or listened to, is a separate fabricated voice, no different than that of an actor in a play or film.

I am reminded of what the great white actor, Richard Widmark said about making a film called ‘No way out’ in 1950 with Sidney Poitier: each time Widmark had to say racist lines in his racist role, he would go up to Poitier as they took a break after, and plead that he was not like that at all.

This fabricated role played by artforms, however, can anger secret biased attitude some readers may possess; for instance, a reader who does not like even the thought of someone from his or her race making love to someone of another specific race, will not like to read descriptions of such intimacy in poetry or fiction. Imaginative literature, therefore, can affect readers even though it is only language, precisely because it evokes what might have happened, is happening, or can happen in real life.

The educated reader is therefore someone who understands that imaginative literature awakens our conscience, and welcomes this awakening as one of the functions of literary freedom in an educated society.

Literary freedom helps enormously to create an educated and tolerant society. In such societies, fiction and poetry of every possible topic and style of language is permitted within the convention of imaginative literature. The nations and societies of Europe, the U.S.A., and Canada have understood the function of true literacy freedom in fostering their overall material and educational development and wellbeing. Also, many novelists and poets from Asian, Arab, African, Russian, Latin American and Caribbean countries, who are well educated in the knowledge of international literary history, share the same concept of literary freedom exercises in Europe and North America. Those local critics who oppose such literary freedom in these countries usually use a nationalistic viewpoint to restrict the creative freedom of literary artists, or artists in general, but their arguments are usually manipulative instead of objective.

What then is this concept of literary freedom? It is basically these two points:

that characters in novels and poems can reflect every aspect of reality found in the society around them;

That language or sentences, topics, dialogue, narrative, locations, etc., can be used in new formal structures never seen before, or rarely seen.

In other words, there is no ‘right’ or single way to express, depict or be influenced by local or national reality. Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner, not only one of the greatest 20th century American writers, but also one of the greatest writers in the English language the world has ever known, demonstrated these two points in more than a dozen novels and scores of short stories.

In ‘Absalom, Absalom’, a masterpiece novel that simply astonishes readers, Faulkner focused on the deepest emotions concerning race in America’s Deep South, where Faulkner grew up. Faulkner, in one of his stunning chapters, uses the voice of an old white spinster named Rosa to demonstrate her (and others like her) deep racism when she visits the house of her half-sister, who is of mixed black and white parentage. In one scene, Rosa is cautioned by her half sister’s hand from going upstairs to witness an unpleasant sight, and Rosa’s voice narrating the chapter describes to the reader all her inner feelings of repulsion awakened by being touched by a hand that in reality is not really ‘black’, but which Rosa’s deep racism must insist is black and nothing else, so she says to her half-sister: “Take your hand off me, nigger!”

Of course, Faulkner the writer did not invent the term ‘nigger’, but he was born into a society that used it, so we must not assume the writer shares his character’s prejudice because he lets her behave this way; it’s just the writer’s strategy for emphasising a point. Whatever prejudices people hold hidden in their minds, writers often bring out in imaginative literature. So, almost all of Faulkner’s deeply realistic works contain this derogatory word and yet, most of his deeply compassionate novels about black people, like ‘Intruder in the dust’, ‘Light in August’, ‘Go down Moses’, etc., would help change the attitudes of millions of American whites and blacks towards a more tolerant and educated approach to race relations.

Some of the best black American writers like Ralph Ellison, Ismael Reed, Leroi Jones (Baraka), James Baldwin, Cecil Brown, Toni Morrison, have also created characters who use words like ‘nigger’ when referring to other blacks, and words like ‘cracker’, ‘honky’, ‘redneck’ when referring to whites, yet all their novels and stories attack racism in general and are published by the most accomplished and famous publishers in America and Europe headed by whites. The same goes for the works of those American poets often critical of America; poets like Allen Ginsberg whose famous poem ‘America’ has lines like ‘Go f… yourself with your atom bomb, I don’t feel good, don’t bother me’; or Gary Snyder’s poem about rough uncultured American habits: ‘I went into the Maverick Bar’, which goes: ‘That short-haired joy and roughness - America - your stupidity.’ Or John Ashbery’s poems critical of American cities.

All such frank works are published by some of the best companies, including those by high-ranking universities like Harvard.

In Europe, the case of England’s truly humane and unforgettable writer D.H. Lawrence, completely changed previously stifling Victorian modes of morality. Two of Lawrence’s novels, ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’, were banned in 1920’s England, republished in France, then after a famous court case which won publishing rights for writers of his erotic style, were republished in England to great public acclaim. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ was first suppressed because its central characters expressed the true pleasure of uninhibited sex, and also crossed over class barriers.

It is impossible to ignore these and many other triumphs for literary freedom over bigotry and hypocrisy disguised as morality which prevent the spread of education in all social spheres.

Guyanese society has produced outstanding writers whose works have revealed the madness of racial obsessions, the pleasures of tropical sensuality and intellectual conversation. Edgar Mittelholzer’s novel ‘Sylvia’ remains the outstanding novel of intelligent insight into Georgetown society, whereas his ‘Kwayana’ series imagines the real life of Guyana centuries ago. But no novel so far in the entire Caribbean can equal Mittelholzer’s ‘A morning at the office’ for both originality in writing style and frank exposure of racism in multi-racial Caribbean societies.

Wilson Harris on the other hand is unequalled in the Caribbean for his thoughtful metaphysical, yet adventurous novels which also expose bigotry hidden deep down in the human psyche. Yet, recently when all these advances we have made as a literate and educated society showed a further burst of energy and fresh spirit in new writing published by the Guyana Christmas Annual 2001, letters objecting to some of its contents were written to the newspapers.

However, people should read the Annual for themselves before accepting what they read or hear about it. Haslyn Parris’ short story - excuse me for uttering the title - ‘Coolie Tom Puss’, annoyed some readers who must have missed the point of the story, and the reason why such a line was picked out as the story’s title. Mr. Parris, whom I’ve never met, but I presume is black, had the guts to write a story which explores the confused and contradictory expressions of racism in today’s Guyana.

What is even more interesting is that the story is told in part through the viewpoint of the black female Guyanese character, Valerie, who, even though she cooks Indian dishes and mixes with her Indian neighbours, is still racial in her choice of an intimate human partner. Parris has her say that this attitude of hers, in her opinion, would be no different from that of her Indian neighbours as well.

The title of the story is, in fact, a typical racial slur one can find in Guyana, but Parris clearly shows how this expression is Valerie’s, when he writes of her: “Valerie’s totally prejudiced answer was that no ‘coolie tom puss’ would interfere with pepperpot that had beef and pork …” This story is clearly written by someone who wants to expose the silliness and lack of social discretion in such flawed characters he has written about.

What is needed in Guyana today is perhaps more fiction writers like Parris who are willing to expose such racial and shallow social trends among their own ethnic group. East Indians, Portuguese and other whites, Chinese, Amerindian, and writers of mixed race should expose the racism and rumour-mongering they know exist among their own race and class.

Unless we’re all perfect people, such a literary topic, among others, would be socially helpful. Racism towards people of mixed blood is another topic that needs exposure. Writers should not have to emigrate to express such literary freedom.

Could Pauline Melville’s shockingly frank novel ‘The Ventriloquist’ s Tale’, which reveals how obsessive blood-ties within an Amerindian family in the Rupununi led to incest between brother and sister, or her equally frank collection of short stories, ‘The migration of ghosts’, be published in Guyana today? I would not venture a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that question

The emerging young male and female writers of fiction and poetry who appeared in Guyana Christmas Annual 2001 must definitely continue to develop their promising writing, and not be discouraged by undue criticism. We need to see even more daring and revealing prose from Mohamed Yasin, Harry Narain, Danielle Swain, Camille Bobb-Semple, Petamber Persaud and Rosanna Shamshudin; more of that sensitive and sensual pop poetry from Shireen Ganga, Vanessa Harripersaud, and Alicia Daniels; more of that sharp, precise poetry from Ruel Johnson, Kojo McPherson and Sherod Duncan.

In future publications, it would also be refreshing to read more fiction which includes more cultured and intelligent Guyanese characters, and less emphasis on the crude and rude. Literature can also offer positive, thoughtful characters and not simply dwell upon commonplace negative realities.

Private sponsors and State support should guard against any form of covert individual or group sentiments which could seek to belittle and hinder this ripening harvest of bold new writing talent evident in the 2001 Christmas Annual, and other publications.

Keen support for such writing should continue without hindrance, so that literary freedom leads to a more open-minded, racially tolerant and educated Guyanese society.

Caption: An extremely moral and stylishly written novel dealing with the immoral and materialistic lives of a group of young Californians, by one of the best young American writers today.