The Medium of Emancipation

Lawrence Scott, Light Falling on Bamboo (London: Tindal Street, 2012); 488 pages; ISBN: 9781781251584 (paperback).

• February 2014

What is the medium of emancipation? In Light Falling on Bamboo, Lawrence Scott fictionalizes the life of nineteenth-century Trinidadian landscape painter Michel Jean Cazabon. The novel is not only historical but also visual. Scott’s prose is as rich as the physical and political landscapes of nineteenth-century Trinidad and as artful as Cazabon’s painting; the descriptions of the artist’s source material—mountains and pastures and people—scarcely require the reader to seek out the paintings. And this is a novel as much about the background, the recesses of the painter’s object, as it is about Cazabon and the origins of a Trinidadian visual art tradition. In “Out of Sight,” a critique of Cazabon’s craft, Judy Raymond argues that as a member of the Barbizon School Cazabon’s landscapes were “precisely edited images”—he emphasized the picturesque and erased plantation labor.1 In this novel, Scott acknowledges Raymond’s observation and then bids us to look at what is illuminated as well as what lives in shadow—taking creative license with what little we know of Cazabon’s life to meditate on the milieu that he inhabited. An epigraph, from Earl Lovelace’s 1996 Salt, suggests the problem-space of Light Falling on Bamboo is the long breath between emancipation and nationhood: “But now they had another problem: it was not how to keep people in captivity. It was how to set people at liberty.”2 Then, a brief prologue outlines the shifts of the day: free-coloreds negotiating their collective position and privilege in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, a tentative emancipation, and the arrival of indentured Indian laborers to the colony. 

The novel properly begins in 1848: the protagonist, Michel Jean, has returned to Trinidad to sit by the deathbed of his mother, Rose Debonne Cazabon. He is a painter, trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, and a free man of color. While his French wife, Louise, and his young children wait in Paris, Michel Jean must face Josie, who is at once the daughter of his mother’s cook, his half-sister, and a one-time lover. To encounter her is also to encounter color, desire, and work in a colony transitioning from French to British occupation: “He had always felt this need to recreate how it had been with Josie. . . . But it scared him now, troubled him, as he planned to bring his wife and children to be part of this world” (23). Michel Jean processes and embeds these notions in his landscapes, routinely assembling his easel and paints on Queen’s Park Savannah to perfect perspective and light. It is while Michel Jean paints that James Wildman—a cousin of the governor, Lord Harris—approaches him to observe his craft and request lessons.

In his oeuvre, Michel Jean implies a connection between the figure and the landscape and points to earlier histories of cultivation. In service to development, botanists brought flora and fauna to the Caribbean, and traders kidnapped and recruited laborers from West and Central Africa, India, and China. Indeed, according to Jill Casid, the desire for biodiversity in the eighteenth-century British West Indies mirrored emergent discourses of race: botanists could cultivate spectacular variety in plant life without the consequences of miscegenation.3 Accordingly, Scott draws out the connection between figure and landscape in a moment of instruction between his protagonist and James Wildman. The painter supplicates his tutee to paint a complete landscape, to acknowledge the ways the distant blanchisseuses work in and around the pasture: “Think of where the washing is done, on the rocks of the river. You must’ve seen them in your travels. They’ve grown out of the landscape with their labour. Think of who the washing is for” (43).  If, as Michelle Stephens argues, “an image of the indigenous as mobile and ‘uprooted’ would also require us to think further about the nature of the forces that put various indigenous populations and other Atlantic subjects into motion,” Scott’s scenes challenge what is “natural” or picturesque in the Caribbean, who is indigenous, and who, therefore, may lay claim to the land.4 The teaching encounter recurs throughout the novel, prompting the question, Who is truly authoring the Trinidadian landscape at this moment?

Before long, Michel Jean has work from Lord Harris, for whom he produces a midcentury series of lithographs. Hardin Burnley commissions him to paint the Orange Grove lands. There the artist meets a mulatto woman, Augusta, who sits for a series of portraits and with whom he ultimately fathers a child. In an exchange between Augusta and Michel Jean, reproductive labor mirrors the lithograph, a technology for making prints, or copies, of images. Augusta indicts him for exploiting her image and body: “For posterity, you tell me. But it was never for no posterity” (203). Eventually, Louise comes to Trinidad with their children, among whom Louis Michel is most troubled and inspired, like his father. As Louis Michel grows and time passes, Michel Jean must contend with his son’s talent and with the advent of Impressionism and photography. An epilogue follows Louis Michel in 1900, twelve years after his father’s death; the story of Michel Jean Cazabon is the story of a century.

Light enthralls Michel Jean, but he plays with shadows also. As he walks through an estate near San Fernando in 1849, he calls up scenes of subjection,reminding his companion of slavery. But he tells Wildman, “I never wanted to record the dark visions. . . . Only this light, the fields and the skies and something else I saw in the people, something I hoped for them” (69). Still, deaths flank the narrative of Light Falling on Bamboo, not only those of Rose Debonne and Michel Jean Cazabon but also the death of slavery—although the shadow of indentureship, and the hope that it will resuscitate the British West Indian sugar industry, looms. Here, Michel Jean’s painting appears to be a sleight of hand—while the governor commissions him to produce scenes of Trinidad, the prints do not simply reflect the surveyor’s eye. What Michel Jean hopes for the Trinidadian people is a future—one with depth, one in which those who look closely might perceive “the lamentations arising out of the barrack rooms . . . that wail like the Atlantic Ocean, breaking on the shore” (69). By 1870, Michel Jean has returned from a years-long stay in Martinique and repeats his words in a febrile state: “It’s what the light does” (399). It is like an incantation, a summoning.

Ultimately, in this masterful novel Lawrence Scott asks us to reverse our orientation. Despite Michel Jean Cazabon’s European training and technique, we should not see the universal “Doric columns of Greece” in tall palms, but rather the work and bodies that passed under them. Likewise, in the 2004 series Ghosting, mixed-media artist Roshini Kempadoo layers archival traces atop contemporary photography: in the ruins of a plantation edifice, we can still see brown “coolie” bodies squatting, bent over, arrested in their labor.6 For Michel Jean, bonded and contracted labor must end, but their shadows should linger in a collective consciousness: “We must make it pass. My art in a subtle way can do that” (318). Light Falling on Bamboo grants an opportunity to travel deftly between generations and against the forward march of progress.

 

Kaneesha Parsard is a doctoral student in American studies, African American studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Yale University. Her dissertation explores the ways emergent literary and visual forms in West Indian modernism charted connections between informal, urban dwellings such as the barrack yard and “improper” sexualities or intimacies, and how these representations of everyday life posed alternatives to national sovereignty.

 

 


Judy Raymond, “Out of Sight,” Caribbean Review of Books, 24 November 2010.

Earl Lovelace, Salt: A Novel (New York: Persea Books, 2004), 7.

Jill Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 24.

Michelle Stephens, “Uprooted Bodies: Indigenous Subjects and Colonial Discourses in Atlantic American Studies,” in Sandhya Shukla and Heidi Tinsman, eds., Imagining Our Americas: Toward a Transnational Frame (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 191.

Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Roshini Kempadoo is a photographer, media artist, and lecturer. See Ghosting (2004) at www.roshinikempadoo.co.uk/gallery_22642.html.