November 24, 2008

Literary Authenticity & the Caribbean Writer

Ruel Johnson and Michael Gilkes (thanks, Nicholas) have been discussing “Guyanese (and by extension Caribbean) literary authenticity” in Stabroek News and Living Guyana. Although this question of “authenticity” is connected to the idea of limited resources (i.e. we don’t have a lot of money; therefore, we should publish only those who are “worthy”), it seems as if we have been having this discussion for decades.

And while these debates are useful, they become tedious when they limit “authenticity” to the time spent in a locale (or to race, gender, or sexual preference). For what these arguments have in common is a focus on the
identity of the storytellers rather than the “authenticity” of the story—which is the real issue at stake. Storytellers come and go, but the story of the Caribbean continues to evolve--waiting for storytellers to respond to the relationship between a people and a place through time.

So how do we know if a story is authentic? According to Walter Fisher, an audience evaluates a story by two criteria: fidelity and coherence. Based on Fisher’s theories “Coherence can be best defined as if a story makes sense structurally. Is the story consistent, with sufficient detail, reliable characters, and free of any major surprises? The ability to judge coherence is learned, and improves with experience.” Narrative fidelity is "concerned with whether or not the story is true and Fisher has five guidelines for evaluating narrative fidelity:

  • questions of fact that examine the values embedded in the story, either explicitly or implicitly

  • questions of relevance that consider the connection between the story that is told and the values being espoused

  • questions of consequences that consider the possible outcomes that would accrue to people adhering to the espoused values

  • questions of consistency between the values of the narrative and the held values of the audience

  • questions of transcendence that consider the extent to which the story’s values represent the highest values possible in human experience

Therefore, the identity of the storyteller—however that is defined—is irrelevant to the story of the Caribbean which I’ve defined as “The nations of the Antilles that share a common history of colonialism under European dominance and whose Creole identity has been shaped primarily by the merging of African and European cultures and most recently by Asian influences.”

I suppose these debates over literary authenticity and the identity of our storytellers are part of the racial, political and social struggles of the region and will continue as long as the idea of Otherness (based on race, creed, gender, sexual preference—and now time spent in the Diaspora) persists. But these are extra-literary criteria. The real question is how can we increase the publication of stories that illuminate the evolving story of our region: Who are we? Where are we going?



Ruel Johnson said...

Hi Geoffrey...I agree with your point completely that the authenticity of the story is that which matters most...indeed that has been my point all along. My argument has been that if we are to label the work as Guyanese, or Jamaican or Caribbean, it should not be simply by virtue of the writer having their origins there. I mostly cite the nexus between location and authenticity because that is incidentally where the paucity of this theory of place or origin as inherently tantamount to perpetual identification with or representation - in the creation of an authentic literature of place there is no substitute for repeated engagement. I can use Robert Antoni's work as an example of that...he wasn't born in Trinidad and doesn't live there, but what is clear from reading his work is that he has a repeated engagement with the place, the language, the people. I find that absent in the works of virtually every Guyanese expat writer. What I am opposed to is the penchant of Caribbean writers living in the diaspora to mine the exoticism of their origins, their "post-colonialness", even with the most tangential of connections to or concerns with the reality of this particular space. I like to refer to writers like Oondatje, Ishiguro and Mukherjee who have pointedly refused to engage in this sort of literary larceny as it were. My concern is with the creation and sustenance of a literature of place in which the concerns of that place are central and not peripheral as occurs particularly when it comes to Guyanese literature.

Geoffrey Philp said...


Greetings and Welcome!

The difference I think is between marketing and critical appraisal.

The publishers will always package in a way that optimizes their profits.

Following your logic of critical appraisal:"a repeated engagement with the place, the language, the people," does that mean someone from Iceland could write a Guyanese novel?

Ruel Johnson said...

Hi Geoffrey,
W/r/t the Icelandic-Guyanese novel, I would agree enthusiastically. That great American novel, Lolita, was written by a Russian emigre wasn't it?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Okay, then we are in agreement. Nice discussion here.
Give thanks!