Birbalsingh: An impressive range
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
May 16, 2004
The recently established Dido Press in the UK is enjoying steady ascent, building for itself a formidable reputation as a publisher of some importance. Particularly in a field as large and as highly competitive as it is in the United Kingdom, the leading publishing houses are much measured by the prominence of their authors and titles, and in this respect, Dido has not been slow out of the blocks. Already they have released notable academic works and in a series edited by Professor David Dabydeen, have aligned themselves with the University of Warwick's enviable strength and reputation in Caribbean studies. The works of two leading names in Caribbean history, Clem Seecharan of Metropolitan University and Gad Heuman of Warwick, have already appeared in the series, to join other significant books like Our Lady of Demerara, the latest novel by David Dabydeen, himself one of the prominent writers in Britain.
Now Professor Frank Birbalsingh joins that camp with the publication of Guyana and the Caribbean: reviews, essays and interviews (Dido, 2004). He is keeping famous company. But it cannot be said that he previously languished in obscurity, having earned a personal professorship, and being now Professor Emeritus in English at York University in Toronto. Before this book he was already well-known to academia across the Atlantic, and like other Professors of History, Hilary Beckles and Winston McGowan, he has published seriously on cricket. He was Chairman of the Jury for the Guyana Prize in 2000, and has many publications on West Indian and Guyanese Literature, sustaining a critical interest in East Indian culture and letters. Arguably, his Frontiers of West Indian Literature in the Warwick Macmillan series, 1994, is his main contribution to the region's literary criticism, while his editorship of Jahaji (Tsar, 2000) an anthology of Indo-Caribbean fiction, is his valuable contribution to the study of Indian writing in the Caribbean.
Guyana and the Caribbean continues Birbalsingh's range of interests, covering History, Politics, Biography, Cricket, Poetry and Fiction, with a section in the book devoted to each. This is a collection of book reviews, short articles and interviews all written by Birbalsingh, so it is not entirely clear why he is listed as 'editor' on the cover.
That minor question apart, the volume will attract the interest of a variety of readers, including serious historians, who might have more than a passing interest in Part One - the section dealing with 'History.' But they might just be a little less than satisfied with how far the interventions take them. Most of the pieces are book reviews, not primarily concerned with critical dissection or anatomical analysis. They are the highly descriptive documents of a reviewer who gives readers an informed summary of the works under review. Birbalsingh is, himself, very familiar with the subjects and their related issues, and is able to supply very useful historical, social and political backgrounds, which, in an extremely useful way, place the books being reviewed in their respective contexts.
This is certainly the case with Clem Seecharan's Bechu: 'Bound Coolie' Radical in British Guiana 1894-1901, a document which helps to uncover aspects of the historical roots of the Guyanese East Indian experience. It opens a window into that period of Indian indentureship through the remarkably articulate letters written by Bechu, an atypical immigrant estate worker. The review of Judaman Seecoomar's Contribution Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana, is another case in point. This piece explains Seecoomar's elucidation of some historical roots of Indian-African conflict in Guyana, focusing on the contemporary period and offering measures for conflict resolution.
But occasionally there is cause to question Birbalsingh's inclusion of some articles in certain sections. For example, he places reviews of the fiction of Pauline Melville, Rooplall Monar and Oonya Kempadoo, Stewart Brown's The Art of Kamau Brathwaite and a review of Kyk-Over-Al in the 'History' section. While it is not impossible to see his idea of a historical dimension to those works of literature, in most cases it is not strong enough to justify that categorization. His undercurrent of disapproval for Kempadoo's novel, Buxton Spice, makes interesting reading. While identifying its merits, he sees it as pornographic and sensational with a "zest for sexual ribaldry."
Similarly interesting is his section 'Politics,' with his undercurrent of approval for Cheddi Jagan and a few more articles on literature that appear to belong somewhere else. The Guyanese politics of the fifties and sixties never seems to go stale, and even after so many accounts, each new revisit still retains an aura of fascination.
The interviews with Dr Jagan and Eusi Kwayana are truly instructive. They are valuable personal statements, although Kwayana gets more of an opportunity to analyze others and wider situations in a more objective way. Particularly memorable is his character summary of the "corrupt" Forbes Burnham, whose oratory was "very empty."
Another fascinating subject arising out of the politics of that era is the poet and former activist Martin Carter. But the question returns: why does Birbalsingh choose to regard his comment on Naipaul and two books on Carter as politics? Aren't their life and work more about literature? Prof Birbalsingh reviews very important publications, Kyk-Over-Al 49/50 and Stewart Brown's The Art of Martin Carter both of which are dedicated to the life and work of the poet. It is always difficult to sum up and review hefty volumes such as these, but he manages to do more: he compares them, highlighting the main contending arguments.
This comparison, which is no ordinary feat, establishes that Birbalsingh appreciates that Carter's involvement in politics ought not to be used to limit him. It rather helps to elevate his poetry, but Birbalsingh distorts the image by placing these items under 'Politics.' The placement is misleading for the work of Brown, in particular, and for Kyk, but it is even more so for Carter because one would have thought critical attention to this poet had shed the 'political' shackles long ago. As Birbalsingh well knows, Carter is too good a poet to be so categorized.
The Politics section ventures out beyond the noted Guyana bias in Guyana and the Caribbean, with articles on Andrew Salkey and Jamaica's Manley dynasty. The wider Caribbean interest finds the light of day again in Part Three on cricket, with reviews of the autobiographies of Gary Sobers and other leading cricketers from the pantheon of past heroes, but Birbalsingh soon returns to his native Guyana for the majority of biographical sketches. His reputation as a serious cricket analyst does not suffer because his accounts reveal a depth of knowledge of the game and its players. But most of these articles have a reminiscent nostalgic quality about them with the author recalling the years, remembering past cricket and old legends.
Birbalsingh's biographical studies continue, taking on more importance because of the contribution they make to the subject of biography in West Indian literature. Although critics have always made full use of this strong element in the region's writing, it is not often that there is any focus on it as a discipline in its own right. Helpful light is shone on Rachel Manley, again, and on leading writers famous for the autobiographical, such as Naipaul, Austin Clarke, E R Brathwaite and Jamaica Kincaid. Yet, significant as they are, Birbalsingh's passing encounters mainly indicate that there is work to be done, since they are brief and cursory.
The Poetry and Fiction sections restore Carter to his place among the poets, while many short pieces treat other selected writers. The most extended study is a celebration of Sam Selvon, which includes commentary on him by other writers, while the book ends with a number of essays on minor authors rarely given any critical attention like Ismith Khan, Neil Bissoondath and Lakshmi Persaud.
Guyana and the Caribbean reveals the real range of the work of Frank Birbalsingh. Many pieces are short and make easy reading, so readers are not going to be frightened away by great bulk. Yet, all put together, these works amount to a considerable volume. It is not a retrospective, since the work does not seek to go back to span a life-time contribution, but the collection captures a good look at the impressive range of performances in the repertoire of Frank Birbalsingh.