Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cutting edge journalism


At first glance, its cover with photographs of Sam Selvon, Lakshmi Persaud, VS Naipaul, Seepersad Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, Stella Abidh, Shani Mootoo and FEM Hosein suggests Dr Kris Rampersad’s newly-launched book 'Finding a Place – IndoTrinidadian Literature' is a literary critique of these writers and their work.
In fact, the fading newspapers beneath the photographs suggest a more subtle and compelling connection. Dr Rampersad’s ground breaking work is built around little known and rare publications produced by IndoTrinidadians over a hundred years (1850-1950) – The East Indian Advocate, Herald, Patriot, Weekly, Observer, Presbyterian, Koh-i-noor Gazette among others. It unearths lost chunks of our history, presses us to rethink the Indian experience in the New World, and lights up through her research the lost and faded pioneers of IndoTrinidadian writing.

“It was in the (East Indian) Weekly,” she writes in chapter five, “that the first writers found an outlet for their wish to write. Through its reports and focus, they found the subjects and themes that would dominate later creative fiction.

“The issues of adaptation to a new society, cross-culturation, the struggle for promotion and acceptance, acquiring wealth, biracial marriages… later became subjects and themes for the creative fiction of IndoTrinidadians.”

In her introduction, the author asserts that her book, which quotes articles, letters to the editor and editorials from rare, lost or forgotten publications, “maps a process of literary development.”

She writes: “It becomes obvious from this study that a writer like VS Naipaul did not arise as an aberration, but from realities within the society in which he grew up. The desire to write came out of a century-long tradition of yearning and aspiring towards that goal, within which was encapsulated the need to be understood and accepted by the society which was now being claimed as home.”

I had seen Dr Rampersad, looking incongruently girlish the evening of the launch, among heavyweight university academics asserting that we all have only a partial view of the world based on our individual experiences and influences, which is why we each need to write our stories so we can understand one another.

Although Finding a Place is rooted in academia, it reads like investigative journalism at its cutting edge. The writing is lively with evocative images, plump with analysis and context, (so that in some ways it is a one-stop shop for the history of the IndoTrinidadian’s experience in the New World) and the material as fascinating as unexpectedly discovering fading letters of a grandparent and seeing them in their youth.
 
“The book began with a vague notion, a philosophical position, that of understanding how the many strands of our society have evolved. After that, I looked at the Koh-i-noor Gazette which was one of the few of the 12 publications available in the National Archives,” Dr Rampersad said later in an interview.

“A whole lot has disappeared. When I was looking for material, people would say ‘we just moved and threw away old papers.’ I didn’t locate The Herald and The Patriot until the end of the study, then I had to redo other chapters to accommodate the new material.

“Practically all the issues raging in the 1860’s and 70’s are relevant today – the questions of voice and voicelessness, of national identity; of how much allegiance do we owe to Africa, to India.

“There are instances in the book that manifest how politics and self-interest divide groups such as the split that caused the demise of The Herald, a paper that saw itself as a unifier among races. The political faction produced a rival paper The Patriot. The Herald’s noble literary ambitions suffered, its editor got disillusioned, and the paper died.

The study, adds Rampersad, “explodes the myth that IndoTrinidadians were insular since it demonstrates so much interaction within the society without animosity. For instance, the East Indian Weekly had an Afro-Trinidadian publisher. The paper shows Hindus, Muslims, Christians working together, for example, on the issue of destitute indentured labourers and championing national issues from flooding in Laventille to the need to develop Carnival.

“Today you won’t hear anyone calling themselves a ‘Christian Hindu,’ but that was common then. The term ‘An IndoTrinidadian’ has its first recorded usage as a pen name, as early as 1888.

“Perhaps the society was much more tolerant than we are today, recognising that all peoples need to assert their identity. Nobody at that time had a problem with people having a press for themselves. The Creole population had The San Fernando Gazette, the upper classes The Port-of-Spain Gazette, so when The Koh-i-noor Gazette came out, most felt it was about time.”

Finding a Place debunks old myths of the IndoTrinidadian as insular or un-intellectual by producing overwhelming evidence that this group, like the Afro- and Euro-Trinidadian, was grappling with an identity that remembered the Old, and actively interacted with the New World.

“Trinidadians don’t realise the great struggle it was for IndoTrinidadians to get the vote in the country. When the Franchise committee on granting universal suffrage wanted to introduce a clause that only people who could read and write English should be able to vote – at that time that was about 70 per cent of the Indo population. Agitation in the press got that clause removed.”

Even as IndoTrinidadians gave up their language and adapted English for mobility, says Rampersad, they found other ways to streamline Indian culture and language, other ways of evolving while retaining a sense of their roots. This was manifested in the oral tradition, in chutney and Pichakaree, and the oral traditions fed into the writings.

Dr Rampersad’s premise is that everybody is searching for roots and identity at a time when technology and travel makes it impossible for people to be insular, and many see themselves as multicultural entities. She hopes her book will become a module for others to look at their own groups.

Finding a Place is a must read.

Cutting edge journalism: A Review and Tribute to Finding A Place by Dr Kris Rampersad




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