The following is the introduction by John Gabriel at the launch on June 25th of Clem Seecharan's new book, Finding Myself (published by Peepal Tree Press). I asked that he contributed it to this blog though it was not intended for publishing. (Michelle Asantewa)
"Thank you for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here. In the last few months I’ve had more time to read and colleagues in the Faculty are keeping me very busy: before Clem’s book I read Sunny Singh’s excellent novel Hotel Arcadia, and after this I’m going to read Maria Lopez’s book on homosexuality and invisibility in revolutionary Cuba.
Tonight, though, we’re here to celebrate launch of Clem Seecharan’s excellent book, Finding Myself.
As you might expect from the title, there’s more than a hint of Autobiography in the book. Sometimes the autobiographical is quite explicit, sometimes we learn more about Clem by inference and through his reflections on politicians, scholars, family members around which he weaves both personal narrative and a wider social analysis. In that sense the book is a remarkable and unique kind of autobiographical writing.
A good turnout at London Met to honour the very unique and brilliant scholar Clem Seecharan.
I first learnt about Guyana in an UG lecture given by Colin Henfrey when I was at the university of Liverpool. To be fair to Colin, he only had an hour to ‘do’ Guyana but, to a young sociologist as I was then, steeped in the popular Marxist paradigm of the day, empirical detail was less relevant than the big concepts, in this case imperialism and underdevelopment. Such was our passion for Althusser, I can still recall fellow students enquiring at coffee time if I’d like to take an epistemological break!
In fact, a recurring feature of Finding Myself is Clem’s critique of Marxism, insofar as the latter reduces complex historical and cultural differences to class. Such concerns are reflected in the chapters on both Walter Rodney and CLR James, their significant intellectual and political contributions notwithstanding, and in Guyana, in the politics of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) under Cheddi Jagan.
In Jagan’s case, his integrity (Clem is always quick to acknowledge individual qualities) could not disguise Jagan’s failure to recognize the significance of cultural differences between the Indo- and Afro- Guyanese communities. His dismissal of such differences and his uncompromising class-based ideology, led directly to the failure to forge a national identity and to enter into alliances that would have been of benefit to the country as a whole.
In contrast, Finding Myself offers us a rich account of history of Guyana – from arrival of Indians from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as indentured labour in 19th century and, interestingly, their motives for leaving India, understood less in terms of trickery on part of the recruiters, but more to do with such factors such as debt, famine, disease, and/or widowhood.
These migrants included his great grandfather- Clem recalls massaging his feet after hard day in fields- and Kaila, his great grandmother. Finding Myself is mostly about men but Clem does remind us of the prominent role that women played in the family and his family in particular. Kaila, Clems great grandmother on his mothers side, left India on her own aged 20 in 1909 to work as an indentured labourer on the sugar plantations. Clem recognises the sacrifice she made for the betterment of her family and children and he recalls her cultivating rice, crushing sugar cane and feeding livestock and cattle. Her qualities echo those of Sita in the Hindu epic Ramayana and both Sita and Kaila are seen to symbolize the dignity, resilience and strength of women in Indian and Indo-Guyanese culture.
Woven around these personal details is a defining feature of Guyana’s history over the last 150 years: the relationships between former African slaves and the Indian indentured labourers and their descendants. The ways in which fears and threats underpinned those relationships and how politics in latter half of 20th century only exacerbated such divisions is a recurrent theme in Clem’s analysis of the country’s history and its racial politics. Clem does not forget, either, the pivotal role played by British colonial governments, notably under Macmillan in 50s and the Kennedy administration and CIA in 60s in shaping political outcomes.
Guyana is a country of contrasts and contradictions- of drought and floods, of utopian futures and brutal pasts. Of myths- el dorado, Ramayana, or political utopias on the one hand and the harshest of physical and social realities on the other. If hope punctuates the book, so does despair. The search for green shoots of renewal, of reclamation and cleansing are interspersed with doubt: are the roots too tangled? the green shoots buried too deep? the fires all consuming? This brings me back to the title of the book ‘Finding Myself’ and the question it begs: where to look? Clem gives two answers. One is in the physical and material environment that shapes our character and understanding- hence the contradictions above and expressed in terms of hope and doubt. Similarly, there’s a wonderful description of Clem’s connection to sugar: the toil that went into creating ditches, the cane cutting, the smells, sounds, tastes, are visceral: sugar, he writes, was in his blood. Secondly, people influence and inspire us and help make us who we are. In Clem’s case the chapters make clear he has a number of people to thank: Ian McDonald, V.S. Naipaul, Brij Lal, Martin Carter, Balram Rai and Jock Campbell.
I’m surprised I’ve got this far but without mentioning Cricket!
I should say at this point that I’ve never read an interview transcript in which the interviewer is quite as quick to jump in with the right answer or fill in the gaps in the conversation as Clem did when he interviewed west indies test Cricketer Ivan Madray!
“I bowled about 40 overs of test cricket” says Ivan “35” actually responds Clem.
“City star played West Canje” says Ivan. “ East Canje” corrects Clem.
“I stayed around so Rohan could make his hundred” “he made 96” chips in Clem!
And on another occasion Ivan records “he made 199” to which Clem interjects “195 run out”
And finally Ivan struggles “I can’t remember how many overs I bowled” to which Clem replies “you bowled 28 overs 2 maidens and took 3 wickets for 60 runs”!
We’d have surely understood if Ivan had said at some point ‘do you really need me here Clem’!?
But the pair evidently ended on good terms as we learn that Clem was offered drinks on the house when the interview was over!
I’ll finish now with one final reference. At one point in the book Clem describes Martin Carter’s poetry thus: ‘there’s an elegance, subtlety in way he crafts words to give meaning to existence’ I think the same can be said of Clem’s writing but I would add to this there’s also a warmth and a passion and generosity of spirit that runs through Finding Myself that I found moving, sad at times, and inspiring. So, let’s raise our glasses to Clem, and offer our congratulations on a wonderful book!"
John Gabriel is Senior Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at London Metropolitan University. He teaches applied ethics and research methods to undergraduate students, is currently working with colleagues in six European countries on a project concerned with multilingualism in the workplace and a project with Dr Alya Khan on pedagogies for social justice. He also works with Professor Jenny Harding on community-based oral history projects and is an advocate of public engagement in the social sciences and social accountability in higher education.'
John Gabriel, right of picture wearing white shirt.