The following presentation was delivered at the 16th annual International Conference on
Caribbean Literature in Sint Maarten, November 2016, and a smaller version was delivered
at the 50th Anniversary of Guyana celebrations in New York, NY June 2016
Part One of four parts
From his landmark 1958 novel, Black Midas, the story of Porkknockers in the Guyanese interior, throughout his long life as a novelist, essayist, playwright, historian, and poet, the late Jan Carew has always kept Guyana close to his heart. Though Carew lived the majority of his life abroad, repeatedly, he would credit his upbringing –and the polyglot races and cultures of his homeland– as providing the prism through which he would later interpret life. His most recent posthumous works, the autobiography, Episodes in My Life: the Autobiography of Jan Carew, and the collection of poetry, Return to Streets of Eternity, offer intriguing insights into the persons, places and events that helped shape him as a creative intellectual committed to liberation politics. My remarks here will draw on selections of this current work.
Black Midas, Carew’s first major publication, was launched to great acclaim in the United Kingdom in 1958. But, this was not without some effort. Carew had been shopping around his other novel, The Wild Coast, but Publishers were not interested. A disheartened Carew consulted with fellow Guyanese expatriate and Berbician, Edgar Mittleholzer, who had made the journey to the UK earlier. Mittleholzer was now an established writer. Showing him his own pile of rejection slips, Mittleholzer admonished Carew to stick it out. Life wasn’t going to be handed to you on a platter and dilettantes need not bother. But, one publisher did finally take a chance on Carew’s work – Secker and Warburg. Evidently, he had shown them both manuscripts and they accepted Black Midas, leaving The Wild Coast on the back burner. However, following the positive response to Black Midas, Secker and Warburg did bring out The Wild Coast later that same year.
In a lengthy review in the London Times, “Literary Supplement,” the reviewer noted of Black Midas, “Mr. Jan Carew is a very different writer. To begin with he is a stylist who writes a heavyweight prose which is a good deal lighter on its feet than most of our own native flyweights. . . . .” This was the first major UK review to note that the writing now coming from England’s colonial subjects was better than that from homegrown, English writers. It continued, “Mr. Carew has set himself the task of making a literary language out of the mixture of dialects that have evolved in British Guiana . . . . no other West Indian novelist has yet concentrated on this fundamental problem.” In fact, along with elevating the people’s language, Jan Carew purposefully focused this story on people often hidden away in the deep interior of the country –the Guyanese porkknockers (gold miners). And, as he did so, drew out a more sympathetic and nuanced picture of these men. As the reviewer further observed, “[Carew’s] ‘pork-knockers’ are very far from being primitive savages. . . .they are not the kind of men that Hitler would have been able to recruit for his S.S. formations. They know too much about violence, both of man and nature, not to value the human solidarity it enforces” (Times).
The novel starts out in the village, “It was springtide and the surf was loud. If the sun plunged behind the courida trees into the sea before I reached home I would miss my Uncle Richard and my grandmother would be angry . . . . The sun followed me balancing on the courida tree tops . . . . A herd of cattle crossed in front of me, their bony flanks still glistening with mud from the roadside canal. A naked East Indian boy cracked a whip, startling the herd to run. I waited until the cows passed by and I lost my race with the sun.” And, it closes with the mysterious and haunting riverine life, “I closed my eyes and listened to the river and I remembered the night when Captain Rhodius had told me about the voices under the river. I listened, and all I heard was a single voice – Brother C.’s – and he was telling me the story of the men who had gone up the mountain, and he kept repeating the last part of the story: ‘When they open he hand it was empty and they keep asking he, ‘How is it that you come back and you en’t bring no wondrous thing to show we? How is it?… How is it?’” (Black Midas, 19, 265-266).