Answering back

James Campbell

  • The Intended by David Dabydeen
    Secker, 246 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 436 20007 4
  • Cambridge by Caryl Phillips
    Bloomsbury, 185 pp, £13.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0886 0
  • Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
    Cape, 176 pp, £11.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 224 03055 8

‘European literature,’ wrote David Dabydeen in his essay ‘On not being Milton: Nigger Talk in England Today’, ‘is littered with blacks like Man Friday, who falls to earth to worship Crusoe’s magical gun, or the savage in Conrad’s steamship.’ He could have added that American literature is too, from Uncle Tom to Nigger Jim to Porgy and Bess and Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. The Americans, under the guidance first of the great W.E.B DuBois, then of the poets Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, and next a line of novelists headed by Richard Wright, began the task of reclamation about two generations earlier than the Caribbean writers who identified – if one can nowadays put it that way – with Europe, specifically England. Their literary industry, centred largely in London, only really switched on the power in the 1950s. Novelists such as George Lamming, Samuel Selvon, John Hearne, Andrew Salkey and V.S. Naipaul were among the first voices from the outposts of Empire to talk back. Not for them ‘clapping his hands and stamping his feet’ in order to communicate, like Conrad’s fireman (‘and he had filed teeth, too’). This black man was articulate and eloquent, with a sophisticated sense of his place in the old order. He told his own tale and in the process informed readers – including readers of Conrad, Waugh, Greene and others – that giving another side of the story meant finding another way to tell it.

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