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.

It is not only black British writers who have discovered this: certain Irish and Scottish writers have been insisting on it for years. Adherents of a politics of language such as James Kelman and the poet Tom Leonard (actually the midwife of the Glasgow ‘renaissance’, though less frequently mentioned than his novelist colleagues) do not group together on exclusively nationalist lines: they see themselves as part of a school which has formed along the periphery of the established areas of culture. A Kelman or a Leonard would hear his own tone of voice echoing more clearly from John Agard’s witty poem ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’ than from most of the verse printed in, for example, this paper or the TLS:

Dem accuse me of assault
on de Oxford Dictionary/
imagine a peaceful man like me/
dem want me serve time
for inciting rhyme to riot ...

I ent serving no jail sentence
I slashing suffix in self-defence
I bashing future wit present tense
and if necessary

I make de Queen’s English accessory / to my offence.

Unlike the poets, the members of the new generation of Caribbean novelists have not so far made strenuous attempts to structure their works from what Dabydeen ironically calls ‘the barbaric, broken utterances of black people’ (Kelman or Leonard would not refuse the terms, suitably adjusted). Yet the intention seems to be there, ‘I cannot feel or write ... like a white man,’ Dabydeen proclaimed in ‘On not being Milton’. He was referring to his poetry, of which two volumes have been published; perhaps he supposed that the ‘black’ tone, the ‘peculiarity’ he seeks to cultivate and project (‘I’m glad to be peculiar’), would emerge spontaneously in his prose if he gave his first novel a black subject. But the language of The Intended is peculiarly flat, reminiscent far less of the ‘coon, nignog samba wog talk’ Dabydeen praises at length (the words are the poet Jimi Rand’s) than of the eminently ordinary ‘white talk’ associated with the English writers of the Fifties, Wain, Amis, Braine et al, against whose legacy and influence Dabydeen marshals his energy in his essay.

Dabydeen is a Guyanan Asian who came to England as a child and later attended the University of Cambridge – a biographical skeleton which his novel fleshes out. The action moves back and forth between the Guyanan village of Albion and the streets of South London, where the hero, a scholarship boy in the making, discovers the worlds of sex, money and violence, and copes with the problematic choices these explorations reveal. Most of his friends are of Asian descent, but one boy, Joseph, is Anglo-African. Using him as a weapon, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the target, Dabydeen attempts to implant the aesthetics expounded in his essay into the novel. The illiterate, untutored but greatly artistic Joseph is placed in opposition to the ‘ornate, highly structured’ expressions of Western literature and civilisation. His artistic-philosophical grasp is meant to be instinctive and challenging, but this part of The Intended seems contrived. As is often the case, it lacks the interest of the nitty-gritty realism. Dabydeen’s best scenes are set in the stuffy living-rooms of Asian families living cloistered lives in Balham, and in the ramshackle homes and bars of Albion, where imposing presences such as Aunt Clarice loom large in the young intended emigrant’s life:

Truly she was old, her African face Sprouting hairs between the cracks, like a golden-apple seed. She was as old as the village, old as the huge tamarind tree, heavy with fruit, that cast a broad shadow over one side of the yard which her father planted when she was a child, and as black as the trench water in which every day of her life she dipped her bucket ... Auntie Clarice was famous for her religious proverbs and parables which she could narrate all day, recalling passages from the Bible from her voluminous memory. She reached into her bosom, searched about, pulled out a handkerchief knotted at one end which she untied to reveal a five-dollar note creased and humid from being saved up for weeks. She kissed me and put the money in my pocket. As I turned to go she called out a final riddle: ‘you is we, remember you is we.’ I walked down the village road as puzzled by her outburst as I felt enriched by her money.

This is vividly expressed, and it is no slight to Dabydeen’s experience – for it reeks of first-hand experience – to say that it seems familiar, as if one has read it before: the wise woman older than time, the Bible-memory, the money concealed in the bosom, the boy’s puzzlement at the riddle, which is, actually, not quite riddle-like, not ‘peculiar’ enough. The Intended is a promising novel in many ways, but on its evidence no one is going to accuse David Dabydeen of an ‘assault on de Oxford dictionary’.

Caryl Phillips, in his previous novel Higher Ground (1989), made efforts of a certain sort to tap the power of the ‘barbaric, broken utterance’ and turn it to harmonious effect. Higher Ground was a composite of three novellas, set in slave-trade Africa, civil-rights America and bedsit London. The attempt to depict an African entangled in collaboration with English slavers was audacious, but fell down, in my view, on its portrayal of the consciousness of an inhabitant of such a remote time and place. The African’s language – not forgetting that he had had some education – showed too heavy a reliance on Western mentality and conceptualisation:

The small knot of soldiers part and the Governor steps forward. He is attired in full military uniform. It appears to me unwise, for even at this late afternoon hour the sun remains unrepentant. Price extends a hand which the Governor refuses to shake.

Phillips’s gift for ventriloquism shone brilliantly, however, in the third part of Higher Ground, where he spoke for the inner agony of Irene, a Pole who has survived the Nazis and is rebuilding herself in London. Here his tightly-reined lyricism, even as it worked to set Irene free, showed her deprived of air and suffocating.

Phillips was born on the island of St Kitts in 1958, and moved to England in the same year. At 33, he has been remarkably prolific: four novels, one book of travel, plays for stage, television and radio, screenplays and more besides. His is a talent strongly drawn to narrative, but he also feels himself ‘peculiar’, and his books conjure up a spirit armed with the elements of language, battling to regain entry to the source from which it emerged: in Phillips’s case, this entails a journey from England, where he was raised, back to the Caribbean, then back to Africa, and finally home – or ‘home’ – once more to England.

In his new novel, Cambridge, he has returned to the era of slavery, situating himself this time at the end of the Middle Passage, on a West Indian sugar plantation, rather than at its beginning, on the African shore, as in Higher Ground. He has, as it were, combined the first and third voices from that novel. The result is Miss Emily Cartwright, daughter of an estate owner, who sets out for a Caribbean island some time between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the end of slavery itself a quarter of a century later, to examine her father’s properties. James Baldwin – Phillips’s mentor – once said that if he were to attempt a history of American blacks, he would first have to interview the whites. In this novel, in order to round out the story of the white woman, Emily, Phillips has ‘interviewed’ the black slave who gives his name to the book, Cambridge.

As the novel opens, Emily is 30, outwardly proper but inwardly frustrated: ‘too old to be secretly stifling her misery into lace handkerchiefs’. In order to ‘insure his own future’, her father has promised her – against her will – to a widower twenty years her senior. There is a nice irony in making Emily, massa’s representative among the slaves, a victim of horse-trading herself. Her journal entries record impressions of the voyage out, observations of island life, and her attempts to come to terms with her own authority, especially where it clashes with that of the plantation manager. Mr Brown, an excellent creation.

Phillips manages Emily’s first-person voice with delicacy and skill; it is a tricky feat to perform, making her a mouthpiece for the less far-sighted views of her time without setting her up as the crudest sort of racist, which would have banished all moral tension from the story. The author’s grip on her persona rarely slackens, though some usages seem anachronistic: for example, repeated mention of the word ‘nigger’ is presumed in the novel to offend both black and liberal white alike, whereas it is surely the case that the contemptuous overtones, not to say unspeakability, became emphatic only at the start of this century. Emily’s jottings on her chattels sound most authentic when they are transmitted in cold blood: ‘the greatest fear of the black is not having a master’; ‘they displayed the animal fidelity of the dog,’ and so on. There is not all that much graphic incident in her tale, which takes up three-quarters of the novel: yet highly dramatic events are implanted in it like secrets which can only be understood – this is where Phillips’s ingenuity becomes apparent – by a reading of the final quarter, most of which belongs to Cambridge.

Throughout the greater part of the novel, Cambridge seems to be little more than a mote in Emily’s eye, and had we to rely on ‘white talk’ alone, that is all he would remain. This is what Baldwin was referring to when he spoke of ‘the nightmare called history’ – the tale told from one side only. In order to come close to the reality it attempts to depict, the story needs answering back – which is what happens in Cambridge. In his brief account (his Last Testament, though we don’t know that either until it’s over), Cambridge tells of his first days of bondage, his later freedom in England, where he gained an education and became a preacher, and the incident which resulted in his being pressed into slavery a second time. I am not about to give away the ending to this humane book, but it involves sex (‘Integration?’ Baldwin scoffed. ‘We were integrated in the Womb’), murder, and a final reconciliation of the races, though only as a token of what might have been.

The themes of expatriation and master-slave relationships are probably unavoidable for the Afro-Caribbean writer sooner or later. They are also present in Jamaica Kincaid’s third work of fiction, Lucy. Kincaid comes from the island of Antigua. Like Dabydeen and Phillips, she left her native place, but on a boat headed for New York rather than Southampton. Her heroine is a teenage girl who arrives from the Caribbean in the l960s to work for Lewis and Mariah, an affluent, earth-loving couple who live with their young children in Manhattan. Like Cambridge, Lucy reverses the order of authority in the bond between master (mistress, actually) and servant, and like him she finds herself in the role of provider of love. Paradoxically, that is just what she cannot receive herself.

The narrative voice in Lucy is self-consciously naive, and at times arch: ‘Mariah wanted me to see some paintings by a man, a French man, who had gone half-way across the world to live and had painted pictures of the people he found living there.’ In many other places, however, the satire is crisp. Mariah ‘had too much of everything, and so she longed to have less; less, she was sure, would bring her happiness. To me it was a laugh and a relief to observe the unhappiness that too much can bring.’ This is the kind of domestic irony we expect from authors associated with the New Yorker, where Kincaid is a staff writer. Her subject is the broken heart, the broken lineage, but there is nothing broken or ‘barbaric’ about her utterance. She is a precise, limpid writer. Lucy is cold and suffers from the void inside her, but she still knows the importance of telling your own story, of answering back: ‘History is full of great events; when the great events are said and done, there will always be someone, a little person, unhappy, dissatisfied, discontented, not at home in her own skin, ready to stir up a whole new set of great events again.’