Artists struggling to find the I-and-I

A New World Order - Derek Walcott
November 15, 2002

Mandy Garner thinks there may be a new world order - cultural, not political.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in the Bahamas as a member of an often closed white elite, I felt an overwhelming sense of cabin fever; a need to escape the same bored faces carrying out their English rituals, oblivious to any other form of culture that colonialism had not managed to stamp out. Going back to work there on a daily newspaper in the 1990s, things had changed, even if the expatriates had not. The satellite dishes were bigger than many of the houses and the streets were littered with the debris of US culture, but there were also visible attempts to establish a Bahamian cultural scene. Artists, for example, were using junkanoo - the country's carnival derived from West African tradition and a vehicle for political protest in pre-independence days - to establish new art forms. It may not have been much of a change, but in a country whose indigenous culture had been obliterated and that has been dominated by two vast empires - the British and the US - it was evidence of a need to establish a separate identity and reflect the country's varied history. It is not surprising that artists were in the vanguard.

The role of the artist in knitting together different strands of identity is central in societies that have had the kind of traumatic history suffered by the Caribbean. The artist can create a new world order, change perspectives and name things anew.

Derek Walcott is a supreme exponent of this, interweaving the texts of western literature with the culture of Caribbean life. He has been criticised for borrowing too much from western traditions and for his racial politics (his refusal, for example, to be labelled a "black poet"), but in Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics , Paula Burnett mounts a spirited defence. Walcott, she says, has assimilated western tradition to his own project, using it to create a new plural world of open-ended possibilities. In this, says Burnett, Walcott is more militant than his critics since he turns the tables on a power structure that dictates that the South has nothing to say of importance to the North's wealthy elite. Indeed for Walcott, says Burnett, the Caribbean as the crossroads of European, African and American culture cannot fail to be influenced by western ideas. It is how it makes these ideas its own that is interesting and that suggests perhaps a new way forward for other societies, one in which trauma can be reworked into something new, less brutal and open to change.

Burnett is keen to emphasise Walcott's radicalism, and the first half of her book is dedicated to an examination of the politics of his work. However, it is in the second half, with a dissection of Walcott's writings, that the book really comes to life. Packed with quotations from his work, this section is carried along by the richness of Walcott's language. Burnett dissects everything from his use of patois, the constants in his imagery and the origins of his metaphors, to how he uses the Rastafarian concept of "I-and-I", which encompasses the idea of both "we" and the more individualistic, western preoccupation with the "I" voice. All this is spliced with quotations from Walcott on his work and extracts from letters and private interviews, some previously unpublished.

Walcott's plays receive much attention, too. Although these have not been as successful as his poetry, Burnett, while critical, seeks to show that perhaps they are ahead of their time and that they are also a mark, once again, of Walcott's radicalism and refusal to follow fashion. There is a sense of both progression and continuum in Burnett's discussion of Walcott's work, which is echoed by the slightly overworked parallel with that other poetic playwright, Shakespeare, that pervades the book. Perhaps a few more references to dates and a clearer sense of autobiography would have made it more accessible. But it is both a scholarly volume that will be well received by specialists and a book that should be of interest to any student of Walcott's literature.

Caryl Phillips's A New World Order , on the other hand, is full of biography. The book is a collection of essays and articles on writers from the US, Africa, the Caribbean and the UK. Journalistic in style and hence a more lively read than Burnett's book, it is an exploration of the idea of a plural sense of home. Most of the writers focused on, including Walcott, share a refusal to be categorised or to restrict themselves to a reductive view of the world that sees everything in relation to a narrow definition of racism.

Phillips clearly has his favourites. There is a passionate essay on James Baldwin's courage in publishing Giovanni's Room , a book on homosexuality whose main characters are all white. Baldwin was criticised on all sides for the book, but he clearly saw sexuality as being allied to race in terms of the wider issues it raises about the way society operates. Then there is an exploration of the work and life of Marvin Gaye, who added an "e" to the end of his name out of paranoia at being thought homosexual. The article attempts to explore the tragedy of Gaye's life and how he changed, or was changed, from a writer of thoughtful, political ballads into a parody of black sexuality.

Phillips begins with the US, where he now lives, and where racism taints every aspect of society to such an extent that many of the writers he highlights move to Europe at some point so as to free themselves from its effects, although Europe is not exactly a bed of roses. He lays into everything from Afro-American studies professors who trade on race in the university, to gangsta rappers who cash in on white stereotypes. In his section on Africa, he rails against the simplistic views of Americans who return to Africa with romantic notions about finding their roots and find African reality too difficult to deal with. In the Caribbean, like Walcott, he celebrates a less race-bound hybrid world of new possibilities, while attacking what he sees as an almost pathological rejection of non-western culture by V. S. Naipaul. And in the UK he comes face to face with a system that is so set in its ways that it closes itself to newcomers.

Some of the articles seem a bit dated, going back to the early 1990s, and some are more heartfelt than others. It would have been good, for example, to have more than Zadie Smith as an example of a young British writer (also, the essay on White Teeth is disappointingly thin), but the writers perhaps reflect Phillips's preoccupations and frustrations.

What is telling, though, in both Burnett's and Phillips's books is the emphasis on the redemptive power of the writer and his or her ability to reject simplistic interpretations of the world and forge a new one, based on a more plural sense of self. In that, the new world order they celebrate is perhaps a lot more new and positive than the political one that has been so loudly trumpeted over the past year.

Mandy Garner is features editor, The THES .

A New World Order

Author - Caryl Phillips
ISBN - 0 436 20560 2 and 0 09 942817 2
Publisher - Vintage
Price - £17.99 and £7.99
Pages - 309

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