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IN THE CANDID CORNER – The role of literature in society

Matthew D. Farley

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. . . Art has a major importance in our society becauseit defines us as individuals and it makes us better persons. – Author unknown
IN A RECENT SUNDAY BRASS TACKS CALL-IN PROGRAMME I had the distinct pleasure of engaging one of the region’s outstanding writers on the issue of the role of the artist in society.
The edition of the programme was dedicated to Professor Kamau Brathwaite, dubbed one of Barbados’ literary icons. This came as he celebrated his 80th birthday last month.
Having spent four decades living, working and writing in England, Africa, the United States and the Caribbean, his literary and historical themes and philosophy speak to restlessness, the quest for identity with which other post-colonial writers have also been preoccupied.
That quest for identity is explored in his poetry that reflects a vigorous experimentation with new language forms as he describes the West Indian identity and its roots in slavery and colonialism.
In the Arrivants, for which he is known chiefly, he sets forth a uniquely Caribbean identity that incorporates ties to Africa and the lasting effects of slavery. His poetry reflects a penchant for jazz, rhythmic experimentation, his love for the Caribbean vernacular and his use of the oral tradition. Many critics see him as having an afrocentric orientation and outlook.
There is a real sense in which the major writers of the Caribbean have played a key role in how the colonial system was dismantled. The way we see ourselves today is to a large extent due to the work and the struggle of our writers. Raphael Dalleo has argued that the work of George Lamming and Martin Carter has been associated with the colonial struggle that characterised the passage to post-coloniality. It is his contention that their work is associated with the anti-colonial struggle.
In my discourse with Kamau a tension emerged as I sought to engage the literary icon and the panellists on the issue of the role of the artist in society. I queried for example his relationship with the resolution of issues of the day, including the role of Lord Nelson given his perceived afrocentric outlookon our historical experience.
Why should a relic of the colonial past continue to hold such a prominent place in the heart of our city? I asked as well, given the importance his work attaches to “naming things”, what would be his position in terms of the renaming of the many roads and gaps in Bank Hall that carry the names of King Edward, Queen Mary and Buckingham that bear no direct relationship with the way we see ourselves or the people who live in those roads.
I also sought to ascertain his view of our reluctance to make the next logical step toward republican status. It would have been interesting to find out how, given his preoccupation with identity issues, he perceives the reluctance of some CARICOM governments to sign on to the indigenous Caribbean Court of Justice.
Without seeking to belittle his prominence as one of our literary icons, his response left me in a worrisome ponder. It was the professor’s assessment that the role of the writer is not to speak to the issues of policy, since that is the role for the politicians.
In my exposure to the great writers of this region, I have always felt that being “political” was inescapable and almost inevitable to their outlook. Martin Carter and George Lamming have been political without being politicians.
What use is art or literature if it cannot initiate change, and challenge us to see ourselves in a different light? Of what use is the work of our literary masters if we cannot extract guidance and bring solutions to bear on today’s problems. David Boles in Culture 2008 suggests that our writers help us “to bring context to our world”.
It is his contention that without great art there are no great ideas – a lesser community. Henry M. Sayre, in looking at the role of the artist, speaks to his role in “revealing . . . universal truths and helping us to see the world in a new and innovative way”. (
Lamming speaks of the writer’s role in giving new meaning to Caribbean civilisation and fostering rediscovery and recreation.
In conclusion, while it is acknowledged that the role of the artist is diverse and complex, within the social, cultural and political milieu of our region, our writers, our artists must not only describe; theirs is also to some degree a prescriptive role. Without being partisan political, our writers have always challenged our leaders to see and shape our world differently.
There is a sense in which, to our own peril, we might have failed to listen to the many voices and perspectives of our literary icons.
“What mirror image do we have of ourselves?”
There is a sense in which our writers answered this question long before the Father of Independence asked it!
lMatthew D. Farley is an educator, secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum On Education and a social commentator.Email [email protected]