LEGACY OF A NOVELIST: Significance of Sharlow's major novels.
Andy already knew that it was after the creation of The Promise and When Gods Were Slaves that I had heard about Sir Arthur Lewis’ (Nobel Prize laureate for Economics) famous statement: The duty of the author in the Caribbean is to return the peoples to themselves.
Or C.L.R. James’ expansion of the above in his book: Party Politics in the West Indies: That someone from another race should write the African novel. Such a work would be a challenge to Imperial Europe.
Or that Prime Minister, Eric Williams –undoubtedly the world’s greatest contemporary historian – had called a young novelist to his office, and had presented him with all the books by the propagandists. Williams had told the novelist: Read what these authors say about your people. Here you will find your duty.
The story goes that the novelist read all the books and believed every word that was written!
Added to the above, and carrying the same meaning was another statement which has all but disappeared: If you do not know where you came from, you cannot know where you are going.
Andy (Kameel Mohammed-Ali) opened his notes, and began: Before we come to the significance of your major works, I would like to ask a couple of questions.
Your website begins (with): From the society of authors at Drayton Gardens: The chief glory of every people arises from its authors. Samuel Johnson.
This is followed by your own words: How can you see and experience that which the naked eye cannot, except through the miracle of literature?
My first question then: What is your personal definition of literature?
Sharlow: Certainly a monistic interpretation of Creation.
You see, it all began with the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst men.
Andy shuffled his papers and spoke: I see from one of your private letters, you wrote: I had become the Word! I would like to defer an explanation. For now, could you be more specific, or comprehensive?
Sharlow: With your brevity of speech, you demand volumes. It is a strain on my poor heart, but I will do my best to accommodate you.
Some time in the mid 90s, I recall a letter to Efebo Wilkinson, the then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Culture. Therein, I mentioned that literature was about everything: not merely about inspiring politics or education, or man’s entry into space, but about the manner in which we clothe ourselves, our very cuisine and eating habits. It is about our relationship with our spouses and children.
Literature influences culture, and the path of progressive culture directs itself towards God.
But it is not only about Satya Sai Baba’s (God on Earth) saying: Do good; see good; be good; God loves the good. Shakespeare recognized that All the world’s a stage… Baba constantly explains that it is God’s lila or stage.
Literature then is forced to include the other side of God’s face; and between the good and the evil, must seek for justice. Worse than Krakatao erupting or the ocean overflowing was the navigator, Christopher Columbus stumbling on the shores of the peaceful First Nations peoples of the West. With an inordinate lust for gold, this sailor initiated and participated in the worst genocide ever visited upon mankind.
See the works of Bartholomew de las Casas, or Columbus and I, Taino (2009). Literature records and exposes such evils with the hope that such atrocities will not be repeated. It also explains the people’s culture where nations existed in peace for hundreds of years. Where simple architecture withstood the fiercest of storms, and where simple experimental agriculture not only left no one hungry, but preserved the pristine environment.
It would appear that we have not adopted a single lesson from the past!
Andy was used to seeing the author chain-smoking. He questioned: From the words of Samuel Johnson, is the novelist the greatest individual in any nation? Secondly, if as it is said, the novel is the greatest book, why – as so many argue – is the novel no longer relevant?
I don’t know what it means to be or to feel great. Nor do I believe that any truly great individual can interpret or explain greatness, except in terms of humility. I don’t believe that I am better than anyone. And I have written that my greatest reward is to have the privilege of being a sacrifice.
I am not amused by your last question, and I shall not engage myself in such nonsensical controversy. Only the other week, London based Ron Ramdin – history lecturer and novelist – accompanied by the journalist, Ariti Jagirdar paid me a visit. (Ron Ramdin’s The Griot’s Tale is an excellent and literary novel). Ron asked me your question about the novel, if it is dying.
My reply to him was that so long as man exists on earth, the novel will be alive.
All I can say, and without investigation, is that the Internet might be in temporary commercial competition with the novel. It is an absurdity to venture a comparison. Michener’s novel, Space gives an historical step by step account of man’s entry into space. His literature provides drama and excitement while the reader gathers knowledge or information. Impossible for the Internet to achieve.
About When Gods Were Slaves – Undoubtedly one of the few great classics to grace the literary world. The reader is enthralled by the mysticism of this novel. Of course, readers who do not experience the mysticism in great novels are not reading spontaneously, but rather, looking for what they hope to find for their own benefit.
Taking a couple of lines from Professor Frank Birbalsingh’s review: The two lovers survive for many years in Trinidad, but not as a couple, and their enforced separation is typical of the multiple fractures and dislocations engendered by slavery. This lovers’ sense of personal grief and loss could not be reproduced by a standard text of history.
That must suffice.
As for the novel being the greatest book in the world, since I am a novelist, it is obviously not for me to answer your question! The difference with other books is that the novel requires creativity.
From Writing the Novel (2003): …And the same applies to Comparative Religion, Philosophy, Sociology or History, etc. You learn to appreciate and to profoundly respect these historians and scholars. And you silently pay tribute to these outstanding individuals and their books. They provide you with material from which you would create your novel, and achieve your perspective. It is clear that research is a sine qua non before you write…
Any comparison therefore, appears absurd.
The shingle at Drayton Gardens clearly celebrates the author as the nation’s chief glory. And so, if you think about England’s greatness, your thoughts do not fall on Elizabeth or Henry, but on Shakespeare, on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters or D.H. Lawrence. So too, if you think on France, it is about Victor Hugo; Dostoevsky on Russia; James Michener, Frank Yerby, Taylor Caldwell, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison on North America. We are so few over the centuries, (In the words of James Michener: In the world there are only a few authors, and out of those few only some make it.) it is not possible to leave out Leon Uris; Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or Chinua Achebe and my good and admirable friend, Wole Soyinka.
Andy added: The Caribbean?
That’s another story. I have written that where literature is concerned, we are worse off than the land of Tierra del Fuego, down Argentina way. It is primitive and uncivilized of us to murder our authors, the chief glory of our nations. Ismith Khan rotted in New York. Edgar Mittelholzer – Frank Birbalsingh related to me – wrapped himself in thick clothing, then doused himself with kerosene before staging his own death by fire. Eric Roach, a truly gifted poet, walked into the Tobago sea.
It is sad. Andy couldn’t help adding to the topic. Again on your website, at the end of Ms. Sunity Maharaj’s rather classic interview, I see: The failure to recognize and to encourage literary talent is a form of oppression. Since we murder our authors here, why did you stay?
I did a non-committal gesture with my hand. I don’t know. I’m attached. Like Valmiki, I needed my ant-hole. Besides, I was busy. Busy for thirty-three fulltime years.
Andy thought the author looked weary and said so. Can you tell me something about good and bad literature?
You must add the absurd, which can only be produced by the manqué critic. Bad literature, though necessary, clouds the good. Its influences are responsible for much of the present chaos in the world. I too, wrote a deal of bad literature (unpublished) before finding my way. And so, because of my experiences, I could advise in Writing the Novel: The lesson to be learnt here then, is that the aspirant should now put an immediate end to that kind of reading. Its influences could be disastrous. Understand too, that there is something insane if not ridiculous, in attempting to blend morality in characters who also indulge in pornographic episodes.
As for the absurd, see Hernadi’s, What is Literature-1978.
In The Novelist as: Instrument of God (2008) let me read a few lines from a paper titled: Critics’ Critic Critic.
…Marlowe spoke: I read Hernadi’s What is Literature. What I recall most in the first presentation, is something about a tiger’s stripes. What is a tiger. And later, something about the intelligence of rats.
“… Snapshot may not have been intentionally vindictive, but the embittered, or tormented critic is always nasty. (See Millette’s Professors, circa 1959-1961). To quote someone: An unprincipled, unmannered and de-nationalised fellow.
The author raised himself… He had Hernadi’s book and was flipping the pages. “We have here a general idea of how the literary critic functions. At the end of his presentation, Davenport tells us: As long as we continue to foster a critical tradition, wherein none of our theories is permitted to stand unchallenged, the uncertainty and even falseness of our theories, should they be discovered, do not make them worthless.
The author paused awhile. “This is the writing which passes for academic intellectualism and scholarship! Can anything be more absurd, more vindictive against authors and their works?”
Andy could not believe his ears, and needed to re-read the text.
The author: “It is indeed an extraordinary creature which can pen such absurdities.”
Over a drink of iced grapefruit juice, Andy was looking into the Oxford Dictionary. He spoke: Before today’s session ends, can you explain what fiction means?
In my early youth, I believed that fiction was the awesome imagination of great individuals. It was any and everything, but not true. Of course, we were free to believe it and make it true.
Before continuing, I gazed at Oxford’s interpretation of fiction in growing shock.
Oxford is as juvenile as my own youth, delinquent! I couldn’t believe my eyes. To say the least, Oxford’s definition is based on sheer ignorance. It is downright misleading and outrageously obscene!
(Andy had carried some of my novels to South Africa in the other year. Before then and after, individuals had inquired: So what does this author write about? Andy’s reply had always been: The truth. Again: A visiting professor from India was given The Promise by a university student. After reading, the professor returned: Everything the author says here is truth!
Lo and behold. A reviewer of The Promise, championing Oxford’s definition, emblazoned on his newspaper: Fictionalizing Indentureship. This very individual had interviewed me in my home on When Gods Were Slaves. I do sympathize with him.
As much as over ninety-nine percent of the peoples of the diaspora, indoctrinated by European propaganda – vicious lies against a people – the fellow could not believe his eyes, nor did he take time to investigate the facts. And so, Panini as the first recognized linguist in the world, or the playwright, Kalidasa on Indian theatre, or Valmiki as the first recognized poet in the world, became Oxford’s definition of fiction for him!
Not to mention the real and true reasons for indentureship as exposed by the historian, Hugh Tinker.
What would have been his thoughts when he read that Indians believed in one God six thousand years ago? Or that Indians never told a lie? Oxford’s fiction, certainly. A simple reading of Professor Max Muller’s What Can India Teach Us? would have opened his eyes; stayed his doubtful pen).
Andy was awaiting an explanation.
Fiction is the greater truth, I began. It exposes the drama and beauty of Reality.
If we should take Oxford’s definition seriously, then some histories and biographies might be considered more as truth versus fiction, when in fact they are as false as the devil’s tongue. Examples such as Knibb – ‘The Notorious.’ by Philip Wright; or Peninsular General, Frederick Myatt (Biography of Picton) come to mind.
In writing Columbus and I, Taino (2009), it was not possible to accept or come to terms with Eurocentric assumptions, all contrary to the people’s history and culture. I suppose Guacanagari’s tears of friendship for Columbus, after the wreck of the Santa Maria will find its place in academic shelves. Students will be forced to answer questions in conformity with such truant assumptions or falsehoods. Long live the lie!
Fiction: It is the novelist’s ability to travel through space and time, and to empathize with the environment and all that took place. When I described Mighty Arira in Nigeria, Professor Fun so Aiyejina confirmed that Arira was exactly as I had described it!
Fiction is much much more. Two examples must suffice. First, Frank Yerby’s Judas my Brother. Here, fiction provides the greater truth. Judas is absolved, while Jesus’ divinity is even more than the gospels record. Doubting Thomas is healed! Only fiction can achieve this greatness. Next is Taylor Caldwell’s Beloved Physician. Fiction establishes the physician Luke – the only one of the four writers of the gospel who had not seen Jesus – as a saint; and in such a manner as to eradicate doubting minds as to the divinity of the Christ.
Both novels, religious fiction, glorify the gospels and the life of Jesus. Surely an inspiration to all, generated through fiction.
Andy was smiling with understanding.
Look through the window, I said. See the trees, the branches waving gently in constant motion. Hear the music of the coconut branches; see the perched couple of doves witnessing the ever changing hues; see the clouds racing across the sky, the sunlight on the blue mountains…
I chuckled then: You do gaze upon the fiction of the Master Novelist. The Creator Himself.
A final question which you might answer briefly: What inspires you to write?
There is no such thing as a brief or simple answer anymore. Some sixteen years ago, when Ms. Sunity Maharaj interviewed me here on When Gods Were Slaves, she asked: How did you do it? I replied that if you should ask me the same question a thousand and one times, I suppose I shall give you a thousand and one different answers.
Some years later, I began a letter in response to Sunity’s question. That letter turned into Writing the Novel (2003).
Duty would be my very brief reply to your question.
Andy’s features crumbled with disappointment, or perhaps confusion.
I continued: Around the age of ten, when I had not yet looked at the novel, the stirrings or urge to write had already appeared. Great novels are like bliss on an otherwise drab world. They are awesome miracles, inspiring millions of readers to reach for the loftiest ideals in life. Like Dickens on Love: Wherever there is Esther there will always be rain and summer sunshine.
Literary novels provide values by which an erring society might correct itself; or by which the society progresses.
Like art or architecture, I simply followed on the footsteps of the great. If you are hoping that I would say like Hemmingway, who confessed that he was inspired by the sea, I have no such inspiration.
Once more, it comes back to Duty. I am always befuddled whenever I am asked your question. Research does not inspire me; it indicates my duty. My raison d’être.
I recall at the launching of When Gods Were Slaves at the university here, a brilliant professor and writer said to me: While researching you can’t help feeling a sense of outrage…
I would have liked to explain to the professor that while that might be so, the novelist cannot do fair justice, if he or she harbours such emotions. Retaliation or personal grouses all work against creating fairness. And I have long pointed out that writing seeks for justice.
In other words, though I am my work, I stand outside and apart, and am more like an observer. And so, once more, it is not inspiration but duty which binds me to my mission on earth.
I would maintain: you have not earned the right to do violence – physical or political – against one another. First, honour your ancestors; then I dare you to continue in your folly and mayhem.
You cannot create anything into the future without first taking from the past.
It is a horrible existence to grow into adulthood without having a history.
Taken from: The Forerunner: Sharlow
Integration of the races must be the policy of Independence. Only in this way can the colony of Trinidad and Tobago be transformed into the Nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
Genius is not only born but made:
So, Andy spoke rhetorically: First you became East Indian, then African, and now, Taino?
…though I am my work, I stand outside and apart, and am more like an observer. And so, once more, it is not inspiration but duty which binds me to my mission on earth.
It isn’t possible to empathize or sympathize with others you know nothing about, he (Sharlow) explained. I feel there can be no real progress, no genuine unity without first having an intellectual understanding of each other’s heritage. You must know where you came from if you are to know where you’re going.
From an interview for the Express, 1995: Sharlow
For judgement I am come
Into this world, that they which
See not might see; and that they
Which see might be made blind.
John: Ch.9 V.39