The Unsung Trinidadian Writer

Roydon Salick, Ismith Khan: The Man and His Work (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2012); 128 pages; ISBN 978-1845231743 (paperback)

• November 2015

In Ismith Khan: The Man and His Work, Roydon Salick announces three main objectives. The first is to fulfil a promise he made to Ismith Khan to write his biography; the second is to address the gap in West Indian literary scholarship that has neglected the work of Khan by providing the first full-length study devoted to his work; the third, to offer individual analyses of Khan’s works as a foundation for later, more in-depth studies on this writer. The monograph is, thus, appropriately titled and structured. The introduction, after attempting to account for the critical neglect of Khan’s work and laying out Salick’s own agenda, is largely devoted to recounting details about the personal life of the writer gathered from Khan and his family. The four chapters that follow each deal with a different literary text: The Jumbie Bird, The Obeah Man, The Crucifixion, and A Day in the Country and Other Stories. By providing comprehensive analyses of Khan’s characters especially, and linking these to wider political, social, and cultural themes and concerns as well as narrative strategies, Salick argues for the uniqueness and importance of Khan’s contribution to West Indian literature in these main chapters. A conclusion and selected bibliography bring the book to an end.

Although Salick bemoans the fact that Khan died before he was able to mine the writer for personal stories about his life, he gives a convincing and, at times, touching account of the writer’s life from the limited information he was able to gather from Khan’s surviving family members and from his own relationship with the writer. The biographical segment of the introduction is only eleven pages long, but it is the most detailed biographical sketch of Khan to date. It is divided into two sections (parts 3 and 4)—the first details the trajectory of Khan’s personal and academic life as well as the development of the writer; the second provides a fuller, more intimate sketch of Ismith Khan, the man. Detailing Khan’s interests, his personality, and his idiosyncrasies, Salick lovingly creates a well-rounded account of the late writer who was also his personal friend. Salick simultaneously sets out to distinguish biographical details from the fictional details of The Jumbie Bird, considered the most autobiographical of Khan’s fictional works. This is sometimes distracting, although Salick clearly—and, perhaps, rightly—felt the need to address readers’ potential conflation of the fictional Kale Khan with the real Kale Khan, Ismith’s larger-than-life grandfather. To prevent The Jumbie Bird being read as a biographical and historical account of the writer’s life, Salick provides a comprehensive list of situations and chronological details that were purely fictional. Some of these details are repeated in the chapter on The Jumbie Bird.

In the main chapters, there is an insistence on laying bare the “intentions” of the author. Still, Salick often simply takes his cue from Khan’s limited comments on his novels and proceeds to develop his own convincing and detailed analyses of each of the texts’ characters, structure, and style. The first chapter, the strongest in the book, deals with the best-known of Khan’s novels, The Jumbie Bird. By focusing on the contrast between the unbending patriarchal Kale Khan and the nurturing matriarch Binti, Salick argues that, respectively, these characters reflect the sterility of holding on to the past and the necessity of a balanced optimism to move forward, especially in the colonial and postcolonial periods. The pain of displacement and disappointment is real in Kale Khan, but Binti’s largesse and quiet strength provide the necessary equilibrium and signal a way forward. In the second chapter, Salick takes as a starting point Khan’s observation that The Obeah Man is a “symbolic” novel to demonstrate the different ways in which this novel can be read. Salick is most convinced, however, that the novel offers “an atypical fable of the evolution of Caribbean man” (52) and develops this argument by examining each of the main characters who represents a different phase of development. The mindless violence and machismo of Caribbean man gives way to a maturity based on understanding and forgiveness. Again, in Salick’s reading, Khan offers wider perspectives and ways of gauging the political and social progress of the Caribbean. Because The Crucifixion uses two distinct narrative voices, the third chapter devoted to Khan’s most difficult novel “that nobody wanted to publish” (70) centers on structure and style although attention is also paid to Khan’s construction of Manko, the troubling protagonist preacher. In terms of content and analysis, this chapter differs from the others: there is also an extended comparison with C. L. R. James’s Minty Alley that reflects the folk aspects of the narrative because both writers use the barrack yard as their setting and organizing principle. The final chapter focuses on the short stories that were published as a collection: A Day in the Country and Other Stories. Although there have been general comments on the stories, as Salick notes, there has been little attention to the particular skill of the writer. Treating the stories individually in this chapter, Salick examines their themes and structure. He argues that what links these stories, which might otherwise seem unrelated, is the father-son relationship that appears in different incarnations although he also draws attention to some of the strong female characters in the collection. The stories also convincingly portray city and country life in Trinidad in the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on domestic situations and the struggle against colonial education and authorities. The conclusion offers a satisfying summation of Salick’s arguments and a final estimation of Khan’s work. It importantly highlights the distinct poetic quality of Khan’s prose with illustrations from key passages. Finally, Salick offers the last word on some critics’ observation that Khan’s works have unsatisfactory endings by offering alternative ways of viewing each of the novels.

The real strength of Salick’s book is his in-depth and sensitive analyses of Khan’s complex characters. There is also an attempt to place these analyses in a wider context of literary scholarship and Caribbean publication. At times, there is superficial mention of similarities with canonical literary texts such as Macbeth and The Mayor of Casterbridge, but Salick’s more sustained comparisons with the work of Sam Selvon and C. L. R. James are useful and engaging, since they situate Khan’s writing in a wider Caribbean literary framework. As the book progresses, there is also an attempt to draw comparisons between Khan’s own works; in doing so, Salick demonstrates the relevance of the oeuvre itself. Moreover, he begins and ends by arguing that Khan is “pre-eminently the novelist of Port of Spain” (116) and secures for the writer his own special niche in Trinidadian writing. For these reasons, this book is certainly an important addition to Caribbean literary studies. It offers new and insightful comments on Khan’s work and is a valuable resource for students, teachers and researchers interested not only in this much neglected writer, but also in the ways in which a Caribbean sensibility is reflected and constructed through literature.

 

Giselle Rampaul is a lecturer in Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. She is the founder and producer of the podcast series The Spaces between Words: Conversations with Writers. Her research focus is the intersections between British and Caribbean literatures, and she is currently working on a manuscript on Shakespeare in the Caribbean.