V. S. Naipaul is making headline news again. This time around, it is not on account of his work. Rather, the buzz is about Patrick French's authorized biography of V. S. Naipaul, a book adjudged by the New York Times to be one of the ten best of 2008. While Naipaul may be one of the most prominent and prolific writers of the Caribbean, the literary tradition in the region did not begin with him, nor does it end with him. A new generation of Caribbean writers has emerged.
I was raised on a literary diet replete with Naipaul fare. As a child I read Miguel Street which remains my favorite to date, since it transcends generations to capture the quintessential Trinidadian childhood experience. The reader meets Mr. Popo, a carpenter who is perennially working on things without a name; Man-Man, the lunatic who becomes a prophet; and the poet, B. Wordsworth. These vignettes of childhood experiences take place in or near Miguel Street, Port-of-Spain.
In high school, I analyzed and dissected The Mimic Men as part of required reading. In The Mimic Men, we follow the protagonist, Ralph Singh, as he leaves his home country of Isabella (a fictional West Indian island) for London, and embarks on a quest for identity and a sense of place in a colonial society. I think the quote that best embodies Naipaul's viewpoint in The Mimic Men is, "We, here on our island, handling books printed in this world, and using its goods, had been abandoned and forgotten. We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of it, with all the reminders of the corruption that came so quickly to the new."
In university, I undertook an independent study and explored A House for Mr. Biswas, among others. A House for Mr. Biswas - Naipaul's first novel to achieve worldwide acclaim - was listed by TIME magazine among the "100 Best English-Language Novels, 1923-2005". Considered to be largely autobiographical, the novel traces the life of protagonist Mohun Biswas as he struggles to find his freedom and a house of his own, after he marries into the Tulsi family.
Several years ago, the husband of a colleague of mine here in the city gave me the gift of a book. He was in the Foreign Service, traveled extensively and, somewhere along the way discovered Naipaul. The name of the book was Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents by Paul Theroux. In the memoir, Theroux depicts his former mentor and friend as "a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain." Theroux was compelled to draw by and large from memory, since he was denied permission to see letters he had written to Naipaul over more than three decades.
So, given the recent buzz about Patrick French's The World is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, I was curious to learn just how it differed from Theroux's account. In the introduction to the book French writes, "My approach to writing biography is as it was when I began my first book. I wrote then that the aim of biographies should not be to sit in judgment, but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader." French undertook the biography on one condition - that he could use materials at Tulsa closed to public access and quote freely. The archive ran closely to 50,000 pieces of paper. In other words, French's tome is a reinforcement of what Theroux had already recounted - but with permission from the subject.
There is no doubt Naipaul deserves the accolades and honors that have been bestowed upon him, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. But it seems to me that the fixation on Naipaul's personal life overshadows the professional accomplishments of a generation of Caribbean writers who have since emerged. A recent publication, Trinidad Noir, showcases the talent of eighteen writers - Jamie Lee Loy, Kevin Baldeosingh, Oonya Kempadoo, and others - one of whom happens to be the niece of V. S. Naipaul.
Back in 2001, Colin Channer launched Calabash International Literary Festival. As outlined on the website, the mission of Calabash is to "transform the literary arts in the Caribbean by being the region's best-managed producers of workshops, seminars and performances. We will achieve these goals by focusing on our audiences, managing our budget, creating a community of supporters in the media, government, business, the performing arts, philanthropic organizations and publishing, and by becoming the festival of choice for the world's most gifted authors." The festival has now become an annual event highlighting some of the best talent to be found - anywhere.
Twelve months from now, when the shortlist for "10 Best Books of 2009" is released, here's hoping it will include a Caribbean author other than V. S. Naipaul or someone who is not writing about Naipaul.