Conversations with Jan Carew
Conversations with Jan Carew
Guyanese author Jan Carew is best known for his 1958 novel Black Midas. In 1964, Carew also published one of his most controversial books, Moscow Is Not My Mecca (US edition, Green Winter ). And, as he learned much later, an unauthorized version of his book was circulated around the African continent as an “English language reader.” Carew’s novel was based on the stories of his cousin and other students from the Caribbean and Africa who had accepted scholarships to study in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Carew also drew on his own experiences as one of the first students from the English-speaking Caribbean to receive a scholarship to the Eastern Bloc countries when he went to Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s; and later, when he made two visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s as a guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union. Following the publication of Moscow Is Not My Mecca, Carew was challenged by the Left and lauded by the Right, as each side tried to interpret his work from their often dogmatic and simplistic formulations. Carew, on the other hand, was exploring a complex set of relationships, which did not and still do not lend themselves to simple either/or divisions. Recognizing the potential of the Soviet experiment to provide much-needed support for the newly developing societies, Carew also felt he had a right to critique problems as he saw them and to call for reform.
Jan Carew is now ninety-one and in the process of writing his memoirs. This interview, conducted in Louisville, Kentucky, in July 2011, recounts aspects of his experiences as a student in Prague and, later, as a visitor to the Soviet Union, and his rising concern about the treatment of black students there.
Joy Gleason Carew: What was the response to your novel Moscow Is Not My Mecca? And, were there any differences between the responses of the white and black communities?
Jan Carew: I was determined not to produce a knee-jerk anticommunist work, but to tell the truth about the rise of racism in the Soviet Union. The regular Communists were against [the novel]. But, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] in Toronto, Canada, was for it and had done a favorable review of the book in its journal. The SWP was Trotskyist and thus anti-Stalin. Their journal was also one of the few white journals to recognize the impact Malcolm X would have as a black leader and they had, for example, bought the rights to most of his speeches.
George Padmore, whom I knew in London and who had died five years earlier, would have approved of the book as well. Padmore’s theory was that race was more important than class when dealing with people of color. He had shared some of his reminiscences of the 1930s-era USSR during my visits to his flat in London. He told me that he had dared disagree with [Vyacheslav] Molotov. Molotov wanted to him to buy razor blades for him in Berlin. But Padmore refused to do it and told Molotov he wasn’t an office boy. Padmore was always impeccably turned out and the thought that he was being considered an errand boy was particularly insulting. At the time, Padmore was the Comintern’s Commissar for African Affairs and member of the Moscow City council.
JGC: Wasn’t there a pirated edition of the book being circulated around Africa?
JC: It was the Cold War time. You were either for or against; you weren’t dealing with nuances. Years later, my literary agent told me he had discovered the news about this pirated edition. He had been offered royalties to publish an edition of the book by certain people, but he had turned them down. Somehow, though, a blatantly anti-Soviet “English-language reader” version was produced and I came across it by mistake in the airport bookshop in Lusaka. This further fanned the flames. The Russians contacted Janet Jagan to complain about my accusations of racism. Later, when I went to Ghana to work for [Kwame] Nkrumah, I discovered that the Soviet cultural attaché had also denounced me to the Ghanaian cultural attaché.
JGC: But, you visited the USSR twice as a guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union and didn’t you study in Prague before that?
JC: My Prague studies were in the late 1940s, early 1950s. I went to the USSR as a guest of the Writers’ Union in the early 1960s. In the late 1940s, I attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where I met Martin Spitzer from Prague. Cleveland had a sizeable population of Czechslovaks and his father was the Czech consul general. At the time, I was willing to go anywhere where I could get a free education. Martin introduced me to the Students’ Union at Charles University in Prague, and we began to negotiate a potential scholarship.
As to my trips to the USSR in the 1960s, Black Midas had come out in 1958 and been translated into Russian. It was very popular and I had collected a large sum of royalties. In fact, the Russian version collected more royalties than the British and American versions together. They had serialized my book in their International Literature magazine before they brought it out as a whole book. It was also published in Georgian. Part of the reason for my visits was to spend those funds, as the Soviets had not signed the Berne copyright agreement which would have allowed me to take my royalties out of the country. I was also curious to see the country myself after reading about it for so many years.
For my second trip, I also had the advantage of having my cousin there who could take me around and translate for me. He was a student at Leningrad University.
JGC: Being a guest of the Writers’ Union probably meant you were given special treatment.
JC: I knew that the V.I.P. treatment I received was not only because of my novel, but because my Soviet hosts were out to win my political support. These Soviet invitations and visits, plus my relations with Soviet writers and artists, were taking place against a backdrop of political relations with my country, British Guiana. That is, relations with our Left-wing government and the Peoples Progressive Party, which by now had openly declared its allegiance to the communist cause. Both sides in the Cold War were aware of the fact that British Guiana, situated as it was on the northern coast of South America, had a symbolical, geo-political, and strategic importance—in spite of its relatively small size and its population of under a million. Also, my country was on the eve of gaining independence from Great Britain and had a popular Marxist Party, which was likely to win a majority, if free and fair elections were held. The Soviets saw this as an opportunity to infiltrate the region, while Great Britain, the US, neocolonialist governments in the English-speaking Caribbean, and Right-wing military dictatorships like that of Brazil saw it as a “communist threat.”
JGC: Back to the question of royalties, did you raise the question of changing this system with the Soviets?
JC: I put it to them that they were wrong to not sign the Berne copyright agreement which made it possible for authors outside their country to collect their royalties. Instead of penalizing Third World writers, they could provide for writers who needed their royalties. I got them to publish Vic Reid’s The Leopard, that poetic evocation of Caribbean writing, which created a sensation in the Soviet Union. They also agreed to publish John Hearne’s Stranger at the Gate. I also had a meeting of Caribbean writers living in England at Andrew Salkey’s apartment to discuss the importance of having these world-wide connections for our works. In this way, we wouldn’t have to remain dependent upon British and, to a lesser extent, American publishers.
JGC: When you got the opportunity to study in Prague, you said you were at a university in Cleveland, didn’t most West Indians attend Howard University, the historically black college, in Washington DC?
JC: I went to Howard first and was there about two years. But, I made my decision to leave Howard because I was spending so much of my time and energy looking for jobs or working them to help cover my costs. Seventy-five percent of my time was spent on this job search, while only twenty-five was left for my studies. My friends were afraid for me, but I was determined to leave racist DC. I had enough money for bus fare and one of my classmates who was from Cleveland told me about Western Reserve, so I decided to go there.
JGC: And, did you go directly from Cleveland to Prague?
JC: No, by this time, I’d been away from British Guiana for almost four years and I wanted to visit my homeland before I went to Europe. So I went home to wait for a response from the Students’ Union. This was also 1949, a time when the anti-colonial ferment had increased and I wanted to be a part of it.
JGC: What was the response to hearing about your impending scholarship?
JC: This was also the time when I first met Cheddi and Janet Jagan. Cheddi was a handsome, fiery Indian. I was so impressed with hearing him speak on a corner that I went to his house that evening to volunteer my services. I met Janet there and, as a result of this meeting, was introduced to many other young radicals. As I got to know them better, I offered my help to this new movement, which was in its formative stage.
When the scholarship notice came through, I still needed a recommendation from a progressive group, and Cheddi wrote a letter of approval for me. But, the contacts with Prague were tenuous, Cheddi had not yet formulated a foreign policy that included communist countries. The intellectuals in British Guiana at the time were all some version of Marxists. But, in 1949, the Left-wing parties weren't as cognizant of the value of communist party linkages, though many were Stalinists. The communist countries had not yet awakened to the possibility of alliances with British Guiana, either.
As far as my Prague scholarship, another student who was studying in Prague, Samuel Bankole Akpata from Nigeria, had written to Paul Robeson for a recommendation before, and he suggested I get a letter from Robeson as well. Robeson sent the letter, which helped confirm my suitability for the scholarship.
JGC: What was it like to finally arrive in Prague?
JC: I left British Guiana and went to New York first. Then on to London, Paris, and to Prague. When I finally arrived in Prague, it was a dismal afternoon in the winter. The first thing I thought as I stepped off the train was that it was rather bleak and grim-looking. There were few passengers but many guards. I looked around to see if there were any porters and, in fact, there were none. So there I was, a lone Guyanese man in a country that my mother believed was somewhere close to the end of the world.
Two young women came up to me and asked if I was Jan Carew. The smaller of the two picked up my heavy suitcase and with the greatest of ease carried it to the end of the long platform. The one who spoke to me in English was Martin Spitzer’s fiancée and the two were University students. They assumed I was well off because of the way in which I was dressed. Food and clothing were still rationed in Prague in the late 1940s. Little did they know, but I had bought the outfit at a second hand shop in New York. My two hosts installed me in a fancy hotel, but, luckily, my contact, Ivan Svitak, came and rescued me, and I ended up staying at his family’s house.
JGC: What was life like in Prague? It must have been challenging taking classes in a different language.
JC: I had a great deal more freedom than the average student. The Czechs had never heard of British Guiana before and they didn’t know what to make of me. So, they couldn’t tell where I stood in the East/West divide.
They taught courses in a combination of French and German at Charles University—both languages I had studied. I actually had a good French background and had taken two years of German. English was also spoken widely. With the Nazi occupation still vividly in mind, German was not a very popular language in those days.
JGC: How long did you stay?
JC: I spent just under two years in Prague before returning to London, via Paris. My mentor, Ivan, was getting into political difficulties, so I thought it best to leave the country while I could. But, leaving was not so simple, I had to go to great lengths to get the right documents. I had to cross the border to East Germany at Pilsen. When I got to the crossing, there were American guards and German guards standing across the no-man’s land. The Czech guards inspecting my passport said I was missing a certain document and that I would have to return to Prague to get it before being allowed to leave the country. But, that was half a day’s journey to go back. I started arguing with them loud enough for both sets of guards at the border to hear—so there would be eyewitnesses to any incident that arose. So, the Czech guards had a brief discussion between them, and decided to let me go. I was welcomed by the other guards, and after glancing at my British passport (our country was still a colony of Britain), they waved me on.
JGC: Looking back over these experiences, what lessons might be learned from them?
JC: Looking at what’s happened in the last three decades, it seems that the world has changed, but when one thinks seriously about it, one realizes that it is we who have changed. Importantly, we, Caribbean people, have come to appreciate the value of shaping our own destinies, which sometimes means going against tradition, but also can mean taking the opportunity to refashion models to suit our purpose.
Joy Gleason Carew is an associate professor of Pan-African studies and associate director of the International Center at the University of Louisville. Her undergraduate and graduate degrees were in Russian and French studies. She, too, did some of her studies in the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s, spending several months in the USSR as part of a US university study group. Through the decade of the 1970s, she returned several times, initially taking her Russian language students and then taking other student groups and groups of professionals. More recently, she has made a number of visits to post-Soviet Russia to further her research or attend conferences. Her book Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise (Rutgers University Press, 2008) focuses on the perspectives of black intellectuals and others as they looked to the Soviet experiment for opportunities that their home countries denied them.