From stage to page
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton's
July 14, 2002
George Lamming is foremost among West Indian writers for the achievement of success with the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical first novel about growing up in the colonial Caribbean. Many writers have attempted this kind of book, which has become long established as one of the important types in West Indian literature. One of the important factors in this type is that authors have not used it merely as autobiography to focus self, but, more interestingly, as a strategy for close examination of Caribbean society shaped or marred by the diverse impacts of forces such as class, race, gender, migration and the colonial condition.
Lamming’s first book, In the Castle of My Skin (1954), uses that strategy. It is one of the major foundation texts in West Indian literature, obviously based on the author as a boy in Barbados, but is about change and the need for betterment in the colonial West Indies. Its quality is postcolonial as it confronts issues of education, history, colour, and the class conflict. As it happens, Lamming writes the preface to the newest book in this genre, a collection of short fiction, Same Sea ...Another Wave, by Cynthia Wilson. He introduces her to an audience already familiar with him and this type of literature.
However, while new to this discipline of literary endeavour, Mrs Wilson is by no measure a newcomer to artistic production or cultural activities in the region. She has had a solid career in Caribbean theatre and dance as actress, producer and administrator. She has been a leader in Stage One, a premier theatre company in Barbados, a prominent member of the few successful efforts at a united Caribbean theatre, and a cultural administrator in Caricom and in Barbados.
Having been so immersed in dramatic vision, Cynthia Wilson did not find it very difficult to transform the performing art of storytelling from stage to page. And perhaps that is why her prose narratives have an easy oral quality with a very keen and well-controlled sense of humour, which gives the tales an effective appeal to an audience of whom the author is quite aware. Not surprising for a dramatist, then, laughter and the awareness of audience are among the more successful qualities of this book.
Riding on that wave, Mrs Wilson’s main concerns seem to involve the preservation of what Kendel Hippolyte calls “the childhood of the modern Caribbean”. Having grown up at a time when the region was moving into self-definition and nationhood, she dramatizes its social history through the memories of events and customs that she fictionalises. In crafting this, she has a very good eye and ear for what is quaint, archival, interesting or valuable about Barbadian manners and Creole culture. A good example of this is in the story ‘The Riots,’ a scene from the struggles and industrial unrest that led the organization of the Caribbean working class eventually into trade unionism in the 1940s.
(Lamming captures the setting and atmosphere of these riots in Castle).
It is Wilson’s childhood, but also the childhood of Barbados as a nation, and, to a large extent, therein lies the value of the stories. Same Sea . . . Another Wave is significant for its documentation of tradition, particularly the oral traditions. In the story about a wedding in the village, the author’s structural strategies are a bit heavy-handed and obtrusive, with some amount of deus ex machina, but there is a very striking feature that is perhaps the piece de resistance of the collection. I refer to Wilson’s reconstruction of the guest speaker’s delivery at the wedding reception, which captures in good humour, the socio-linguistic markers and dramatic quality, the essential properties of “speechifying”. The love and awe of oratory, polysyllabic verbalization, malapropism, the quotations in Latin and even the hypercorrections are all there. It is an excellent reproduction of language in the Creole tradition.
Yet, Same Sea is a first work of fiction with the normal characteristics of a first book. Artistic techniques are attempted but not perfected. In fictionalising these memories, Wilson chooses a well-known ploy among writers of these tales of growing up; that is, the use of the child narrator. Events are seen through the eyes of a little girl, and two approaches are evident. One is the adult writer trying to capture them in the purity of memory without editorial interference. The other is the most difficult technique to master under the circumstances - the limited consciousness of the child narrator. In this, the author has to be able to achieve a very sensitive dramatization in which the consciousness is really limited to the intuitive, uncomplicated cosmic vision of the little girl. Wilson sometimes achieves this satisfactorily, coming closest in ‘Death and the Child’ and ‘The Riots.’ It is only successful when the adult sensibility is totally missing; when there are no explanations, no obtrusiveness.
In this work, there is also a tension between fiction and historical documentary. Oral history, events or personal experiences remain documentary if merely retold, however vividly. They become fiction when properly dramatized with narrative storytelling satisfactorily handled as is the case in ‘Death and the Child,’ The Riots’ and ‘Crop Over.’ The last named is a brief but subtle account of the Barbadian carnival tradition of the past with an effective expose of middle class attitudes.
‘Crop Over’ is also a good example of some of the pieces that work, because some in the collection are more successful than others, while a few are vignettes which do not quite reach the stature of short stories. ‘Poor Great’ is one of these. It is brief, but while it makes a valuable statement, it is just a statement in need of building and requires more work if it is to become short fiction. Yet, it claims a right to exist because of what it records about class consciousness and working class contradictions in Barbadian society.
While Cynthia Wilson chooses the most appropriate artistic medium through which to communicate her narratives, her attempts are mixed because the book is not flawless. It exhibits the characteristics, including the unevenness, of several first books in which the outstanding pieces are accompanied by lesser efforts.
Wilson’s social history and social commentary always work better when dramatized as they are in the better selections.
Same Sea . . . Another Wave is notable for, above all, its unpretensiousness.
The writing has genuineness, sincerity of feeling, purity of intention. It is certainly free of poses and affectation, being noted for its simplicity, but its largeness is to be commended. It is Cynthia Wilson, yet it is Barbados and, even more than that, it is the manners, culture and traditions of the entire Caribbean.
The collection is available locally at Universal and Austin’s bookstores.