Sense and sensibility
January 28, 2003
Recently, in the benign shadow of the Guyana Prize for literature, there has been much talk ( and some interesting discussion ) about 'the Guyanese sensibility'. Guyanese who work abroad or have made another country their home have tended to win the Guyana Prize more often than 'home-based' Guyanese have. There have been outcries of 'foul !' from 'locals' who see themselves disadvantaged, given the real or imagined social comforts and international milieu of 'expatriate' Guyanese writers. Resident Guyanese are writing at the barricades, as it were, economically depressed, besieged by difficulties of access to publishing houses, lack of opportunity for literary training, for creative writing grants to attend courses, and for the leisure in which to write.
All of these, of course, are difficulties equally familiar to Guyanese writers who live and work abroad. Admittedly, the Guyana of today is not an environment in which writers can easily follow their urge to write a novel or a book of poems or a play. In the case of the Guyana Prize, however, the heavy burden of publication ('expatriate' writers must submit published work) has been lifted from their shoulders. Local writers are nevertheless at a serious disadvantage (the argument continues) and should therefore be given more encouragement and practical help rather than only an elusive, once-a-year prize. Fine. No one can argue with that. But to go on to suggest, as one or two writers have, that creative writing coming out of such conditions must, almost by default, reflect a Guyanese sensibility more 'authentic' than that of an 'expatriate' Guyanese not physically involved in the everyday, down-to-earth life of the country is a dangerously limited, self-defeating argument, at best a case of special pleading. It's a bit like the assumption that being black is a guarantee of black consciousness. Worse, such an assertion assumes a consensus on what a Guyanese sensibility is and how it should be expressed, suggesting a parochialism bordering on self-quarantine : "You in the castle of your skin, I among the swineherd".
What are the qualities that determine 'Guyanese-ness'? These clearly have something to do with Guyanese living, on at least an extended basis (for how long?), in Guyana. But where in Guyana, and under what conditions? As swineherder or castle owner? As Amerindian rainforest dweller or urban coastlander? As poor or privileged ? Those Guyanese who live only a few childhood years in the country (how many years does the formation of a Guyanese sensibility take?) before being whisked off to live elsewhere, or those who eventually opt to live and work abroad, cannot, the argument insists, lay claim to a truly Guyanese sensibility. This is where the whole concept of sensibility loses its sense and begins to unravel. Does the work of perhaps the most widely read Guyanese author, Edgar Mittelholzer (who, like V.S. Naipaul, couldn't get out of the country of his birth fast enough) represent the Guyanese sensibility ? The Kaywana tetralogy has been considered by many to be 'the Great Guyanese Novel', as has Wilson Harris's 'Guyana quartet'. But much of Mittelholzer's work is England - orientated (The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham, one of his many 'English novels,' shows a deeply sympathetic awareness of his heroine's English sensibility) He certainly never considered himself simply a 'Guyanese writer': indeed, he saw himself as a writer of "novels for the people of Britain to read". But then he lived in colonial Guyana, hardly a nation of readers even then, and his Guyanese sensibility would naturally reflect that. Wilson Harris's writing came out of his experience and perception of the interior, the heartland of Guyana (still largely an area of darkness to most of his modern detractors), and that has helped to fashion his Guyanese sensibility. He has also entered into other landscapes of feeling: Scottish, English, Mexican, modern Latin American, pre-Colombian; demonstrating a remarkable cross-cultural understanding that seems able to penetrate, absorb and reflect a variety of ethnic sensibilities. These all contribute to the expanding of his own Guyanese sensibility into other "natives of [his] person". There is no question here of clinging to geographical, social or class-based experience for self-definition : no concern with that historical sigh : "You in the castle of your skin, I among the swineherd".
In fact George Lamming's use of that class-based image of passive, black subvservience versus white superiority is the starting point of In the Castle of My Skin's powerful assertion of black, not Barbadian, sensibility. The young protagonist, G___ has become aware of the sovereign nature of imagination, and it is this, not a lack of Bajan sensibility, that cuts him off from his friends whose island self-assurance is ultimately shallow because it makes no demands on their imaginative growth. At the end of the book, Trumper reminds the others that "you ain't a thing until you know it", and that "none of you is a Negro yet". Significantly, he has been abroad and discovered that there is more to sensibility than meets the eye. So too, Walcott's Shabine (in "The Schooner, Flight") who is "just a red nigger who love the sea", abandons country, race and national identity as reliable markers of sensibility: " I had no nation now but the imagination".
Home is where we start from. "...and the end of all our exploration will be to arrive where we started/ and to know the place for the first time." (T.S. Eliot) We are not born with an 'authentic' Guyanese (or any other) sensibility : That can only emerge over a long period of years spent discovering who we are. A Guyanese sensibility (like a Caribbean sensibility) is yet to emerge, and it will come out of all the strands that make up the complex womb of Caribbean life : social, ethnic, political, religious and artistic, both 'at home' and abroad. It is an act of exploration and self-discovery. The sensibility that finally emerges to lay claim to the word "home" will come, after arduous exploration and self-searching, from both loss and re-discovery.
And the writer's act of claiming this ground as his or hers will be either an act of re-possession or of remembering. But it is an act that must finally be grounded in generosity of spirit. For us there is no 'safe' place free from the wounds of history. For the growth and development of the Guyanese sensibility within the deeper, encompassing Caribbean sensibility, there is only a long and often lonely road ahead. Our writers and artists are in the forefront of that difficult journey, and the way forward is marked by three stages of development: self-contempt, contempt for everything, contempt for nothing.