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WORD VIEW: Re-storying

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: Re-storying

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A friend of mine took me to task for seeming to imply in my previous article, What They’re Writing On, that Barbadians had nothing to write about.
In that article I referred to the horrors of tribal wars, religious conflicts, sex slavery and other kinds of violence that were all graphically illustrated in a good number of the books I was assigned to read for the Commonwealth Book Prize.
He was wrong. My last two paragraphs in that article were admittedly rather hurried, but what I meant to imply, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, was that Barbados, a relatively calm society, may have to reach these kinds of extremes in violence and whatever else in order to make it to the shortlist of these international literary prizes.
While it is true that the early history of the Caribbean is one of unspeakable violence and trauma, we cannot dispute the fact that the contemporary Caribbean writer has no lived experience of tribal and religious wars and other ongoing conflicts raging in other parts of the world, all of which make for gripping storytelling.
Indeed, one critic recently made a relevant point about the writing coming out of Africa: “These days you have to brace yourself before you read the African-English novel because what is almost assured is an opening chapter that contains extraordinary violence – which seems opportunistic, as if African writers have figured out what the global market expects of them.”
Having said all the above, I do agree with my friend that as it now stands, there are a number of serious issues in this Barbados paradise to write about: racism, classism, identity crisis, sex abuse including incest, political corruption (overt and hidden), poverty, gang activity, men in crisis, education in crisis, lost generations, small-island limitations and so on.
And as he further pointed out, there are also the “big issues” of love, truth, beauty and the examined life.
One may ask at this point what is the role of the creative writer in his or her society, if indeed such a role exists. Surely all the above issues are already being written about by Barbadian journalists, sociologists, economists and others. I myself have touched on some of the issues mentioned in previous articles.
But I believe that the writers of fiction, poetry and drama are in the unique position to use the power of the imagination in order to drive home effectively the stark truths of the ills in our society. Conversely, we also need to be reminded, again through our literature, that the human spirit has an amazing capacity for courage, hope, resilience and resistance against wrongdoing.
This reminds me of an observation made by poet Lorna Goodison when she delivered an address during a Frank Collymore Literary Endowment ceremony. Ms Goodison said her overseas students complained that nothing uplifting seemed to come out of Caribbean literature; it was all pain, cruelty and trauma. She made an impassioned plea to the writers in the audience that they find something positive in the Caribbean to write about.
One of the ways in which this is being done is to rewrite history, which Caribbean creative writers are already doing. There is the recognition that we need no longer be held captive to the prison of the past but can instead use our imagination in order to transcend the pain and horror of his-tory (whose story is it anyway?) and re-present another positive side which speaks at least of resistance against oppression.
To list a few examples of this “re-storying,” there are Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch Of Salem, Michelle Cliff’s Abeng, Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding The Ghosts, and Anthony Kellman’s King Ja-Ja.
The creative writer is free to draw from the existing so-called facts, but also to listen to the submerged voices of folklore, foreparents and a host of others who have unexplored stories to tell if we would only listen: not only stories of pain, but of hope, courage, resistance, heroism and triumph that will inspire and make us proud of who we are. We need not be locked into a past that was written for us. Literature is the work of the creative imagination and it continues to be one of the greatest sources of human inspiration.
It is a catalyst for growth and change. We cannot alter the past but we are free to re-interpret, re-invent and re-create in order to replace negativity with pride and hope.
• Esther Phillips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.