“AN OTHER CARIBBEAN”:
THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 7 Numbers 1 & 2 (2011)
Review by Professor Nigel Westmaas
Keeping an arts journal (or for that matter any journal) alive and active is a traditionally difficult commission in Guyana. By the standards of journals and periodicals of any kind Timehri, Kyk-Over-al and Kaie are the three way ahead of the rest in terms of durability. Timehri has the record with a century of publication. Kyk-Over-Al, more exclusively cultural in content than Timehri, was started by the British Guiana Writers Association in 1945 and was still being maintained, with the occasional lapse, until the late 1990s. Fifty years plus! A remarkable record by any standard.
Timehri, Kyk-Over-al and Kaie apart, why has it been so difficult for the survival of journals? There are two time-worn and obvious reasons. First, anything to do with the arts or literature can unfortunately be interpreted as an esoteric preoccupation thereby suffering a deficit in popular readership.
Second, financial reasons caused many a journal to falter and many have with the problems of cost, circulation and receptivity. For example, the late Brian Rodway, along with others, launched the Georgetown Review in 1978. It lasted for all but one issue. The unsold surviving copies were so plentiful that many were given away gratis. Expectedly, the publishers and printers were broke. The fate of terminal periodical syndrome hit many other attempts to sustain a magazine or journal in Guyana.
Still very active after its emergence in May 2004, The Arts Journal does not set out to rival or surpass Timehri and Kyk-Over-Al and others journals for longevity of production. With this latest (September 2011) issue The Arts Journal: Critical Perspectives on contemporary Literature, History, Art and Culture of Guyana and the Caribbean has chocked up eight years of stability and now carries a heavy responsibility for analyzing and chronicling the development of the arts in Guyana and the Caribbean. It has quietly built up constancy, reliability, exemplary standards of content, and respect for the arts and culture across the region.
The original plan for The Arts Journal was bi-annual publication. But this might have been too optimistic and the record confirms that only in 2005 did the journal publish twice. From Volume 3 it resorted to the more realistic double volume each year and this has since led to a substantive collection of excellent contributions from the region and Guyana.
Like its predecessors this Arts Journal contains an array of rich material over a wide cultural span inclusive of photos of paintings and different genres of assessment in the arts. There are sixteen different contributions inside – embracing as the theme suggests – diverse writing and visual arts contributions from the Caribbean. The pattern corresponds with previous issues where the thematic offerings of history, art, literature, creative writing, book reviews, short stories and poems were editorially invoked or guided.
Edited by Ameena Gafoor and Art Editor Bernadette Persaud the latest Arts Journal theme is a deliberate play on the title An Other Caribbean. And the pieces collectively correspond perfectly to the central theme.
In a keynote address and celebration of the work of Sam Selvon (1923-1994) the famed Trinidad novelist, outstanding scholar and literary critic Kenneth Ramchand examines and compares Selvon’s early work (for example, his Lonely Londoners) and the writer’s later novels and poetry. Ramchand touches aplenty on all aspects of Selvon: the complexity of his work; his linguistic achievement; his humour but above all what Ramchand sees as a shift from the early “cultural nationalist” to the “breakdown of order, purpose and value” and the arrival of a cynicism in Selvon’s later productions.
In another recorded speech Dr. Keith Lowe explores “Counter cultures: Exploring shop keeping in the Chinese Diaspora.” Although the title speaks for itself, the thrust of the content is encapsulated in this extract: “The ‘chiney’ shop of Jamaica and other plantation cities was in many respects a global Enterprise. Settling into the remotest of villages and the highest of mountains, the shopkeepers brought the world commodities to local people.”
Professor Mariam Pirbhai looks at the “emerging tradition” of Indian Guyanese Women’s fiction and explores the content of their work. The female writers she reviews include Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Narmala Shewcharran, Oonya Kempadoo, Ameena Gafoor, Ryhaan Shah, Marina Budhos and Andrea Ganraj.
Pirbhai reveals the interesting fact that Gafoor and Shah are “poised to be the first Guyanese women novelists to feature female accounts of the kali pani voyage, settlement within the colonies and life in the indenture and post-indenture periods.” This focus on the proliferation of Indian Caribbean and Guyanese women contributions, illustrates the remarkable rise in works and in the arts and culture by and on women in the Caribbean and Guyana. And The Arts Journal has been foremost in promoting the sometimes unrecognized contributions of women in multiple genres of the arts.
Emeritus Professor Frank Birbalsingh explores Janjhat, a novel by Rooplal Monar, and the complicated cultural and religious impact of Christianity on Hinduism and “cultural adaptation and creolization” on characters in the physical environment of the novel. According to Birbalsingh, Janjhat, on account of the implications of its content, could “point a way to the future for most post-colonial nations.”
Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine meditates on the “new” art of Stanley Greaves in the series Spectrum Shadows. Greaves, Roopnaraine emphasizes, remains one of the most innovative and durable of Guyanese painters and his focus as critic are the implications of the spaces and shadows in the new paintings of this celebrated Guyanese artist. Conveniently, this article provides Greaves’s paintings in colour on glossy pages thereby uniting analysis and visual record. Where possible this facility should be extended to other articles for balance of photo and text. In other terms, the allocation to other pieces in the journal inclusive of images of the books being covered or reviewed and/or photos of authors can be considered by the editors.
In “Remembering Phibbah: Ancestral Reflections in the International Year for People of African Descent”, proficient Jamaican historian Professor Verene Shepherd looks at the female slave Phibbah, the symbol of one of the many victims of Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his sexual and social domination on the plantation. In a moving reflection, Shepherd unearths the various responses, including accommodation and resistance, to sexual domination of Caribbean slave women.
Ameena Gafoor examines The Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace and aspects of African cultural practice including African Baptist Orisha worship as the base of the novel. Carefully unveiling the roles and words of the central characters for the reader Gafoor makes extant the novel’s sourcing of the “tragic and redemptive” black experience in Trinidad under colonialism.
A somber analysis of “Ethnic Histories the Indo-Centric narrative of Trinidad’s history” follows in an article by Trinidadian academic Emerita Professor Bridget Brereton. Brereton identifies the various streams of the south Asian experience and narrative in Trinidad history and concludes poignantly that “in their extreme forms …neither the Indo-centric nor the Afro-centric narrative, as developed by the ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’…seems to have advanced the search for a more unifying approach to the country’s past and present.”
Dr. Paloma Mohamed explores the African Guyanese Creole newspaper which for a black newspaper in a hostile publishing and political environment enjoyed a remarkable publication career from 1856 (the year of the Angel Gabriel riots) to 1907 (two years shy of another renowned Guyanese riot of 1905).
There are also selected extracts of novels and short stories by Professor Cyril Dabydeen (Welcoming Mr Anang), Professor Lomarsh Roopnarine (Drupatie’s Vanishing Hopes), Jan Lowe Shinebourne (Chinese Women), Willi Chen (Return to Guangdong), and Stephanie Bowry (Coffee Watch).
Poems by Cyril Dabydeen, and book reviews by Akima McPherson of Art in the Caribbean (by Anne Walmsley and Stanley Greaves) and Bernadette Persaud on Ryhaan Shah’s new novel A Silent Life conclude another impressive issue of The Arts Journal.
As the editorial states, The Arts Journal “deepens its focus on the arts with a more nuanced approach to studying the multiple strands of Caribbean society. It brings fresh perspectives to neglected areas of what has gradually emerged as a complex and unique heritage. There is no one label that can fit the distinctive cultural and historical experiences of Caribbean peoples and in some territories there is evidence of a plural society emerging…” This claim stands up well given the content of this issue of this eight-year-old journal of the Arts.
Readers now look forward to Volume 8 of The Arts Journal. Given the very preparatory nature of production, the next issue might have already been conceived, but the reading public would doubtless love to see reviews celebrating the work and career of late national artist extraordinaire Philip Moore.
Other suggestions that come to mind for review and analysis include the award-winning novel on Guyana by Rahul Bhattacharya, The Sly Company of People who Care; and Clem Seecharan’s newest history Mother India’s Shadow over El Dorado: Indo-Guyanese Politics and Identity 1890s-1930s. The latter would be an excellent tonic for those who narrowly restrict and glorify Guyanese politics, especially Indo-Guyanese politics, to the narrative of Cheddi Jagan and the PPP from the 1940s to the present. Tony Martin’s new book Caribbean History from Pre-Colonial Origins to the Present, with its emphasis on a younger Caribbean audience, is also ripe for review.
Given its intent and trajectory there is no doubt that The Arts Journal will continue to provide a crucial public service in highlighting, analyzing and documenting the arts and cultures of Guyana, the Caribbean and their Diasporas.