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In the tradition of “Empire Writing Back to the Centre”: John Agard’s Half-caste and Other Poems

by Charmaine Valere

John Agard’s poems fit in the tradition of (pardon the lil book-learning) post-colonial literature –Empire Writing Back to the Centre (as Salman Rushdie termed it).

“Half-caste” pokes fun at the term, and in poking fun, the speaker exposes the less than substantive use of the term in describing a person of mixed race. In the poem, the speaker reclaims his wholeness by writing back, reverting the language that sought to make him half. He does so in written form, as well as in spoken form.

As in “Half-caste,” the speaker in “Checking out me history” seeks to reclaim a part of him that was denied or hidden. He writes back at those who taught him to disregard his own history and throughout the poem gives tribute to the “Empire’s” true heroes.

Through his use of language, he raises those heroes, and others omitted from the history he was taught – Toussaint, Nanny, Mary Seacole, Carib people, Arawak people – above the ones he was taught to admire, and he does so by using language that rises off the page itself.

The narratives he tells of the Empire’s heroes – Toussaint, Nanny, and Seacole – tell their stories of triumph and also give them personalities in a language that is anti-Standard / colloquial, and Standard. It is the language of a defiant, once-Empire: Toussaint “lick back”; Nanny de maroon was a “see-far,” “fire-woman”; Mary Secole said “no” to the British, and “brave the Russian snow.”

Agard’s poems are exemplary pieces on reclaiming and reveling in a language of one’s own. I will read and re-read this collection and continue to enjoy it for a very long time. Then, I will pass it on to my sons for their enjoyment (hopefully).

Final note: Agard’s use of empowering language seems effortless, but that effortlessness may have come at the end of a long struggle. Some evidence of the once-Empire’s awkward continuing struggle with the language of identity is in this Living Guyana post. In the post, the writer categorizes two supposedly antagonistic (towards each other) major groups of Guyanese people as “Indo” and “Afro.” Although I can, I don’t think it’s my place to argue against the use of “Indo.” But, “Indo-Guyanese” is certainly not as demeaning as the term “Afro-Guyanese.” I continue to voice my disapproval of the term “Afro” to categorize a group of people of varying hues and hairstyles. It is derogatory and ignorant. Maybe when we learn to respect difference and empower ourselves with language… Yeah, I dare to be optimistic.

[from The Signifyin’ Woman]

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