Literary and visual power of nationhood from LiTTscapes
Review & Appraisal of LiTTscapes by Professor Al Creighton, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana and of the Guyana Prize for Literature at LiTTribute II – LiTTurgy to the Mainland at Moray House Trust, Georgetown
We are in the presence this afternoon of a neat kind of confluence. Guyana at this time is in the middle of celebrating nationhood – the peak of it is Republic Day one week from now. The publication being launched in Guyana today is a celebration of nationhood as it is captured through photography, an explanatory text and the literature of Trinidad and Tobago. The easiest way to begin an analysis of this book Littscapes by Kris Rampersad is to describe it – give an idea so that the audience gets a clear picture of exactly what it is. But that is not the easiest way, because it is a text that defies easy description. There are more types that it is than things that it is not.
The publication is Littscapes : Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago by Kris Rampersad, published in St Augustine, Trinidad, in 2012. The bibliographical details describe it as “First Edition 2012”, which is not surprising, given its multi-tasking nature and its wide reach, and this suggests that, also considering the several things that it seems to set out to cover, there is more to come in future editions.
It is 200 pages of written and visual text, presenting the landscape of Trinidad and Tobago in passages of descriptions, explanations and quotations, very impressively supported and complemented by hundreds of colour photographs and excerpts from the literature of the country. Rampersad always interweaves into her own descriptions, the pieces taken from the literature, so that one gets pictures of the several varied subjects from the point of view of the writers and of their fictional characters. These are taken predominantly from works of fiction covering a range of short stories and novels, but to a lesser extent, there is reference to poetry and drama.
The idea of “littscapes” comes from this drawing from the literature to give scenes, views and visions of landscape and life in clear, colourful, illustrative pictures as well as snippets of how they are treated in the literature. It is a quite thorough artistic concept. It is a portrait and biography of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago which actually pays tribute to the Republic in 2012, the year of its 50th anniversary of Independence. The book is attractively, neatly and effectively designed, using a recurring motif of the double-T – “TT”, which, of course, is “Trinidad and Tobago”, but is also “literature” so that there is not only the visual impact but the tribute to nationhood as reflected in the various works of literature.
Littscapes is a work of art; but also it is a documentary, a travelogue, a critical work with visual and literary power. It takes us on a tour of the country, giving some exposure to almost every aspect of life. It may be too heavy and too academic to be called a tourist guide, but no tourist guide can give a better, more comprehensive introduction to Trinidad. It entices and attracts just as the glossy tourist literature; it looks a weighty volume, but an important factor is that it is very easy to read. Neither is this link to tourism accidental, because one of the objectives of the book is that it must show the value that literature has in promoting and presenting the nation. It must show different uses of literature, encourage new approaches to it and make it more attractive and interesting. The book does for literature, what literature does for the country.
Rampersad tours the countryside and highlights features of it, at the same time exploring the literature to indicate how the writers treat the subjects, what they or their fictional characters say, and how they are used in the plots. Photographs of several sections of Port-of-Spain are accompanied by the descriptions and literary excerpts: this treatment is given to the capital city, other towns, streets, urban communities, villages, historic buildings and places, vegetation, animals, institutions, culture and landscape. There is considerable visual beauty, what Derek Walcott calls “visual surprise” in his Nobel Lecture; an impressive coverage of social history, geography, and politics, but also a strong literary experience. It is a survey of Trinidad’s landscape and of its literature.
The publication reflects a considerable volume of reading, drawing from as early as Walter Ralegh at the dawn of Caribbean literature, which adds historical character and depth to the landscape and culture. The references include early fiction such as ARF Webber’s Those That Be In Bondage. The connectedness of nationhood becomes relevant again here, since both Webber and Ralegh have ties to Guyana as strong if not stronger than those with Trinidad. Just as the historical development of the country is reflected in the places and monuments, so it is in the rise of social realism through the fiction of the 1930s in Port-of-Spain. Rampersad presents her subjects through the eyes of CLR James and writers from the Beacon group such as Alfred Mendes, and has done the painstaking work analogous to that of a lexicographer, of sorting out their several hundred references to her subjects.
This account includes some memorable passages of real literary criticism, although these are brief. They include the entries on The Humming Bird Tree by Ian McDonald, another writer that is more Guyanese than Trinidadian, with instructive insights into the novel’s title and its meaning. Others are the references to Lion House in Chaguanas and the Capildeo family which hold great interest for background to VS Naipaul. He immortalises his mother’s family in Hanuman House and the Tulsis, and Rampersad provides additional information about Naipaul’s use of his migratory existence in her discussions of various parts of Port-of-Spain. There is also similar enlightenment in the way such locations as San Fernando, Mayaro and Princes Town accumulate greater meaning when used to treat the work of novelist Michael Anthony. Yet another passage of deep criticism is the reference to “girl victims” as they are treated in the fiction.
The other side of that has to do with omissions and reductions. There are many topics that appear undersubscribed. There was not much information or there were hardly any literary references, even in places where it is known that the subjects were well treated in the literature. Examples of these are the entries on politicians, calypsonians and superstitions, all of which abound in the fiction but not in Littscapes. However, while that is noticeable, it could never be a requirement that the book must cover everything – as indeed, it cannot. Were it a dictionary, one would fault the lexicography on important omissions, but this work does so much already that it might be unfair to judge it on its omissions or reduced treatments.
Then there are the odd segments in which the publication does behave like a tourist guide without the usual strength of literary material. Added to this are the errors which are typographical as well as where some small details of literary texts are concerned, such as characters, names and titles. One or two authors are claimed as Trinidadian who might well be claimed by other islands. Walcott has produced quite a lot of Trinidadian literature, but many references to his work in this book really belong to St Lucia, and not Trinidad. Then there is the Tobago question. Trinidad is in all respects the major and dominant island, and this is overwhelmingly reflected in Rampersad’s treatment. She says in her text that Trinidadian writers on the whole neglect Tobago, treat it as the lesser of two sisters or do not treat it at all. In this book, therefore, the imbalance is noted.
In the end, Rampersad’s Littscapes does achieve an innovative approach to literature in bringing it alive in the description of landscape, life, culture and people. It encourages people to take ownership of it, see themselves, their home or familiar places in it and accept it as a definer of identity. But the book is as much photography by Rampersad and others as it is literature, and the pictures help to illustrate, highlight and make the fiction real.
Above all Littscapes: Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago has an extremely powerful sense of place and reinforces what in Rampersad’s words is “the pull of place on authors”. It may claim to be an accessory to what she calls “the body of fiction inspired by Trinidad and Tobago”. It communicates the character of the country.
No one book can be everything; no one book can set out to achieve everything that a literature and a visual text can do for its people and its nation; but whatever you say one book can’t do, this one almost does it.
University of Guyana
From LiTTribute II - LiTTurgy to the Mainland in Georgeton Guyana: Readings and Performances inspired by LiTTscapes directed by Dr Paloma Mohammed and featuring the Theatre Guild of Guyana with review by Professor Al Creighton - Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana and the Guyana Prize for Literature: