by Petamber Persaud
The short fiction of Mittelholzer
(An extract of an interview with Professor Victor J. Ramraj in February 2009, Georgetown, Guyana. Dr. Ramraj is attached to the University of Calgary, Canada. He was editor of ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. His main interests are International English Literature, Post-independence Literature, Theory, and Criticism, Satire, Comedy, and Humour. His publications include a book on the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler and an anthology of world writing in English, A Concert of Voices.)
Victor Ramraj (VR) …… Creole Chips is worthwhile for several reasons. One, it is a measure of how far the man came — from a journalist-writer of those early short sketches — which were less than a page each — to a full-fledged novelist writing such enormous works as the Kaywana trilogy. The chips are also important because they were incubators for his later thoughts. If you go back to those stories, you’d find…
Petamber Persaud (PP) They were developed and expanded…
VR: Right — the attitude towards sex, morality, superstition…and he paid a lot of attention to setting and characterisation, strong aspects of his later fiction. So the chips are significant pieces and we ought to give them the attention they deserve. You told me earlier that someone is putting out a collection of his short stories; I hope the chips are included.
PP: Yes, Peepal Tree Press is doing a number of projects on Mittelholzer, including the reprinting of Corentyne Thunder.
VR: Creole Chips has an interesting ancestry. Mittelholzer was not the first to have done such a book. There was Putagee Pungcuss [Old Time Stories, 1936] and long before that there was X Beke; in the 1890s [he published West Indian Yarns]….
PP: And Creole Chips was published locally.
VR: Yes, that’s another point, a good point that. These chips unlike his later books which were published abroad and were generally directed to a non-Guyanese readership…
PP: Because he had something to say or prove to the foreign readership as he declared in A Morning at the Office , ‘to debunk certain fallacies held by people in northern regions about the people in the W.I…’
VR: Yes — these chips on the other hand were directed to a Guyanese readership and some of us feel the authentic Mittelholzer can be found in them. For one, you can find a splendid turn of humour that disappears in his novels. It is a warm humour and if I may put on my professor-pedant’s hat for a moment: there are three types of humour – one, the satirical mocking type, two, the warm, Chekhovian, Chaucerian type, and three, farcical type – humour for humour’s sake with no serious purpose, like early Charlie Chaplin.
In Mittelholzer, there is tolerant, understanding humour. For example, in one chip, set in a middle-class household, the servants thought the cook was practising obeah because she always took away with her the heads of chickens she was cooking; they were afraid of her and didn’t want to work with her. Mittelholzer pokes fun at their superstition but you can see he’s tolerant, understanding, not mocking.
PP: There is much more we can explore – the darker side, the introspection, where he goes into your head, dealing with the inner man. But we must end here with this comment from his first wife who said that she feels his strong point was the short story and she regrets he couldn’t develop that area more…
VR: If I may just squeeze in this comment. One of my favourite of his later stories is ‘We Know Not Whom to Mourn’ – it is a touching story about a boy who think his father didn’t care for him or love him; when he visits his father who is dying and the family is around the death bed, he detaches himself from them, goes to the veranda, and kills himself. It is an ironical story because the father recovers — hence the title, ‘We Know Not Whom to Mourn’. It is poignant because Mittelholzer always felt his own father — a negrophobe — never liked him; in his autobiography which he entitled A Swarthy Boy , Mittelholzer said he felt that his father never cared for him because of his dark complexion.
PP: Which he explored in his novels and which perhaps we could tackle in another session. Thank you.
Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: [email protected]
• Call for papers on ‘Re-reading Edgar Mittelholzer’
• The Guyana Annual magazine is inviting entries to its eight literary competitions and to its art and photography competitions.
• Be a part of the centenary celebrations of the National Library; see press for details.
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