Though we may doubt whether some aspects of the idea of the nation state truly hold anymore in this increasingly globalised world, we may not doubt that we, as a specific nation of people – tied by history, blood, culture, landscape, memory and art – do exist. To suggest there is no such thing as a national Trinidad and Tobago literature is to suggest an erasure of Trinidad and Tobago. It is to achieve, at one fell swoop, what years of colonial dominance might have aimed to achieve: to instill a sense of self-denial.
The question of whether there is such a thing as a national literature came up at the Bocas Lit Fest held at the end of April. The issue was the subject of a panel discussion with Jamaican novelist Marlon James, Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo, Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh and English poet Hannah Lowe. From reports of this event, it is clear the panellists were wary of the idea of a national literature, even if some did not explicitly reject it. They warned that a “national literature” could be reductive and could exclude marginal voices.
James was quoted by Bocas blogger Shivanne Ramlochan as saying, “The danger in the term ‘national literature’ is the same danger in terms like ‘black music’ or ‘women’s fiction.’ It is a danger that this is a categorisation and any attempt at categorisation is reductive....At the core of categorisation is an attempt not only to make something smaller, but also easily definable.”
Capildeo seemed to imply that “national literature” suggested ownership. But she asked, “Who owns words; who dictates the pace of poetry?” In comments to a separate internet blog-post by Lowe, Capildeo stresses that the national is often divorced from place of birth and becomes a kind of multi-faceted politics of identification, as opposed to extreme patriotism. She says, “For me, the question of ‘national literature’ flagged up how ‘national’ need not refer to birth and also need not slide into ‘nationalism’. The Caribbean, with its University of the West Indies campuses in three different islands, and its long history of inter-island conversations, is naturally transnational – but also, importantly, regional.” She further raises the important issue of the need for more literary publishing and distribution. “The question of ‘a national literature?’ also refers to readers; to the accessibility of texts,” Capildeo says. “How can a literature be ‘national’ unless there is the infrastructure to circulate texts?” Welsh warned that writers should write what they’re most driven to write, without obsessing about how it fits into the prevailing hierarchy of accepted “Scottish literature”, or any other territory’s stamp. Lowe, in her separate internet blog-post after the discussion, writes, “The idea of a national literature was by and large dismissed from the perspective of the panel.”
But to say there is a national literature is not to say writers must conform with certain expectations. Furthermore, it is not necessarily to reduce the work of writers. For the nation state is inherently complex, especially in today’s world. A national literature certainly does not reject the trans-national in favour of a myopic outlook. Rather, a national literature is able to underline the national by showing up its inherent fuzzy edges. For a national literature – like literature as a whole – only exists if it is true to the nation with all its complexity and transgression of boundaries. The very trans-nationalism cited by Capildeo is reflected by the writers of this national literature who may function in diffuse locations all over the world but who still cannot escape the fact that they are tied to this land, whether through memory, time and space; through family; or other links.
To be a part of a national literature is not necessarily to be born in one country and stay there, it is to embody the complexity created by history in relation to that land and in this way actually reflect that land. Also, even when it opts to focus on specific local details, a national literature often tells an international or universal story. This is the case with Sam Selvon’s great novel, A Brighter Sun, which has, at its core, global shifts of power.
Further, to say there is a national literature is not to say there is an agreed national canon of works. And it is certainly not to say that to be a part of a national literature, a work of art must comply with specific aesthetic criteria: it is not to suggest that there is a national aesthetic. While prejudices run rampant in society, the concept of a national literature, in and of itself, does not suggest the suppression of minority voices or viewpoints. In fact, a national literature embraces all tied to the nation. (Interestingly, despite the forces of prejudice, marginal voices may still be reflected through telling absences – mirroring precisely the same telling absences that are played out within the nation state and elsewhere.)
It is a supreme irony that a national literature does not necessarily imply a national audience or even a national publishing industry, though both are ideal.
For, a national literature reflects the complexity of global, historic, economic and social forces that shape the nation, even to the extent that our writers must be published by publishers abroad, amid the economic forces of modern publishing, distribution and marketing. In this sense, a national literature can be a bit like a message in a bottle set adrift at sea.
Thus, writers of this land, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not; whether they live here or not; whether they represent the views of the mainstream or not; whether they adopt our creole or other forms of English; whether they are rigid formalists or part of the avant-garde, once tied to this space, are part of our national literature.