On the First Novel Published By a Black Caribbean Writer in England

05/19/2016 10:02 am ET Updated May 20, 2017

In 1963, a black Trinidadian writer published a critical examination of the sport of cricket that would soon become hailed by critics across the globe as one of the greatest books about sports--any sport--ever written. The writer was Cyril Lionel Robert James, better known as C. L. R. James, and the book was Beyond a Boundary. Even forty-two years after its publication, The Observer was able to define the book as the third-best on any sport ever written. V. S. Naipaul called it one of the finest works to come out of the Caribbean. This was a book not just about cricket, but about the important ways in which cricket, culture, colonialism, and race were all tied together, not unlike the way that America's Negro Leagues in baseball were symbols of both racist oppression and the fight against racism all at once in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The accolades were nothing new for James. In 1938, he had published The Black Jacobins, a study of the Haitian Revolution that assured his fame and that continues to be taught in almost any introductory course today on post-colonial theory.The Black Jacobins was the first study of the Haitian Revolution that set it alongside the French Revolution, and it would forever change the way critics described Haiti's fight for independence from France as the first black republic in the world. He debated Marcus Garvey and discussed black leadership with Trotsky in Mexico. He was an influence upon the Pan-Africanist movement around the globe. And he wrote many other important books on politics.

With these texts and actions, James, who died on May 19th, 1989, was to become one of the most influential critics in Caribbean history, a man whose shadow still looms over and influences our literature. I fell in love with him a few pages into The Black Jacobins the first time I read it, in that strange subtle and sudden way that sometimes happens when you meet a writer whose sentences make you smile. I still feel excitement, political urgency, when I read him, the sense of exploring a writer who contains multitudes.

But before those books, there was another one--a novel, Minty Alley. James' first novel--there was never a second, despite his intentions to write a subsequent one--was published in 1936 by George Orwell's publishing house. It received little fanfare, and it was swiftly eclipsed by his other books. Soon, critics who spoke of James seemed to be embarrassed to discuss the novel. Others simply ignored it altogether, mentioning it only as part of James' bibliography. James himself called it a joke.

Although critical attention on Minty Alley has begun to shift, there is still a significant tendency to ignore the book, despite the fact that it is, I believe, one of the most important early novels in Caribbean history, as well as in the history of Great Britain. This has led to the curious situation where a seminal novel is more often than not mentioned in passing, if at all. It is a classic that deserves far greater recognition.

A number of critics have staunchly disagreed. Perhaps the bluntest and most representative was John Wickham, who reviewed the novel in 1972. We "need not...claim either that C. L. R. James is a novelist or that Minty Alley is a distinguished novel." As if this were not enough, Wickham literally claimed the novel was important only "because C. L. R. James wrote it," thus giving it a kind of historical, sociological significance, but not much else. Many critics simply glossed over it, and relatively few have given it more than a few lines of analysis at all.

Minty Alley certainly holds a number of historical distinctions. It was the first novel published by a black Caribbean writer in England; James was also the first Trinidadian writer to publish a short story in England, almost ten years before Minty Alley came out. A few years before Minty Alley, the Trinidadian Portuguese Creole writer Alfred H. Mendes, who was both friend of and competitor to James, published Pitch Lake, which came with an introduction by Aldous Huxley, a novel that James did not particularly like by a lighter-skinned writer who James believed had greater mobility due to his skin color. Minty Alley would also serve as an important early example of the genre that would come to define the Caribbean novel for much of the twentieth century, social realism.

The novel's premise is simple on the surface. Reflecting much of what James himself did as a young man in Trinidad, the novel focuses on Mr. Haynes, a young middle-class Trinidadian who decides to move as a lodger to a room at No. 2, Minty Alley, where he enters the world of the less affluent. Haynes, the outsider much like James sometimes was himself, soon becomes embroiled in a spiraling series of comical controversies involving his fellow lodgers and landlady, and he finds himself falling for Maisie, a girl whose behavior polarizes everyone at Minty Alley. Eventually, he must make a decision about how much he will allow himself to step out of his comfort zone and become part of this world that his social class had isolated him from. In its focus on social class, realism, and race, the novel would set the tone for so many classics of Caribbean literature to come, like A House for Mr. Biswas, Earl Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance, Merle Hodge's Crick, Crack, Monkey, and so many more.

Beneath the surface, the novel is far more complex. As much about Maisie as it is about Haynes, the novel is a kind of extended epistemological question, built around the uncertainties of what each character knows about the other, and it is difficult not to see Minty Alley as a sort of Trinidadian extension of a novel by another James, Henry: the appositely titled What Maisie Knew. And in its unafraid usage of the vernacular in dialogue, the novel would begin to pave the way for later novels like Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners of 1956, which was written entirely in Trinidadian vernacular. In many ways, Minty Alley, while dated, reads like the kind of novel that could have been written without too many changes in 1936 or 1996. Beyond all that, it is a deeply enjoyable read, silly, serious, and subversive all at once.

James' novel, of course, was not as experimental as Selvon's. And it is tame in comparison to some of the revolutionary fiction being written in this century in the Caribbean, like Marlon James' extraordinary The Book of Night Women or Nicole Dennis-Benn's upcoming novel, Here Comes the Sun, or the Caribbean-infused science fiction of Nalo Hopkinson. But James' book was revolutionary in its own way, and it is telling how fresh it remains eighty years after it was published. Here is a classic case of a great novel--and novelist--lost for too long in the shadows.

In the preface to Beyond a Boundary, James famously describes his book with a question: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" The same is true of his novel, in its own way. It is a part of Caribbean literature, without which we cannot fully understand our own history, our own literature's boundaries. It is its own quiet revolution.