Elaine Savory on the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite
Elaine Savory on the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite
Well known as a Caribbean literary scholar, Elaine Savory has published widely on various genres of Caribbean and African literatures and has written much on the work of Kamau Brathwaite. Her books include two studies on the writing of Jean Rhys; a coedited (with Carole Boyce Davies) collection of feminist essays on Caribbean literature, Out of the Kumbla (Africa World, 1990); and a collection of poetry, Flame Tree Time (Sandberry, 1993). She guest edited “Caribbean Ecocriticism” (2016), a special issue of the Journal of West Indian Literature, and has recently published articles on the intersections of ecocriticism and Caribbean literature. Savory has also recently returned to work on her poetry. She teaches in the Literary Studies Department at the New School University, New York City. This interview took place on 11 November 2016 in New York City and was edited for publication in January 2018.
Kelly Baker Josephs: How and when did you first encounter Kamau Brathwaite and/or his work?
Elaine Savory: In Barbados, at the first night of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. In Ghana, I had worked in theater and for Ghana Television. In Barbados, I wanted to carry on theater directing. Since the theater companies were self-segregated, I (being white and nervous about intruding across evident racial lines) went to the one known for white or near-white members and a lot of European plays. They asked me if I had a play to suggest. Death and the King’s Horseman was an ambitious project to do outside Nigeria, requiring a lot of solid grounding in Soyinka’s cultural contexts. It was also ambitious as to the casting, in Barbados. It is a powerful story about English colonial intrusion on an ancient culture, told, as Soyinka carefully explains in his introduction to the play, from within Yoruba social space, focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the title character. He and his society are the core of the play, and so most of the main parts require actors of African descent. To find those actors, I needed to upset the self-segregation common in Barbados theater at the time, and I approached a group of black actors and writers. Earl Warner, later very well known as a major theatrical figure in the region, agreed to play the main role, Elesin. The white actors for the colonial parts came from the company producing the play. The production involved about fifty people, a fairly large budget, and a lot of work.
KBJ: When was this?
ES: 1976. I was young and felt very nervous at times about pulling this off. Even when it came together beautifully on the first night, I was unsure of how it would be received (it soon became clear it was very successful). Then, just after the performance ended, a man walked up to me and was very appreciative. He introduced himself. It was Kamau. I knew his work. He said, “You know, I couldn’t believe that . . .” and he paused. I said, “That someone like me could do this, right?” And he laughed. That was how I met Kamau. I was full of joy that he had liked it.
I should say I refer to him as Kamau not out of familiarity but out of respect for his adoption of an iconic African name which emphasizes his chosen primary affiliation.
KBJ: So you had encountered his work before you encountered him?
ES: Yes. I’d already actually written a review and a couple of tiny pieces. I had begun to become deeply engaged with Barbadian literature. I’d come from Ghana to this second job in Barbados and was teaching African literature. But as for the presence of Africa in Barbados—when I asked, mostly I found this stone wall of denial, with a few exceptions, like Elombe Mottley running Yoruba House in Bridgetown. Kamau’s work (his first trilogy) brought together Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.
But in Kamau’s work there are really four places that signify in his work: Barbados, England, Ghana, New York. I was born in England, held my first academic position in Ghana, then worked in Barbados and moved eventually to New York. All in a sense an accident, but because of that, as I came to understand Kamau’s poetic journey, I came to recognize that his imagination works at the same time on a very local level and a very global level, and that he captures both connection and separation in unique ways.
Sometimes I think the relative neglect which has happened, critically, with regard to Kamau’s most recent work, is the result of his moving beyond his readers, as [T. S.] Eliot did in the beginning. Though there are a good many people who’ve done amazing work on Brathwaite, I think there is also resistance, perhaps because few people can follow him everywhere he goes.
KBJ: You said four places, but didn’t name Jamaica. I think of Jamaica as being one of the key places in Brathwaite’s trajectory.
ES: I meant to say Jamaica, as well. It’s five, really. Jamaica was of course the crucible of his creolization theory.
KBJ: You encountered his work before you encountered the man—and then you encountered the man in the theater space, after Death and the King’s Horseman. Then what happened?
ES: Then he went back to Jamaica, of course. He would come to Barbados sometimes. I didn’t feel that I knew him. I have always had a profound humbleness and respect with regard to his work, though of course a critical sense of it as well, as time has gone on. By the time I came to New York, I had written on his work, and he had liked what I had written. That was the nature of the connection we had. I wasn’t in Jamaica; he wasn’t in Barbados. We didn’t see each other. I never really knew [his wife] Doris. I knew of her. I met her a few times but I never really knew her. I wasn’t one of his circle of friends.
I felt like I was a student of his work, more and more deeply drawn to it. The more I knew about it, the less confident I felt in my own ability to understand it, so it kept on leading me further and further in. Anyway, fast forward to my moving to New York. The phone goes. This is 1989. It’s Kamau. He says, “I’m coming up to NYU for an interview. Getting out of Jamaica. Thinking I might do this.” A lot of people were looking for second jobs because the tensions and situations were so dire.
He says, “You think I would like New York?” I said, “How could I know? Why wouldn’t you? Why are you asking me this question?” I said, “Anyway, I’m going to introduce you to my husband. He has been in New York since he was young, and he loves the city and knows it very well. He is African American. He is the person you should be talking with about New York.” I introduced them and they became fast friends.
But for me, it remained that I was studying his work and trying to write about him. When we became neighbors, on different sides of Washington Square, I used to go to his graduate seminars sometimes. In one of them, on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I became fixed on Miranda as the problem. When I came home, I sat for hours, almost an entire day and night, writing a long poem in seven sections in the voice of Miranda, now four hundred years old and at last willing to make a confession about what happened between her and Caliban. I had written poetry for quite a long time in Barbados, and published a collection in the Sandberry Press series [Jamaica], but my move to New York had silenced that voice. Kamau’s seminar brought it back.
KBJ: So he has influenced your move toward creative writing. Has his critical work infused your own critical work as well? Not just your work on his work but your work in general? On Jean Rhys, or on ecocriticism, for example? Do you feel Brathwaite’s critical voice whispering every now and again saying, “Have you thought about. . .”?
ES: I think there are several profound things that his work has done for my own. I didn’t want to write about Rhys in the first place. It was a biocritical essay that was offered to me. I resented it because I felt this person who’d offered it to me had done so because I’m a white woman, and I didn’t want to do that. Then I read Kamau’s famous remark about Rhys (in “Contradictory Omens” he writes, of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, “Tia was not and never could have been her friend”). I always saw that in the light of his trying to clear space. I never thought that it was a fundamental rejection any more than anything any of us say. Especially writers.
Writers have a right to protect their creative space. They have a right to their strong positions, in the moment, because that’s going to create something else. So, it was not one of his scholarly remarks, and it keeps coming up. It’s so annoying that people bring it up as if he said it yesterday. If you say something in the 1970s, why would people still be talking as if you think that today? His work is a lot more complex about race than some have suggested. So, yes, that influences me when I’m thinking about Rhys. More broadly, Brathwaite has made me come to think about whiteness through his combination of acerbic honesty and deep humanity, to lay down defensiveness and begin to explore it in my work.
I have never had a planned career. I’ve just fallen into things. And, to be honest, resisted the conventional road. The good thing about that—it’s not very smart in a lot of ways—but the good thing about that is I haven’t actually nailed myself to any particular position. I’ve been able to evolve a voice and keep going on this journey. That’s exactly what Kamau does—obviously on a far higher level than I do. He’s on a creative journey, and he is constantly reinventing, rethinking, reimagining. It is clear his work has periods—the 1960s to the early 1980s, the mid-1980s to the 1990s, and the last almost twenty years. He brings together the scribal and the oral, through his “video style.” He’s constantly searching for the next iteration of form. That’s influenced me. He demands much of his readers and even more of his critics. To me, literary criticism is not saying something is good or bad, but showing other readers ways to comprehend the nature of new work.
This is why I am very disappointed by those critics who argue that his work has diminished, or even say that all he can do is repeat himself in different ways. That his language is no longer totally sharp and functional. That it’s all downhill from where it was. I don’t see it like that. I see it as this: people thought they had a brand. They can quickly comprehend a brand.
KBJ: Right. He’s not as dependably predictable as a “brand.” Though his work is, I believe, recognizable. His influence—as I hope to show with this special section—is in many ways recognizable, in both the critical and creative works of others.
What is your Brathwaite story? That is, what is the story that you tell about Brathwaite that you think most encapsulates him?
ES: I think it’s the way he can make a person listen until they are transformed, through his recreation of language, of settled images. His courageous facing of the most terrible pain and cruelty in the world and his equally courageous embrace of the possibility of human affection and kindness, often side by side in a collection. I’m sure you’ve been there when he’s done this. The students in one of his graduate seminars at NYU were gathered in a smallish room, sitting in the world as they knew it. He walked in and he said, “Ah! I have just seen Oya in the park.” He went on for several minutes about how she looked, how her power and her beauty were so strong. I looked around at the class, and there were people whose eyes were saying, “This man is crazy.” But there were also people who were totally in it. What I mean is, if you’re willing, if you’re open, he changes your imagining. Oya, Yoruba goddess, in Washington Square Park. Why not? What does that idea provide? What does it dislodge and what does it engender?
Or when he puts the image of Namsetoura on a screen—the striking face with a round shadow sitting over one eye. Then he tells the story of how he wanted to take a simple picture of a spider’s web, silver in the early morning sun at his Barbados home. But several cameras failed him, and then his wife brought out the old Brownie box camera, and what emerged was an image which he explored in a poem. The image is of an enslaved woman, buried without proper ceremony in that spot in his yard and angry now with him for disturbing her. That completely magical conflation, a kinetic interrelationship of the spiritual and the verbal and historical, brings Namsetoura uncannily to life and reminds us how many of the enslaved must be buried all over Barbados (and in many other places).
You know exactly what I mean.
KBJ: Yes. I remember him doing that during his keynote at the West Indian Literatures conference in Miami in 2002. That was my first in-person experience of Brathwaite. I hadn’t expected the hypnotic effect of his voice.
ES: It’s really powerful. In a certain sense, it lets you in to this transformational moment.
KBJ: Do you have any quarrel with Brathwaite?
ES: Well, quarrel, to me, is a strange word, but his work challenges me all the time. Sometimes he challenges me in ways that I resist. I can get exasperated, at times. But if there is an issue which worries me, which I wish could be addressed, it is the lack of availability of some his later work, such as Barabajan Poems, which is not to be laid at his door, but it is a serious problem. If people can’t get certain of his books, how are they going to teach his work, since it is in many ways so interrelated that it is hard to see any of his texts entirely separately.
KBJ: Is there a way to engineer a pull rather than a push? To talk about the texts so as to encourage people to want to read them?
ES: But you see, there’s the problem. Where are those texts? They are in Barbados, with him.
KBJ: In closing, is there more you’d like to add about Brathwaite’s influence on you or your work?
ES: My Miranda poem in Sargasso and Caribbean Writer was deeply inspired not only by reading but by listening to Kamau—and he did say he likes that poem. There is a section in which the protagonist, Miranda, is taken to a Spiritual Baptist service, which is based loosely on such a service that Brathwaite took us to in St. Lucy parish in Barbados. It was in a very small tent on a rainy night. Small group, but everyone in white. In its ritual and its solemnity, it took me so completely out of the world. Out of the Barbadian world that I know. I tried to give that experience to Miranda as she tries to take responsibility for whiteness, for her own failings.
In Contradictory Omens, Kamau writes about white West Indians (including Rhys’s characters), that they cannot participate in the spiritual world of the African Caribbean because they “have separated themselves by too wide a gulf” (38). His homeland of Barbados had virtual apartheid into the twentieth century, though much work has been done to change that. My own most recent poetry is imagining avatars of Miranda, white women, in their racial imaginings. After all, in David Plante’s notorious representation of Rhys, she complains about Dominica after black majority government, and she sounds like some old, white colonialist. When Rhys went back to Dominica as a mature woman, and wrote about that experience in “The Imperial Road,” she was not willing to think about why whiteness is a problem in the world.
Kamau often castigates himself in his poetry (as when Namsetoura upbraids him). My own dialogue with whiteness in my recent poetry and my critical work on Rhys are both in a sense in dialogue with Kamau’s work because I believe white people cannot move forward into examining race from a position of defensiveness or denial. It is a process of having to open up to that very difficult history. Kamau’s work doesn’t romanticize West African culture; he includes wars and empires and the spilling of blood. How did enslavement begin to happen there, and how did whites take it on to horrific levels on the plantation? He doesn’t deny that history, but he reads it in a frame of human complexity. There is a deeply brave honesty about his work, a tremendous humanity.
My own outsidership and wandering life has been an inhibition to my creative work (it is a commonly held position that poets need to be grounded in the local, and maybe that is very often true). But finally I have discovered through Kamau’s work a way of exploring that very outsidership. Most recently, through the Callaloo workshop, a place of great rigor, frankness, and also generosity and encouragement, I have begun to develop more “Miranda” voices. I thought Robert Browning’s dramatic voices were important as an influence, but I now realize Kamau’s work very often painstakingly represents dramatic real people or literary characters or spiritual powers or cultural moments which are very much outside his own experience (Columbus, Uncle Tom, Caliban, Ashanti witness of The Golden Stool). He also reimagines the world and places in it, from the vastness of the cosmos to the particularity of a place and time, often employing striking metonyms.
It is also important to mention two other powerful elements in Kamau’s work which I find of immense importance. He deliberately and evidently interconnects the mind, spirit, feeling, and body, as well as the finite and the infinite. His poetic world reminds us both of the importance of a small stone and of the vastness of the cosmos, of the earthbound identities we all carry and of the power of ancestors and of spirits. This is why he is never simply a modernist or postmodernist (his career has seen him move from one to the other), in the European sense, but rather an African diaspora/postcolonial Caribbean modernist/postmodernist. The word/name still matters, especially when it carries metonymic spiritual force (Ogun, Oya, etc.). Then his awareness of the world and the cosmos is ecological—as I am just beginning to realize, reading his work from beginning to end, to think about his representation of both the bitter failures of humanity’s history on the planet and the precious moments of reintegration. For all of us who are his readers and his students, he offers a profoundly important “alter/native” (to employ his term) vision, so essential and inspiring in these very, very difficult times.
Kelly Baker Josephs is an associate professor of English at York College, City University of New York. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Literature (Johns Hopkins, 2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and founder of The Caribbean Commons.
 Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean (Mona: Savacou, 1974), 36.
 See David Plante, Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (1983; repr., New York: New York Review of Books, 2017); Jean Rhys, “The Imperial Road,” Jean Rhys Review (Spring 2000): 1–15.