first glance, its cover with photographs of Sam Selvon, Lakshmi Persaud,
VS Naipaul, Seepersad Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, Stella Abidh, Shani Mootoo
and FEM Hosein suggests Dr Kris Rampersad’s newly-launched book 'Finding
a Place – IndoTrinidadian Literature' is a literary critique of these
writers and their work.
fact, the fading newspapers beneath the photographs suggest a more subtle
and compelling connection. Dr Rampersad’s ground breaking work is built
around little known and rare publications produced by IndoTrinidadians
over a hundred years (1850-1950) – The East Indian Advocate, Herald,
Patriot, Weekly, Observer, Presbyterian, Koh-i-noor Gazette among others.
It unearths lost chunks of our history, presses us to rethink the Indian
experience in the New World, and lights up through her research the lost
and faded pioneers of IndoTrinidadian writing.
was in the (East Indian) Weekly,” she writes in chapter five, “that
the first writers found an outlet for their wish to write. Through its
reports and focus, they found the subjects and themes that would dominate
later creative fiction.
issues of adaptation to a new society, cross-culturation, the struggle for
promotion and acceptance, acquiring wealth, biracial marriages… later
became subjects and themes for the creative fiction of IndoTrinidadians.”
her introduction, the author asserts that her book, which quotes articles,
letters to the editor and editorials from rare, lost or forgotten
publications, “maps a process of literary development.”
writes: “It becomes obvious from this study that a writer like VS
Naipaul did not arise as an aberration, but from realities within the
society in which he grew up. The desire to write came out of a
century-long tradition of yearning and aspiring towards that goal, within
which was encapsulated the need to be understood and accepted by the
society which was now being claimed as home.”
had seen Dr Rampersad, looking incongruently girlish the evening of the
launch, among heavyweight university academics asserting that we all have
only a partial view of the world based on our individual experiences and
influences, which is why we each need to write our stories so we can
understand one another.
Finding a Place is rooted in academia, it reads like investigative
journalism at its cutting edge. The writing is lively with evocative
images, plump with analysis and context, (so that in some ways it is a
one-stop shop for the history of the IndoTrinidadian’s experience in the
New World) and the material as fascinating as unexpectedly discovering
fading letters of a grandparent and seeing them in their youth.
book began with a vague notion, a philosophical position, that of
understanding how the many strands of our society have evolved. After
that, I looked at the Koh-i-noor Gazette which was one of the few of the
12 publications available in the National Archives,” Dr Rampersad said
later in an interview.
whole lot has disappeared. When I was looking for material, people would
say ‘we just moved and threw away old papers.’ I didn’t locate The
Herald and The Patriot until the end of the study, then I had to redo
other chapters to accommodate the new material.
all the issues raging in the 1860’s and 70’s are relevant today –
the questions of voice and voicelessness, of national identity; of how
much allegiance do we owe to Africa, to India.
are instances in the book that manifest how politics and self-interest
divide groups such as the split that caused the demise of The Herald, a
paper that saw itself as a unifier among races. The political faction
produced a rival paper The Patriot. The Herald’s noble literary
ambitions suffered, its editor got disillusioned, and the paper died.
study, adds Rampersad, “explodes the myth that IndoTrinidadians were
insular since it demonstrates so much interaction within the society
without animosity. For instance, the East Indian Weekly had an
Afro-Trinidadian publisher. The paper shows Hindus, Muslims, Christians
working together, for example, on the issue of destitute indentured
labourers and championing national issues from flooding in Laventille to
the need to develop Carnival.
you won’t hear anyone calling themselves a ‘Christian Hindu,’ but
that was common then. The term ‘An IndoTrinidadian’ has its first
recorded usage as a pen name, as early as 1888.
the society was much more tolerant than we are today, recognising that all
peoples need to assert their identity. Nobody at that time had a problem
with people having a press for themselves. The Creole population had The
San Fernando Gazette, the upper classes The Port-of-Spain Gazette, so when
The Koh-i-noor Gazette came out, most felt it was about time.”
a Place debunks old myths of the IndoTrinidadian as insular or
un-intellectual by producing overwhelming evidence that this group, like
the Afro- and Euro-Trinidadian, was grappling with an identity that
remembered the Old, and actively interacted with the New World.
don’t realise the great struggle it was for IndoTrinidadians to get the
vote in the country. When the Franchise committee on granting universal
suffrage wanted to introduce a clause that only people who could read and
write English should be able to vote – at that time that was about 70
per cent of the Indo population. Agitation in the press got that clause
as IndoTrinidadians gave up their language and adapted English for
mobility, says Rampersad, they found other ways to streamline Indian
culture and language, other ways of evolving while retaining a sense of
their roots. This was manifested in the oral tradition, in chutney and
Pichakaree, and the oral traditions fed into the writings.
Rampersad’s premise is that everybody is searching for roots and
identity at a time when technology and travel makes it impossible for
people to be insular, and many see themselves as multicultural entities.
She hopes her book will become a module for others to look at their own
Finding a Place is a must read.