Talking with Gordon Rohlehr about his life and work, its hard to envisage a time when he was not captivated by the cultural expressions of the Caribbean especially calypso. According to Rohlehr, he was fascinated by every calypso being a short story and intrigued by the calypsonian’s ability to compress and tell so much in so little space (four stanzas). He jokingly referred to becoming an arm chair expert in gender studies through the study of the man-woman theme in calypsos like Jean and Dinah and Marabunta Jane. “This was not like any literature that I had read especially the fierceness of the encounter and the fierceness in the way in which the calypsonians spoke about their relationships (with women) most of them probably fictional” says Rohlehr. “Calypso to me “ he continues, “captured and reflected a language and narrative that was easier to access than the work of the writers, poets and novelists even though they were saying similar things. Calypso spoke in a more immediate way and its what inspired me, an outsider as I’ve been called on occasion, to study the calypso in greater depth even more than the people who have created the thing”.
The second part of this interview picks up excerpts from Gordon talking about the post Caribbean Artists Movement era in London. By the late 60’s many of them had returned to their various homes in the Caribbean and found ways to continue the cultural discourse. Rohlehr recalls there was a lot of movement of cultural workers across the region and these led to ‘occasions’ for collaboration. But then came the early seventies, a time of political and social change and these encounters turned into ‘occasions’ that were not just cultural but political as well. Says Rolehr: “The return of people to the Caribbean brought with it whatever consciousness they had developed abroad, wherever abroad was.…Africa, England, Canada or North America. Walter Rodney who had gone to Mona from Africa to teach African history questioned the Back to Africa movement and Rastafarianism and asked people in Jamaica what they knew about Africa. For my part I was studying and analysing the calypso art form. In both instances we were seen as outsiders in the heartland and in a charged atmosphere where people were reacting to the rapid disillusionment with Independence, these were no longer discussions about history or sociology or culture but rather politics”. Rohlehr shares some of his insights and views on this intersection of change in the Caribbean right up to our present political arrangements.
JL: How would you describe this rapid disillusionment with Independence that bore such promise with charismatic leaders like Dr. Williams and others?
GR: I think what was taking place was a generational kind of change. Suddenly we had a generation of people between the ages of 17 and 18 year to 25 and 30 years emerging out of the shadow of a generation which would have been 45, 50, 60 years old… the latter being the one which would have been very much involved in all of the movements that created Independence or the Federation. When I went to Mona we had been in and out of the Federation already so one might argue that I’m a post Federation person. This post federal generation was confronting and questioning a generation which was ten or twenty years older but which had assumed enormous authority in this new period of self government and self determination. That led to what I’ve termed in my most recent book ‘Between Literature and History’, an oedipal situation which describes a clash essentially between fathers and sons because of the virtual absence of the female gender in definitions of national identity. Its not that women were not involved but their involvement was not recognised in the way that it ought to have been. So we had this confrontation between fathers and sons and oedipal confrontations are ones that lead to ‘buss head’ and death.
JL: So this was about political testosterone?
GR: (hearty laughter). Yes, its either the fathers were going to get the sons and snuff them or the sons were going to somehow upset or dislodge the fathers and they both seemed to know that. I think that’s what happened between Eric Williams and CLR James, between Rodney and Burnham. And with others too like Rupert Roopnarine and Clive Thomas. So in the case of Guyana it was Rodney, Roopnarine and Thomas vs. Burnham, Burnham and Burnham (boyish chuckle). In Trinidad the generation of Lloyd best, Dennis Solomon and the whole Tapia group lined up against Eric Williams but Williams neutralised the entire thing and did so in very interesting ways. He locked up that generation during the Black Power Movement. Williams showed that that he wasn’t leaving any prisoners when he locked up men like your father Winston Leonard, Abdul Malik and even older figures like Jack Kelshall. But even before those detentions there was a list of non-desirables published in one of the smaller islands and one wondered why these young, bright, academics and professionals were being defined as non-desirables.
JL: Were you on that list?
GR: No I wasn’t strangely. I was kind of disappointed that no one thought I was important enough to make the cut. I was just an idiot talking about calypso and everybody knew there was no culture in calypso or no anything in calypso so I was probably regarded as a deluded person and they left me alone.
JL: Let’s get back to the issue you raised about the generational struggle during the late 60’s and early 70’s.
GR: While it was a generational thing that movement brought writers, orators and researchers and people with any kind of consciousness together. They may have been quite different in ideologies but what they had in common was a sense of representing something new and distinctly different from a previous generation which unfortunately happened to be in control of everything. That’s where the struggle came. That’s where the marching came. That’s where a lot of the bitterness came and the senior generation was driven to defend its turf and take extreme steps. A lot of things that took place in T&T in 1970 like the states of emergency and detentions were extreme and might have even created rebels. I think a lot of attitudes were shaped and hardened because of extremities.
It’s like in Guyana in 1953 when the PPP included both Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, the British retaliated by locking up many people. Many of the people they incarcerated became more conscious as a consequence. Carter’s poetry grew out of that. Its not that he wasn’t writing or wasn’t conscious before but that experience deepened it and in his case he became depressed and disillusioned but he still kept writing. When I talk about the powerful grip of history, the colonial governors left us a style of governing and authoritarianism of one man making the decision. That was the model that we had moving into Independence and we are still fighting it. Today we see it coming up in the notion of an Executive President even though the Prime Minister already has considerable powers. We adopted the model of the colonial past and the same people who adopted that model are making recommendations fifty years later about changing what we have. But we are changing it back to that model and not in the direction of opening out the process.
JL: So we’ve come full circle it seems. I do want to ask you about your relationship with Lloyd Best and Tapia. From your lovely porch here you could with a good sling shot and precision arm land a few mangoes in the Tapia yard.
GR: To me, Lloyd recognised authoritarianism as one of our problems hence his term ‘doctor politics’. I think he might have recognised that he too was a product of the thing he criticised and because of it kept suggesting ideas like expanded local government and a big maco senate to control the authoritarianism that he knew would always be there at the centre. My relationship with Lloyd was a very informal one but I recognised what he was doing. I thought it was valuable. I tried to think of the society without Tapia and later on without the Trinidad and Tobago Review and wondered what our discourse would be like, what would we be talking about, what would be the issues. I’ve always felt that we would lose a great deal if those instruments were allowed to die. I thought I saw the threat of that happening after 1976 when Tapia went into politics and all of them lost their deposits. People withdrew their enthusiasm including contributions to the newspaper. It was at that point that a lot of my longer pieces were published by Tapia. Lloyd himself would say that this was a point when the general was kind of sinking. He was glad to have them and I was glad to be able to do it because to me he was a very courageous person. He didn’t just wilt under the enormous pressure. I remember when they burned down the Tapia Office on Cipriani Boulevard with all the back numbers and library of archives. That would have broken a lesser man and sent him mad. I respected and valued that strength and I felt that I should support it in whatever way I could. And I think he knew that he could depend on me, not that he ever said that to me. But when someone died like CLR James or Questel, he would not come and say “do you have a piece?” but rather “where the piece? You supposed to be writing about these guys!” So that was the nature of my relationship with Lloyd.
JL: Given the many years of your paths crossing on the academic and literary fronts were you involved in any way with Tapia politics?
GR: No I wasn’t. I looked at it from a distance and saw it as an attempt of a young intelligentsia trying to make an intervention in the popular politics. I felt there was a big gap between the world view of this young intelligentsia and the political process and that it was not going to be easy to make that intervention. I didn’t see any third party emerging anywhere in the Caribbean not just Trinidad. You get two parties and they exchange power every two terms of office. The fact that the PNP lost in the last elections in Jamaica is just simply a sign that they have returned to their traditional pattern. You have a shifting middle class vote and whatever side they shift to wins. In our case, we have a growing middle class made up of all kinds of elements. It’s not coherent in any way; it doesn’t perceive itself as a single group so that any third party like the COP would have the characteristics of a pick up side as Lloyd would say.
JL: But do you think this could morph into a more robust political third force?
GR: It could make a difference. Perhaps it is signaling that countries like ours require a completely different kind of constitution where the possibility of sharing power becomes a reality. Perhaps the proportional representational system of which Williams was afraid would make a group like the COP stronger and more self-confident because they would get some representation. I don’t know if the people who are calling for change though would be prepared to go that way. The minute you do, they would say, ‘ay, look at Guyana” and would find everything negative to say about the PR system there. But somewhere along the line we have to be able to tap into that element of citizens, bright and accomplished people, who feel themselves outside of the political process. This is not a healthy thing for the political emergence of the society. I don’t know how the society is going to decide to deal with that.
JL: I’m a believer in culture first, then politics and everything else follows. When you look at our society through your cultural prism what do you see?
GR: What I see is that we’re faced with what used to be one form of Gayelle activity, the three cornered stick fight in which you would have three fighters whose mission was to burst the heads of the other two with each being as vulnerable from blows from the other two. I always felt the stick fighting metaphor was an important way of understanding contestations in a place like Trinidad, even down to the rhetoric. I think that a lot of what we’re doing is still stick fighting and I’m looking on with great interest at what has emerged and what is happening now.
JL: Gordon it’s been a tremendous honour and pleasure spending this time with you and I hope to be able to come back.
GR: I enjoyed it and please don’t forget my copy of the tape.
(Writer’s note: this interview was conducted before the November 5, 2007 General Election in T&T)