This month Classics Club is looking at Post-Colonial Literature, a perfect opportunity for me to read a Caribbean writer dusty with neglect on one of my book shelves.
While deciding what book to read, my thoughts kept drifting back to the recently ended NGC Bocas Lit Festival in Trinidad. More specifically, I was thinking about the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award that was awarded to Professor Emeritus Kenneth Ramchand and Professor Emeritus Gordon Rohlehr.
The award, which was first given to John La Rose and Sarah White last year, is for those who have facilitated the growth of Caribbean/West Indian literature in some way, like editing, broadcasting , publishing or critiquing.
The award’s namesake, the late Henry Swanzy, played a critical role in the early development of Caribbean literature. Swanzy is often seen as the driving force behind the BBC programme Caribbean Voices from the 1940s to the 1950s, when Caribbean nations were still ensconced the imperial yoke of Europe. The program ran from 1942 to 1958, but Swanzy didn’t get appointed until 1946. Before him there was the Jamaican poet and broadcaster Una Mason.
It included readings of poems, and stories and literary criticism. This was important because the study of ‘English Literature’ in those days, was the study of works that weren’t relevant to the Caribbean experience.
The other big plus is that it paid.
However, it wasn’t perfect. I was recently trolling the the internet and found a documentary originally broadcasted in 2009, done by journalist and historian, Colin Grant. It was a two part BBC program that looked at the original Caribbean Voices and the development of the Caribbean literary scene.
In interviews conducted with both Kwame Dawes (whose father Neville Dawes would have benefitted directly from the program) and George Lamming, it was stated that, at the time, Caribbean writers were not being critiqued on the same level as British writers.
Lamming pointed out that back then the English critics might have had some problems with sentence construction and Caribbean idioms.
Meanwhile, Dawes pointed out that there was also a problem of who the Caribbean authors were writing for. While the program was definitely being aired in the Caribbean, the publishers could not give the writers that same guarantee, since the printed works were being published and marketed in the U.S. and the U.K.. So, the end of the program was the end of the idea that the literature “…was speaking to that [Caribbean] community”.
Dawes also challenged the BBC’s position as “the arm of colonial experience” having a right to validate caribbean literary culture. Some literary works that didn’t fit the bill just weren’t included in the program.
Despite it’s flaws, the program really got things moving for Caribbean writers… before it was considered redundant and taken off the air.
It set the stage for Caribbean writers and other artists, to respond critically to the European colonial tradition.
In the end, Henry Swanzy, an Irish broadcaster, made a huge contribution to the development of Caribbean writing.
Oh yeah, and my Classics Club book for May is The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James .
Image Credit: Flickr