The Uncompromising Eye
This year is thirty years since the publication of a novel that the Director of Caribbean Studies at the University of Toronto calls “the most significant novel to come out of Trinidad”.
It’s writer was a young man from McBean, Couva. At 22 he had emigrated
Outside his family, few in Trinidad know anything about him. His work was reviewed only in the small arts magazine Kairi which I published with the late Victor Questel. He has been ignored in the Caribbean. “He only published two novels” has been the offered excuse. Yet there are quite a few examples of Caribbean writers who have only published one or two novels who are placed in the Caribbean canon and are even on school booklists.
But in Canada, the story is slightly
different. Harold Sonny Ladoo remains alive in the memories of some of
Last year one of Canada’s most distinguished contemporary artists, Jamelie Hassan, undertook a residency at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts here in Laventille. She dedicated her residency to the memory of Harold Ladoo and made a personal pilgrimage to McBean visiting Harold’s sister and the site of the discovery of his body.
What was it about Harold Ladoo that impressed so many people so deeply that 30 years afterwards someone who never knew him personally but was affected only by his writing and his story should make such a pilgrimage?
In an effort to answer this question and
also to try to do justice to Ladoo's memory, I travelled to Canada last month
to start work on a video documentary about his life. I met with the people with
whom he worked at the House of Anancy Publishing house in the 70’s, then a
dynamic and catalytic forum for a new generation of Canadian writers. Margaret
Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Michael Ondatje as well as
Dennis Lee himself all had their first books published by Anansi
at that time.
Hassan, visual artists Ron Benner and Jamelie Hassan all speak of the effect No
Pain’s publication had on the community of restaurant workers and dishwashers
at the time (Harold washed dishes for a living). As young people, children of
immigrants, students and aspiring artists No Pain was a symbol of what
could be achieved by a dishwasher and an immigrant to boot. According to
Dennis Lee’s poem refers to it as “that spare and luminous nightmare”. It is a book unlike anything produced in our literature to date. The late Victor Questel called it’s main protagonist, Pa, “the most violent character in Caribbean fiction” but it isn’t purely the violence that hits you when you read it, it is the incredible economy, the deft control of dialogue and characterisation, the vivid visualisation and the maelstrom of emotions, idiosyncratic perspectives, and the hostile environment orchestrated with the surest of instincts.
Ladoo’s writing is unmerciful in its characterisations. Even Yesterdays, his second novel, dismissed by some as an inferior work, astounds in its daring and its insistence in driving straight through the hypocrisy and sensitivity to image that Caribbean people and especially ‘fortress communities’ like the East Indian community possess.
Ladoo was not concerned with toeing the line
of a desirable image of one’s community to be presented to the world. He wrote
it as he saw it, as his community made him live it. For example, in one of his
unpublished short stories, Chamar Tola
1941, he describes a father leaving home as evening falls to look for his young
daughters who have not returned. The father comes upon them being raped in the
headlights of a jeep by US soldiers from a nearby base. The harsh truth of the
story grabs the reader immediately.. Surely, one asks
oneself, incidents like this must have occurred.
Friends tell me of hearing stories like this quietly passed down inside families but they have not appeared on a public forum. In the urban centres kaiso incorporated stories of prostitution, child abandonment and the cuckolding of local men by the US military but not of rape or violence. From the rural, Indian, community: silence. Ladoo’s encompassing rage at the hypocrisy around him, at the refusal to face our true selves and our true history drove him towards his vision. It is possibly this characteristic that ensured that he would not be publicly recognised by his own community and it certainly would not be far fetched to suggest that it contributed to his untimely end.
I offer the suggestion that, apart from the fury of his genius, the uncompromising eye of Harold Sonny Ladoo was his true gift to his community and to the Caribbean. In the season of Divali it is well to remember that the light of truth can be unpleasant and even painful. The flames that test our truths as they tested Sita must be faced or we will never enter Ayohdya.
In the six years he was in Toronto, Harold worked in a restaurant, attained a university degree and wrote at least 10 novels, only two of which were published and the fate of the other manuscripts remains a mystery. All those who knew Harold attest to his sense of running out of time, his hurry to accomplish his task, the non stop writing sessions locked in his room writing a draft at one sitting, sometimes typing under the bed to kill the noise of the typewriter, and triumphantly phoning friends at 2.00 in the morning when he completed yet another novel.
James Polk, the editor of Yesterdays
speaks of Harold showing him a sheet of paper on which he had sketched an
outline of a 200 novel saga! He wanted
to do for the Caribbean what Faulkner did for the American South. It was with a
Canada Council grant awarded after the publication of
No Pain, that
But you heard your own death singing, that much I know.
And went to meet it mesmerized - to get
the man that got your mother, yes; but also plain
wooing it, telling
never be back alive. The jet’s trajectory
a long sweet arc of dying, all the way down.
For the choice of dying was death by writing - that
from a world that would not work unless you wrote it,
and no longer worked when you did -
or death in the only place where you wanted to live,
except it christened its children
with boots, machetes, bloodwash of birth and vengeance.
The choice was death, or death.
from The Death of