Earl Lovelace is a major Caribbean writer, one of the few of his generation to have lived in and written almost exclusively from the region. With sharp observation and even sharper wit, his writing pulses with the rhythm, flow and vibrancy of the lives of “ordinary” people, whose culture and language he champions.
Lovelace explores the intricacies of his multicultural society as it grapples with a legacy of slavery, indentureship and colonialism and faces the challenges of independence and new nationhood, and he does so with compassion and true understanding.
In this brief but rich biography, Funso Aiyejina explores the writer and his work with the intimacy of a friend and the perceptiveness of a scholar. Lovelace himself is as storied as one of his characters, and the man and his life shine through. This biography is essential reading for any student of Caribbean literature, and will be equally compelling for a general reader.
My association with earl Lovelace dates back to my years as a doctoral student (1977–1980) at the University of the West indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. as a member of the University of the West indies players, which premiered both Jestina’s Calypso and The New Hardware Store during that period, I interacted with him on the occasions when he attended our rehearsals and contributed his creator’s insights to our interpretations of those plays. Kenneth Ramchand, my supervisor, would also invite me to ride along whenever he and his family and friends were going to visit Lovelace in Francis Trace, Matura. I remember the excitement of meeting Derek Walcott, Lawrence and Jenny Scott, and many other literary figures on those limes. The conversations were always charged and robust. I was new to the Caribbean and opted to embrace the wisdom of the chicken in the fiction of my people. The chicken had found itself at the gate of a strange city. it stood, pensive, on one leg, in front of the huge gate. a man chanced by and asked why it was standing on one leg. The chicken responded that it had never been to that city before and did not know the walking style in the city.
“So, I am waiting and watching to observe the tradition of the city to know whether i should strut on both legs or hop on one.”
I was a chicken on one foot, standing. Listening. observing. Cautious. not even in the cricket by the beach that they played often did I fully participate. Cricket is an elitist sport in Nigeria. I did not go to a prestige school. I do not play cricket.
Two things stand out for me from those years. The first is the legendary electricity-powered refrigerator in the Lovelaces’ home. There was, as yet, no electricity in that part of Matura. in the absence of electricity, Lovelace pressed the refrigerator into higher intellectual service. he stored his books and manuscripts in it. I never did get the story about why he bought an electric fridge when there was no electricity to run it. Maybe it was an expression of faith – faith that, one day, one day, the government was bound to extend the service to Francis Trace. The kind of prediction you can bank, once it does not come with an expiry date. The other thing I remember from those days is Jean Lovelace’s legendary homemade wine – cashew wine, grapefruit wine, pommecythere wine, pommerac wine, rice wine, sorrel wine. . . . The list was endless.
I returned to Nigeria at the end of 1980 to continue my university teaching career at my alma mater, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and took over the teaching of West Indian literature. as an undergraduate at Ile-Ife, I had studied West Indian literature as a component of Commonwealth literature, and the offering had been limited to V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite. I now had the opportunity to teach a whole course on West Indian literature. The first book i added to the list was Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance. as I suspected, because of its engagement with the manifestation of Africa in the new World, the book was hugely popular with students. They reacted to it with the same zeal that my generation of undergraduates had reacted to Kamau Brathwaite’s Masks.
One of the first hurdles I faced when I set about to read, study and, later, teach Lovelace was the unavailability of his views outside of his fictive constructs. in an attempt to understand the man and his work, I started from early o’clock to collect his non-fiction writings. I visited Trinidad and Tobago about once every two years between 1981 and my final relocation there in 1989; and every time I visited, I collected any materials about him and by him that I could find. Then, in 1994, I approached him with a proposal to edit a selection of his essays for publication in order to obviate the difficulty faced by students and scholars in locating them. He was receptive to the suggestion. Soon after, I took possession of a boxful of some of his papers. This box contained manuscripts of some of the columns he had written for the Trinidad Express between 1967 and 1969, reviews, speeches, and versions of partially written pieces on a range of issues. Many of them contained copious handwritten marginalia waiting to be integrated or rejected.
Between 1996 and 2001, when I was the assistant editor of the Trinidad and Tobago Review, I initiated a system by which I secured copies of Lovelace’s speeches, as soon after their delivery as possible, for publication in that journal. With the active collaboration of his children, I kept track of his speaking engagements and would be literally waiting in the wings to collect copies of his speeches from him as soon as he was finished. When they were foreign engagements, I made sure I found myself at his home as soon as he returned so that I could secure copies. even when he insisted that the talks were incomplete, I would insist on the incomplete versions. by then, on the basis of the number of incomplete pieces in that boxful of papers I had collected from him, I had come to realize that once he had delivered a speech, often partly written and partly improvised, he hardly ever returned to it. he would rather return his attention to a novel-in-progress than to the task of refining a talk that he had already delivered. however, once I had a version of a speech, it was always much easier to get him to talk through the blanks, to refine, clarify, expand or modify, over a drink of cocoa, sweetened with condensed milk and spiked with grated nutmeg – a Lovelace special.
The process was slow because I had to work to suit his schedule, in addition to having to navigate his not-so-legible handwriting. Finally, in 2003, Growing in the Dark was published. This selection of his essays, speeches and notes towards his autobiography spans from 1967 to 2000, and confirms Lovelace as one of the most consistent and perceptive organic and original thinkers, writers and cultural workers from the Caribbean. This biography would not have been possible, at least not in this form, had Growing in the Dark not happened.
Long before the conception of the Caribbean Biography Series and the selection of Lovelace as one of its subjects, I had started a series of formal and informal interviews with him with a view to creating a body of secondary materials for teaching his books to my students, especially students in the advanced Seminar on West Indian Literature (Earl Lovelace).
A lot of the personal details of his life in this book come from a number of sources: (1) from the many hours of my recorded interviews with him; (2) from years of informal chats with him; with Jean, his wife; with Lyris, his sister; and with Jim Armstrong and Eddie Hernandez, his friends; (3) from the autobiographical references in his essays, especially “Working obeah”, in Growing in the Dark; (4) from the manuscript of his autobiography-in-progress; and (5) from the Earl Lovelace Manuscripts housed at the Alma Jordan Library, the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.
Five Rivers, Arouca/Asetu Forest Sanctuary, Narangho,
Trinidad and Tobago