The Portrait of an Icon
Book: Earl Lovelace
Author: Funso Aiyejina
Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD
Earl Lovelace needs no introduction. Masterfully original and versatile, his literary work has captivated generations. Honoured with numerous awards, including Trinidad and Tobago’s Chaconia Medal (gold), the President’s Medal from Pacific Lutheran University, and an honourary Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies, his place in Caribbean literature is sealed.
Capturing such an illustrious career in a far from voluminous publication is no small feat. Remarkably, Funso Aiyejina pulls off the improbable with a vibrant and incisive look at the pivotal chapters of Lovelace’s life.
Aiyejina’s lends a providential element to Lovelace’s success. His infirmity as a boy saves him from tedious work and affords him time to read and reinterpret the world. “At about five or six, he contracted typhoid fever; while at the Scarborough Hospital, he was convinced he was going to die ... as a result of his susceptibility to illness, his grandparents rarely called on him to perform manual tasks ... .” He had “a passport to a life of ease” which “left him free to read”.
Aiyejina peers deeper into the significance of this period: “It is in the process of reading that he discovered details of history that never formed part of the conversations the adults engaged in at home.
“The rituals of belonging would become major motifs in both his life and his writings. This experience inspired in him an insider/outsider complex ...
“He would later deploy this understanding of the creative ambiguity/complexity inherent in otherness to construct multi-visioned and multi-versions to life.”
These ‘rituals’ prove transformative. Lovelace’s exposure to this new world reshaped his identity and philosophy. He drew close to the downtrodden, the marginalised, the oppressed – the salt of the earth and the authentic purveyors of Caribbean culture.
“He was exposed to the struggles of the African American, through whom he began to see a counter to the Spanish heritage that he was told was his inheritance from his paternal line,” writes Aiyejina.
He cites Lovelace, “I was looking to the black side, and that made the idea of belonging to slaves problematic. But having chosen to identify with the side of my ancestry, I had to accept that I belonged to those people called slaves. So there I was, on the one hand, the ‘Spanish’ that had abandoned me and on the other hand, Negro – these people who I was introduced to as slaves.”
As a young man, Lovelace wrestled with a fair amount of inner conflict. The separation of his parents, his move to Trinidad from Tobago, a stable setting with his aunt that was cut short when his mother subtly coerced him to move back with her, and academic disappointments threatened to derail a life of promise. But it is from Lovelace’s schismatic experiences that his creativity sprouted.
“The castaway, the alienated, the rebel and the underprivileged would be central to his fictive constructs,” notes Aiyejina.
Despite many challenges, Providence intercedes, as young Lovelace seemed shepherded by an unseen hand. To wit, Aiyejina’s recalls a prophetic scene involving a sage and young Lovelace: “One blistering afternoon in Earl’s infancy, a wandering sadhu (holy man) had stopped by their house in Toco for a drink of water. On seeing their mother with baby Earl, the sadhu had asked to hold him … he looked into the child’s eyes and read the future they reflected… ‘Take care of this child. This child will make you proud. He will be a good man for the world.’”
An accurate prediction if there was ever one.
Notable is Lovelace’s experience at a spiritual revival, an experience that gave him a glimpse into his unconscious, a realm of dark purity that he, like many at that time, was conditioned to reject. Arguably, this eureka moment would redefine his identity and chart his philosophical trajectory. It follows that Africa would eventually command its own space on his eclectic canvas. “In the Caribbean,” he once wrote, “we have the need to make English our own, to make it speak for us, because it is the only language we have. Our craft involves wrestling it into shape so that it can express our distinct sensibility, a sensibility that owes something to Africa, as well as our engagement with our Caribbean identity.”
According to Aiyejina, it is “the culture and language of the folk whom [Lovelace] envisions as the most instinctive and versatile creators” of Caribbean culture.
He analyses Lovelace’s unfoldment and his adoption of citizen participation “as a central philosophical plank both in his fiction and his polemical essays”.
He explores dance as foundational to Lovelace’s social philosophy, as evident in many of his offerings, in particular, the masterful The Dragon Can’t Dance, and the development of his political construct and post-colonial ideal.
Throughout, Aiyejina clinically examines the ‘Lovelace corpus’ and forms a detailed composite of the writer’s inner landscape. What emerges is an artist who grew, almost organically, from cultural subtleties we oftentimes ignore.
Surely, Lovelace’s words resound, none more so than his recall of his fledging years as a writer. For the reader who dares to follow in his footsteps as playwright, novelist, poet and raconteur, heed well his counsel:
“When I began to write seriously, I discovered that my sentences were not complete ... and I thought that I could never be a writer because I thought that writers wrote fluently from beginning to end ... then I found a book ... and it talked about revision, that writing was like a bit of sculpture, that you could shape it until you got what you wanted. To say that that advice helped will be an understatement, it saved me.”
That book was a boon for young Lovelace, a boon that arguably shaped the life of an artist like no other.
Earl Lovelace by Funso Aiyejina
Publisher: The University of the West Indies Press 2018
Available on Amazon.
Rating: Highly recommended.
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