Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Jan Carew: Rewind & Last Hurrah

Jan Carew grew up in a time and a country where old men felt safe and respected, and young men lacking employable skills did not consider their prospects as young thugs; and the nation’s gun-crime sector was still in its choke an’ rob infancy. Affordable travel abroad was maritime, and the educated could dream of travel overseas, study at universities, Art & Culture, bohemian or middle class self-indulgence; thoughts of revolution, student demonstrations and civil disobedience; Camus, Fanon & CLR James; the struggle for Independence; race & consciousness; jazz and exile in Paris.

These were some of the possibilities and destinations for the Guyanese wanderer, the title of the latest work of fiction by Jan Carew.

“Wandering” for the folk of Carew’s generation carried implications of privilege and golden opportunity far different from the blown about uprootedness of today’s backtrackers and getaways. Back then the world was a less imperiled place. These days Guyanese could feel like “aliens” closer to home, on the island of Barbados, for instance. Economic insecurity might preclude any thoughts of travel abroad for self-discovery and adventure.

Carew’s wanderings took him to several world capitals and to residencies in university towns in North America and Europe. In the process he acquired multiple identities (he has been described as a Guyanese-born Canadian of African ancestry) and fulfilled multiple roles (poet, playwright, educator, novelist, activist intellectual, philosopher and advisor to several nation states).

At one point in his development his creative instincts, eschewing bland middle-of-the-road poetics, channeled his mixed-race origins into a full-time academic interest in Black Studies. The result has been a truly impressive body of researched and achieved work.

The Guyanese Wanderer (2007) reads like a collection of career-concluding stories. It will be received in academia with the kind of reverence that at the same time pays tribute to the author’s odyssean productivity.

Characters in his early writings inhabited a world that seemed at first oddly removed from anything readers knew. Which was part of their fictional attraction, the wonder at their invented newness. The prose swept you away to word-conjured regions. You returned to the real world with a new luminous way of seeing, through filters of the imagination, how our peoples lived their lives, scattered on the wild coast or in the interior.

In this collection Carew appears to be pouring familiar characters into the old mould. Or dipping the same old calabash into familiar streams. There’s an account of student & cultural dissonance in Paris, porknockers and their women up the Potaro, and a Brer Anancy tale. A stubborn, lonely West Indian Londoner “living in a room with faded wallpaper and with a radiogram” talks about the old days of hostility to WI immigrants; and a young man on his way to UWI, St Augustine talks about family secrets with Couvade, a preacher-woman.

The writing process this time, as before, could be described as collaborative – Carew the writer listening to suggestions from Carew the sociologist, the painter, the poet. “The moon nudged its way above canopies of coconut palms and moonlight and smoke from Roberts’ pipe drove away the mosquitoes singing around his grizzled head. Navy blue shadows squatted under the trees like tethered beasts. The old man, with his shotgun across his knees, listened to rainfrogs crying out to the moon and who-you birds conversing with ghosts.”

Considering that by and large newspaper horror and opinion is all the thinking readers on the coast may have time for, it might be instructive to get reacquainted with (or, more importantly, read for the first time) a Guyanese prose master.

There’s an old school formality and density in the prose, an attention to detail that will require reader patience. The characters might seem overdrawn, the descriptions and canvas texture a bit lush after all these years. Sometimes character conversation has a flow that might sound high-toned & theatrical to iPod millennium ears, as when one character pleads: “Caesar, Caesar, why don’t we escape from these foreign-rass places? We took a journey to an expectation that turned bitterer than aloes. We’re trapped in these blasted old cities where cold stones are sucking our lives into them.”

One has to remember that Carew, like Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris, was among our first pioneer writers giving life & dignity to our colonial peoples, describing and naming our hinterland, the raw beauty of our coastline:

“On a clear day, he could make out the hills above the Tumatumari rapids and the neat, luminous green terraces that migrant farmers from the Caribbean had created. Beyond Tumatumari, there was an occasional hole in the canopy of flowering treetops, where some lone individual was pitting his energies against a continent of forests.”

The most enjoyable story, “Chantal”, is set in a bar in the diamond fields of Guiana with the spirit, Kanaima and the river mists and gold diggers everywhere. The prose again feels overwritten, but its pivot is a woman on the brink of an important insight, a tingling prelude to personal liberation:

“The five years that she and Chantal had been man and wife had tied them in a web of habits and hidden animosities, and she had, somehow, always been the one to give in, to compromise. But tonight, she told herself, ah feel like some kindah pocomania’s taken me over, and this powder-puff of a man from the city who I don’t really give a damn about, is the one triggering it.” Sliding into creole rhythms that way, author and character work together to guide the story from its indigenous source to an engaging modern parable.

Carew’s early novels – 50 yrs old and brimming with Guianese folk myth, character and situation – now float in bookspace, little read because unavailable. Much like the rarely heard because no longer played music these days of, for instance, Louis Armstrong.

This should come as no surprise. The world stage is still under reconstruction; new global players strut their stuff and thunder their inclusivity from power bases as diverse as Venezuela and China. Higher decibel levels, lower intelligence quotients, answering machines & cell phone transmission mediate human conversation. The days when prose fiction influenced the way many readers envisioned their lives may be passing quietly into history.

So how important or enduring, you might wonder, is Carew’s fiction outside of academia and student assignment? Can anyone spare the change to travel back to a time when Guyanese saw futures of independence worth staying home for?

To weary generations the dance in our party politics between the “pussycats” and “wolves” picks up or slows but rarely stops for breath; and deepening investment in our drug transit sector tears away at the nation’s moral fibre. These might be tempting though riskier times to wander off somewhere, to cross seas in boats or planes wanting only to begin again on some distant shore. The Guyanese Wanderer offers a little respite, some dry land of creative success & example.

It is a slender but solid reprise of (post)colonial writing at its best, displaying the native materials Carew worked with to set in motion his career. His powers of observation, his deep affection for the Guiana of his boyhood and young manhood are all in evidence.

Though paved with achievement, his travel & development path from colonial to internationalist might be difficult to emulate these days; but the courage of his imagination, as the arrowhead of nation-building, art or business enterprise, could be the missing key to our continuing crisis: one-eyed governance, that temper of sullen self-interest among disaffected citizens.

Author Carew (b.1920, in Agricola village) has been a beacon of inspiration to many Guyanese familiar with his work, much like Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris; ‘lone individuals pitting their energies against a continent of books’, you could say.

With the volume of digital chatter & transaction rising worldwide, his wanderings and writings might end up out of fashion and underappreciated – catalogued and stacked on library shelves; waiting to be opened & studied again; the ideas and discoveries still at war with injustice & inequality around the world.

Book Reviewed: The Guyanese Wanderer: Stories: Jan Carew: Sarabande Books: Louisville, Kentucky: 2007, 105 pgs.

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