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Mahuya Bhaumik

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Mahuya Bhaumik - ‘Bridging the Gap between Two Selves’

The Journey from ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ to ‘A Latin Primer’

“Mongrel as I am, something prickles in me when I see the word Ashanti as with the word Warwickshire, both separately intimating my grandfather’s roots, both baptizing this neither proud nor ashamed bastard, this hybrid, this West Indian”.1

Derek Walcott’s choice of referring to himself as a “mongrel” points at the truth of being torn by the ever-present tussle between his African and British loyalties. That is why he asserts: “I am a kind of split writer: I have one tradition inside me going in one way, and another going another. The mimetic, the narrative, and dance element is strong on one side, and the literary, the classical tradition is strong on the other” (‘Meanings’ 1974). This is the split encountered by Walcott, a writer of African descent, born in Saint Lucia, the Caribbean island that experienced colonialism for centuries sometimes under British imperialism and at times under the French only to attain the status of being independent in 1979. Thus the complexities involved in the relation between the colonizer and the colonized is an unmistakable truth palpable in Walcott’s writings. Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth explains this relationship quite tersely while discussing the experience of the black colonized population: “They must have both. Two worlds; that makes two bewitching; they dance all night and at dawn they crowd into the churches to hear mass; each day the split widens”.2

For Caribbeans like Walcott both these worlds are existent; both are true. To make the situation more complex Walcott’s mixed racial heritage plays a crucial role. The importance of these racial colonial backgrounds are unmistakable in Shabine’s realization in “The Schooner Flight: “I have Dutch, nigger and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation”.3

This in-betweenness of the Caribbeans, the ethnic conflict and divided loyalties are poignant in Walcott’s ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ where the poet questions: “I who am poisoned with the blood of both/ Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?”4 The backdrop of the poem is the Mau Mau Uprising which occurred between the native Kikuyu tribe and the European colonizers in present day Kenya during the 1950s. During this time the European settlers were occupying the farm lands of the natives taking complete control of the government thus pushing the Kikuyus to the margin. To protest against this injustice a faction of the tribe formed an organization named Mau Mau which believed in violent opposition. But those who were not in favour of this violence chose either to retain a neutral stand or to provide the British a helping hand to dissuade the Mau Mau.

‘A Far Cry from Africa’ begins with the depiction of a gruesome scene of “bloodstreams” and “corpses… scattered through a paradise”.5 The picture becomes horrific with the depiction of “worms” reigning over the decomposing flesh of humans. Walcott is haunted by the agonizing shriek of his fellow Africans and cannot withstand the merciless slaughter though the cry comes from far away. This brutality reminds him of the Jewish holocaust but at the same time he is shocked at the atrocity shown by the Kikuyu to hack an innocent “white child… in bed”6. The struggle for survival among animals is a perennial endeavour for living but Walcott finds the humans to be more bestial than the beasts in the jungle because they retaliate against each other in the name of racism and meaningless power struggle: “The violence of beast on beast is read/ As natural law, but upright man/ Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain”.7 The poet suffers from an internal conflict and dilemma because he possesses both African and European roots. Moreover, by birth he is a resident of Saint Lucia, till then a British Colony, while African blood runs in his veins. Thus the position of the poet is of an insider-outsider and thus his dilemma remains unresolved: “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?”8

His hybridity prevents him from resolving the complexity and moral dilemma he is suffering from and thus the paradoxes continue to exist even at the end of the poem. This paradox is manifested in the choice of language too: “… how choose/ Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?”9 The Kenyan post-colonial theorist and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o asserts: “Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture”.10 Thus for Ngugi language is the bearer of the culture of a community and hence it is enormously crucial in shaping identities. The language issue is not simple enough for the Caribbeans. Patois, the Jamaican Creole, an English-based Creole language with West African influences, was popular among the Saint Lucians for daily conversations. The African diasporic communities inhabiting the Caribbeans had no choice but to learn the language of the colonizers. But, interestingly, poets like Walcott appropriated that coloniser’s language to showcase the culture, flora and fauna of Africa quite vividly. The usage of metaphors and images give the readers a flavour of the African soil and creates the picture of the wildness of the Kenyan “veldt”, the “beast-teeming plain” with the ibises hovering up in the sky.11 The language issue takes a deeper turn in Walcott’s later work ‘A Latin Primer’, one of his poems in the collection The Arkansas Testament (1987). This collection deals with the chasm between here and there, the emigrant and his roots, the colonizer and the colonized, the Caribbean poet himself situated in America for professional reasons and his longing to go back to the Caribbean every now and then. In this context Donoghue’s comment becomes strikingly pertinent. He observes that Walcott “had at least two lives. One of them, acknowledging his white English grandfather, has kept in touch with the Empire, the classics, English literature, but also the insignia of Greece and Rome. The other has stayed in the streets of Port of Spain, speaking the patois, Creole”.12

‘A Latin Primer’ encapsulates the conflict between these two lives through the portrayal of a young boy who through his colonial education responds to literature and later on becomes a teacher. The narrator boy is thoroughly frustrated with the orthodox British system of education which is in sharp contradiction to the Caribbean spontaneity and natural beauty. The rigid technical method of teaching poetry with the help of “signs of scansions”13 are loathsome to the boy who is always in favour of blending and relating literature to the natural settings of the Caribbean world. Out of sheer disgust he would “skip a pebble/ across the sea’s page; it still/ scanned its own syllable”.14 This disgust turns into a sense of guilt as he attains adulthood because he has to compromise day in and day out. As a school teacher feeling suffocated in his professional attire of “tweed jacket and tie”15 he encounters the cultural dualities among the European elites and the African majority as far as race and language are concerned. However, though the African Creole is the language spoken by the majority, it is not the language of the British. Hence the narrator is left with no other choice than to ban ‘Patois’, the Creole spoken by the majority for the only reason that it is not the language of the colonizers. This action of banning the language of his own people makes him consider himself a “hypocrite”.16 The spontaneity and vivacity of his students seem to be crushed under the burden of colonial discipline and he himself is instrumental in doing so. Denying them the right to speak their own language seems to be throttling their voices turning them into “lithe black bodies, beached, would die in dialect”.17 The difficulty of students to locate a pure Caribbean identity: “where were those brows heading/ when neither world was theirs?”18 – is not a challenge for them only, but for every hybrid identity including Walcott himself. However, the Caribbean landscape provides them with a source of sustenance and helps them nurture their creative impulse. The motivating role of nature is unmistakably felt at the very beginning of the poem when the narrator says:

I had nothing against which
To notch the growth of my work
But the horizon, no language
But the shallows in my long walk home19

It is the vast expanse of nature that liberates him when “silence clogged… (his) ears” as he is “trying to find… (his) voice” and he admits that he “found … (his) deepest wish/ in the swaying words of the sea”.20 As the poem progresses the narrator remembers a walk on the seashore of Saint Lucia where the landscape retains the stamp of colonial history as “Vigie” Island and “Half-Moon Battery”.21 During his ramble through these remnants he catches sight of a “frigate bird” who “came sailing/ through a tree’s net…” and “sailed steadily” turning the narrator’s horizon limitless.22 This tropical bird is a symbol of the poet’s own emancipation from his constricted existence and helps him transcend the cultural void (represented by the “horizon” at the beginning of the poem) to attain a newly-acquired symphony with nature. The connotation of “scansion” transforms from its stifling association earlier in the poem to illustrate the bird’s soaring high up in the sky:

with one wing beat for scansion,
that slowly leveling V
made one with my horizon23

As the bird sojourns across “the roofless pillars once/ sacred to Hercules” it reaches the Strait of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa thus establishing an unmistakable connection between the European and African cultures. Thus the “frigate”, a symbol of Caribbean natural beauty, helps the poet to attain a cultural harmony transcending racial barriers. The usage of English vocabulary as “sea scissors” along with “ciseau-la-mer,”24 its Patois counterpart strengthens this cultural amalgamation. “The seaweed image… points up the two-way nature of the process of adaptation in which the poem is engaging, as the Caribbean metaphor infiltrates the ‘distant literatures’. Intermingling and cultural cross-pollination are everywhere” in the poem.25 This “cross-pollination” is explained by Brathwaite in his analysis of the process of creolization which is definitely not a one-way activity; rather it “involves both imitation/ mimicry (acculturation) and native creation (indigenization)” (Brathwaite 1974: 16).

However, the “cultural cross-pollination” does not mean negation or denial of the trauma and wounds associated with colonialism for Walcott. It is not being oblivious to the horror and wretchedness which are unmistakable realities of the poet’s African brethren. Rather it is finding impetus for creativity remembering those wounds that make his poetry so powerful and help him transcend the scars and anguish of the colonized. Fanon points out that the “colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope”.26 This is exactly what that can be traced in Walcott’s journey from ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ to ‘A Latin Primer’, a journey where the poet remembers the trauma of colonization but does not stay back clinging on to the past full of despair. He is not willing to write “a literature of revenge.”27 Rather he treads ahead aspiring to create a new Caribbean identity which is a happy synthesis of multiple cultures, a “Third Space” where “we may elude the politics of polarity”.28


  • “A Latin Primer” Criticism. &pg=PA176&lpg=PA176&dq=the+latin+primer+%2B+the+sea+ weed+image+npoints+up+the+two-way+nature&source=bl&ots=9p65jmeA7c&sig=RiN7sATZ1f28aDU6ri4pQ0olAWQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiL29q- 5bzTAhUdS48KHQBfDR8Q6AEIITAA#v=onepage &q=the%20latin%20primer%20%2B%20the%20sea%20weed%20imag e%20npoints%20up%20the%20two-way%20nature&f =false
  • Bhabha, Homi K. Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences. cultural-diversity/cultural-diversity-and-cultural-differences-homi-k-bhabha.html
  • Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean. Mona: Savacou, 1974
  • Donoghue, Dennis. “The Two Sides of Derek Walcott”.
  • Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth.
  • Post colonial Criticism. &lpg=PT116&dq=colonized+man+who+writes+for+his+people+ought+t o+use+the+past+with+the+intention&source=bl&ots=bMmpBf9mZt&si g=ELoGSg__D-uX-1FnYSCoZEYORjQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjj7P3n6rzTAhVEO48 KHbDYDxsQ6AEILDAD#v=onepage&q=colonized%20man%20who%2 0writes%20for%20his%20people%20ought%20to%20use%20the%20p ast%20with%20the%20intention&f=false
  • Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. “Decolonising the Mind”.
  • Walcott, Derek. “A Far Cry From Africa”.
  • Walcott, Derek. “A Latin Primer”.
  • Walcott, Derek. “Meanings”. Savacou no. 2. 1970
  • Walcott, Derek. “The Muse of History”.
  • Walcott, Derek. “The Schooner Flight”.
  • Walcott, Derek. Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays.


25 ed+image+npoints+up+the+two-way+nature&source=bl&ots=9p65jmeA7c&sig=RiN7sATZ1f28aDU6ri4pQ0olAWQ&hl =en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiL29q-5bzTAhUdS48KHQBfDR8Q6AEIITAA#v=onepage&q=the%20latin%20primer%20%2 B%20the%20sea%20weed%20image%20npoints%20up%20the%20two-way%20nature&f=false
26  colonized+man+who+writes+for+his+people+ought+to+use+the+past+with+the+intention&source=bl&ots=bMmpBf9mZt&sig=ELoGSg__D-uX- 1FnYSCoZEYORjQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjj7P3n6rzTAhVEO48KHbDYDxsQ 6AEILDAD#v=onepage&q=colonized%20man%20who%20writes  %20for%20his%20people%20ought%20to%20use%20the%20past%20with%20the %20intention&f=false
28 cultural- diversity/cultural-diversity-and-cultural-differences-homi-k-bhabha.html


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