George Lamming has been described as "The Conscience of the Caribbean." His thoughful analysis and incisive commentary bring new insights to many things we in this region care about. The novelist lives in Barbados, teaching during the summer at the Unviversity of Miami, Coral Gables, and guest lectures elsewhere.
Lamming speaks with writer Knolly Moses about his concerns for the region.
The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Moses: What do you make of the resurgence of anti-Castro activity? Lamming: It is very curious the way this provocation against Cuba coincides with the electoral fever of presidential campaiging and the republican domination of the Congress. All these things seems t o be linked. There is still a deliberate policy among certain U.S. elements to erase the social achievements of the Cuban revolution. One of the major difficulties in the region is the fact that Cuba has been identified by the United States as enemy number one. It is the nature of U.S. relations to Cuba that distorts the relation of Cuba to the rest of the Caribbean. The question is how do you normalize relations between Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean, because Cuba is a Caribbean territory. It is the normalization of relations that the U.S. is opposed to.
Q: How can the Caribbean achieve its own ambitions and, at the same time, not cause a security problem for the United States?
Lamming: The Caribbean is not a source of any security problems for the US. That is part of the myth. The task of the Caribbean is to create a political structure that embraces all the territories. Sometimes obstacles are put in the way.
Just as CBI was a strategy that disrupted the possibility of regionalizing of our forces, NAFTA is a continuation among certain Caribbean governments to perpetuate the old fragmentation that has wasted the efforts of the region.
Q: Can Caribbean culture resist American influence?
Lamming: Given our proximity to the United States and the very intimate interactions we have with the U.S., it is very difficult to find any Caribbean family that has no relations with America. So the question is not fighting off the influence, but how to develop a critical relationship to that influence.
American television sometimes shows very remarkable kinds of investigations about American institutions that are very revealing. We have to learn from these documentaries. We also must be aware that we import and absorb the most negative aspect of American life. And it's that that one resists.
It is in the area of film and television entertainment that one recognises how the economic becomes the cultural and the cultural becomes economic. We are not alone in this defense of our cultural sovereignty. The French now insist on limiting the importation of U.S. television and film, w hich, from the American point of view, is in direct conflict with the concept of liberalization. There really is no global village.
Q: Will the creative arts help us to do that?
Lamming: One of the major contributions made within the creative arts is through the novel, and, in a way, through the theatre, in which Caribbean society has been returned to itself. It is through a number of novels and in some cases through theatre that the society has been called upon to look at itself and see how it feels and how it thinks. That has been a positive contribution. But we are handicapped in other ways.
Q: In what ways?
Lamming: Our writers are dependent on external promotion. We have not worked out in the Caribbean itself a publishing infrastructure. Most major Caribbean writers have publishers outside. And where you don't have the apparatus of literature in the community itself, there is no direct exchange between the writer and the reading class that you find in the United States or England. It is very difficult to build that.
The entry of writers into the schools is one good change in the last 30 years. There is a whole generation of West Indians now who, from school and at the university, have a perspective on the society through its literature which they were forced to read. That reading equipped them to understand more about who they are and where they are more than previous generations. But I don't think that the book as a companion travels beyond the school.
Q: Apart from the writers, where else has there been impact?
Lamming: In music, both the folk and popular forms. Calypso, and later reggae, have become very serious documents defining and analysing the nature of Caribbean society. This kind of creative expression has now become the dominant influence on the younger generation, and thus has a precise political function since it coincides and may even be the product of the triumph of the market. The politics of the market has created the illusion of a popular democracy by expanding access to an infinite range of commodities.
Q: Do you anticipate regional policies for cultural activity?
Lamming: It depends on whether you get what would be your indigenous middle class, your indigenous private enterprise elements, to see that investment in culture is a very serious investment. It is not only a contribution to community development, but it also contributes to a decline in violence and all forms of anti-social behavior. In other developed societies the artistic class is, to a large extent, supported by that private enterprise area. We never really had the kind of capitalist class that saw that as a priority.
Q: How do you explain the migratory instinct of the region's peoples?
Lamming: Migration is as old as this region itself. But the region has not been given an opportunity to engage in self-development and therefore cannot create an environment that would persuade trained people to stay. The alternative is to find markets where you can dispose of labour. That migration of the technical labour force in a way destabilizes the society. The society finds it impossible to create a sufficiently solid base on which to make things work.Q: Wasn't that the purpose of "discovering" the "New World?"
Lamming: This is a region into which the continents of the world poured themselves. We were a global village from day one. We have a unique laboratory of the world because all continents„at different times and for different reasons„deposited important portions of themselves here. The Caribbean sensibility grew up as a very modern sensibility, very cosmopolitan. There is hardly any theme that could be the subject of university literature that has not been the actual common experience of a Caribbean person. And that's one reason why Caribbean people have this extraordinary adaptability, whenever they move to any metropolis. It doesn't take us long to adjust. That's because the history of the Other has never been far from the history of ourselves.
Q: How do Caribbean writers deal with such a burden?
Lamming: Every Caribbean writer carries with him the weight of the pressure of history. If you talk about slavery, you're really not talking about anything that is in the remote past. You're talking about something whose legacy is still very present and is still, in a variety of ways, influencing the choices people have to make. The Caribbean has never been on the periphery of major global events. It has either been the cause of much global confrontation, or is always attached to it.
A writer like Vidia Naipaul is always preoccupied with what he sees as the dislocation, the disorganization of these societies, that they are societies without firm institutions. And, unfortunately, he renders it in a very negative way. He could photograph problems that arise, but could not explore them to see how they could be healed. He has decided that it is a futile exercise, that you can make anything real out of that kind of shambles.
Q: But that is not the only view, is it?
Lamming: No! Others have a conviction that there is something very special to be made out of what appeared to be shambles. Aime Cesaire, Nicolas Guillen, Jacques Romain and others felt they had a sense of working within the context of Caribbean civilization. They believe there is a Caribbean reality to be explored and discovered, and that this was their function: to make this known.
We can see that through the literature the region has an awareness of itself that it did not have thirty years ago. There is a kind of dialogue that now goes on in culture and across languages which was certinly unknown in the 1940s. It's nothing these days for the university in Martinique to invite English-speaking writers to seminars.That kind of exchange happens between Martinique and other countries in the region. And we would have had a lot more of that if we had not had the communist nonsense. There were a number of fascinating exchanges between Cuba and the rest of the region through Casa de Americas „Cuba's major publishing house„ an important centre for the publishing of a number of books that would otherwise not have appeared in English. And that was happening even when relations were not normalised. Had they been, you would have seen a much richer exchange.
Q: Would you say that the writers achieve a political unity that politicians do not?
Lamming: Certainly, novelists have brought the region together in a way that politicians have not succeeded in doing. The regionalizing of consciousness has been one of the major contributions of cultural activity. And the sense of regional destiny is stronger in its creative artists than in the region's politicians.
I've always made myself available to the region, not specifically to literary groups but to all, because the message is about the need for regionalizing the consciousness. It's a kind of evangelical activity that places one in the consciousness of the younger generation. In the context of a post-colonial world, it is very difficult to see how a creative artist would not be engaged, directly or indirectly, in the whole drama of "decolonialization". Almost everything you do „ consciously or unconsciously „ must deal with the decolonization of the mind of the region. It is in that sense that the creative expression is organically linked to political struggle.