The relationship between fiction and anthropology has been discussed
from several perspectives in recent years. Some of the contributors
to these debates have argued the irrelevance of any absolute distinction
between the two kinds of writings, consequently relegating anthropology
from the ivory tower to the world of literature; others have tried
to justify a clear distinction between the two, often seeking refuge
in a Popperian philosophy of science. From the perspective of the
creative writer or the literary critic, it might be interesting to
identify the influence of anthropological thought on contemporary
novels; an influence which is obviously visible in books by such writers
as Ursula LeGuin (the daughter of A. L. Kroeber, herself trained as
an anthropologist), Kurt Vonnegut (who studied under Redfield at Chicago),
the inimitable Bruce Chatwin and the early Anthony Burgess, writing
upon his return from several years of colonial service in Malaysia.
From an anthropological perspective, a presumed inverse relationship
has been investigated; it has, for example, been argued that Malinowski's
style was profoundly influenced by Conrad (Clifford 1986).
During the last decade, moreover, considerable attention has been
directed towards the distorting and disguising aspects of style present
in purportedly "neutral and scholarly" writing (Geertz 1988;
Clifford and Marcus 1986; Manganaro 1990), as well as the fact that
social reality is often inadequately represented through anthropological
language (cf. Bloch 1991).
The main perspective in this article is different from these, and
it has been depicted as the bottom-right square of Fig. 1. Instead
of regarding the anthropologist as an author involved in creative
writing, and instead of comparing the genres in an intertextual way,
I shall examine some aspects of the relationships of the texts to
other descriptions of that social reality which they purport to represent,
and I shall in line with this explore possible practical uses of fiction
in ethnographic research. Criteria from anthropology are in other
words applied to works of fiction not vice versa. In this way, some
differences between the fictitious and the anthropological modes will
eventually become evident. The three novels which have been chosen
for scrutiny share a sociological preoccupation, and all of them were
written by members of the society with which they deal. All of them
belong to that realist or naturalist literary tradition where a main
aim consists in providing an illuminating interpretation of a society
or a social environment.
Let us for once assume, at the outset, that the distinction between
fiction and anthropology is a simple one. Fictional accounts, then,
present persons and events which have been invented by the writer.
Anthropological texts try to present a few aspects of social reality
as accurately as possible, taking account of the limitations entailed
by fieldwork, "cultural translation" (or, if one prefers,
cultural reduction) and attempts at linguistic representation of society.1
Lies and deliberate misrepresentations are banished from anthropological
scholarship, which should additionally unlike fictional writing try
to present empirical material systematically and comprehensively,
and distinguish between description and analysis, so that the reader
may draw his or her own theoretical conclusions from it. The rules
of consistency and the criteria of evaluation are different within
each genre of writing. According to this deliberately naïve view,
which will be challenged later on, the main grey zones between anthropology
and fiction would consist in travel writing and literary essays dealing
Literature in Trinidadian society
Trinidad is a poly-ethnic island in the southern Caribbean with a
population of slightly over a million, forming an independent republic
with the lesser neighbouring island Tobago. Discovered by Columbus
on his third journey in 1498 and subsequently settled by slaves, colons/adminstrators
and indentured labourers from Africa, Europe and India, respectively,
Trinidad does not represent that kind of society typical of our shared
anthropological folklore; it is a burning hot society, so to speak.
Known to the non-Caribbean world primarily for its limbo dancing,
its calypso music and its annual Carnival, Trinidad is in many regards
a well-integrated part of the modern world (cf. Miller 1993). To the
anthropologist wishing to undertake research in such a society, several
methodologically and epistemologically relevant aspects crucially
distinguish it from tribal societies: (i) The society lacks any pre-colonial
history. (ii) The level of literacy is officially nearly 100%. (iii)
Capitalism and wagework have been universal since the foundation of
the society. (iv) Events from the entire history of Trinidad have
been recorded by contemporary chroniclers.
In addition, the recent ancestors of the entire population of Trinidad
were uprooted and displaced in historical times. Nobody except a very
small group of self-professed "Carib Amerindians" in the
Arima area claims the island as their ancestral land. These facts,
which are known or at least easily available to non-Trinidadians because
they have been stored and distributed through texts, suggest that
native representations about their own society and reflections about
their own condition could be widespread. This is indeed the case.
There are in fact many natives who have reflected theoretically on
the foundation of their society and their own social identity, and
many of them are likely to challenge the interpretations of a visiting
anthropologist in a well-informed way.
Such "quasi-theoretical" statements from informants are
sometimes warned against by anthropologists (Bourdieu 1977; Holy and
Stuchlik 1983). These statements tend to be regarded as somewhat less
authentic and less authoritative than so-called spontaneous utterances.
As Bourdieu rightly warns (1977: 21), the study of society should
not be confounded with the study of subjective representations of
society. The fact is nonetheless that Trinidadians talk and write
extensively about themselves and about their own society, even in
the absence of anthropologists. This reflexivity is in itself a significant
ethnographic fact to a researcher trying to understand the workings
of local social classifications and ideology. Consciousness of self
and others is reflexively monitored in this society, and it is to
a considerable extent mediated through shared communicational interfaces
such as the national educational system and the national mass media,
including domestically published books. Trinidadian society is inherently
sociological in character; its members continuously discuss its nature
(cf. Giddens 1990, 1991, on modernity and reflexivity). During my
own fieldwork in 1989, I met local writers, essayists and social scientists
who had struggled for years trying to conceptualize the essence of
their society. Some of them had published books as testimonies to
this long-standing attempt. Can we, as foreigners briefly staying
in their company, enrich their analysis with our view from afar? It
is my view that we can, but any anthropologist working in this kind
of society must inevitably be struck with awe and sometimes even a
certain humility when facing these individuals and their production.
Does the presence or absence of indigenous fictional texts crucially
distinguish societies from each other? Generally speaking, the answer
is yes. The widespread social appropriation of texts generally suggests
the presence of a certain kind of historical consciousness and a certain
kind of complexity in social organization, as Gellner (1983), Anderson
(1983), Goody (1986) and others have convincingly argued. More relevantly
in this context, the social appropriation of fictional texts, notably
novels, may enable the members of society to reflect critically about
their own identity, and they also propose and articulate a particular
model of the world. In Trinidad, an indigenous genre of popular music,
the calypso, has been much more important than written fiction in
the creation of a domestic civil society, but novels and novelists
can also be important in several ways.2
The widespread presence of sociological reflexivity, that is to say
an ability and a willingness to reflect on one's own society and social
identity, will be taken for granted in what follows. Presently, we
shall turn to the "data", which in this case amount to three
novels written during Trinidad's post-war history and their relationship
to society. Novels, which are simultaneously the production of a society
and contributions to the self-definition and reification of that society,
have the additional virtue of presenting some kind of ethnographic
evidence although the status of such ethnographic material can be
uncertain. In the present readings, the perspective, or Vorverständnis
("pre-understanding", Gadamer's term) is anthropological.
In considering the ethnographic and anthropological value of the books,
it will be evident that even highly reductionist readings of novels
(such as anthropological readings) imply several levels of interpretation,
and that it is important to keep these levels apart. I shall distinguish
between three such levels of reading relevant in the anthropological
appropriation of novels.
The author as ethnographer: A Morning at the Office
Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office (Mittelholzer 1979),
first published in 1950, can be read as a micro-sociological analysis
of social relations at an office in Port-of-Spain. The office has
14 employees who between them span virtually the entire scope of variation
with respect to social classification in late colonial Trinidadian
society. The classificatory dimensions of ethnicity, class, gender
and locality are all covered through Mittelholzer's very varied cast,
which even includes an anomaly, namely a homosexual coloured man.3
The simple idea behind the novel consists in describing what happens
in the office between four minutes to seven and lunchtime, in order
that the reader may observe how a particular pattern of social classification
is confirmed and reproduced through the difficult and subtle art of
social interaction. Like any good ethnographer, Mittelholzer tries
to fuse the universal with the particular and thus accounts for individual
idiosyncracies, as well as structural and cultural defining characteristics
of the different situations. His cast introduces the secretary Miss
Yen Tip, who "was a creole Chinese who could not speak Chinese";
there is Mr Jagabir, the East Indian accountant who unsuccessfully
tries to feel at ease in the urbane creole environment of the office
and continuously fears that his superiors will send him back to the
cane fields; there is the creolized Indian girl Miss Bisnauth who
is in love with a coloured artist and rejects the constraints of caste;
there is the young black boy Horace whose Uncle Tom attitudes will
no doubt help him to a successful career in independent Trinidad a
decade later, and so on. Although my fieldwork took place four decades
after Mittelholzer's, I have met all these characters.
Read as ethnography in the 1990s, the novel indicates that ethnic
relations have changed, and one of the author's most impressive achievements
is his depiction of the ambiguous and complex relationship between
the colonial white upper class and the indigenous coloured middle
class. Since many of them were beneficiaries of the "jobs for
the boys" principle, the whites in Trinidad were often of more
humble origins than the local coloureds. As the light-brown secretary
Miss Henery muses on page 93, after having been humiliated by her
A dirty lot of people. And who was Murrain at all! For all she knew,
she had much better class than he. Most of these English people who
came out to the colonies were of the dregs. But the instant they arrived
they turned gods. Who knew if Murrain had not been dragged up in some
London slum? His white skin was all that made him somebody in Trinidad.
Her parents and grandparents were ladies and gentlemen
Today, the relationship between whites and coloureds is less important
in Trinidadian social classification than it was then, although it
remains ambiguous in a similar way. In this novel, further, a great
deal of attention is granted to the fine distinctions within the coloured
segment; the distinction between kinky hair and light brown on the
one hand and straight hair and olive skin on the other is considered
important. In contemporary Trinidad, it would seem inappropriate to
grant such a distinction great social importance.
Mittelholzer's concern with rank and social classification is evident
throughout the book. Through descriptions of bodily movements from
gracious and elegant to clumsy and inept, through depictions of the
characters' speech, from gross rural Trinidadian creole to Queen's
English, and in his descriptions of the relations between the sexes,
he also gives the reader abundant information about cultural differences
between the rank categories. On this score, Mittelholzer could be
challenged if his book is read as an ethnographic description, according
to which premisses he might be criticized for portraying the local
cultural variation in an exaggerated and biased manner.
Since Mittelholzer's book is a novel, convention dictates that it
is not used as hard ethnographic evidence. However, A Morning at the
Office is doubtless based on first-class ethnographic field material;
it covers many fine nuances of inter-ethnic micro relations, and it
is surprisingly comprehensive. It can teach us, for example, that
small-islanders from the Lesser Antilles constituted an important
category of significant Others for the Trinidadians blacks and coloureds
at the time, but not for the Indians and whites. This remains true
If one compares its insights and virtues with sociological research
carried out in Trinidad during the same period, such as Lloyd Braithwaite's
well-known study Social Stratification in Trinidad (1975 ),
one is compelled to conclude that the novel defends its place as an
important piece of Trinidadian ethnography. In fact, Braithwaite's
arguments concerning ethnicity and rank resemble Mittelholzer's, and
his evidence is frequently anecdotal and thus similar to that of the
novelist. Braithwaite's study lacks some of the detail and introspective
qualities of the novel, but contains more comprehensive and accurate
descriptions about rank categories, historical circumstances and features
of Trinidadian society. Braithwaite's explanations follow the basic
Parsonian schema fashionable at the time. In sum, the novel and the
sociological study are complementary, and they tend to support each
other. Mittelholzer's ethnography is superb, and his examples are
striking and rich in connotations this should not come as a surprise,
since he has himself invented them. Like a sociological or anthropological
treatise, a book like A Morning at the Office can be distorting as
well as liberating as an addendum to one's own ethnography. It is
littered with ethnic prejudices and attempts to persuade the reader
about the validity of a particular model of Trinidadian society. Since
its central assumptions are not made explicit and since the argument,
as it were, is clothed in the poetic and suggestive language of literature,
it can be seductive reading. Since scholars try to present their argument
in a clear and unambiguous fashion, it may be easier to argue against
a sociological study than a novel because it is easier to discern
its central contentions.
There is a second level at which Mittelholzer's novel functions as
ethnography. At this level, it can be read as an ethnographic source
rather than an ethnographic description. As already suggested, the
book is an inadvertent statement of the author's biases and ideological
position in multi-ethnic colonial Trinidad. At this level, the author
makes spontaneous, non-reflexive and frequently implicit statements
about his cultural universe; in Holy and Stuchlik's (1983) terminology,
he performs an act rather than uttering a statement. In order to appreciate
this aspect of Mittelholzer's novel, one must know something about
the author. One will need to know that he was an immigrant from British
Guiana to Trinidad, that his social identity from boyhood was that
of a lower-middle class coloured, whose main ambition since adolescence
had been to live in England and write books for an English audience.
Mittelholzer's own positioning in Trinidadian society can thus contribute
to explaining his unusual sensitivity to ethnic processes. As a foreigner,
he could adopt a fairly detached view, and as a coloured person from
a poly-ethnic society similar to Trinidad, he belonged to an ambiguous
ethnic category himself. In order to understand the significance of
the author's social identity here, one must have additional knowledge
of the societies in question. Only then can one discern, between the
lines, how Mittelholzer produces through his novels a version of a
world where good manners and proper language matter more than racial
origins, and where Indian culture is ultimately a crude peasant culture
which is justly marginalized in confrontation with the sophisticated,
witty and gracious creole culture characteristic of the coloured bourgeoisie.4
At this level, the book cannot be evaluated as ethnography by a reader
who is not already familiar with West Indian societies.
Mittelholzer's novel is not very well known in Trinidad, and it is
certainly not widely read. Its direct impact on Trinidadian society
can therefore be considered negligible, unlike that of the next novel
which I will consider.
The ultimate ethnographic fiction: A House For Mr. Biswas
Trinidadian literacy does not entail that most adults read several
novels every month; however, large segments of the political and cultural
elites do read books, and for this reason it can be assumed that novels
written in Trinidad may have profound social and cultural repercussions
in Trinidadian society itself. Whereas few Trinidadian novels have
been written with such aims in mind, they can sometimes have visible
social consequences in so far as an important domestic audience is
aware of them. This has been the case with V.S. Naipaul's A House
For Mr Biswas, which was first published in Britain in 1961 (Naipaul
1984 ).5 To Trinidadian intellectuals of Indian origins, this
was to become the novel which depicted all of their fears and anxieties,
their alienation in an "artificial" and fast-changing society,
their thwarted ambitions and frustrations of being Indians in a non-Indian
environment. Passionately debated at the time and still a highly controversial
book, Biswas is simultaneously a rich and sensitive ethnography and
an historical event in its own right.
A book which may yet win its author a Nobel prize, A House For Mr.
Biswas is widely acknowledged as V.S. Naipaul's masterpiece. Its main
plot is simple. It follows the life of Mohun Biswas, a Trinidadian
of Indian origin from the Chaguanas area, from birth to death, focusing
in particular on the possessions he successively acquires. Towards
the end of the novel, he finally acquires his own house thus the book's
title and subsequently dies.
A pivotal point in an anthropological reading of the novel could be
the contradictions and paradoxes lived in by the "East Indians"
or Indo-Trinidadians from the 1930s on. Their dual struggle, represented
in Mr Biswas's environment, consisted in modernizing their way of
life without losing their Indian identity. Having lost their original
language and under strong pressure to modify their customs, many Indians
turned strongly traditionalist, while simultaneously trying to catch
up with creole society, particularly in economic matters. Mr Biswas,
untypical since he rebelled openly against local Hindu tradition,
impersonates the many setbacks and disappointments experienced by
Indians trying to take on the challenges from modernization and urbanity
during this period. Rejected or sneered at by other East Indians,
they were also treated condescendingly by the urban creoles; white,
coloured and black.
The first major anthropological monographs on Trinidadian East Indians
were published at about the same time as Biswas. Both of them (Klass
1961; Niehoff and Niehoff 1960) focus on change and continuity in
the Indo-Trinidadian community, and argue with varying strength in
favour of the so-called retentionist hypothesis: a main argument in
both monographs is that East Indians in the West Indies have retained
the essence of their original culture despite having been uprooted
since the late nineteenth century.
Naipaul's novel is highly relevant as a context for any reading of
these monographs. It could certainly be cited as counter-evidence
against a too one-sided defence of the retentionist notion, but it
may also serve as a complementary source of information. Since both
of the anthropological monographs in question are structural-functionalist
in character and emphasise the structural setup of the communities,
the novel may add texture, movement, atmosphere and real-life encounters
to these descriptions. The novel also has definite ethnographic virtues
which the monographs lack; for example, it depicts ruralurban links,
aspects of ethnic relations and unique details of family life, which
are important factors for an understanding of change and continuity
of life in Indo-Trinidadian villages during the postwar years.6 We
should also remember that Mr Biswas was written by an author who was
in many ways more familiar with Trinidadian society than Morton Klass
and the Niehoffs could possibly have been.
Let us first look at presentations of the retentionist hypothesis
in the anthropological works. The Niehoffs conclude their study by
enumerating the Indian institutions which have survived in the new
setting and those which have been profoundly influenced by the surrounding
What can we say now in final summation of the core of Indian society
as brought out by the Trinidad situation? There is a strong drive
to retain cultural identity. There is a peasant's love of land as
well as a drive toward wealth, both characteristics intimately connected
with the drive toward continuity in family relations. In inter-relationships
with other peoples the Indians are willing to borrow freely in technical
improvements, in religious beliefs, and in many other areas of culture
except in social institutions. Here again there is an interconnection
between the drive toward wealth, the continuity of the family, and
the reluctance to tamper with the social organization. (Niehoff and
Niehoff 1960: 188)
Morton Klass was a more outspoken defender of the retentionist hypothesis,
and this is interesting since he conducted fieldwork in the area where
Mr Biswas grew up.
In basic structure, ... Amity is an "Indian" community and
not a "West Indian" community. The similarity between Amity
and what might perhaps be called a generalized North Indian community
structure must certainly be apparent to students of the Indian socio-cultural
system. Students of the West Indian scene cannot but be aware that
Amity is not "West Indian" in almost any sense but the geographic.
(Klass 1961: 239)
Naipaul presents a more complex picture. Early in Mr Biswas's career,
he works as a sign painter in the Indo-Trinidadian countryside, and
the signs he is commissioned to paint suggest that there is a not
negligible influence from mainstream Trinidadian society on the Indians,
as well as suggesting a tension between the Indian and non-Indian
communities in the island.
He learned to draw bottles, and in preparation for Christmas drew
one Santa Claus after another until he had reduced it to a simple
design in red, pink, white and black. Work, when it came, came in
a rush. In September most shopkeepers said that they wanted no Christmas-sign
nonsense that year. By December they had changed their minds, and
Mr Biswas worked late into the night doing Santa Clauses and holly
and berries and snow-capped letters; the finished signs quickly blistered
in the blazing sun. (Naipaul 1984 : 77)
Another recurring theme in Naipaul's book is the concern of the adult
Indians for their children's education and career possibilities, and
the reader also learns that they are far from indifferent to the annual
Carnival a creole cultural institution if anything. As a child, Mr
Biswas was sometimes asked to read for his uncle; not the Bhagavad
Gita, but "a syndicated American column called That Body of Yours
which dealt every day with a different danger to the human body".
Naipaul's Indians eat Canadian tinned salmon, smoke Anchor cigarettes,
read the Trinidad Guardian, take Dodd's kidney pills, celebrate Christmas,
learn poems from Bell's Standard Elocutionist at heart, and quarrel
bitterly about Christianity and the Aryan heterodoxy. In fact, the
novel presents a mass of ethnography which suggests that the Indians
of Chaguanas were quite heavily influenced by West Indian and American
culture even before the Second World War.
Sometimes, Naipaul's book can in this way serve as a critical comment
on the professional ethnographies. More often, however, Naipaul's
rich ethnography is complementary to that presented in the monographs.
For example, Klass devotes a major chapter to religion (pp. 137183),
while a third of the Niehoffs's book concerns various aspects of religion
(pp. 112180). Both monographs note the coexistence of Christianity,
Islam and Hinduism among the Indians, and the Niehoffs, in particular,
describe important rituals in great detail. Naipaul does not do this,
but themes relating to religion do crop up regularly in Biswas; for
example, when he remarks that "the doctor came, a Roman Catholic
Indian, but much respected by the Tulsis for his manners and the extent
of his property" (p. 297). However, his finest contribution to
the analysis of religion, which is unparallelled in any of the anthropological
monographs, concerns the relationship between Sanatanist Hinduism
and Aryanism, that controversial reformist movement which caught on
in Trinidad from the first decade of the twentieth century onwards.
As a young man, Mr Biswas is virtually a dependant of his wealthier
affines, the Tulsis. A rebellious man, he develops sympathies for
Aryanism, which is an unspeakable heresy for the conventionally-minded
Tulsis. One of them tells Biswas that if he had his way, "I would
cut the balls off all these Aryans" (p. 119), adding, for good
measure, that the Aryans seem to "have made some creole converts.
Brothers for you, Mohun!" The following paragraph describes the
outcome of Mr Biswas's meeting with one of the great Aryan ideologists,
After he had spoken Pankaj Rai distributed copies of his book, Reform
the Only Way, and Mr Biswas asked for his to be autographed. Pankaj
Rai did more. He wrote Mr Biswas' name as well, describing his as
a "dear friend". Below this inscription Mr Biswas wrote:
"Presented to Mohun Biswas by his dear friend Pankaj Rai, B A
L L B."
He showed book and inscriptions to [his wife] Shama when he got back
to Hanuman House.
"Go ahead," Shama said.
"Let me hear what you have against him. You people say you are
high-caste. But you think Pankaj would call you that? Let me see.
I wonder where Pankaj would place the Big Bull. Ha! With the cows.
Make him a cowherd. No. That is a good job." He remembered his
own cowherd days. "Better make him a leather-worker, skinning
dead animals. Yes, that's it. The Big Bull is a member of the leather-worker
caste. (...) Pankaj would say that your mother ain't a Hindu at all!
I mean, look at the facts. Marrying off her favourite daughter in
a registry office. Sending the two little barbers to a Roman Catholic
college. As soon as Pankaj see your mother he would start making the
sign of the cross. Roman Catholic, that's what she is!"
"Why don't you shut your mouth?" Shama tried to sound amused,
but he could tell that she was getting angry. (Naipaul 1984: 16-17)
Through the first half of the book, Mr Biswas lives more or less as
a dependant of his affines in the country; in the second half, he
lives in the capital, Port-of-Spain. In moving his protagonist from
country to town, Naipaul is able to describe urbanrural relationships
in a way unavailable to the Niehoffs and Klass, since their studies
were classic anthropological community studies. As some of the aforegoing
quotations have indicated, he is also much more concerned with ethnicity
and the cultural complexity of a society like Trinidad than the anthropologists
were. Both the Niehoffs and Klass admit not having studied inter-ethnic
relations systematically; the Niehoffs rely heavily on written sources
and statistics in their statements about blacks, while Klass virtually
ignores their presence in the more or less immediate neighbourhood
of his Indians.7 For a researcher primarily interested in ethnicity
and modernization, Naipaul's novel therefore brings a great deal of
valuable ethnography which is unavailable elsewhere. Consider the
following paragraph, which is one of many highly condensed ethnographic
descriptions in Biswas. This tells us about the relationship between
town and country, and between East Indian and black.
The other tenants were all Negroes. Mr Biswas had never lived close
to people of this race before, and their proximity added to the strangeness,
the adventure of being in the city. They differed from country Negroes
in accent, dress and manner. Their food had strange meaty smells,
and their lives appeared less organized. Women ruled men. Children
were disregarded and fed, it seemed, at random; punishments were frequent
and brutal, without any of the ritual that accompanied floggings at
Hanuman House. Yet the children all had fine physiques, disfigured
only by projecting navels, which were invariably uncovered: for the
city children wore trousers and exposed their tops, unlike country
children, who wore vests and exposed their bottoms. And unlike country
children, who were timid, the city children were half beggars, half
bullies. (Naipaul 1984: 311)
Reflexivity and levels of reading
Through the story of Mr Biswas, being an East Indian in the West Indies
appears a comical and absurd enterprise. The butt of most of the jokes
in the book, Mohun Biswas consistently fails to behave in a way acceptable
to urban creole society, like Mr Jagabir of A Morning at the Office.
Uncomfortably wedged between traditions, he is truly an uprooted and
homeless person. And despite his tragicomical appearance, Mr Biswas
has been an object of identification for many Indo-Trinidadians up
to the present; he was among the first to give their frustrations
and confusions a powerful and sensitive verbal form. When my Indo-Trinidadian
acquaintance Pete exclaims, in a desperate tone of voice, "My
nerves are raw!", he is actually quoting Naipaul. The novel thus
has a part to play as an instance in the reflexive monitoring of social
identity in Trinidad.8
Like Mittelholzer, Naipaul inadvertently presents the reader with
ethnography not of his own contriving. The good-humoured satirical
depiction of low-caste people, for example, is never completely absent
from the novels written by the young Brahmin Vidiadhar Surajprasad
Naipaul up to the early 1960s. In this regard, Biswas and other novels
may be read as ethnographic source material, not as ethnographic evidence.
One should also note the explicitly autobiographical character of
Naipaul's work, which is absent from the more detached and ethnographically
oriented writer Mittelholzer. A House for Mr Biswas was in fact a
novel about Naipaul's father, Seepersad Naipaul. In later books, Naipaul
cunningly analyses his own society and thereby himself by way of fictional
accounts. It is not easy to say in which way these interpretations
shed light on West Indian societies in particular, or if their appeal
simply lies in their diagnosis of uprooted and homeless individuals
everywhere. Some of his novels, notably The Mimic Men (1967) and Guerillas
(1975), can be read as theoretical statements about West Indian society.
They can to some extent be judged and argued against on such premisses,
although it is notoriously difficult to tell where the storytelling
stops and the analysis begins. In so far as such a reading seems viable,
the border between fiction and anthropology becomes fuzzy: the novel
assumes some of the same ambitions as the anthropological analysis,
and becomes in part comparable to it. Biswas does not belong to this
category of novels. Any theoretical conclusions which may be drawn
from a reading of this book would be those of the reader, not of the
author. Unlike Klass's and Niehoffs's monographs it is unsystematic
and contains no testable or tested hypotheses; it does not attempt
to assess the representativity of the sample and does not purport
to account for mechanisms of integration in the community.
Although it was not the intention of the author, Biswas has been instrumental
in the forging of a genuinely Indo-Trinidadian identity. It has contributed
to raising a certain historical consciousness, and in its time, it
gave expression and articulation to hitherto muted concerns. The last
novel to be considered was written with such aims consciously in mind.
The model of the text: The Dragon Can't Dance
Unlike the earlier authors considered, Earl Lovelace cannot be accused
of involuntarily conveying details about his private life and personal
perceptions. Akin to some anthropological texts from the same period
(or somewhat later), his novel is a thoroughly reflexive and self-conscious
contribution to the definition of Trinidadian identity. He has none
of that sociological naïveté represented in the two former
novelists; he overtly addresses a Trinidadian audience and has consciously
constructed the book as a contribution to an ongoing public dialogue
about shared concerns in the society.
The Dragon Can't Dance (1979) introduces the residents of a neighbourhood
in Laventille, a lower working class area in eastern Port-of-Spain.
Many archetypes of Trinidadian folklore are present in Lovelace's
book, some of them feared and stereotyped personages. There is the
badjohn, a rough black fellow with strong macho ideals and dubious
moral character; there is the unsuccessful calypsonian, a middle-aged
songwriter with lofty ambitions; there is the unspeakably beautiful
carnival princess (every neighbourhood has one); there is the romantic
carnival maniac who spends every spare cent and every spare minute
on his carnival preparations; there is the shy Indian who never feels
at ease in the black neighbourhood, and so on. Lovelace tries to depict
them as real persons and to account for their life-worlds; he wishes
to replace the clichés with individuals and full-fledged cultural
contexts. The badjohn Fisheye, for example, eventually emerges as
a reasonable and generous man hiding his admirable integrity behind
a fearsome mask.
Although he uses Trinidad English in a much less consistent way than
his countryman Sam Selvon, Lovelace uses colloquialisms quite extensively
outside of dialogues, clearly in a bid for authenticity and closeness
to social reality. Listen to this description of the quarter, where
Lovelace poetically mixes the language of the street with journalism
and high prose:
This is the hill, Calvary Hill, where the sun set on starvation and
rise on potholed roads, thrones for stray dogs that you could play
banjo on their rib bones, holding garbage piled high like a cathedral
spire, sparkling with flies buzzing like torpedoes; and if you want
to pass from your yard to the road you have to be a high-jumper to
jump over the gutter full up with dirty water, and hold your nose.
Is noise whole day. Laughter is not laughter; it is a groan coming
from the bosom of these houses no not houses, shacks that leap out
of the red dirt and stone, thin like smoke, fragile like kite paper,
balancing on their rickety pillars as broomsticks on the edge of a
juggler's nose. (Lovelace 1979: 9)
Widely read in Trinidad, the book is generally recognized as an artistically
successful novel. In addition, it is sociologically interesting in
that it depicts aspects of respectability and reputation as properties
of the class structure, and exemplifies that ambiguous normative structure
which Peter Wilson (1978) has spoken of as "crab antics",
showing how social mobility can be incompatible with socially embedded
values. The text can in this way be read as an anthropological analysis.
In the present reading, I shall concentrate on a different aspect
of the book, stressing its place in Trinidadian public discourse.
Political themes are present throughout Lovelace's book, and, like
a good anthropologist, he depicts politics as a culturally constituted
activity and adopts a view from below; from the perspective of the
powerless, that is. The humiliation and anger experienced by the proud
macho members of steelbands forced to seek commercial sponsorship
is a typical example of this. Seen from the context of the urban slum,
it appears rational and morally sound that the bandsmen should break
their contract with the sponsor. The significance of the annual carnival
to the slum residents is occasionally highlighted; this also sheds
light on their social condition . Towards the end of the book, a radical
political movement led by Fisheye the badjohn carries out an ambitious,
but ultimately unsuccessful, plot against the state. Lovelace shows
how the many political disappointments, the resentments and the wild
hopes of the slum residents act as an explanatory background for their
desperate political action. After its appearance, this novel actually
had the effect of directing popular sympathy towards the Laventille
slum. Its author was also among the first to indicate that several
of the semi-official national symbols of Trinidad the calypso, the
steelband and the carnival were rooted in the urban lumpenproletariat.
A conclusion immanent in this insight is twofold: first, it implies
that the middle-class people who read novels and run the country should
acknowledge the rough ways of the lower class if not as admirable,
at least as acceptable. Second, it could remind the ruling class,
or civil society, that a segment of their own people were in a desperate
economic and social situation despite the oil boom, which peaked at
the time of the novel's publication. All of these effects, which had
to a greater or lesser extent been realized, were anticipated by the
A lecturer at the University of the West Indies and thus an academic,
Lovelace struggles for his street credibility and has consciously
searched for the appropriate language for describing the human condition
in the backyards of Port-of-Spain. In this, his novelistic project
differs from most anthropological ones, which rather try to use a
shared theoretical terminology for comparative purposes. His moral
vocation, on the other hand, is comparable to that of many anthropologists
working in similar environments: he intends to show that the despised
dregs of society are competent, intelligent and cultured people who
deserve the respect of others.
Indeed, such was exactly the project of Michael Lieber as well, an
American anthropologist working among the black working-class of Port-of-Spain
in the late 1970s (Lieber 1981). Lieber's ethnography is actually
very similar to Lovelace's.
Like Braithwaite, Klass and the Niehoffs before him, Lieber distinguishes
himself from the novelist through contextualizing the ongoing flow
of life into an analytical framework which render his findings comparable
and which can make them fit into a general theory of capitalism and
state societies. In his analysis, he stresses in particular the dependent
character of Trinidadian economic life and the class structure created
by an individualistic ethos and a capitalist economic system. But
so does Lovelace! The main difference, a parallel reading of the two
works suggests, seems to be that the novelist does not make his position
explicit in the same way as a social scientist would have to. Instead,
he lets the badjohn turn out as a political hero who intuitively and
spontaneously rails against the corruption, injustice and cultural
humiliation which has been such a profound concern to many Trinidadians
Lieber's monograph is not a typical work of anthropology. Indeed,
he appropriates some of the techniques from imaginative writing in
order to add colour, life and substance to his field of study. He
presents detailed portraits of individuals and their activities, fitting
them into a vaguely marxist analytical framework intermittently. As
he himself explains:
Providing biographical and stylistic vignettes such as those above
may seem an unusual mode of presenting ethnographically derived information.
But I feel these scenes serve a purpose in conveying something of
the concrete quality of flesh-and-blood lives. In attempting to illuminate
patterns of social relations in a place such as Port-of-Spain, there
is very little "system" or "structure" to speak
of (....). We have here a loose and unstructured society (...). (Lieber
The parallel to Lovelace's novel is even more apparent in some of
Lieber's judgements, which are frequently closer to political, or
even personal, statements than analytical ones. Both writers wish
to describe the humiliation suffered by working-class black men due
to their powerlessness. Lovelace undertakes this by inventing a political
revolt directed against the sources for the humiliation, while Lieber
explicitly defends them against accusations to the effect that they
are losers without culture.
Readers may have noticed that I seemed to have been taking sides throughout
this book, sneering at the Trinidadian bourgeoisie and its presumptions.
I have. The single inescapable fact about the Caribbean is oppression.
And it is absolutely clear who have been the oppressors and who have
been the oppressed. (...) [B]lack people have responded creatively
to their immensely difficult circumstances, articulating perspectives
and designing plans to give meaning to their situation and to enhance
the flexibility of their lives. (Lieber 1981: 116)
This is exactly the message Lovelace tries to convey as well, and
the two books both argue their point convincingly; Lieber through
ethnographic cases illuminating a general argument about cultural
and economic dependence and counterreactions against it; Lovelace
rather through showing what working-class lives in Port-of-Spain look
like. In this particular case, the distinction between fiction and
anthropology seems a very fine one; the novelist has ambitions in
the direction of sociological explanation, and the anthropologist
has chosen a highly impressionistic form of presentation in order
to retain some of the "flavour" of Port-of-Spain street
life. One main difference is that Lovelace's book is much more widely
read than Lieber's and thus has had a more substantial direct impact
on society. Another difference concerns the degree of explicitness
concerning causal relationships. However, supposing that Lieber's
marxist-derived explanations were to be discarded, his ethnographic
descriptions of Port-of-Spain street life would not necessarily convey
more information about Trinidadian society than Lovelace's book. Does
this mean that the most relevant difference between fiction and anthropology
consists in the explanatory power of the latter? I shall now turn
to a discussion of this and related issues, and will try out some
general assumptions about the relationship between fiction and anthropology,
seen from the perspective of the anthropologistethnographer.
The three major novels of Trinidad which have been discussed each
exemplify one main way in which fiction can be useful as a source
of insight into a society where one is also carrying out fieldwork.
A Morning at the Office can be read as a series of ethnographic statements
about ethnic relations at the micro-level in the year 1950, when it
was completed. As a micro-sociological enterprise, it is complementary
to Braithwaite's (1975 ) study of institutional ethnicity in
Trinidad, carried out during the same period. Mittelholzer's persons
are probably no more fictional than the protagonists of many anthropological
monographs, although the events they take part in were clearly invented.
A novel like Mittelholzer's is only credible in so far as it conveys
actual features of Trinidadian society. Need we trust it? Of course
not, but in its sensitivity to the implicit, to subtle power mechanisms
and to processes of over- and undercommunication of ethnicity, the
novel enables the anthropologist to embark on fieldwork with a richer
pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) than he would otherwise have,
and provides him with hypotheses. My own observations indicated both
continuity and change in the codification of ethnicity and ethnic
relations since around 1950, and Mittelholzer's book is consistent
with other sources from that period.
Unlike A Morning at the Office, A House For Mr Biswas has itself become
something of an icon in Trinidadian society and has contributed to
shaping ideology and reflexivity in that society. It can be seen simultaneously
as an ethnographic description of the East Indian community in the
first half of this century (and can in this way be a source of historical
and ethnographic insight), and as a description of Trinidadian society
which has reflexively fed back into the society with which it deals.
Although many have never read the book, many have, and it continues
to influence the way many individuals think about themselves and their
The Dragon Can't Dance combines some of the virtues of the two other
books and adds others. Set in the recent past, the book supplies the
reader with hypotheses and prepares him or her for the experience
of urban Trinidad, as well as bringing ethnographic details from social
fields where the anthropologist may for various reasons not be able
to take part. In addition, the book is a self-conscious attempt to
contribute to defining what and who is an authentic Trinidadian a
contribution to nation-building and to the definition of national
identity, and an explicit critique of the failure of the then ruling
PNM party to help the poor. While A Morning at the Office is mainly
an ethnographic statement and A House for Mr Biswas is part ethnography
and part an aspect of Trinidadian society, The Dragon Can"t Dance
is a contribution to public discourse in that country, as well as
having some of the qualities of a sociological analysis.
What use can we then make of such novels? They cannot be used as plain
ethnography, since they do not profess to represent the truth and
since their relationship to social reality is ultimately uncertain.
Besides, if they are to be exploited as ethnographic sources (and
not as evidence), the reader must be familiar with the society at
the outset of the reading. They cannot, therefore, replace the ethnographic
footwork either. It therefore seems a paradox that some of the best
anthropological writings extant on Trinidad are works of fiction (cf.
Melhuus, infra, for a Mexican parallel). In order to assess their
validity, a reader must have first-hand experience of the society.
Objectivist ethnography is presumably meaningful without such prior
It may have been noted that the aesthetic and artistic qualities of
the novels have scarcely been considered in this essay. At certain
levels of reading, such qualities are irrelevant, and there are good
reasons for not including aesthetic evaluations of texts in assessments
of their ethnographic qualities. Now Shakespeare is thought of as
being no more typically English than Ibsen is typically Norwegian,
and the main point about Cervantes is not that he was Spanish. Likewise,
Naipaul is unlike Mittelholzer and Lovelace not considered a typical
West Indian author. His topic is no less than the human condition,
while the others paint vivid scenes of urban Trinidad and leave the
issues there at the particular, the local. It could be said, therefore,
that the ethnographic value of a novel is independent of its aesthetic
qualities. A poor novel may be just as interesting for its ethnographic
raw material as a work of genius.
On the other hand, novels which embody hermeneutic critiques of their
authors' societies contain statements which may be comparable to anthropological
statements. As these readings of three Trinidadian novels show, there
are three levels of reading which are immediately relevant to ethnographic
First, novels may serve as ethnographic sources and may to this effect
rank with informants' statements. At this level, the author whether
he is a Mittelholzer or a Naipaul more or less unwittingly reveals
aspects of his society. As Bakhtin and many others have reminded us,
the author is a prisoner of his own time. The author, known through
the novel, is here seen as the production of a society.
Second, novels may be read as ethnographic descriptions; that is,
the information conveyed may be taken more or less at its face value,
as a kind of ethnographic documentation.
Third, some novels may profitably be read as theoretical anthropology.
These books embody a cultural analysis and reflexive critique of the
author's society. The most outstanding West Indian example known to
me is Naipaul's The Mimic Men (Naipaul 1967), which is a devastating
and controversial diagnosis of the inhibiting doxic structures presumably
guiding the uprooted Caribbean peoples in their lives. The author's
perspective here can sensibly be dealt with in a theoretical way,
but it cannot be argued against in so far as the text is a novel.
Novels also form part of reflexive socio-cultural reality and to this
effect are part and parcel of that society within which they were
written. Lovelace's novel, in particular, had the explicit aim of
being read by many Trinidadians in order that it might contribute
to the definition of Trinidadian national identity and politics. In
considering this aspect of fiction, we enter the sociology of literature,
where texts are seen as the products of society and where the relevant
readings of these texts will be those of the members of that society,
not our own. Anthropological studies of societies where reading is
widespread should not ignore the direct cultural and social effects
of texts or of other forms of "cultural consumption", for
Anthropology and fiction
The respective relationships between the text and social reality postulated
by anthropology and fiction differ, although one cannot offhand say
that one of the genres represents society better than the other. An
anthropologically relevant difference is that one cannot argue with
a novel in the same way as one can argue with an anthropological work.
The novelist can always retort that he or she has made everything
up, and his or her analysis is rarely unambiguous and fully explicated.
We may also wish to claim that anthropology is fundamentally different
from fiction because of its comparative dimension. However, fiction
is also comparative. Aldous Huxley (1931) once wrote of an English
author who went to the West Indies in order to collect material for
a novel about people in Mayfair. In good fiction, as in good anthropology,
there is an underlying assumption of something universally human.
On the other hand, anthropology is unique in its specification of
dimensions for comparison and its standards for ethnographic descriptions.
Are such dimensions and standards straitjackets? If one thinks so,
one might turn to fiction for consolation. In any case, it could be
argued that fiction and anthropology tend to represent the social
world in radically different ways.
Direct introspection is deemed unacceptable in social anthropology.
If one ventures to consider the inner states of persons, one must
always refer to acts or statements as evidence. Within the psychological
realism represented in the three novels, introspection is an important
The styles of writing differ for similar reasons. Although it may
be argued that anthropologists, like novelists, often write in a persuading
and seductive style, it is our aim to avoid it. In this, our profession
differs strikingly from that of novelists. Comparing Braithwaite's
sociological study with Mittelholzer's novel, one might well discover
that they are similar in the use of evidence, but whereas Mittelholzer
is concerned with introspection and the portrayal of particular characters,
Braithwaite tries to substantiate his often impressionistic claims
by referring to statistics and historical facts. Anthropology and
fiction represent different, although sometimes overlapping and frequently
complementary reductions of social reality.
Works of fiction are not anthropological writings and vice versa,
although both genres can be read as though they represented the other
genre. For example, there are anthropologists who, no matter how sloppy
their theorizing may be, are praised for the literary quality of their
writing. There are also anthropologists who combine the systematic
and descriptive approach of anthropology with the poetic and evocative
approach of fiction; good examples would be some of Michel Leiris's
and Roger Caillois's books, or indeed parts of Michael Lieber's Street
Scenes. In a stimulating discussion of a fictive ethnography, Needham
(1985) has argued that there seem to be no sound criteria for distinguishing
the false from the true provided the only available source is a professed
ethnographic text; but criteria of comparability, consistency, accuracy
and comprehensiveness could all be invoked in distinguishing between
the approaches even if both are applied in the same work. On the other
hand, it cannot be taken for granted that the ethnographic text is
necessarily the more faithful and perceptive depiction of relationships
within a society. Few ethnographers would be likely to claim that
their description of Dublin is ethnographically more accurate than
The mainstream novelist and the anthropologist have in common their
ambition to transform the world of sensations and thoughts into one
of words. Kurt Vonnegut's description of the typical novelist as someone
who feels that the world is a chaotic place, but who is nevertheless
determined to impose order onto a heap of white sheets (Vonnegut 1982),
could perhaps be extended to include the typical anthropologist. Fiction
and anthropology, as modes of enquiry, therefore differ perhaps not
so much in posing different questions, but in their approaches. It
is scarcely true that every anthropologist is a failed novelist, as
Leach once alleged, but each genre has qualities lacking in the other,
although they sometimes overlap. What fiction gains from its vividness,
freedom to experiment and evocative techniques, it loses in its lack
of accuracy, empirical comprehensiveness and attempt to establish
interesting comparative dimensions. Strathern (1987) argues that feminism
and anthropology are neighbours in a "mocking relationship"
and that they are ultimately irrelevant to each other because of their
different normative positions. In the case of fiction and anthropology,
the relationship, admittedly more distant in most cases, ought rather
to be one of mutual challenge. They are relevant to each other, but
they can never be the same thing. The criteria for evaluation and
the internal rules of the genres differ, and yet as I hope to have
shown they remain relevant to each other, particularly if we are aware
that they are not "the same thing".
Feyerabend (1987) once suggested that the best translation of a novel
by Dostoyevsky would be one by Dickens. In line with this extremely
relativistic view on translation, it might be claimed that the poetry
and sensible qualities of a way of life are lost through cultural
translation. Maybe the conscious use of fictional texts may help build
a bridge between the richness of experience and the sterility of the
academic anthropological text, and maybe such texts may be useful
bridgeheads in translation, but precisely since they are poetical
in nature, they may be seductive and misleading through persuading
their reader of the validity of a certain set of prejudices. Besides,
novels should never serve as examples to be followed by writers acting
in their capacity as anthropologists. Fiction certainly merits to
be read as though it were something else than ethnography or inadequate
attempts at anthropological theorizing, although I have argued, in
this essay, that novels may have ethnographic qualities in addition
to everything else. Conversely, anthropologists should probably resist
the temptation to indulge in the rich and evocative language of creative
writing. If ethnography were to adopt the literary ambitions of fiction,
it would be but a short step from the genre of travel writing (cf.
Louch 1966). In that case, nothing would ultimately be gained from
the appropriation of fictional texts dealing with the societies we
study; instead, anthropology would cease being an academic discipline,
and its practitioners would inadvertently confirm Leach's darkest
Abrahams, Roger D. (1983) The Man-of-Words in the West Indies. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press.
Anderson, Benedict (1983) Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
Bailey, F.G. (1991) The Prevalence of Deceit. Ithaca: Cornell University
Bloch, Maurice (1991) "Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science".
Man, 26: 18398.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Braithwaite, Lloyd (1975 ) Social Stratification in Trinidad.
Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).
Clifford, James (1986) "On Ethnographic Self-Fashioning: Conrad
and Malinowski", in Reconstructing Individualism, T.C. Heller
et al., pp. 14062. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Clifford, James and George Marcus, eds. (1986) Writing Culture. The
Poetics and Politics of Ethnograpy. Berkeley: University of California
Ellmann, Richard (1983 ) James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University
Feyerabend, Paul K. (1987) Farewell to Reason. London: Verso.
Geertz, Clifford (1988) Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author.
Gellner, Ernest (1983) Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell.
Giddens, Anthony (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge:
Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity.
Goody, Jack (1986) The Interface Between the Oral and the Written.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Herskovits, Melville and Frances Herskovits (1947) Trinidad Village.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Holy, Ladislav and Michael Stuchlik (1983) Actions, Norms and Representations.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Huxley, Aldous (1931) Music at Night. London: Chatto & Windus.
Klass, Morton (1961) East Indians in Trinidad. New York: Columbia
Lieber, Michael (1981) Street Scenes: Afro-American Culture in Urban
Trinidad. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.
Louch, A.R. (1966) Explanation and Human Action. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lovelace, Earl (1979) The Dragon Can't Dance. London: Longman.
Manganaro, Marc, ed. (1990) Modernist Anthropology. From Fieldwork
to Text. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Miller, Daniel (1993) Modernity ­p; And Ethnographic Approach.
Mittelholzer, Edgar (1979 ) A Morning At The Office. London:
Naipaul, V.S. (1961) A House For Mr Biswas. London: André Deutsch.
Naipaul, V.S. (1967) The Mimic Men. London: André Deutsch.
Naipaul, V.S. (1975) Guerillas. London: André Deutsch.
Needham, Rodney (1985) Exemplars. Berkeley: University of California
Niehoff, Arthur and Juanita Niehoff (1960) East Indians in the West
Indies. Milwaukee: Olsen Publishing Co.
Smith, M.G. (1984) Culture, Race and Class in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).
Stewart, John O. (1989) Drinkers, Drummers and Decent Folk. Ethnographic
Narratives of Village Trinidad. New York: SUNY Press.
Strathern, Marilyn (1987) "An Awkward Relationship: The Case
of Feminism and Anthropology". SIGNS, 12(2): 27692.
Vonnegut, Kurt (1982) Palm Sunday. London: Granada.
Wilson, Peter J. (1978) Crab Antics (2nd edition). New Haven: Yale
An earlier version of this article was presented at the conference
"The Multiplicity of Writing and Social Anthropology", Department
and Museum of Anthropology, Oslo, 17-19 October, 1991. I would like
to thank the participants at the conference, and particularly Eduardo
Archetti, for useful critical comments.
1. Joyce nevertheless claimed that he was unable to make anything
up (Ellmann 1983). And surely, there are good reasons for seriously
doubting the "ontological" validity of anthropological texts.
These problems do not require a detailed treatment presently; see
Bailey (1991) for a provocative and stimulating discussion of these
issues in contemporary anthropology.
2. Archetti (infra) argues that "second-rate authors" could
become prolific and popular composers of tangos in Argentina. While
this may also be true of Trinidadian calypsonians, few of them would
regard themselves as second-rate in any reasonable sense of the word.
The calypso, the dominant literary form of the island, has had a strong
and continuous impact on Trinidadian civil society since the turn
of the century.
3. The ethnic labels used in the text correspond to labels used locally.
The most important ones are white, black (or Afro-Trinidadian, or
African), coloured (or brown, or "red"), East Indian and
Chinese. The term "East Indian" is used throughout the Caribbean
to distinguish people of Indian origin from Amerindians. The word
"Creole" usually means, in Trinidad, "Trinidadian but
not of East Indian origin".
4. It might be added that Lloyd Braithwaite belongs to the same social
stratum as Edgar Mittelholzer did: the coloured middle class. In one
of his last publications, the late M.G. Smith (1984) dismissed Braithwaite,
in a surprisingly rash way, as an apologist for the then (early 1950s)
emerging "mulatto hegemony". In fact, he turns Professor
Braithwaite into ethnographic source material, using causal explanations
to account for his opponent's theoretical position.
5. All page references to Biswas refer to the 1984 Penguin edition.
6. Biswas admittedly deals largely with an earlier period, ending
with Mohun Biswas's death in the early 1950s. This is not important
for the present argument.
7. Towards the end of his monograph, Klass brings an interesting comparison
between his village, "Amity", and a black village in Toco,
north-eastern Trinidad, studied by Herskovits (1947), but this comparison
is not intended to shed light on processes of cultural change; on
the contrary, it presupposes the relative isolation of the communities
from each other.
8. Another, related aspect of Naipaul's role consists in his reputation
as a world-famous Trinidadian. His literary world fame is many times
magnified at home. An assessment of the effects of this factor is
not necessarily conditional on reading his work, just as it may not
be necessary to study the Gita in order to study Hindus. The fact
of Naipaul's reputation may nevertheless be sociologically interesting
in its own right.
Dealing with a society not encompassed by the standard anthropological
clichés about modern vs. traditional societies, this paper
highlights methodological and epistemological problems faced by an
anthropologist carrying out fieldwork in a society where creative
writing is only one of many aspects of sociological reflexivity widespread
among its inhabitants.
The setting is Trinidad, which is a society lacking a preliterate
history. It shares with our own northern European societies a high
level of literacy and widespread popular reflection, as well as discourse,
about society. A telling anecdote is this. As the anthropologist once
approached two young men at a public bar, telling them that he was
curious to find out about Trinidadian culture and society, one of
the men retorted, "So what's your project, brother? You wanna
do an M.G. Smith on us?" (M.G. Smith is a Jamaican anthropologist
writing on "the plural societies of the West Indies".)
The anthropologist studying knowledge and ideology in Trinidad must
therefore account for the quasi-theoretical constructs of the agents
themselves. In a similar way, he must come to terms with the texts
created by Trinidadians for Trinidadians: In which sense do they form
part of society, and how should they be read as ethnographic documentation?
Using as examples a novel by Edgar Mittelholzer from 1950, one by
V.S. Naipaul from 1961, and a contemporary novel by Earl Lovelace,
the paper critically discusses the possible uses of fictional accounts
as ethnographic sources in anthropological research. Fictional texts
are compared to observed interaction and to other written accounts
(such as extant anthropological texts). The paper concludes that fiction
may serve as ethnography in its own right and as a source of hypotheses,
and that it should also be considered a part of reflexive socio-cultural
reality. Finally, some criteria for distinguishing fiction from anthropology