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Small Axe 5.2 (2001) 1-20

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Deconstructing Nationalisms: Henry Swanzy, Caribbean Voices and the Development of West Indian Literature

Glyne Griffith

B etween 1943 and 1958, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), through its General Overseas Service, produced a radio program that was recorded at the BBC studios in London, and broadcast each Sunday to listeners in the anglophone Caribbean. For one hour each Sunday, an eager audience of aspiring poets and fiction writers would gather around the rediffusion unit, or the "wireless" set in territories such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana, and listen to discover if one of their literary submissions had been selected for broadcast. Those who had had a poem or short story broadcast the previous week might listen to the following week's broadcast to hear a studio discussion of the relative merits of their work. The program was called Caribbean Voices, and its most influential editor was Henry Valentine Swanzy.

Swanzy was born near Cork, Southern Ireland, on 14 June 1915, but moved to England with his mother in 1920 when his father, the Reverend S. I. Swanzy, died. Although Henry Swanzy was only five years old when he left Ireland for England, and though he eventually established a successful career as a literary editor and producer with the BBC, he always felt, as he put it, his Irishness, his difference. Swanzy responded to questions [End Page 1] about how he came to be interested in producing and editing a BBC program on early Caribbean literature:

I mean, one had the sort of "left-wing" view of encouraging people who had had a raw deal, really . . . and my problem of course is that I come from Ireland, you see. I'm Irish, and although I left Ireland when I was 5 and never went back, or seldom did, one did have the feeling that what one wrote and was interested in was not the kind of thing that somebody like a Philip Larkin or a Gavin Ewart would write, really. 1

Because of his Irishness, Swanzy was able to imaginatively empathize with Caribbean writers seeking literary expression in their own particular colonial context. His Irishness placed him as somewhat outside any unselfconscious Englishness, even as he worked for a corporation that typically would have been interpreted in the British colonial world as the voice of the colonizer. As a consequence, his work as producer and editor of Caribbean Voices positioned him as a figure of contradictoriness. In other words, he was in some manner perceived to be a cultural outsider within the BBC, and simultaneously he was comprehended in several quarters of the anglophone Caribbean as a British insider, a part of the colonial status quo.

Earlier in the same historical period when Caribbean Voices was gaining a small but devoted audience in the region, widespread labor unrest had been wreaking havoc with the socioeconomic and political stability of the anglophone Caribbean. Indeed, the two phenomena, that is to say, the rise of disenfranchised Caribbean labor forces and the rise of literature in the region, were not unrelated. George Lamming, for example, indicates:

It is not often recognized that the major thrust of Caribbean literature in English rose from the soil of labor resistance in the 1930s. The expansion of social justice initiated by the labor struggle had a direct effect on liberating the imagination and restoring the confidence of men and women in the essential humanity of their simple lives. In the cultural history of the region, there is a direct connection between labor and literature. 2

Swanzy's work with Caribbean Voices and the development of Caribbean literature in English was caught up within this social and imaginative upheaval in the region. At the same time, he would frequently find himself caught between his insider/outsider status, understanding himself to be ideologically on the margins of the British Empire, yet viewed by some in the Caribbean to be part of the centrality of British cultural imperialism. Swanzy succinctly describes his position regarding the ideology of empire and his...


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