If the length of time in attendance is an accurate inverse guide to a writer's fame, then Edward Said and Michael Ondaatje were the two biggest names at the Commonwealth Conference
SIX-YEAR-OLD to mother over the phone on a long distance call: "Mummy, what are you doing there?" "Well, I go to a room, sometimes it's a big room and sometimes it's a small room and I listen to people talk, then we talk, then they talk some more, and then we talk some more."
That was how I described to my daughter what I was doing at the Silver Jubilee Conference of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language,Studies (ACLAL.S) held in Canterbury this past August. Ever since reading David Lodge's Small World, a delightful and wicked send-up of English-language-and-literature conferences (badly organized ones in particular, which this one -wasn't) I am always somewhat self-conscious, humorously so, about attending conferences such as these. As I simplified my description for my daughter, I was aware that there was a certain fundamental truth to my description, which fitted right into a Lodgian world.
As expected, the full panoply of literary fashion was on display. Canon formation and deformation; structuralism; deconstruction and the now fashionable postmodernism -all flourished in panels. It is the lonely voice - always that of a writer, not a critic or an academic which tries to swim against the tide of these movements. As one writer insisted to a panel member during a question period, "I am not having a discourse with you - I merely want to ask a question,"
There we were, pilgrim-participants all, so unlike those early pilgrims in our state of cleanliness and being for the most part well-fed and well-shod, set down in the garden of England: Kent. Pilgrims we were, all 300 of us, of one sort or another, although our divinities differed. Sex was certainly one of them - so was making contacts, or "networking," as this divine pursuit is known in the business, to further one's professional or writing life. Meeting fellow writers, or merely hearing fellow writers read was a lesser form of devotional practice. Amid all this activity, however, loneliness abounds for many who know few people and whom even fewer are interested in knowing.
As surely as it exists in all other human activities, there is a pecking order here. The "big name" writers fly in and out, spending as little time as possible. You can, almost, gauge the fame of the writer by the length of time spent at the conference. Derek Walcott (a poet originally from St. Lucia now living in the U.S. and Trinidad), Edward Said (an influential Palestinian-born critic), and Michael Ondaatje by this gauge were the most famous, clocking in at a day and a half in the case of Walcott, and a few hours in the case of Said and Ondaatje. Close on their heels Anita Desai followed - so wraithlike was her presence her absence was hardly noticed and at two days, Keri Hulme brought up the rear of this group. And then there were others like Ama Ata Aidoo, the Ghanaian writer, whose presence at every plenary session and every reading became almost talismanic for me. By the second or third day I found myself looking to the particular spot where she always sat, searching for her head wrap, and on finding it, feeling a sense that all was well with the world - at least this little fish-bowl world.
This conference was unusual in that it showcased the readings by writers. And so it should be. No other scheduled activities ran at the same time as these readings, nor were they scheduled at inopportune moments such as the lunch hour. This meant that every reading was guaranteed a large turn-out.
Given the debate that has swirled around the Canadian writing scene recently, I was particularly struck by two poets who read work in voices other than their own. Jackie Kay is female and of black and Scottish background.
Among the poems she read were two written in the voice of a male bus driver whose lover had AIDS. Archie Weller, the Australian Aboriginal poet, read a long, moving poem in the voice of an Aboriginal woman reminiscing about her man. These poems worked extremely well; at no time did I feel that a false note was struck, or that there was any straining after authenticity.
Despite his brief stay, Edward Said demonstrated a humility and openness that was surprising in someone so obviously in demand. He spoke profoundly and tellingly of the permanent and modern condition of exile and the repercussions of that for all of us. Derek Walcott, on the other hand, talked. with great pomposity about the primary function of man (sic) being to glorify God! Anything done to prevent that is of man's making, he continued, and everything else is totally irrelevant. To be fair to him, he did preface his comments by saying that he probably would sound like Jerry Falwell or the late Ayatollah Khomeini. While I do not necessarily oppose this approach to life, I was appalled at Walcott's failure to engage with the Audience in a more responsible manner on a matter of this sort, which is so open to sloppy thinking and interpretation. Moreover, Walcott made this statement in response to a question about the Nicaraguan experiment in combining traditionally "intellectual" activities like poetry with farming or other manual work to produce the peasant or worker-poet. Clearly, he did not want to deal with the issue. Writers like Nayantara Saghal and the Kenyan, Micere Mugo (both female), who, like Walcott, were also plenary speakers, provided a rewarding balance to this type of posturing.
Conferences come and conferences go, and, as in Lodge's world, there is always another English-language-and-literature conference taking place in some part of the world. Indeed, some people were even talking about the next ACLALS conference scheduled to be held in Jamaica in two years' time.
'Since I had forgotten both my umbrella and coat in Canada, it was fortunate that I didn't need them much in Kent and not at all in London. Upon talking to friends in London about the unusual weather they were having (and wondering whether it was the result of the greenhouse effect), I discovered that the summer weather of '89 followed the pattern of the prime minister's electoral victories: rewarding her electoral supporters in the south with fine weather. and leaving the north to clouds and rain. Britannia, it seems, not only rules the waves, but also the weather.