The Literary Corner: Vernon February’s Life and Works (side a)


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Brooks B. Robinson: The literary corner black writers of the world, a series of analyses and interpretations of black world literature.

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Today an experience in African-Caribbean poetry with Edward Brathwaite. In addition to being a poet, Brathwaite is a literary historian.

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He has to his credit a trilogy, including Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands, a literary history, the Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, and a second trilogy, including Other Exiles, Black and Blue, and Mother Poem.

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Brathwaite is the reader in history at the University of the West Indies, Mona and Kingston, Jamaica.

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In this interview, Brathwaite begins at the beginning.

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Edward Brathwaite: Like most writers, most poets, I started very early. You can say I started writing hymns-

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Brooks B. Robinson: Mhm

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Edward Brathwaite: -that kind of background because I was brought up in a Methodist church with my, you know, my mother's people, and that was the only model I had at the time from the age of 9, 10, 11, 12.

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And then I went into that romantic kind of poetry based upon John Keats and the English models.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Mhm

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Edward Brathwaite: But I--I began seriously writing on the eve of my departure from my home island of Barbados when I was going on a scholarship to the University of Cambridge. I won a Barbados scholarship, you know?

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Brooks B. Robinson: Right.

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Edward Brathwaite: And the experience, the trauma, of having leave home um created this sudden desire on my part to really get to grips with my landscape and I remember very much that our island is very small...

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Daniel Kunene: "... never really seen it. Part of our colonial thing within the... and I remember the last week that I was at home. I travel all over the island trying to get [to] understand... trying to get to know it and I began writing poems about it.

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Brooks B. Robinson: "Now you talked about the situation that prompted you to write. Since that time in your many works, are most of them by situations or events?"

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Daniel Kunene: "Yes, I think this continues it. It's prompted by experiences. Because having got to Britain, I had the experience of discovering that my education hadn't prepared me for what I found there. You know me education, in a Caribbean island which is called Little England, really gave me the idea that I should have been as a writer, a citizen of the world, all writers were equal and all that, and I came upon racial and color prejudice. And my poetry then began to reflect, as best as I could, the nature of that experience. The English experience was only the beginning, or the extension of a Colonial experience. The thing is that I then got a job in West Africa, in Ghana, on the eve of Ghana's independence."

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Brooks B. Robinson: "Yes."
Daniel Kunene: And this is when the de-education and the real writing started because for the first time I began to understand what it was like not only to be black, but really what it was like to have a culture."

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Brooks B. Robinson: "Mhm."

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Daniel Kunene: "I think that was the important element of it. I began to understand something about what it meant to be part of a community."

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Brooks B. Robinson: "Now are you saying that, uh, your experiences in Africa were so totally different from those in your native land? That, uh, you began to realize, for the first time, the essence of..."

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Daniel Kunene: "Right, Right."

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Brooks B. Robinson: "...culture?"

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Daniel Kunene: "You see in my native land, and [[?]] has that same problem, uses the same phrase in his book. You see, it was a fault understanding of what the native land was, it was a fault business of consciousness. We did not really, as I said, understand our own landscape, we didn't appreciate our own customs. When I got to Africa, it is then..."

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Edward Brathwaite: of what I really had experienced in my homeland was authentic. And as I went on living in Ghana, I lived there for 6 years, 7 years. By the end of that time, I got a very strong desire to return back to the Caribbean and to really recognize for myself what Ghana had taught me that we really had. And those are the poems that really begin my major work Rights of Passage, published in 1967, Masks in 1968, and Islands.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Now, and they, they deal mainly with the theme of African culture.

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Edward Brathwaite: Not only African culture, but really the business of what African culture did to me.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Yes

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Edward Brathwaite: In recognizing my Caribbeanness.

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Brooks B. Robinson: So you express you're, what you perceive through your writings.

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Edward Brathwaite: Right. Right. Good.

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Brooks B. Robinson: You think most writers do that.

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Edward Brathwaite: I think so. Um, we have said there are two main kinds of writers those who respond to external experience or social experience and those that respond to internal psychic or spiritual experiences. I, in general, tend to respond to the communal external ones, okay.

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Brooks B. Robinson: What about one, this one point, we'll get to more later.

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Edward Brathwaite: Right, okay.

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Brooks B. Robinson: What are you going to read now?

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Edward Brathwaite: I'm going to, I have in my hand here the book called The Arrivance, which is really umm those 3 books I mentioned, Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands all brought into one. Because it really is a trilogy.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Yes
Edward Brathwaite: 3 poems in one. I really want to give you an idea, my sense of the connection between Africa and the new world, because I think that was one of our problems that we felt that Africa was very separate from the new world, and that we were not really part of the historical experience, okay. This is called The Journies and it's from Rights of Passage.

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Brooks B. Robinson: mhm

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Vernon February: Egypt and...

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Daniel Kunene: Silica glass and brittle Sahara, Timbuktu, Gao, the hills of a haffle, winds of the Niger, Kumasi and Kaiver down the coiled Congo and down that Black River that tides us to hell.

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hell in the water, brown boys of Bushongo drowned in the blue and the bitter waste of the wave-gullied Ferdinand sea.

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Soft winds to San Salvador, Christopher Christ and Nonoa our dove to promises, grim though it was the simple salvation of love.

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and so it was Little Rock, Dallas, New Orleans, Santiago de Cuba, the miles of unfortunate islands, the saints and the virgins

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{SPEAKER name= "Brooks B. Robinson"} beautiful, very beautiful, you're making here, the connection between the old world, and the new world

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} and the new right

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Brooks B. Robinson: now, exactly what connection do you see? I know your poem, uhh, is using, uhh, the names of various places.

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} names, right, mhm

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Brooks B. Robinson: what uhh other

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} it's more than that right
Brooks B. Robinson: yes

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} umm, well the first element, well the basic element is the element of culture, what I recognize as I came back to the Caribbean was that we, for instance, physically, you have the connection; the people walk the same way, they look the same way, you could be someone from Dahomey-

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Brooks B. Robinson: yes {SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} -or you know your uncle could-

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Brooks B. Robinson: of course [00:08:14} {SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} -live in in in the Caribbean-

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Brooks B. Robinson: of course

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} -but, in addition to that, when you when you go to the market, you see that the people sit in our markets in the same way they sit in Africa- the physical posture is the same-

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Brooks B. Robinson: right

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} - the colors that they choose as market women are very similar-

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Brooks B. Robinson: yeah

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} -the way they present their food (stutters) their materials for sale-

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Brooks B. Robinson: yes

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} -also very similar, the the habit of putting them in lovely geometric designs-

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Brooks B. Robinson: yes

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{SPEAKER name= "Daniel Kunene"} -being conscious of color, the way they prefer to have the food on the ground rather than-

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Daniel Kunene: and the way they even cut umm the meat into certain shapes like saltfish and thing.

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(stutters) identical this is seen particularly in Haiti where if you take photographs you won't be sure if you're in Africa or in the Caribbean.

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and then there's the language, the way the people speak.

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I had a remarkable experience in Barbados one night. When I was passing a Church one of our people's Churches.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Yeah

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Daniel Kunene: Not an established Church but an Afro-Caribbean Church. And it always- it had always been said that Barbados, my island, had no African culture.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Yeah

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Daniel Kunene: and I was- I stopped to listen to these... you know- these worshipers and although they were Barbadian, I suddenly realized that I couldn't understand what they were saying for one moment

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Brooks B. Robinson: Yes

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Daniel Kunene: and then as I went on listening I realized that the pattern and the rhythm was really Igbo.

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Brooks B. Robinson: mhm

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Daniel Kunene: now that gave me the first breakthrough into understanding my own culture in Barbados,

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which is, in fact, an Igbo culture, which accounts for the fact that Barbados does not seem, evidently, to have an African culture,

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because the Igbo culture being what we call acephalous,

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Brooks B. Robinson: uh huh

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Daniel Kunene: you know there's no symbolic head in the Igbo,

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Brooks B. Robinson: yeah

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Daniel Kunene: unlike the Yoruba, and tends to be very introverted, very submerged,

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Brooks B. Robinson: yeah

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Daniel Kunene: and therefore, the Barbadian, African survival tends to be very hidden

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{SPEAKER name= "Brooks B. Robinson"} uh huh

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Daniel Kunene: and it is at that moment that I recognized that the continuity of language played a very important part in an understanding of the connection between Africa and the new world.

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Brooks B. Robinson: now in some of the.. uh later...writings of the development of creole society in Jamaica, uh, other exiles, black and blue matter of poems, etc. those works, are you developing a different kind of theme?

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Daniel Kunene: not a different theme but deepening the theme, which is really my real interest of what is the Caribbean.

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Brooks B. Robinson: mhm

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Daniel Kunene: You see because um some- peop...

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Daniel Kunene: All I was doing is trying to correct an imbalance

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Brooks B. Robinson: yeah

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Daniel Kunene: as a Caribbean man I recognize that Caribbean was seeing with only one eye-the eye of Europe- and one has two eyes and one needed to see with both of them and my first concern was correct that with the African experience.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Now
Daniel Kunene: The main concern was really to try to understand the nature of Caribbean culture and from Islands, the third book in the first trilogy,

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Brooks B. Robinson: Yes
Daniel Kunene: and then uh Mother poem, which is the first book of a second trilogy.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Right
Daniel Kunene: Sun poem, which is to follow as the second book of the second trilogy and then [Ex-Self I'll be exploring the Caribbean, meanwhile in my history, which is closely linked with my poetry, the development of creole society is what it says- creole being my word for a culture, which is new to the new world, and which is a mixture of Europe, Africa, and Amerindia.

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Tribal music begins to play

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Tribal music fades out
Daniel Kunene: This is now white man land and yet we have ghetto hair..we have place where a man can't live good, we have place where man have to sweat shit, we have place where man die, with them eye water dry up, where he can't even cry tribulation, where the dry river rocks clog him in. I did swim into this world from I was a small boy and I never see harbor yet. Ship can't spot no pilot light. A burning through this wall of silence with my dread. Look how I look pon little fun. Herb some system run in the ground with dun drumming blues. Summoned and I- //]

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Edward Brathwaite: The good year tires them take flight at dust and nasty water pon the pothole from the asphalt and land pon top the suffer then standing by pon the sidewalk inside the way side cabin them a call a bus stop advertising Sheraton Hotel.

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{Music)

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Starvation by African-Caribbean poet, Edward Brathwaite, today's guest on the Literary Corner, black writers of the world. Technical assistance provided by Bob Chan, I'm Brooks Robinson. The literary corner was made possible by funds from WHA Radio Madison, Wisconsin, a service of the University of Wisconsin extension.

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