"It's Trini vernacular cell phone text speak," author Robert Antoni announced before reading an excerpt from his novel, As Flies to Whatless Boys, at a Brooklyn Book Festival bookend event held recently at MoCADA. With each sentence the novel came vividly to life, delighting the diverse audience, not only because of the scenario Antoni described, but also on account of the language he used. Vernacular, previously shunned as something 'less than', is now the chosen vehicle of communication for a second generation of Caribbean writers.
The narrator in As Flies to Whatless Boys is a young boy named Willy, who recaps his overseas journey with his father from London to Trinidad circa 1845, as part of a contingent called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES). The expedition is spearheaded by engineer and philanthropist, John Adolphus Etzler, inventor of machines "powered by the immense forces of Mother Nature." Recruits in this proto-socialist, utopian community include Marguerite Whitechurch sans vocal chords, among others.
En route to their destination, members of the TES traverse varied geographical terrain. However, it is the linguistic landscape that truly resonates with me. As the author reconstructs the journey through family correspondence, anecdotes and emails, references to bazodee, too-tool-bay, assassataps, tabanca, cockspraddle, geegeeree, and maco-eyes are interwoven in the narrative. We learn that Etzler the engineer had 'the gift: boldfaced bamboozlement. Shameless mongooseocity.'
But it is in the series of emails sent by Ms. Ramsol, Director of Trinidad and Tobago National Archives, where the vernacular is dominant:
dear mr. robot:
now as i have lil chance 2 catch me breath & cool down some after all dem boisterous carryings-ons of last night, of which i can only admit 2 have play my own part in dem 2, my womanly desires catching de best of me uanawares much as i fight to hold dem down, cause krishna-only-know dis tuti aint get a good airing-out like dat in many a long day, & now it finish at last wid all dat amount of pulsating & trobbing & twitching-up so sweet & i could collec meself lil bit & sit down cool & calm & quiet enough dis morning 2 write u out dis email & put everything down clear in b&w 4 u 2 hear, so LISTEN GOOD what i telling u, eh: if u tink u could get u hands pon dis copymachine easy as dat, u mad like effin toro!!! i aint oversee dese national archives all dis time only 2 be ram-jam-tank-u-mam quick & easy so, u unnastan? & i dont give a FRANCE if u is wealthy whiteman, or famous bookwriter from amerika, or whateverdeassitis, aint NOBODY does touch dis xerox machine but me, u unnastan, & miss samlalsingh under my own supervision, & u could jook me & miss samlalsingh 2 till BOTH WE TUTIS SMOKING LIKE BUSHFIRE, but wouldn't get u no closer 2 dis machine, unnastan?
now u unnastan
This weekend, Antoni is set to deliver the keynote address at the West Indian Literature Conference, Multiple Textualities: Imagining the Caribbean Nation, and acknowledges his attempts 'to push the vernacular in new directions; to push form, its hybridity and multiplicity, through the page, beyond the borders of the novel itself.'
So why vernacular? According to Antoni, the vernacular is always posited against another language, and for the West Indian writer that language is what we call Proper English - singular and static. But the vernacular is, by definition, a living thing - malleable, open, inclusive, and aggressively subversive - always regenerating and reimagining itself. He continues, "For the second generation of West Indian novelists, the vernacular is constantly leaking outside the confines of a quotation mark, constantly acting upon and infecting what might be recognized as the former 'controlling' or (colonizing) language. The result of this ongoing process, I contend, has been a kind of inversion, such that Proper English has now become the substrate (the subservient); more and more West Indian novels are being written entirely in the vernacular, with the Proper English occasionally appearing in quotes - if they've not been dropped altogether."
Moreover, why vernacular now? For V.S. Naipaul, the vernacular was 'that clumsy and inelegant language of childhood," something to grow out of or to disdain. Antoni notes that for the next generation of West Indian novelists and poets, "it has become the pulse of our life's blood - something to fully embrace. What this phenomena, if I have identified it correctly, has to say about the politics of identity formation, and even nation building, is, I believe, highly significant: claiming the vernacular - one's own hybrid language - coincides precisely with the claiming of identity, a commnual identity that shares characteristics across the West Indies, but is also radically different among island nations."
Arlene M. Roberts is an attorney turned policy analyst, currently at work on her third independent report about Caribbean immigrants. Her previous reports include The Faces of Detention and Deportation: A Report on the Forced Repatriation of Immigrants from the English-Speaking Caribbean (2009); and A Day in the Life of a Domestic Worker: Caribbean Immigrant Women and the Campaign for Fair Labor Standards (2012).