An Interview with James Berry by Sue Goad
James Berry came to England from Jamaica in 1948 as one of the earliest black settlers. His work has been widely published in literary journals in Britain and the Caribbean, and in 1981 he won the National Poetry competition with his poem Fantasy of an African Boy. In addition to two collections of his own poems - Fractured Circles in 1979 and Lucy's Letters and Loving in 1981 - he has also promoted the writings of other contemporary West Indian British poets. He compiled the Bluefoot Traveller anthology in 1976 and has recently edited the new Chatto book of West Indian British verse, News for Babylon. As writer-in-residence under a Cecil Day Lewis felIowship at Vauxhall Manor School in the late seventies, he became concerned with the low priority multi-cultural education is given in British life.
Why do you think West Indian British poetry has grown in popularity and importance over the last decade?
The poetry has something to say and there is a compulsive beauty about the way it is being said. Linton Kwesi Johnson and other dub poets have brought a new combination of music and rhythm into the performance of their writing. Even when the exact words cannot be recalled afterwards, the mood and music communicates itself to white people in a lasting way. We are bringing to an entrenched literary culture a new vitality, a strangeness, a difference, and it is infectious.
The importance of this is that it gives people a form in which they can express their long, long repressed feelings of injustice. One of the cruelIest things Westindians have suffered is the disqualification and put-down of our language: Creole, the language we developed for our needs and to express what we have to say; Westindian British poetry is in part a celebration of our new freedom to speak. When poetry springs out of an obsession, out of things which must be said, it can liberate people, and there are many vital things we have to say.
You speak about the poems in News for Babylon 'shouting a crucially unsettled relationship.' Is this a reference back to the past or a situation you want to see explored in the present?
Well, you see the present carries the past in its psyche.
They cannot be separated. The whole business of black/white relationships is far from settled. Imperialist nations have strutted around the world taking away other people's natural resources, breaking up their cultures and increasing rifts without taking on real responsibility for poverty left behind. I believe we can tackle present problems through knowledge of the past because it is carried in a people's memory whether consciously or unconsciously. The disastrous way white people have handled relationships with black people all round the globe hollers for a whole lot of new learning to be done. Human beings on the whole haven't learned to appreciate each other's differences and needs; haven't even begun the process of true involvement. We are still on that crazy kind of trip keeping us on the route to bigger and deadlier weapons and potential nuclear destruction. But aggression and counter-aggression is bound to continue so long as groups want to selfishly subdue others in order to take the pick of the best things for themselves. The human spirit will never accept subjection. How can it accept that there is anyone group of people who deserve a monopoly of the world's wealth and beauty? Access to knowledge, travel, respect and protection can not be restricted for ever without such tensions building up.
Yet by anthologising a body of poetry in the category "Westindian British", by intimating its links with Rastafarianism and by adopting dialect words and reggae rhythms as a deliberate style, aren't you creating an alternative ideology that could become just as pervasively oppressive? Just as restrictive and hostile to the expression of individual difference all over again?
What do you think? I think not. There is a healthy drive to express oneself through the qualities springing from one's roots. The strength of this poetry comes as much from a need for it to be written in whatever form it needs - sometimes Caribbean Nation Language, sometimes standard English, sometimes a mixture of both, as from the themes the styles express. Black people have distinct experiences to express so it follows they need an aesthetic of their own to draw on. Using European symbols would demonstrate that we have nothing to contribute of our own, yet we have a whole history.
Because we were made slaves, and this was a wrong which the Western world has reason to be ashamed of, our past has been hidden, simply omitted from your education syllabus as if we do not exist. We seem like aliens because so little is known about us, yet for five hundred years we have been as much a part of this culture as the Isle of Wight! We are no longer Africans and we're not Europeans but we seem to be half of these two things and you can't cut half of history out of yourself.
Rastafarianism is not simply a tool for political propaganda. Those who say it has been prompted by Communism and want to suggest Communism is the driving force that has given black people the push to free themselves are as mistaken as the propagators of Apartheid in South Africa. Rastafarianism was a need which has sprung from the people's unconscious. Just as Western culture needed Jesus Christ - whether or not he really existed or was a pure teacher - so in the same way black people needed Rastafarianism because what comes from the unconscious shapes a context for reality.
We cannot grow if we destroy the diversity that we find in the world or try to make it like ourselves. Different peoples have different roots and these cannot be dug out. Black people in Britain are like missionaries in reverse. They let white people know black people are O.K. But to be O.K. doesn't mean one must subdue alI the features that make one different. We must all learn not to fear what is unlike ourselves to avoid remaining in a state of immaturity. When I see a white person is scared of me or misunderstands me I feel threatened. Threatened because I grew up too intimately with the results of that fear, especially the surrepticiousness and hate that can develop behind the backs of those who are feared. Just as has happened between the USA and the USSR or between the British and the Irish. Propaganda which builds up hate is destructive because nobody can out-hate anybody. Those threatened are just pushed by hate into building up their weapons and defences. That is why the way forward for literature is to look at relationships between human beings on a basic level of need and care. Where the relationship has been retarded or things have happened to falsify it our first duty is to clarify the past, reveal the omissions, challenge the distortions. I am not saying black people do not have a lot to do for themselves and a lot to learn too. What I am saying is that there is a dangerous falsity in the European assumption that what is different is worthless. Black people have absorbed a lot of the European in themselves. Very often they grow up identifying with Britain. Take Benjamin Zephaniah. He tried to deal with problems which face all the young people of his time.
Poems such as Benjamin Zephaniah's For Two Years One Time - about the frightening experience of being in prison, or your own In-a Brixtan Markit about racial harassment, deal with social problems to some extent shared with other oppressed minorities. Do you think this will cause Westindian British verse to be seen primarily as a political statement?
The attitude of many mainstream British poets towards politics makes me laugh. Too often those in the British literary tradition see something controversial in a poem and say - 'Ah politics! There's a nasty word. You can't bring politics into verse!' Nonsense! It is just that politics is only one aspect of writing and certain poets stress non-political aspects more forcefully, depending on their own experiences and traditions - their personal vision. If you come from a past where you have been deliberately restricted from fulfilling your human and social potential that becomes a part of your consciousness. It demands to be a part of your writing. I suspect that those who deny the relation between politics and poetry do so because nothing has yet touched them, the old tradition has been enough for what they had to say. I was brought up in a world where, when top writers took supposed apolitical and universal themes and said they dealt with 'Man', that category didn't include black men or women. If politics means how the State deals with its citizens and how the social order is arranged and affects the individual, then a poem in the News for Babylon anthology like My Name is [ Don't Know, written by Vivian Usherwood when he was a schoolboy is of significance to me. To recall the loss of our names in the Caribbean is politically satirical, yet at the same time is highly nostalgic. The poem deals with deprivation but with love too. A celebration of life exists where survival is a battle. This anthology spans a whole history, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. But it is more than a history book. Look at all the other elements. There is humour here too. If people approach it either looking simply for a political statement they can quote out of any context, or expecting it to appeal instantly to ready-made reflexes -like a laugh show on television - they will be disappointed. It makes an important addition to British poetry because it offers any reader who cares to accept the invitation a chance to make contact with new voices of multi-cultural Britain.
There is a special feel to playing bongos, a nostalgia for clear water and sunshine which makes the celebration as vital as the anguish. These things try to bring some sort of new mental atmosphere to British culture. Personally I find it hard to see how writers can go on shutting their eyes to the vital things in society like Women's Lib and race relations - these struggles are crucial to the health and growth of all human beings, not just one race or culture.
You mention the position and struggle of women as an issue that concerns you. It interests me that you should choose to adopt the persona of a woman in your popular poetic sequence, Lucy's Letters, implying that Westindian British women have something important to say. Yet, that being so, I was surprised to find female poets so sparsely represented in the News for Babylon anthology.
I have always admired and supported the struggle that women put up to establish themselves in society. On an intellectual level I believe the confrontation between male and female - like all struggles, between black and white, rich and poor was inevitable. Different forces come together and must encounter each other leading either to cross-fertilisation or subjugation and rebellion. The time came when it was necessary for women to examine their relationship to men and seek to lead men and women to a new understanding and acceptance of the similarities and differences in each other, along with our mutual needs.
When I put this collection together I knew critics would say 'Oh he's prejudiced, male chauvinism, where are the women poets?' But I reply to the critics, - 'Yes, where are they?' I searched everywhere but sadly found that too few women are writing seriously. When I taught at Vauxhall Manor Comprehensive school the girls said I was too harsh, too demanding with them. I was, because I want them to take writing seriously and stick at it even when people throw it back in their faces. We must express ourselves, must write. I believe that men will only stop bragging that they can do things better than women and claiming they are superior when women take the initiative and make the hostility towards them a challenge to test their own strengths against. That's why I was so glad when Grace Nichols came along because she is such a sensitive and gifted writer she will inspire others. We need the female side of it. The character of Lucy came unconsciously although I suspect I write in that voice because she is based largely on my mother who made such a strong impression on me. What is very special to you moves you at a subconscious level. For me human anguish like love is a prime concern of poetry because poetry is a voice heightened by emotion. Yet I also find someone like Ted Hughes moving because of the strength and individuality of his language.
You and Grace Nichols both seem to slip from a highly rhythmic dialect, when you adopt a voice from the black community, into a freer, more intricate verse form when you want to deal with other personally symbolic issues. Do you find the two styles strain against each other? Do you think certain forms of language are inadequate to handle certain types of experience?
As Westindians we have inherited two languages, grown out of two distinct languages. Out of this African/English aspect has come Creole, which we now call - through Edward Brathwaite - 'nation' language. That we should be able to express ourselves in this form when we need to is very relevant. It is the special way that we respond to sound and ways of communicating by using English words but changing the syntax and the emphases. We are no longer Africans but neither are we wholly Europeans, the tension between the two language systems is a reflection of a similar tension in our lives. It is said Westindians have two men in themselves always fighting. Nevertheless to adOPt the pure language of one race or another would be to betray half our heritage. The dialect words are so closely linked to our past they can capture something of what is in the psyche, that we bring from our time in the Caribbean. As when Linton Johnson writes:
I hurt de pain
again an again
hole de sting
an mek it sing
an mek it pain
an mek it ring ...
That was the way it had to be written. That Caribbean poets switch from Creole to standard English is necessary, functional and effective. The tension between the two styles highlights why the poet uses each when he does. Poetry has this great capacity for synthesising experience in this way.
Is that why you choose to express yourself in poetry rather than any other form of writing?
Well, I do write short stories and am working on a novel. I also had a play on radio. But essentially for me all writing is an extension of the poem. Poetry offers a special invitation to learn. Through poetry you can move completely outside your own experience. I was absolutely bowled over when I first heard T. S. Eliot. In performance the rhythms and sounds of the voice make it easier to tune into that poet's particular use of language. On the page it is harder but it is worth working at it. Everyone has ideals, you have to communicate them in the best way you can. My way is as a writer.