A CONVERSATION WITH PROFESSOR GORDON ROHLEHR - PART 1
JL: What was your first encounter with T&T?
GR: I was on my way to Jamaica from Guyana and I had to stop at the Bel Air Hotel at the airport to connect the following day. I remember that night there was a steelband fete and I had the ‘unfortunate’ experience of trying to dance a Castilian that went on for out ten minutes long and got tired half way through. I would have come back again on my way home in 1962 but my first time here really was in February of 1968 on my return to Guyana from Birmingham via the US, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbados. I seemed to be delaying my return to GT (laughter). This was of course the Carnival season and I had my first experience of a Trinidad Calypso Tent. Then about two months later, I came to take up a position at UWI, St. Augustine which had not yet been vacated. It was a peculiar time to start working since it was April and not the end of the semester and I’ve more or less been here since then.
JL: What were some of your early experiences of T&T?
GR: Trinidad was a place that I discovered in bits and pieces. I was always down in town. I was fascinated by Woodford Square and all the people who spoke at lunch time and aired their views. There were others too including quite a few eccentrics who cracked jokes and commented about people passing through the square. So that was a very early experience. In 1967, while in the UK, I had done the lecture on ‘Sparrow and the Language of Calypso’ at the West Indian Students Union in London as part of the part of the programme of the Caribbean Artists Movement which met every month at the West Indian Student Centre. Someone here knew that I had done it and when I was passing through Trinidad in February 1968 on my long way home to GT, they asked me to give this lecture at the Town Hall. So that was really my first introduction to Trinidad or rather Trinidad’s first introduction to me.
JL: How were you received, being an ‘outsider’ talking about calypso?
GR: I think the lecture was well received and it was serialized in the Guardian for about five or six days immediately after. So when I returned in April of ’68, there were people who knew me and knew of my interest in the Calypso. Teachers at Mausica for example asked me to talk, then teachers in Port-of-Spain asked me to talk and then they started asking me about comparing Trinidad’s music to Jamaican music. I just knew a bit about Jamaican music so I think that is what forced me to develop a parallel interest in Jamaican music, thus my interest in the two musics of the Caribbean. That was my entrée into the society really at all levels. By 1969, I was talking about Calypso and the music of Ska and Rocksteady to fellas from East Dry River in Renegades Panyard and that was a very dangerous thing to do as I later discovered. But all these youth wanted to hear more about what they did and what youth of the Caribbean were doing particularly in music. They wanted to hear about history too and Neville Hall, a Jamaican lecturer in History at the St. Augustine Campus at the time gave them a series on history. Then there was Lewis Bobb, a Guyanese lecturer in Political Science who talked to them about political development. All three of us received death threats in 1970 when the marches started because one of the initial tendencies was to blame these subverts who had come from the rest of the Caribbean for stirring up the youth. So people like Patrick Emmanuel from Grenada and Bill Riviere form Dominica were targeted at the time. But for me there was no such thing. I was just chatting with just about anybody who wanted to hear what I had to say and I never invited myself to anything. People invited me to come and talk and I would just do it.
JL: Well Gordon any conversation with you is inevitably going to lead to your body of work and in particular your dedicated interest in the Caribbean Cultural Studies sphere but I really do want to get a keener insight into this young man who left the Caribbean to study in the UK. Given your interests as a Caribbean person what was it like for you going to the UK?
GR: I had gone to UCWI London-Mona in 1961 just at the time that the Federation was breaking up. But the spirit of the Federation was still very strong among many of the students on campus, some of whom went around Jamaica trying to persuade people not to vote for the withdrawal of Jamaica in that referendum which was held. So I regarded myself as a Caribbean person, representing the Caribbean and speaking for the Caribbean. In Birmingham, which was my first real encounter of a place outside of the Caribbean, I was doubly or trebly aware of my Caribbean-ness. I think that the experience in England reinforced the feeling that we people coming from the Caribbean have a unique set of experiences (since one might argue that the Guyanese experience is not exactly the same as the Trinidadian or Grenadian or whatever) but barring that, as a group we almost instantaneously understand each other. So I went to England with that.
JL: What was the focus of your academic pursuits?
GR: Interestingly, I was working on ‘Alienation and Commitment’ in the novels of Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a Polish writer whose second language was French. Conrad ended up in the British Merchant Fleet, became a Ship’s Captain who had to write exams in English and then became this author writing in English with a syntax which was curiously French. But what was he writing about? He was writing about colonialism, he was writing about Malaysia, Africa and then he wrote that enormous novel about Latin America after independence. I saw in his writing something that was very relevant to the Caribbean experience…the experience of colonialism. The way in which it fractured communities….the way in which there was this massive misunderstanding between the colonizers and the colonized. Also, I saw in Conrad something I could learn through him about the Caribbean….about what some of the serious writers of the Caribbean like Lamming, Naipaul, Braithwaite and Walcott were saying. So that my serious study of West Indian Literature probably began in England though I had done work at Mona largely on my own because at the time there wasn’t a full course in West Indian literature. It was in England that I polished up an essay which I had written at Mona in 1963 called ‘Predestination, Frustration and Symbolic Darkness in Naipaul’s House of Mr. Biswas”. It won the Alan Layne Prize an essay prize and was in fact my first real academic publication that came out in Caribbean Quarterly. It was an undergrad piece that sort of made the big league. Another piece I wrote was called ‘Facing Our Past’ which was a comparison between Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams, In the castle of My Skin by George Lamming and Ruins of a Great House and A Far cry from Africa by Derek Walcott. I don’t know how I got to that but Facing Our Past examined how these three completely different West Indian writers looked at history. I left Mona with all sorts of notions in my head and with that tendency to write about our literature so whatever work I did was very relevant to my understanding of myself as a Caribbean person.
JL: Something that jumped out at me was when you said that West Indian Literature was not a full time course at Mona and it was in England that you interfaced more seriously with the work of Caribbean Writers. How did you view this?
GR: Well you’re talking about self-definition, self-identification. When you leave the Caribbean it’s almost like a crisis in your life because for the first time you really have to identify yourself, say who you are, know who you are, before you are absorbed by that vast wilderness that Naipaul writes about so effectively in Mimic Men. That’s what happens to his main character who goes to England already ruined because his Caribbean experience has left him in a state of psychic devastation and he goes with the hope that the place he has heard about will make him whole. Of course the place destroys him and makes him empty not whole and I think Naipaul has been writing against that emptiness since then. So one had to deal with that business of self-identification. What was exciting though was as you’ve said, a lot of our writers were there. And not only writers but painters, sculptors, musicians and other cultural workers. These people had been hanging around England, many of them in London and they knew each other and each other’s work. Yet they had never identified themselves as a part of a body. The Caribbean Artists Movement brought them all together for the very first time. I think that the Caribbean Artists Movement was powerful in making that sort of identification happen
JL: Tell me a bit more about the Caribbean Artists Movement. How did you become involved?
GR: In the very first meetings of the Caribbean Artists Movement, they were asking if there was a Caribbean aesthetic and if so what was it? They were trying to figure this thing out and that’s how I got involved with them because I told them I thought they were going about it in the wrong way. I assumed there was a Caribbean aesthetic and that there were a number of things that were characteristically Caribbean. I felt that all we needed to was to look more closely at the work that our writers, our musicians, our singers, our performers had been doing for years and we would be able to say what the common features were and our notion of what was the Caribbean aesthetic would emerge from there.
JL: From your recollection of that period and in particular the Caribbean Artists Movement was it able to wrap its head around this question of a Caribbean aesthetic? Did it become more clearly defined and was everyone comfortable?
GR: Well I don’t know for sure. What it did was infuse in its members a very strong sense of community. It published a number of newsletters for example so one had a sense of what it was doing. Also, it moved away from being strictly London-centric so people were doing things under the banner of the Caribbean Artists Movement in other cities all over England. So in that sense I would say yes. A lot of things became possible. ‘The Arrivance’ by Kamau Braithwaite was published by Oxford in 1967 and he had a big reading which was recorded by Argos so we had the beginnings of an oral documentation of our poetry that hadn’t existed before. Powerful things began to happen through the Caribbean Artists Movement. There was Aubrey Williams, the famous Guyanese painter whose half- Amerindian ancestry inspired his paintings and brought to life that aspect of Caribbean identity that many of us had not really thought about but was very central to his work. Althea Mc Nish, a Trinidadian fabric designer came down for Carnival, made slides and used the colour mix of carnival in her fabric designs. In the Caribbean Artists Movement we were talking too about Jamaican music that was emerging. So I would say that the Caribbean Artists Movement helped inspire a stronger sense of Caribbean identity. Eventually two things happened to the movement. Firstly, a number of people who were central to it returned to the Caribbean and elsewhere and secondly the politics of the place, the politics of the Caribbean encounter with England, took over. In the West Indian Students Union we were talking to a lot of people who might not have previously been interested in culture, literature or painting but they were interested in politics and the politics of Black Power took over. Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) visited England in 1967 and that energized a lot of people. The discourse about culture was replaced by a discourse on politics and the politicians were not really interested in culture. So the movement morphed and eventually petered out because a lot of the people who were talking politics were not prepared to bring out newsletters, organise monthly meetings and all the hard work it took to keep up the business of self-identification. They were not involved in that, they were involved in finding a venue for expressing their feelings.
JL: Did anything of the Caribbean Artists Movement survive?
GR: Well as I said people started moving out of England around the late sixties. So the centre could not hold. Braithwaite went back to Jamaica where he had been teaching. He finished his historical research which came out as the Development of Creole Society. Andrew Salkey migrated to the US, Sam Selvon to Canada and I ended up here. The late John La Rose remained in England and did what he could through New Beacon and the Book Fair that ran from the 70’s into the late 80’s or maybe even the early 90’s. I would say the Book fair became the big thing that took over and became the successor of the Caribbean Artists Movement. I know they brought out a big publication on it and Ann Wongsley did her book on the Caribbean Artists Movement which became her PhD thesis so it’s documented. I guess the Caribbean Artists Movement served its purpose for that period of time and then things moved on.
JL: Beside the Caribbean Artists Movement, was there a wider community of Caribbean people where you were in Birmingham?
GR: Actually, a group of us there….Trinidadians and Guyanese mainly were making our steel pans, playing them and touring too! We got invitations to play in various places as far north as Edinburgh, as far south as Plymouth and Dartmouth on the southern coast. This enabled me to see a lot England learn something about the pan. So that was a nice sort of cultural experience for me. The other thing was I played cricket on the vacation team mainly to keep fit in my case. With all the potatoes, I had gained a lot of weight moving from one hundred and sixty five pounds when I was at Mona to nearly two hundred and twenty pounds when I came back from England.
JL: Thanks so much Gordon for sharing your time with me and I look forward to continuing this conversation with you as we journey back home to the Caribbean next time.
GR: It was my pleasure and can I please have a copy of the tape.
In the next installment, Gordon Rohlehr reflects on how this fervour to define self,
create discourse and generate conversation and quarrel continued in the various
venues of the Caribbean home in what he describes as a tributary of what had begun
to happen in the Caribbean Artists Movement in England.