Kamau (aka Edward) Brathwaite is one of the prominent names in Caribbean literature. Known as a poet, he also has been a thorough reader of his colleagues’ work and author of provocative, perceptive criticism. The University of Michigan Press is to be commended for reprinting ROOTS, a collection of Brathwaite’s essays first published in Cuba in 1986. As the back cover notes rightly note, “Many of the publications in which these essays appeared are unavailable to U.S. readers, making ROOTS an especially valuable collection.”
The book is of great bibliographic interest to any student of Caribbean literature. The long, ambitious essays are copiously footnoted with citations, comments, and sometimes paragraph-long discussions of scholarly sources. Slightly jarring are the many typographical errors; the text seems to be a facsimile reprint of the Cuban edition.
Oddly missing is much discussion of the greatest of all West Indian writers, C.L.R. James. Brathwaite otherwise touches all the bases, taking on race, literary form, emigration, “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” and other meaty topics. He discusses the work of (among others) George Lamming, Derek Walcott (winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature), V.S. Naipaul, and Samuel Selvon, as well as North American writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.
Naipaul is a special case because he has so pointedly rejected being categorized by his regional origin. “West Indian is a political word,” he has said. “It’s all the things I reject. It’s not me.” Little love has been lost between him and most other Caribbean writers. Brathwaite is surprisingly appreciative of Naipaul, and his discussions of his work are substantial and interesting. Responding to Gordan Rohlehr’s assertion that “Naipaul’s hatred of the steel band and all it indicates is no mere rejection of West Indian culture, but a rejection of the single common ground where Trinidadians of all races meet on a basis of equality,” Brathwaite writes: “In the very process of rejecting West Indian society, Naipaul ... embraces and examines it most intimately.” And oddly but intriguingly he claims that “the essence of Naipaul’s message and achievement [is] the perception that art and coherence can come only out of a coherent pattern of traditional values, no matter what kind of variations the individual may choose to play upon them.”