A Trip Well Made: for A.N., Karl and William Seymour

Barbadian spoken-word artist Adrian Green: following in the tradition of pioneering Bajan writers A.N. Forde, W.S. Arthur and Karl Sealy.  Photo Copyright © by Fresh Milk Barbados 2013.

 

MY TRIP TO JAMAICA to attend the 35th Annual West Indian Literature Conference almost did not happen. The room in Montego Bay had been booked, the plane ticket purchased, the taxi paid for in advance…and then the 2016 system I would nickname “The Beast” morphed into a formidable hurricane, Matthew. It seemed to be directly in my flight path, and I took one look at the swirling winds on my television screen and rethought my plans. I finally decided that since I could not ask anyone on the plane to open the door and allow me to step off if the turbulence was too great, it was not a trip worth taking. And so I cancelled my flight. 

As I sat dejectedly on the side of my bed, I contemplated how a trip that I was so sure I was meant to take could have gone so wrong.  I started to thumb through my journal, looking over the last few entries.  My eyes fell on a recent page where I had thanked God in anticipation of a safe journey and an unforgettable conference. Yet here I was, sitting at home on the day that I had been booked to leave the island. 

In the end, it was the suggestion of one of the professors at work that I rethink my decision, and the gentle but persistent prodding of a close friend, that made me change my mind.

With one day to get to Montego Bay, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back online to book a flight again, so I dashed up to the airport, bought my ticket and went directly to work. I wish I could say that it was plain sailing from there, but there was the rebooking of the hotel room, new arrangements to get from Kingston to Montego Bay, and the realization that I had to pack and cancel my classes. I left home at 3:30 a.m. the following morning, tired but excited at the thought of going to the land of wood and water. I was pleased that I would at last see the Blue Mountains and walk in the land where the maroons lived. Added to this, I was going to present a paper on a topic that I felt strongly about—the digitizing of the works of early twentieth century Barbadian writers.  I had selected three to discuss: William Seymour Arthur, Karl Sealy and Alfred Nathaniel Forde. The trip to Jamaica would be a wonderful blessing, and presenting at my first conference made the anxiety and fatigue bearable.

The morning after my arrival I spent in my room, going over my paper. I would have fifteen minutes to present, and then answer any questions that arose. The writers I selected were writers whose names even Bajans had forgotten. Nonetheless, they had been prolific in their day. 

William Seymour Arthur, born in 1909, had died at the age of 102. An educator by profession, he was a man ahead of his time: in 1932, he called for school texts to be written with local themes, imagery and nation language. He also saw the island’s youth as its most precious resource. Three volumes of verse, copious articles in Barbados' Herald newspaper and Forum magazine, and the airing of his work on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices cemented his worth as a writer, poet and social commentator. Yet, a few decades later, very few people had ever heard of W.S. Arthur.

Karl Sealy, also an educator with no fewer than twenty submissions in the Barbadian literary journal Bim between 1945 and 1965.  In addition, he had his own weekly column in the Nation newspaper entitled “The Old Time Way” in the 1990s. He submitted articles right up until 1991, just a couple years before his death in 1993. His poem “Road to Emmaus” and his short story “The Pieces of Silver” are still found in local school texts, with the latter currently available online and used by a number of British grammar schools. But none of my students in Barbados had ever heard of him before.

A.N. Forde has suffered a similar fate of being forgotten. He was a civil servant who distinguished himself as a diplomat working for UNESCO, and he also served as a permanent secretary upon his return to Barbados. He was general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation for a short period and a chairman of the National Cultural Foundation at one time. It is remarkable that, in spite of this busy schedule, he was able to write and publish twenty-one short stories in Bim between 1950 and 1973.

I believe that the ethos of a nation is mirrored in the works of its artists. They are its pulse and reflect its thoughts, fears, dreams, failings, and triumphs. It is our writers who document the progress of a civilization. Whether they be literary or historical, social commentators or satirists, their contributions are priceless. Within the first quarter of this century, Barbados has unearthed new gems in spoken word poets like Adrian Green and novelists like Karen Lord; however, we have a tendency as a nation not to venerate our leading writers as we do our top sports figures or our deserving political figures. 

How unfortunate for all of us.  It is early Barbadian writers of the twentieth century like Arthur, Sealy and Forde, those who never emigrated, it is these writers who laid the foundation for our future writers, including Lamming, Clarke and Brathwaite, who all would return (Lamming and Brathwaite eventually for good).  Lamming, Clarke and Brathwaite are the writers most Barbadians know of, even if they have never read their work. Each of these writers also submitted stories and poetry to Bim.  Editor Frank Collymore gave many of the West Indian writers we know today an opportunity to be published. Samuel Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, John Hearne, and Michael Anthony all had short stories appear in early editions of Bim.

Once I had presented my paper, I felt like I had done what I could to remind those present, at least, of some of these facts. In the audience, I spotted literary critic Edward Baugh, who had lauded Karl Sealy’s work in one of his essays and rued the fact that Sealy had gone too soon, before he could really make an impact. Outside, I met Leah Rosenberg, an American critic I had cited in my research. She had also been sitting in the audience, but I was unaware of who she was. She was interested in the works of these writers being digitized and introduced me to Laurie Taylor, the librarian for the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), which is based in Florida. Two weeks later, Laurie visited Barbados on business, and I was able to take her to meet the families of Karl Sealy and A.N. Forde and gain permission to digitize their work. My hope is that the works of all the writers in Bim will be digitized, so that students, scholars and those who like literature can have easy access to their work and a greater appreciation for all our West Indian writers. 

Zoanne Evans is an instructor at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill.  She enjoys working with children in her spare time and does so through the children's charity Kids in Action. 

Last updated December 8, 2017.