Author Q&A with Arnold Rampersad
- March 12, 2013
We interviewed Arnold Rampersad, whose introduction to Eric Walrond's Tropic Death was recently published by Liveright.
Tropic Death is a collection of short stories written by Eric Walrond (1898-1966) and published to much acclaim in 1926. Walrond imbues his stories with a remarkable compassion for lives controlled by the whims of nature from his childhood homes of Barbados, Panama and other Caribbean islands. The stories are empathetic portrayals of working people’s lives set against the backdrop of failed colonialism. Walrond evokes the world, re-creating the sounds, light and smells of his locations. He writes about the “marl dust clogging the air: the bright hues of the guava buds, “the humid dusk, and the glowering sky.”
His fiction has been likened to fellow Harlem Renaissance writers Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston.
Arnold Rampersad has written an elegant and illuminating introduction to the stories of Eric Walrond and it is Arnold Rampersad who has responded to this Q&A. He is the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus at Stanford University.
How did you come to write the introduction?
I was asked to do so by the publisher, perhaps as a result of my professional reputation as someone interested and involved in the legacy of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and African American literature in general.
Do you know why Mr. Walrond never published again?
I have no idea, beyond a certainty that it was extremely difficult for a man like him, especially a man of color, to make a career out of writing. Langston Hughes managed to do so for a lifetime, but his is an extraordinary case, and he had a range of literary interests and skills that Walrond apparently did not possess.
Marl is in each and every story, from the daughter who eats it in Drought to the Black Rock village in Tropic Death with the marl “whirling blindly.” Do you think of it as a kind of shorthand for Mr. Walrond? Anyone who has walked these islands would know and feel the soil. In a way, the marl sets up the places where his stories are set. Does it conjure any easy images for you?
You are right about the near-primacy of marl as a natural presence in the stories. Marl conjures up various images and associations. Derek Walcott writes in an early poem about “the marl-white road” (the poem is set in St. Lucia), and so we can imagine associations with a kind of inexorable, unforgiving whiteness; a sense, too, of death, in the presence of ever-reminding dust (“dust to dust”); infertility and dryness. The daughter who eats marl is one of the more macabre little characters in literature, I would say. Marl is a powerful symbol of implacable Nature as God.
“Pauperized native blacks clung to the utmost vestiges of the crown.” In this passage, the narrator is referring to having tea. He also indicates that tea was better than coffee for the awaiting day. Sometimes, isn’t a ritual just a good idea and not necessarily an imitation of an oppressor? But this may be the luxury of distance and time. What do you think?
You are right—some ideas of the oppressor are good ideas, and having tea at a certain time of the day is one of them. I don’t think the “blacks” were clinging to the crown out of servility in having tea; they were mainly taking a break. However, in other ways the culture involved a dedicated servility to the white world, without a doubt.
In the introduction, you say that there is a “heroic quality to the lives of the black and brown people of the region.” Is it the heroism of being characterized which confers a kind of status? The characters are well-drawn but not particularly sympathetic except for the children. Is their heroism in their struggle? Do you believe it was his desire to depict his characters as heroes?
I am thinking here of the distinctions Faulkner famously made about people “enduring,” and also about people (humble people, too) not merely surviving but also prevailing. Yes, the characters are not particularly sympathetic, but on the whole they (or many of them) try to make something of their lives in the midst of a situation that seeks to obliterate their humanity. Perhaps “heroes” is too strong a word. It conjures up qualities that are in short supply in most of these pages; but in retrospect and with compassion the reader can see these people as precursors of a more achieving culture, and heroic in their refusal to commit forms of cultural or literal suicide.
Literary critics have called the writing in Tropic Death “self-consciously aimed at a superior, metropolitan audience.” The text seems to have something to do other than tell a story. Maybe it aims to prove a mastery of language for the Negro – to the white man. It characterizes many authors of his time, doesn’t it? Were they required to exhibit a sort of virtuosity with the language just to tell a simple story? The stories seem secondary and hidden beneath the wordplay. Would you agree? Was this the price of publication? Or even a kind of equality?
I’m not sure that the problems and challenges and aspirations of the average black writer were so remarkably different in every way compared to the lot facing the “average” white writer. I wouldn’t say that the black writers were “required” to display virtuosity; some people might argue the opposite—that simplicity of expression was expected of a people supposedly without high culture and intelligence. Walrond’s adventuring in language was less prodigal than, say, Jean Toomer’s, to cite another black writer of the age; or even Anne Spencer the poet. These were writers acutely aware of modernism as a literary and cultural force, and seeking to incorporate its disturbed and disturbing but also highly rewarding and authentic values into their art. Walrond was a conscious artist. A good artist assimilates, incorporates, transcends.
There is so much poetry in his sentences, his description. In Wharf Rats, he likens the chants of the half-sleep workers to a sort of “Negro Koran.” This is wonderful. So is “frosting of the stars and the glitter of the black sea.” There is an immediacy to some of the writing that then disappears in the detail. Do you think this is partly the paradigm of the twenty second attention span 2013 reader?
No, but I think that this is a shrewd observation. There is at times a “disconnect” between his self-consciously literary sensibility and the cool, distant, almost clinical way he observes most of his characters. This is where a writer such as Hemingway—or let’s simply say Hemingway, because he was so masterful—scores; there is no such disconnect. Instead there is a pure, achieved consistency of vision and language, relatively speaking.
Is it a symptom of being a black man in 1926 that in the story, Vampire Bat, like everything else, even the horse is on the side of the white man? The horse races to the city “neighing the tidings to the buckras.” The horse betrays the black workers. Is this characteristic of the literature of the time? Do you see any remnants or correlating symptoms in today’s fiction written by African Americans?
This is one of those little electric moments in the text that help to keep it so vivid! One could, however, relate the phenomenon beyond race to the matter of Naturalism as a literary force, in which nature is often hostile to human beings. That’s true of white writers such as Frank Norris (from a slightly earlier time) and John Steinbeck (slightly later) as well as black writers. Of course, race makes everything somewhat different. Yes, the sense that everything, including that horse, is against blacks works to shore up our sense of the near-hopelessness of the black condition. And certainly remnants of this way of seeing blacks in relation to the rest of the world, including the natural world, exist in our own time, especially if the piece of fiction in question is historical.
This may be unfair to mention but it struck this reader. In 1926, Eric Walrond describes a villager as a “wife-killing Hindu.” There seems to be no value judgment attached but I had to mention it given recent events.
Well, when I was growing up in the Caribbean in the 1950s, one had a keen sense that Indians (Hindus especially) had certain codes of conduct that were unspeakably and mysteriously severe from the point of view of other groups. These included what we would now call “honor” killings but also acts of suicide. Actually, many of us were in awe of such terrible capacities, although we didn’t want to emulate the killers.
Tropic Death, is the last story in the collection. In the second paragraph, the reader is somehow sure that the author is describing himself in his traveling clothes. What is it that makes this passage feel so confessional? That makes the reader so sure that it is Eric Walrond describing Eric Walrond?
Yes, I agree—there is quality of familiarity and vicarious autobiography about the paragraph, although of course one can’t be absolutely sure of these things. One senses a loving self-regard that is seldom found elsewhere in the text, a quality of tenderness in short supply elsewhere.
Are there other writers whose work you’d like to see reissued?
There are other novels from the period that deserve to be kept alive, including one novel by Countee Cullen; but there’s no shortage of books that deserve a second wind. It’s wonderful to see this one brought back into print.
Are you currently working on another book?
Well, I’m trying—but no further comment!