Senior Lecture

WRITING AND THE POLITICS OF IMAGINATION IN SMALL SPACES:
A CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE

Olive Senior
23 July 2010, Bahamas Writers Summer Institute, Nassau, Bahamas

First, I’d like to thank the Bahamas Writers Summer Institute for inviting me and to both thank and congratulate Marion and Helen for the great work they are doing to develop and promote Bahamian writing and for being such efficient and gracious hosts.

The topic was assigned to me and I wasn’t sure how to navigate it. So I broke it down into two parts – ideas relating to ‘imagination’ and ideas relating to ‘space’. I’ll leave the ‘politics’ to the politicians since politics and poetics are hardly ever a good combination.

Let me start off by stating that in my opinion, space or size is never a limit to the imagination. But there can be limits on the expression of imagination, that is, limits on cultural activity and practice.

All the arts need a nurturing space in which to flower and find avenues for expression. These avenues come together in a matrix that has to work together. For writing, this includes government support such as laws supporting freedom of expression and protecting intellectual property, institutional supports via educational facilities, libraries and research, indigenous publishers and bookstores, space for sharing work with others, and essential feedback from book reviewers and literary critics. Above all, there needs to be the fostering of a reading public that will provide the encouragement and also the financial support to sustain the work of writers.

In the industrialised countries, all these factors and more – such as generous grants and literary prizes – are recognised as important elements in the creation of what is called the cultural sector. And in a world that is market driven, increasing recognition is given to the economic returns that can come from this sector from the book, art, music, film and other industries. Above all, cultural work is regarded as professional activity, one that, theoretically at least, should enable creators to earn a living.

Additionally, countries such as Canada, for instance, have recognised for some time the important role of culture in helping to foster and develop a national identity and have put the necessary financial and political support behind its development. But of course, much of the impetus for government action has come about and is sustained by an activist role played by the creators themselves, usually working together in strong national organisations.

Small nation states that are struggling tend to view culture not as an intrinsic element in social and economic development but as a sometimes fractious appendage that can always be jettisoned. Apart from this lack of cultural space, as outlined above, a form of neo-colonialism still reigns in many of our countries where expression has to be sanctioned by religion and prevailing attitudes that are sometimes bent on stifling free expression or alternative views. Thus writers and other creative artists either find themselves engaged in a constant struggle to assert their views or else they engage in a kind of self-censorship which results in the suppression of imaginative expression, of innovation and the avant garde. Small geographical and political spaces can often be seen as cultural wastelands, lacking creative resources.

Change can only come about through the collective action of writers working together to fulfil common interests. BWSI, by its very existence, is helping to secure this cultural space and as such is worthy of support not only by writers themselves but by all those who care about culture as agency in the formation of a national identity.

In the absence of such cultural space then, embedded in the writers task is a critique of what is lacking. But lamenting these failures should not be the sole motivation for writing, or we will get old or sour and wrinkled before our time and/or simply fall by the wayside.

I am not trivialising the task that writers face – even in a country as progressive about writing as Canada, only a small fraction of writers actually earn a living from writing so it continues to be a struggle to produce. Globally, there is a perceived threat to writing and books as we know and love them in a world that is driven by technology, celebrity, instant gratification and consumerism. If writers in large countries – such as Canada – feel threatened, how much more fragile should writers in small spaces feel?

Where once we felt we stood on certain ground in defining what writing is about, now the whole notion has become challenging for everyone; in a market-dominated world, writing has become an industry – incorporated into big business; the writer has become a cog in a system over which we have no control.

Now, more than ever then, writers have to decide who we want to be, where we want to stand in relation to the marketplace, if we have a choice, that is. Do you want to be the writer who writes for writing’s sake and lives on crumbs or the writer to writes at the dictates of the market in the expectation of reasonable returns for your efforts. This indeed is a political, even ideological question. But writers having to make compromises is nothing new – Charles Dickens wrote every word for money and earlier writers were at the beck and call of wealthy patrons to keep themselves alive. I think the difference today is the distance between the writer and the development of the product, as the book is now called, the lessening of the personalised connection between writer and publisher, the increasingly alienating effect of publishing as big business. Many publishers themselves have been swallowed up by large global corporations with an agenda that might very well be anathema to the writer. The world of international publishing has become so complicated that the final ownership of your imprint has become hard to trace.

Apart from these globalised concerns, instability has become extreme and it might be said we are in a moment of crisis, of unstable values and anxieties which impinge most on the citizens of small and fragile nation states.

Having given this general overview, I thought it would be best if we left discussion of the specifics of the situation in the Bahamas or wider Caribbean to the question period that will follow. For the rest of my talk, what I would like to do is share with you some of the things I have learnt on the way to becoming a professional writer, articulated through the notion of creative space.

First there is what I call HUNGRY SPACE.

One thing I have come to learn is that creativity needs to be fed. We feed our imaginations by taking in, consuming and processing the world through all our senses; through reading and absorbing from other cultural or created activities; by being alert at all times to the raw thread woven into the fabric of our everyday world and by getting and staying in touch with our unconscious selves that is revealed to us through dreams or moments of insight. So this isn’t expensive feeding.

One of my favourite little books is called ‘The Satirical Rogue on Poetry’ which asserts that “. . . if a poet can support himself he can support his poetry. If he can keep himself fed, his poems won’t starve.” And, “It isn’t expensive to be a poet. A pencil and a piece of paper are all the equipment needed to get started. Homer managed on less.”

This is meant to be humorous but there is a deeper truth in this, because so many of us shy away from writing, from engaging in creativity and imaginative truths because we are waiting on the right space, we are waiting on the right time, we are waiting until we get a computer, and so on.

Writers of earlier generations didn’t know we had to wait on these things because we had no such expectations. As long as we had the pencil and paper and the imperative was strong, we just did what we had to do. One of my favourite anecdotes is about two who have become West Indian literary greats—George Lamming and Sam Selvon travelling to England together on the same boat in the fifties. Both were writing their first books and furiously preparing their manuscripts to get to find publishers as soon as they arrived in England—and having one typewriter between them! Depending on who is telling the story, the typewriter belonged either to George or to Sam but—if the story is true—you can imagine the manoeuvring that had to take place.

But back to feeding the imagination. While it is recognised that children do best when exposed to a variety of stimuli in their early years, including what we would consider cultural activities, perhaps our definition of ‘cultural activities’ has become too narrow in that the focus is on the things that are provided for children in order to create (and of course this morphs into the things which we as adults feel we also need to be creative.)
I don’t want to romanticise the past because in many ways it was quite horrible. But in this respect I should tell you that I grew up in the deep bush in Jamaica where, as a child, I had no access to what are considered cultural artefacts. In my early years, books were very limited, there was no cinema, recorded music, radio, television, telephone, and so on, not until I went away for high school. Yet, from an early age, I knew I would be a creative artist (though of course I was not familiar with the term). What saved me and gave me a vision of the possible was what I now consider the writer’s most vital attribute – curiosity. Curiosity is what enabled me to engage with the world around me and stimulated my imagination. For me, the world of storytelling existed both in the oral culture as well as in books; my curiosity put me in touch with the world of nature and with the metaphysical. I lived in a world where the focus was not so centred on objects/things as on the world of human relationships (which was not always a peaceful or loving one but was highly stimulating to the would-be writer in providing both themes and language).

So, we can spend our time bewailing the lack of amenities, or we can conjure up mental landscapes to fill our spiritual and imaginative needs. Caribbean imaginary space is both expansive and expandable in terms of potential narratives and enriching imagery. When I am possessed by this space, I have no sense of being small. And Hungry space is not far removed from Head Space.

HEAD SPACE or ‘Time to stop and stare’

In a world of increasing speed, art is what enables us to think about and process our lives. Writing has to be a slow movement, allowing for revision, for rethinking, for rereading, for allowing the reader in. But first, we need to create for ourselves the space to ‘stand and stare’ in order to see (in the words of William Blake):

“a World in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand /and Eternity in an hour’’.

The role of the artist is one of exploration of inner as well as outward space. We are the ones that are expected to journey to the interior to bring back news. What kind of news? When people ask me ‘Of what use is poetry?’ I always think of this poem by William Carlos Williams

Asphodel – That Greeny Flower

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

The news we bring back in our writing should leave us bewildered, concerned, wondering, alter our perception of things and perhaps provide a moral response to the crisis of our times. Above all, it should play a role in defining the Caribbean space.

INSERT SPACE OR DIS-CONNECT

Embodied in the creation of head space is the notion of silence or absence of sound.

We tend to think of sound as the spoken word, as music, rhythm and so on, all of which contribute to the diversity and richness of the Caribbean image at home and abroad.

We don’t pay much attention to this counterpart of sound – silence – and the role it plays in creative activity; indeed, by many Caribbean people, a craving for silence and solitude is seen as antisocial and eccentric if not downright ‘mad’.

Like most things, silence has two faces. There is the silence that we choose, to permit inner contemplation. And there is the silence imposed by others, the silence that comes from being or feeling silenced. Loss and exile, spiritual or otherwise, are often equated with loss of sound, the distancing from the other. In various essays, I have defined my concept of ‘home’ by saying it is a place where there is a condition of resonance, or sound returned; that is, a place where you speak to a community and it speaks back to you. This does not necessarily involve ‘dialogue’ in the western sense; resonance can be achieved without speech – it can be felt, it can be experienced, as one does the constant vibration of sound waves.

However – and this is very important – resonance is only possible within a cleared space. So the other side of Caribbean reality is that we don’t allow ourselves such space. Our senses are constantly assaulted by the world around us and its demands on our time and attention. And also because so many of us are afraid to create the necessary space inside of our heads that will enable us to perceive the world at another level.

We come from expressive cultures so we feel most at home with the expressive arts.

We are taught to look outwards, beyond ourselves –so that there is always better than here, out there is always better than in here. In here means using our heads, our ‘gourds’, it means thinking for ourselves, thinking about our space, about how we allow ourselves to be defined by others. Additionally, nowadays, we also too easily yield to the tyranny of technology. Perhaps, what we need to do is disconnect or – insert space.

We also need to disconnect from the world views about ourselves that are foisted on us and that we have implicitly come to believe. We are taught to look outwards, beyond our shores, because over there is always better, and we have allowed writers of the past to define ‘here’ – our Caribbean space – as the un-place – un-developed, un-civilized, un-wanted, un-satisfactory. North is always better than South.

How do we transcend the barriers – defined by geographical space and erected on the word of others?

By colonising YARD SPACE.

We must dig first in own backyard as a way of foregrounding ourselves. Caribbean people are travelling people. It is inevitable that many of us will end up living for longer or shorter periods in other parts of the world. But we can only feel at home in the world if we are grounded or rooted somewhere. In the long run, it is the place in our hearts that truly matters. But that place in our hearts should not be the one that we view with nostalgia filled eyes and to which we pay lip service, as we do to the word ‘culture’. Ultimately, it should be the place where we are prepared to unearth the skeletons. The place we call Yard.

A Jamaican saying warns, ‘Fowl scratch up too much dirt him find him granny skeleton’. We all know this generational thing about keeping secrets, hushing the mouth, since – to quote another saying, ‘not everything good to eat good to talk’. Tradition imposes on us another kind of silence – not the silence we spoke of earlier that is necessary for hearing the music of the universe. This is the silencing that doesn’t want us to speak the name of anything considered perverse or shameful – like slavery or sexuality, to name but too taboo subjects. But we have to dig, we have to speak, this is the writer’s mandate. To unearth the skeletons so that we can bring in new soil, get on with planting the new garden.

BACK SPACE – Research into the Past

Another way of feeding the imagination is by sharing the space with others who are bringing to light information about our culture – the historians, scientists, anthropologists and other scholars doing their own digging into our region. Scholarship in the various disciplines is one area in which the Caribbean space has opened up in recent decades – and which had helped to make possible a book such as my Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Scholarly research into all these areas has also provided me with endless material – and I’d like to think a level of authenticity – for my own creative work, my fiction and poetry. I am pleased when sometimes scholars and researchers in turn use my ‘creative writings’ to illustrate their research so I feel that I am part of a loop that is connecting me with others far removed from my own discipline and this is helping to inform my understanding of the space I come from.

What I really want to stress is the importance of writers becoming engaged at a deep level with our own societies and also stepping outside of what we perceive as our literary space into exploring other areas – say, botany or architecture or history, for instance, simply out of curiosity. My own imaginative hunger has feasted richly on these publications as well as on other artistic productions such as painting, music, film and dance. Learning from the work of people engaged in research is also a way of enabling ‘artistic truth’ to float to the top, separate from what others would like us to believe about our past.

ANCESTRAL SPACE

Octavio Paz reminds us that as writers we have literary ancestors as well as ancestors of blood. “Each poet, he says, “is an undulation in a river of tradition, a moment of language. At times poets deny their tradition – only to invent others… Most poets chose their ancestors.”

If we are to talk seriously about our culture, then we need to find out where we are coming from, in order to know who we are. And this means an acceptance of all the elements that contribute to our persons and our nations. I have a pluralistic perspective on culture. In my Encyclopedia I tried to define Jamaican culture as follows, and I’ll read it to you because I think it could apply to all of us:

“My own view of our national heritage is holistic – that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe that those of us who call ourselves Jamaicans are shaped by a unique set of circumstances that are intrinsic, even as we belong to distinct racial or ethnic categories.”

In the same way I tried to write about ‘culture’ in a non-hierarchical way, setting the so called ‘Great’ or European tradition alongside the ‘Little Tradition’ or culture of the people and giving them equal weight.

I also believe that culture is not about rejection of any of its elements but about incorporation. As far as literature goes, the tradition we in the Caribbean have inherited is the Western literary canon. So outright rejection of this canon or some of its elements such as ‘Shakespeare’ is rather silly. Imitation of the writers of the past is a good way of learning to write – indeed before the recent advent of writing workshops and writing schools, it was the only way. By imitation is meant trying to write in imitation of a poem or in the style of a novelist that moves you. This is how many writers have begun, by serving an apprenticeship, more commonly recognised among painters than writers. Reading with a discerning eye is still the best way to learn to write.

Derek Walcott, the Nobel Laureate, is quite explicit about the way in which, as a young man on the small West Indian island of St Lucia, he began by modelling his verses on those of the masters (that is, the English literary canon) as a way of working out his own style. He has said in an interview, “I knew I had to absorb everything in order to be able to discover what I was eventually trying to sound like.” (quoted in Stewart Brown, ‘The Apprentice’ in The Art of Derek Walcott, page 5).

It is important to note that imitation is different from plagiarism which is theft, that is, copying another’s work and calling it your own.

To break the rules, you first have to know them. Trying to write in the style of something that has gone before is a safe way of casting off into the unknown if you are new to writing. Consider imitation a kind of safety net – until you find yourself sailing on your own steam.

So don’t reject the daffodils – Wordsworth’s poem – ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ – which has become the beating stick for feminists and post-modernists. The point isn’t that we are asked to learn a poem about a flower that we have never seen written by ‘an old white man with a beard’. The power of the poem lies not in the description of a field of daffodils (and that is powerful) but in what happens afterwards – the impact on the poet of this scene of beauty recollected ‘in tranquillity’ – which comes from HEAD SPACE.

My practice and advice has always been, don’t reject any part of experience. Instead of getting angry with Mr Wordsworth, talk back, claim the space, and take hold of his pen as many poets have done, for instance Lorna Goodison with her poem ‘To Mr. William Wordsworth, Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland’. Then write a poem about what you want to recall in tranquillity – Poinciana in bloom or the emerald waters surrounding your country.

The ‘daffodils’ argument is one well known to those of the former British colonies, but is relevant throughout the world to all peoples searching for political and creative autonomy. All writers, we are told, start by imitating a model that we admire but to find our own true voices, we need to ‘kill’ off the master. Perhaps it is not so much a question of killing as taking hold of the pen for one’s own empowerment, by arguing with and questioning what has gone before as a way of affirming one’s place in the world. And now that perhaps we can begin to talk about a ‘Caribbean canon’, this should involve back chat to earlier generations of Caribbean writers too.

So this is where the journey into internal space begins for all of us. The need from a certain age to engage in the search for the self, for a personal identity. To find out who we are as individuals, where we fit into the world. This is the writer’s engagement.

For me, as for many others of my generation, in Jamaica at any rate, that search for personal identity became fused with the search for national identity, as we came of age at a time of political independence. And it was the intellectual debate that swirled around national identity – that brought to the fore issues such as race, class, ethnicity, social origins, paradigms of economic systems, etc. that in turn informed and shaped us. That turned us on to the realities of the world we live in, the realities of being no longer subjects of another, but our own people, in charge of our own lives. That part of the journey is one that engages us still, for Independence was not the ending but the beginning. That search has resulted in all my work so far, including the Encyclopedia. That search is for confirmation that I come not from ‘Nowhere’ (as Naipaul and others would assert) but from ‘Somewhere’, a place rich in history and culture, a place that is Caribbean – a place that most of you here also come from. And love of this place is what gives us a claim to ownership. To space that is both physical and mental. A space that is small only if we choose to make it so.

2 comments

  1. Reply

    OMG! I remember breaking up with someone I was with at Olive’s lecture or breaking up temporarily and having to write poetry fiercely to withstand the pain and being therefore so divided while Olive delivered divinely that evening. Oh how wonderful to have it here in it entirety or I hope in its entirety all over again. Oh what justice or is it grace or is it mercy? How very grateful I am to Olive and toto therefore for this.

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