In Search of Asylum: The Later Writings of Eric Walrond.
The work of Eric Walrond has long been admired by readers and critics; yet, he remains an understudied and frequently overlooked writer. The publication in 1926 of his short-story collection, Tropic Death, saw him lauded as one of the best of a new generation of black authors. Scholars have continued to praise his work. Robert Bone has argued that "the stronger tales in Tropic Death must be counted among the most effective of the Harlem Renaissance," while Kenneth Ramchand called the story collection "one of the startling treasures in the lost literature of the West Indies." In general, however, Walrond has suffered from a lack of visibility in the critical field, occasionally noted or anthologized in works on Caribbean or Harlem Renaissance literature, but often treated as a marginal figure, a one-hit wonder who shone too briefly to be worth more than passing mention. His cause has not been helped by the fact that Tropic Death has been out of print since 1972.
In recent years, however, there has been an upsurge of interest in Walrond's mercurial talents. Louis Parascandola's 1998 reader, Winds Can Wake Up the Dead, made available many of the stories from Tropic Death, as well as selections from Walrond's journalism and other writings. This year will see Walrond's 1926 masterwork reprinted in full (by Norton), plus the publication of a volume of scholarly articles (also edited by Parascandola and Wade), and a biography by James Davis. In Search of Asylum is a welcome addition to this phalanx of Walrond-related output. Aiming to dispel the misconception that he simply stopped publishing after leaving North America in 1928, the collection showcases Walrond's later work, including short stories, journalism, and historical sketches. Many of the writings presented here were originally published in The Roundway Review--a monthly pamphlet circulated by the Roundway Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Wiltshire, England, where Walrond was a "voluntary patient" from 1952 to 1957 (Introduction xxi). The best stories in the volume provide an eloquent reminder of Walrond's qualities as an author. Set in the Caribbean, Panama, the U. S., and England, his fiction captures the experiences of working-class peoples, often migrants, as they confront the depredations of colonialism, racial prejudice, and economic exploitation.
Born in British Guiana in 1898, Walrond migrated to Barbados with his mother and siblings in 1906 before moving on to Colon, Panama in 1911 (Walrond's father had traveled to Panama two years earlier to work on the Panama Canal, then under construction by the United States). After jobs as a clerk, and then as a reporter for The Panama Star and Herald, Walrond moved to the U. S. in 1918. In New York he became associate editor for Marcus Garvey's Negro World and began publishing fiction. Following the success of Tropic Death, he was able to secure a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. He left New York and traveled to several countries in the Caribbean and Central America in order to gather material for further stories. He was also reputed to be working on a study called The Big Ditch, about the building of the Panama Canal. Although the fate of this manuscript remains a mystery, In Search of Asylum does contain extracts from a piece entitled "The Second Battle," which provide "tantalizing glimpses," as the editors put it (xliv), of the direction of Walrond's study.
In 1929, Walrond moved to Paris, where he joined a large community of migrant black artists and threw himself into life on the Left Bank. He left for England in 1932, settling first in London before moving to Wiltshire at the outbreak of World War II. It is unclear why Walrond entered Roundway Hospital, although in the autobiographical sketch included in this anthology he speaks of himself as "a 'depression casualty' in the years following the Wall Street crash" (153). After leaving Roundway, Walrond returned to London, keen to reestablish his literary career. However, as Parascandola and Wade observe, Walrond's time in Wiltshire had "prevented him from being a vital part of the vibrant postwar London literary scene" (xlviii), and he did not live long enough to complete the new literary projects he had instigated, dying from coronary thrombosis in 1966.
Walrond's peripatetic life provided a fount of material for his writing. In Search of Asylum includes a number of sketches and stories set in New York. The longest of them, "Success Story," a six-part work describing a young Caribbean migrant's attempts to find employment in the U. S., gives some indication of how Walrond's work might have developed had he tried his hand at a novel. The anthology also contains a couple of intriguing stories set in Wiltshire, which dramatize the tensions engendered by the presence of black and white American soldiers in wartime Britain. "The Lieutenant's Dilemma" and "Strange Incident," both from the mid-1950s, should be of interest to scholars of black British literature, especially insofar as they offer a brief glimpse of black experience outside London, in the rural districts of England.
While these stories are interesting, however, it is in the fiction set in the Caribbean and Panama that Walrond's talent really shines. He has a knack not only for evoking the warp and weft of daily life, reveling in the textures of working-class speech, but also for showing how large-scale economic and political convulsions register in the everyday experience of men and women in the peripheries of empire. Take the following scene from "Morning in Colon," in which Rose and the ice vendor Rufus discuss a precipitous rise in prices caused by the arrival of an American fleet and the impact of ongoing industrial expansion in the increasingly modernized Canal Zone:
"Well, wait till yo' go down to the market. Yo' know what de t'ievin' Spaniard want fi turtle now? One whole dollar? An as' fo' fresh fish an' sea-sonin'--gal, dere is some patois men wha' want fifteen cents a pound fo' bobo fish...." "Yes, me know, Rufus. An' don't rink it confine to things fi' nyam alone.... A man in the Ants' Nest was jes' tellin' me 'bout him properties.... Seem like him own a bootie works in Chorillo an' next door to the bottle works is an empty lot an' the owner of the empty lot is one o' dem craven Gatun contractors. Well, anyway, him need the lot fi' put up a next bottle works, yo' see, but him play shrewd an' wouldn't give the man the price him ask for it.... [T]he man run the price up to six tous'n dollah an' him ah run it up ev'ry time yo' turn round." (43)
Walrond has been justly celebrated for his skill in representing Creole speech, although as Parascandola and Wade point out, quoting Louis Chude-Sokei, it is possible that Walrond's literary voice "may have been marginalized in part for being too overtly laden with black languages and vernaculars, as well as for being too experimental with multiple black dialects and modes of register" (xxviii).
In addition to his use of Creole vernaculars, perhaps the other most recognizable feature of Walrond's work is his portrayal of violence. As with the stories in Tropic Death, the fiction collected here underscores how the violence of colonial and imperialist domination permeates through society, warping interpersonal relationships and individual psyches. Often its effects are registered through the narration of an explosive and seemingly random act of brutality, as in "Tai Sing" or "The Servant Girl." In particular, Walrond is an astute chronicler of the dehumanization of labor and the despoliation of the landscape wrought by capitalist exploitation. Images of mutilated or broken bodies (see "The Iceman," for instance) figure the dislocations resulting from rapid modernization and the conversion of a rural work force into an industrial proletariat.
Overall, this is a significant and fascinating collection. Including a comprehensive introduction by Parascandola and Wade, as well as a useful timeline of Walrond's life and career, it helps fill the gap in our understanding of this enigmatic and too-little-known writer. While the quality of the pieces is inevitably somewhat uneven (not least due to the unfinished state of several of them), the anthology is highly readable and represents an important resource not only for scholars of Walrond, but for those interested in Caribbean and black diasporic literatures more generally.
Reviewed by Michael Niblett, University of Warwick (UK)
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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