An excerpt from

1984

Wasafiri magazine

From Wasafiri, Volume 1, Autumn 1984: ‘Engaging the World’ by Earl Lovelace, the Trinidadian novelist, journalist, playwright, and short story writer.

"... I have the impression that this literature of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia is viewed as a thing apart, that it belongs to Africans, Asians and Caribbean people and not to the world. This is not so surprising when the bulk of this writing has been produced over the last thirty to forty years. The writers came from countries that were colonies and the literature produced was a colonial literature, a literature seen as a literature of the learner, the student of civilization. Some of us have done impressively well. I don't mean to scoff at all, because this learning of English was a very important matter. While it was the language of the colonizer, English has also been the language in which text-books were written and it provided in one sense a getaway for the entry of those societies in the modern world.

Since Independence has been achieved in these countries, we have changed. From being colonial writers, we are now Third World writers. From colony to Third World is, I suppose, some progress, but we are not viewed as being quite in the world.

What then is the world? Who qualifies for the world? Who decides what is the world? Is there a world? Is there one world? Why are we not an automatic part of the world?

I do not want to simplify things, but I believe that it is the technological superiority of Europe that supports in the minds of its people their right to decide for the world. Technological advancement has become the morality, the argument, the rationale for a sense of leadership, so much so that technological advancement is viewed as being synonymous with human advancement.

Of course it is undeniable that technological competence has contributed much to human society, and even if we were to grant Europe the praise for refining and even spearheading this in the modern world we need to recognize that technology expresses only one dimension of human advance. I think we must see that life is much more complex, much more textured than the straight line of technological advance called progress. We must also see that while technological advance brings life, it also brings death, and most importantly that while it provides services, it does not provide meaning.

I am saying that there is enough evidence around us now to show us all that we have been wrong to view the technological path as the only one to take us forward as human beings.

Two things strike me in a very personal and disturbing way today: the breakdown of the group, and the loss of revolutionary fervour in much of the world. I suppose they go hand in hand.

Modern society, we have seen, has increasingly alienated the individual. It has forced him into a search for societal and individual meaning. The individual has been dwarfed by the hugeness of institutions which do not allow his voice to be heard. He has been a spectator at the parade of power, in activities in which he has no deciding voice. The individual has been on the retreat – retreating first to the extended family and later, when progress pushed him into the city (I am using ‘him’ deliberately), into the nuclear family in which the woman, his partner, was the one to provide all the physical and psychological support for him. And it was with this support that he was able to retain the illusion that he mattered, that he had a place in society. It is her support that made him unable to see himself properly, to see his aloneness properly.

The woman has been to the man what the worker is to the capitalist: she has provided support without which he could not exist, without her personhood being recognized. Today she is withdrawing that support, she is claiming her place; and so the illusion, the lie of society is being exposed. People are exposed in their full aloneness in what I suppose is now the individual family (which really means no family at all).

This means the breakdown of society as we have known it. And I suppose that is the reason for the lack of revolutionary fervour. In every other period I can remember, we all seemed full of energy and muscular with hope; in this one we seem to have stopped believing. Maybe we have not stopped believing in revolution but we have stopped believing the lie. We are no longer energetic about things we do not understand. Blind loyalty to the group is gone and self-interest is now the expression of our greatest sacrifice.

So the society that we used to know is going, and even as it is poised on the brink of new possibilities it is faced with the profound and ironic metaphor and reality of disintegration – the nuclear weapons arrived at by the splitting of the atom. Suddenly we are all in the world. All the worlds are one. Third world, second world and the world, all deities are overlooked by the one devil of a god.

We are back, or forward, I suppose, to the understanding that Life is the meaning of life. The Bible was not so simple after all when it says, “Go forth and replenish the earth.” It was many of us that went forth, from all the different continents: a diversity of people and fruit and flower and animals, all expression of life, all mortal and all bearing the impulse of life. This diversity must mean something. This diversity is what I believe we will have to look to for the ensuring of life. For it is this diversity that gives us the means to see experiences of others and to feel them and to learn from them.

I am thinking of Wilson Harris here, of his notion of loss and the need to understand the experience of others and the fact that we share a common humanity and that we must learn from each other or perish.

And I am thinking that we have in recent times many experiences that suddenly seem relevant to modern man, for we too – we of Africa and the Caribbean and perhaps Asia – have been faced before with the disintegration of families, the loss of country, of name, and perhaps most ironically we have participated in our enslavement much in the same way that western man is participating in his.

I would like you to know also that we share this man’s imperfection: that just as Europe has been stuck in the role of supervisor of civilization, so have many of us been stuck in the role of victim. Even today, last month, I was at a reading of writers and there was a writer who appeared on stage with a chain on his shoulders, shouting the comfortable and self-denying agony of the victim.

We both have to get rid of these postures, comforting as they may seem, for whether it is as a supervisor of civilization or as victim of oppression, both prevent us from the responsibility for the far more exciting and essential task of building in these times a new and human society. We can only do this from where we are, with the experiences that we have; what we share is language, imagination. Nobody is born into the world. Every one of us is born into a place in the world, in a culture, and it is from that standpoint of that culture that we contribute to the world.”