Islands beyond Envy: Finding Our Tongue in the Creole-Anglophone Caribbean

Article excerpt

The sixth Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture was delivered by Professor Carolyn Cooper on 29 November 2012 at the University of the West Indies, Mona. It is reproduced below.

I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw. The tongue became burdened, like an ass trying to shift its load. I was taught to trim my tongue as a particular tool which could as easily have been ordered from England as an awl or a chisel . . .

- Derek Walcott, "What the Twilight Says: An Overture"

THAT IS HOW DEREK WALCOTT REMEMBERS himself as a youth in St Lucia learning the craft of writing in the 1940s. Theatrically, Walcott assumes the mask of a young man struggling to find his tongue - in both senses of the word: tongue as voice and tongue as language. But the accomplished poet who reflects on his youth is no longer tongue-tied. Walcott deploys the elaborate metaphors of the small islander sighing up a continent of envy; bearing the burden of his heavy tongue like an ass; and trimming that asinine tongue as if it were an imported tool of trade. In these agile turns of phrase, the mature Walcott demonstrates his complete mastery of the language of English literature - both sound and substance. The ironic tension between what is recalled - the raw tongue - and how it is called to mind - the images tripping off the tongue - that is the pleasure of Walcott's craft.

With sleight of hand and guile of tongue, Walcott addresses the contradictions of cultural identity, creativity and language politics in the creoleanglophone Caribbean. In his essay "What The Twilight Says: An Overture", a philosophical introduction to his 1970 collection Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other PUys, the poet/dramatist gives a rather frank account of his lifelong struggle to fashion an unaffected literary language that would be true to the cadences of his natural speaking voice.

Walcott confesses his alienation, through language, from the very subjects of his poetry, his own St Lucian people. This is how he puts it: "[T]he voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt."1 Hear how I unravel that rather tight knot of metaphor: the "inner language" of Walcott's poetry is like an imperial master distantly imposing authority on its subjects. In the very act of "reflective and mannered" writing about his people - his subjects - the poet assumes the imperious pose of overlord.

But the poet is also forced to subject himself to the demands of the language of Empire. Language is the medium of ideology. It summons the ghosts of the past. As an agent of literary subjugation of his own people, the poet himself becomes implicated in the imperial enterprise. Indeed, the setting sun of empire does not unequivocally enable the Caribbean intellectual to find his tongue. As a stand-in for the real imperial thing, the poet as colonial subject becomes the victim of self-doubt. Can he speak for himself? Is he ready to play the lead role in the drama of his own life? Or must he continue to inhabit the asinine fictions of congenital inferiority?

This doubt that the protracted twilight of Empire often engenders in the anxious intellectual does not usually plague the vast majority of Caribbean people who simply refuse to trim the native tongue of its linguistic excesses. Walcott's St Lucian subjects and their subjugated cousins across the region are, quite often, well aware of the disparities between the patriarchal language of Empire and their own mother tongues. As the Jamaican poet Mutabaruka wickedly puts it, "The language we talk we can't write; and the language we write we can't talk."2 Mutabaruka speaks to the compounded failure of the educational system in Jamaica to teach literacy in the mother tongue, Jamaican; and, simultaneously, to ensure that all students can, in fact, speak with authority the official language of literacy, English. …