“Kamau’s Children”

John Robert Lee and Vladimir Lucien Discuss the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite

• February 2018

In the following conversation, two St. Lucian writers discuss how Kamau Brathwaite has influenced their work and world views. John Robert Lee has written and produced radio programs in St. Lucia and published short stories, reviews, and several collections of poetry; his latest publication is Collected Poems, 1975–2015 (Peepal Tree, 2017). Vladimir Lucien is an actor, writer, and critic; he was the First Prize winner in the 2013 Small Axe Literary Competition and his debut book of poems, Sounding Ground (Peepal Tree, 2014), won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. The following interview responds loosely to questions provided by Kelly Baker Josephs for this special discussion, “The Brathwaite Effect,” and originally took place at the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre, located in Mount Pleasant, St. Lucia, in June 2017. It was later edited in November 2017.

Vladimir Lucien: Our first question: How and when did you encounter Brathwaite’s work? What effect did this encounter have on your own work (critical and/or creative)?

John Robert Lee: I would have encountered Brathwaite’s work, and writing on Brathwaite’s work, in the late sixties. This would have been in early editions of Caribbean Quarterly and in Louis James’s Islands in Between. And, of course, in some of the anthologies that were available. I had made friends with Pat Ismond, who had just come back from Mona, and she was very enthusiastic about Caribbean literature, especially [the work of Derek] Walcott (she later became a leading Walcott scholar), so discussions of Brathwaite and other leading Caribbean writers of the time filled our conversations. I had just left secondary school, was turning twenty, and was getting involved with the St. Lucia Arts Guild, led by Roderick Walcott, and the Creative and Performing Arts Society, led by University Tutor Pat Charles, and these influences all began to birth in me an awareness of Caribbean writers and writings. Brathwaite would have been very much part of this.

When I went off to UWI [University of the West Indies], Cave Hill, in 1969, I took courses in West Indian Literature (including French Caribbean literature, Aimé Césaire et al.) and then began to study Brathwaite’s work. Brathwaite used to visit Cave Hill frequently and do readings of his work at the Multi-racial Centre on the campus. These were exciting events, filled to capacity. There, I was exposed to Brathwaite’s distinctive and fine reading, which influenced my own reading later. I was studying literature, getting involved with Barbadian theater and arts groups, as both actor and director, beginning to write myself, surrounded by the exciting days of the seventies, with all the social and cultural and political changes taking place in the Caribbean—Brathwaite and his work formed a major part of all that life. Quite a stimulating, formative, and exciting time for my generation, as we tried to probe the implications of independence, postindependence, anticolonialism, and so on.

As I began to write more seriously, Brathwaite’s style was a seductive one, and many of my earlier poems certainly carried his stamp. Not only the poems on the page and the unique delivery but also the content. He looked back to Africa and our ancestral roots in a way no one else was doing—not Walcott certainly. Arrivants, in its early separate books, was probably the most influential to my generation of young writers and theater persons and intellectuals. His use of “nation language,” breaking the hegemony of English, was revolutionary.

Brathwaite’s Savacou (growing out of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement in 1966) proved a center of the new thinking about literature, sociology, history, and so on, and the Savacou 3/4 issue was particularly controversial. Brathwaite presented there new voices writing in the nation language/oral tradition, showing their validity, relevance, and necessariness. It created a storm of controversy, with major writers such as Eric Roach condemning the work. Gordon Rohlehr, in a landmark essay, “Some Problems of Assessment” (first published in Tapia in August 1970), put the issues and the generational seismic shift in cultural consciousness into perspective.

Involved as I was in Caribbean and St. Lucian social change and concerned about the impacts on the arts and literature, and being a writer (poetry, prose fiction and nonfiction, criticism) and theater person—all this and Brathwaite’s leadership meant that he was a seminal figure in my development.

VL: How much of this vision have you seen manifested—even tangentially—and sustained in criticism and creative work? Have we become more “scribal,” more cloistered into the idea of the book? I remember Linton Kwesi Johnson prophesying, in a BBC show with Mikey Smith and C. L. R. James, that West Indian poets would be producing LPs or CDs because of the centrality of the oral and the environments it gives rise to. The “total expression.” Do you see Brathwaite’s influence—or the influence of that vision that he pointed us toward—anywhere in the newer crop of Caribbean writers?

JRL: You mean present-day “newer crop”? None come immediately to mind. Perhaps Kei Miller and a number of his contemporaries. Kwame Dawes. Of course, your own Sounding Ground, in theme and musical sounds and form, reflects how deep and long has been Kamau’s seminal shaping. But certainly, the comfort with and absorption of and unapologetic use of our “nation language” by the generations following Kamau reflect his deep and seminal influence. So unless one did some very close study, there is no major writer since Kamau who does not reflect, directly or indirectly, his mentorship. But so powerful and unique were his stylistic innovations, no one could easily follow him; it would be too obvious, and in a sense he is one of a mold. If you make investigations into our literary history, then the performance poets and those who have followed all owe something to Kamau. In a sense, also, Kamau’s journey to Africa and back again and his exploration of those kinds of themes are not easily replicated; they were unique to him. He certainly was a “pathfinder” who many followed in various ways. He raised the consciousness of Africa to a new generation of Caribbean writers.

VL: As you know, my own personal encounter with Kamau was facilitated by you, via e-mail, after you realized my admiration for him and read a now-lost poem I dedicated to him. My history of contact with Kamau came late, and not without a fight. I resisted his work when I first met it, shown to me by a friend at the beginning of my undergraduate degree at UWI, St. Augustine. I rejected the work and proceeded with my hubris to “safer” work that did not shake up my whole conception of things in the way that Brathwaite’s work can. Later, during my time at UWI, I had to choose between Walcott and Brathwaite (“I who am poisoned with the blood of both”!)[1] and chose to take up what I thought then was the challenge of Brathwaite. A challenge that later proved to be pure delight and an intense sense of possibility and of someone in touch with what African thinker Achille Mbembe referred to somewhere as the “deep archives” of a culture.

We studied The Arrivants (along with works by other canonical Caribbean writers) in the first part of that course, which was called, I think, “Seminars in West Indian Literature.” In the second part, I studied Ancestors. And that was it. I have not let go of Kamau since, and I don’t think I can afford to. He remains the example, for me, of the possibility of work generated from the “deep archives” of Caribbean experience (perhaps Mbembe’s “deep archives” is somehow related to Sycorax?).

What is most attractive and crucial about Kamau is that the world he creates erodes the invisible structures that govern how/why/what/from where we write. Walcott’s “White Magic” in The Arkansas Testament [1987], for instance, has always troubled me in the way it defends and argues for a world that, in tone and outlook, it is so distant from. The world of a spirituality that is quite real to me. Now, had the epistemic underpinnings of “White Magic” been different, we would’ve had a different poem. These underpinnings determine how we understand metaphor and what we can or do draw upon in creating figurative language. It decides what devices become the engines of our expression. Kamau gives me this, both through what he has done and what he gives me the courage to attempt.

The first feeling I had about Kamau’s critical writing was a love underneath every word, whether “negative” or positive. Whereas criticism is presented as a kind of semiobjective observation of facts about how craft operates or should operate, how things work and don’t work, Kamau showed me that criticism is nothing if it is not invested in community, if it is not invested and coming from someone who is also part of the fate of that community. The deep interest or “love” I felt is what propels one to all the far corners to understand not just what is happening in an individual piece of work but also how it connects to a community of literature and the community of people out of whose sensibility/ies and cosmos this literature is coming and to whom it is returning, where it may effect some change. Give the people back to themselves, fill them up. . .

Robert, I see that Kamau’s early work on and off the page had a big influence on you. And that is the case for a lot of Caribbean writers. But to be honest, I do not think that many writers have risen to the challenge that Kamau presented in works like History of the Voice so many years ago. It is not that Kamau is a high priest and that they ought to follow, but for me this was such a crucial work not just for literature but for the quest for self-acceptance, for our sense of ourselves, that I am curious about how slowly—as has been noted about our poetry before—poetry is responding to this. I am speaking specifically about how many writers have not truly mined their nation languages to show us what it can truly do. (Our situation in St. Lucia is peculiar because the well-developed nation language is not English, and that, in a sense, divorces us from the larger and accustomed community of anglophone literature in the region. Yet we have a well-developed English Creole which carries the spirit of the French Creole/Kwéyòl.) But in works like Ancestors and later works, Kamau goes deep into the Barabajan sensibility and starts to show us what this language can do. Not many people have thought of this as something they would like to do. Why do you think this is? And does it have to do with the kind of literary community/ies we are bound up with, both regional and international? Or how we understand and visualize literary community?

JRL: Of course, writers find their own ways, choose their own poetics and mentors. From a certain point of view, a new generation of writers, who may or may not be deeply knowledgeable of Kamau’s work, who may well be more of Kamau’s children than they know, have also moved on to their own concerns. In certain writers, a kind of surrealistic, minimalist, self-absorbed style is emerging. For many, even though they are Caribbean, the world is more their stage than it ever was before. The nationalistic, postindependence concerns have given way to other issues. Yes, race, island, national, environmental, gender, feminist, and other familiar themes are apparent in prose and poetry, but the approaches reflect another generation with their own concerns.

And speaking of “literary community,” not just the audience, I wonder often now, thinking of St. Lucia, the wider Caribbean, and our diaspora, about the community of writers. I know from e-mails from Kamau, he has always been concerned to keep writers in touch with each other, as in the imagined halcyon days of the Caribbean Artists Movement, the Savacou movements, the first days of Carifesta (Guyana 1972) and similar gatherings, even across the oceans. He encouraged me to begin and continue an e-mail list of Caribbean writers with whom I share sporadically news, articles, etcetera, on what is happening among us today. I know it is a larger world today, though we are closer through cyberspace, yet I wonder if we are supportive enough of each other in constructive ways; I wonder where are the new critics who (as Kamau and his colleagues did) review and make connections for the new works that come out more often now than ever before. (Is there too much publishing these days?) And has UWI, once a center of great intellectual discourse and debates (and quarrels) around the writers and writing, gotten so lost in postmodern theory, in its own navel-gazing, that it and its professors no longer pay attention to literary development, except perhaps for a few of its favorites? In St. Lucia, I often feel quite cut off from whatever may be happening that could be of use to us. And the literary community of which we are part can seem so fragmented and distant. Of course, Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival and other literary festivals like Bocas and Calabash do go some way to help the personal contact between writers.

***

VL: The next question concerns this “personal contact” between writers: How/when did you encounter Brathwaite himself? How was this different (if at all) from encountering his work? Did this meeting have an additional effect on your work?

JRL: I actually first met Brathwaite in 1963 when he served as resident tutor of the UWI Extra Mural Department in St. Lucia. My uncle Victor Archer, who was working at Cave Hill as registrar, was visiting home and took me with him when he went to visit the office. I would have been about fifteen then. Brathwaite had edited a journal for the department called Iouanalao, and I suppose I was aware of him as a local figure. The more essential and substantial meetings would have taken place later, as I mentioned above, at Cave Hill on Brathwaite’s visits there to read at the Multi-Racial Centre, then run by Jill Shepherd and later by Joy Allsopp. In later years, at Mona, in the early eighties, I met him frequently, interviewed him, and visited him and his late wife, Doris, at home. We would also have met in Guyana in 1972 at Carifesta, which many of the leading writers of the time attended.

The personal meetings and conversations, the work that kept coming, his readings, all had a deep influence on me as I shaped my own Caribbean consciousness as a writer.

VL: I have never met Kamau personally, but we have spoken, in fits and starts, extensively over e-mail and on one occasion on the phone when I was visiting Barbados. But since we live in the Caribbean, I can speak of another kind of meeting that is not physical. Kamau gave Barbados back to me.

Barbados has been connected to me from youth. My grandmother—my mother’s mother—married a Barbadian man, who, in the absence of my maternal grandfather who had migrated to California, was the kind of missing grandfather figure. But my aunts and uncles straddled the two islands—St. Lucia and Barbados. My mother had done so as well, but mostly before I was born. Relatives were constantly going to and coming from Barbados. I too was sent over a couple times. And, being teased by my little proud Bajan cousins about how great their island was and how backward mine was, I began to hate the place. I never wanted to return. For a long time I refused to go there. My father had lived there also for about seven years, but I visited him there only once—when I came to get my visa to go to the United States to try to pursue an acting career. I remember him using a word for the place, even before he migrated there, and I held it fast, and wielded it like a weapon: insular. Before I knew what it meant, I marked the scorn with which it was said and thought it appropriate. Something I could say to my Bajan cousins in defense of myself and island.

Anyway, after reading [George] Lamming’s In The Castle of My Skin, I got a glimpse of what I would get in greater quantities in Kamau’s work, which is what I’d like to call—taking a cue from a man called James Figuerola, whom I never read but who spoke about something called “Deep Cuba”—“Deep Barbados.” The stuff of the people, the accumulated DNA of their particular and peculiar experience and how it is hurled forth again and again like waves on the shore, into the present as “culture” or, for that matter, “life.” So having read Kamau’s work, and feeling now this deeper sense of the place, I made a bit of a return. I took my family and decided to spend the July–August holidays in Barbados in 2014. With the voices of Lamming’s Boy Blue and G and the Old Woman and Old Man, with Brathwaite’s Miss Own, and Charlie Chalkstick and Adam and his dunks tree. Kamau and I did agree to meet on that trip, but it didn’t materialize. We spoke on the phone when I was at the airport getting ready to leave. The trip, however, had changed me or shown me a change that had occurred within me.

***

VL: Our third question: What is your Brathwaite story? That is, what story do you most tell, or would most like to tell, about Brathwaite (the man and/or the oeuvre)?

JRL: I remember, in the mid-seventies, in Barbados, Brathwaite and a number of persons, including the late Timothy Callender, coming to my apartment late one night, possibly after a reading or show, for drinks and conversations. I remember Kamau saying that when he had returned from Ghana, the first place he came to was St. Lucia, to work as resident tutor. He said then (and this is what has stayed with me) that when he began to write in a focused way about the Caribbean, wherever he turned (in terms of themes), Walcott had already been there.

VL: In an interview with Kwame Dawes, Brathwaite makes certain distinctions between the Caribbean Caribbean and the diasporic Caribbean. He says in the interview: “It’s such a quick growth of thoughts and insights and images that if, as I say, you not here, it leaves you behind, you’re left behind, like you bline, catching up with yesterday’s nostalgia. For I mean that if you don’t know/hear the native language/music, you can’t write new.”[2] Kamau himself has moved back to the Caribbean and on more than one occasion has attempted not merely to lay down serious roots here but also to create institutions—at Irish Town in Jamaica, and CowPastor in Barbados, where he envisioned not just a home or oumfo but a place that would somehow serve the community. Irish Town was envisioned as a Caribbean Library of Alexandria. CowPastor was to be a cultural center. Kamau also established Savacou, which has played its own role in publication and promotion of regional literature. What has being based in the Caribbean done for you? Did Kamau influence that decision at all? Is there something deliberate about your being here or merely incidental/circumstantial?

JRL: I remember there was a time, during my undergraduate years at UWI, Cave Hill, and just after, I had thoughts of trying to go out into the big world to pursue a career in arts and theater and literature. Garth St. Omer put me in touch with a well-known American writer (Frank McShane, who had written critical and biographical work on Raymond Chandler and other writers of that genre), to get me into an academic program at Columbia University that would help me follow a path like Garth into a creative writing department. At the time I had not completed my degree, so that put a spoke in the wheel, and then it all fell away. Anyway, I returned home from UWI; got involved with teaching literature and theater; was inspired certainly by Kamau, Derek, and my own generation of conscious Caribbean artists; and settled down to work at the arts from home. And of course as responsibilities of family began, it became harder to uproot and move somewhere else.

But I am part of the generation that came of age in the seventies, and we had high hopes for a new Caribbean. Like many others, I published my chapbooks at home (and still do), got published in international journals, contributed to print and electronic media, became a librarian, and saw home as a viable base. And eventually, I had no great yearning to live permanently elsewhere.

Being at home meant that I deepened my knowledge of my culture, both St. Lucian and Caribbean; began to develop my own poetic voice rooted in my home soil; had access immediately to the images of flora and fauna, the music, the dances, the language, the reality that has become the very substance of my poetry and prose. In all of this, both Derek and Kamau were, and remain, deep and foundational influences and mentors.

VL: A lot of your work has sought to reconcile your faith with the culture within which you find yourself and for which you have a passion—the “folk” culture of your local St. Lucia. Brathwaite has been persistent in goading the Caribbean toward the spiritual, both through personal experience and through his writings. I want to ask a sort of layered question. T. S. Eliot says that either religion and culture are two aspects of the same thing or culture is the incarnation of religion. As much as you seem settled in your faith (and I don’t mean this in a bad way), has Kamau or his work at any point in time challenged you to see things differently? To consider other things? Or do you have, not so much a quarrel as a firmly divergent position to him here? I know I am asking an intimate question here, but I think it would be interesting to know. A kind of extra-literary influence.

JRL: As you know, I am a practicing Christian, orthodox in doctrine, certainly not liberal. I don’t know if I have sought so much to reconcile my faith with my culture as to see my faith through the languages—past and contemporary—of my Caribbean and world culture. I don’t think Kamau or Rasta or other Caribbean spiritualities have challenged me so much to see things differently as to better see my own faith as part of the complex pluralities that make up our Caribbean. I came back to orthodox Christianity through Rastafari, with its own translations of the Judeo-Christian traditions, the “blackening” of the Christian world and life view, its transposition on our history of the biblical and Christian history and revelation. While I eventually moved on from Rasta, its radical and common-sense formulations and interpretations still help me to see my own biblical faith in a fresh way.

Frankly, while I have a certain interest in and curiosity about other forms of Caribbean-rooted religion, I was never anxious about moving from my orthodox Judeo-Christian faith to pursue active involvement in the Caribbean religions like Vodou or orisha or the older traditions. So in the spirit of democratic choice, and academic exploration, I have never felt strongly about the religious position of Kamau or others. I guess my personality does not lead me into political or religious quarrels with anyone, once we agree that we are all free to express and hold our own views and opinions. I certainly am aware that my orthodox Judeo-Christian beliefs are not very politically correct in our literary and academic and intellectual circles, and in our very secular contemporary Caribbean and world, but that’s what I am and have, and those who care to read my poems will hopefully find, in the words of Derek Walcott, that “you don’t get in the poetry anything that is, in a sense, preachy or self-advertising in terms of its morality.”[3] Derek got it right. I try to make good poetry out of my life and faith. As others have done and are doing.

***

VL: Our final question is: Have you been having a conversation with Brathwaite in any of your work? If so, what is this conversation about? How does it manifest? Is it visible in your “finished” work or only part of the process?

I’m sure Kamau’s influence on my work can be seen. But as I think you have said, Robert, it would be suicide to try to mimic Kamau’s work. We speak easily about persons as being inimitable, as a sort of compliment to them. But then there are the truly inimitable—persons whose work, and their way of doing it, really cannot be imitated without ending up in a kind of ugly pastiche. The truly inimitable work speaks to an achievement wrought of more than the accustomed tools of the trade. It comes with a singularity of vision that is connected to all kinds of other things in the world apart from the “craft.” It transcends the often-encountered parochialism as regards the hamlet of Craft (with a capital C), which locks it into a certain apprehended set of skills that can be used within various configurations to produce something “recognizable” as “craft.” Kamau has achieved that—this transcendence—and I can confidently invoke him without feeling that I have come off looking like a cheap knock-off Kamau Brathwaite.

My conversation with Kamau at present is via what I consider one of his most important works to date (which won the Casa de Las Americas prize), MR 1 and 2. I have never encountered a work so sprawling and centered at the same time, elucidating for us where we should have been looking a long time ago—at cosmos and its relationship to history, to self-concept, and to the kinds of worlds we authorize, the kinds of worlds that rest in the background of the stories we want to tell when we give them permission to, or even when we don’t. Cosmos as (not) opposed to society as the basis of experience and behavior, but society integrated into cosmos, manifesting it on various planes. But to not go on too long, the lesson of the work for me, overall, is the need to recognize our place as if it is no other place, even while we know it is one of many places on the earth, and by virtue of that, international. And we have to be prepared for a radically new approach to criticism, for radical new ways in which things we take as stable and firmly defined, like “the writing life” and “the world of literature,” will manifest before us very differently when we begin to understand the “deep Caribbean Caribbean,” the cosmological shape of our space, for all that has been done to it. A cousin of mine once explained to me that in Winti culture, on the ground set to build a new house, they go about with a calabash of water, praying to Mama Aisa (Mother Earth) because the ground is not just dirt, but dotee/dutty, a living presence filled with histories upon histories as sure as minerals in its soil. As Césaire put it, “The peculiarity of ‘our place in the world,’ which isn’t to be confused with anybody else’s. The peculiarity of our problems, which aren’t to be reduced to subordinate forms of any other problem. The peculiarity of our history, laced with terrible misfortunes which belong to no other history."[4] This is a lesson that so many movements afoot in the Caribbean, being funded by “international” organizations (and funding does not come without ideology or a certain consensus on “being” and its basic assumptions and cosmological structures), can learn from Césaire, from Kamau. The ability to be about one’s place and—as so many of our ordinary people are and have always been—calmly and casually modern and international in one’s own place.

JRL: The following poem, written to commemorate Kamau’s eighty-fifth birthday in 2015, provides an answer. He is a subliminal, subconscious, essential influence and guide in all my work, even though that may not be always immediately obvious:

 

For Kamau Brathwaite at 85

“Where are the open spaces now
clear sky, the stars, horizons’ distances?”
—KB {“The Forest,” Masks}

Gary Butte.png

 

Gary Butte, Seven Worlds, 2015; acrylic on canvas, 45.5 in. x 30 in. © Gary Butte

 

We looked with you pathfinder
into great halls, high spheres
of the seven kingdoms,

and you sang our lives
to memory
before the Golden Stool was lost

when we had our names
and names of the gods

and wombs of strong trees
were oracles under the skin of our hands.

From islands’ scorned syllables
your horn lifted nations’ new tongues

Castries to Kingston
Brixton to Brooklyn
Axum to Kumasi

as they now are. And it
it is now
now the Times of Salt

the age of griots archived
their heads hung in dark corners
their songs obsolete as vinyl

while ballheads of Babylon
deconstruct themselves
over abysses of mockery;

but children
who have not genuflected to Baal
who have remembered again

whom you name from the drum-
beating of your love
come, come, come

with oil of coconut,
bread of cassava, gooseberry wine,
tablets of fruit of your word, Kamau.

 

 


[1] Derek Walcott, “A Far Cry from Africa,” in Selected Poems, ed. Edward Baugh (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), 6.

[2] Quoted in Kwame Dawes, “Kamau Brathwaite,” in Kwame Dawes, ed., Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), 31 (italics in original).

[3] Derek Walcott, back cover blurb for John Robert Lee, Sighting and Other Poems of Faith (self-published, St. Lucia, 2013).

[4] Aimé Césaire, Letter to Maurice Thorez (Paris: Presense Africaines, 1957), 6; translation of Lettre à Maurice Thorez, Cesaire’s 1956 letter of resignation from the Communist Party of France.

 

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