Nicholas Laughlin – Transcript of an oral presentation at the project’s Reading After Empire conference in 2008.
I think that unlike most people here I’m not a professional academic and I don’t go to very many academic conferences. Usually when I do I feel very alienated and strange but this is a particularly fun conference and I’ve actually enjoyed I think every single panel that I’ve sat in on so I’m very grateful that I was invited to come here particularly grateful because I think I was a fairly delinquent reading group facilitator (laughing) on the whole … By the time we finished with the reading group I was convinced that Newcastle and Stirling would want to have nothing to do with me so I’m glad that’s not true so as I said I’m not a professional academic and actually my background is in publishing I edit a magazine called The Caribbean Review of Books which is published in Port of Spain in Trinidad …
Trinidad and Tobago most of you probably know em … was two islands that were administratively yoked together a little over a hundred years ago by British colonial authorities and we’re the southern most Anglophone Caribbean country … In Trinidad and Tobago the official literacy rate is a whopping 98% … Anglophone Caribbean countries always boast very high literacy rates but those tend to be based on primary school attendance and of course it’s entirely possible to get through primary school and not learn to read so a more realistic figure’s probably just over 75%. There were two surveys done in mid ‘90s, the most recent that I can discover, that suggest a literacy rate of about 75%.
India apparently inflicted Rushdie on the English, and Trinidad inflicted Naipaul on the English (laughing) but it seems that you’ve now re-inflicted him on us (laughing). Trinidad is not a particularly literary society em there’s a healthy number of book shops in the country, two major book chains in particular, but they sell mostly school text books. There are perhaps two or three good small independent book shops that you can go into that attempt to kind of keep up with what’s going on in world fiction but for the most part the what I suppose you could call the serious fiction reading public in Trinidad is very small. I’ve no hard figures to go by, there’s no statistical data, but I can give you some anecdotal data. I have a friend who used to run a book shop which closed about ten years ago and she estimated that her main kind of target clientele was about 500 people in the entire country out of a population of 1.3million, and my own feeling is probably that 500 may be a little on the low side. It may be closer to 700 or 800 people who are fairly sort of serious readers by which I mean that they read fiction for pleasure, but they buy books frequently so they attempt to keep up with what’s going on and they read book reviews you know they’re fairly well informed with what’s going on.
That’s probably as much as you need to know about context how did I get involved in this? I was volunteered by Gemma (laughing) who actually dropped me an email one day and said we’re doing this project will you get involved? And without thinking about it too much as I tend to do I said yes I kind of thought how hard could it be to set up a reading group, you know, five meetings, and record the whole thing: easy, no problem. It actually turned out to be not very easy at all I had actually quite a lot of trouble setting up the group, recruiting people to join the group. There are at least two well established reading groups that I know of that run in Port of Spain one is connected to a book shop and I did approach both of them and they were very alarmed at the idea of being recorded and having their conversations you know sort of transcribed and listened to by scholars and put in a library somewhere so that was no good so it actually took me quite a long time to recruit people and in the end I ended up recruiting people from my own sort of field of friends and acquaintances you know and they tended to be sort of extrovert types who are sort of used to speaking in public or sort of ventilating their views in public and so weren’t terribly bothered about the idea of being recorded.
So a little bit about the group: who were we? Well there were ten people who participated in total not all of them attended every single meeting. I think there was maybe the final two meetings had all ten people. I was one of ten, so this is one of the ways in which I was slightly delinquent, I violated one of the rules that were provided for setting up the reading group which is that the facilitators were meant to facilitate and sort of observe and let the group run like a you know a controlled experiment well I just kind of leapt right in and sort of participated from the very beginning so I count myself among the ten.
I can give you some hard statistical information about who we were. I think the group was fairly unrepresentative of the general population of Trinidad but probably fairly representative of the the sort of fiction reading public in Trinidad. As I said, there were ten of us, seven women, three men, ages varying from early twenties to early sixties, all fairly well educated, all middle class. I think with one exception all university educated some of them post-graduate … The other thing that’s interesting is that almost everyone in the group had some kind of background in publishing or in the media. We had two school teachers or two retired school teachers but otherwise everyone had sort of worked at a newspaper in journalism, in a magazine, we had magazine editors, newspaper columnists, a couple of authors you know, people who had actually published books so it was a very kind of literary group in that sense, you know, sort of very engaged with writing apart from being engaged with reading.
So how did how did the actual group meetings go? Well first of all I think perhaps you all know that the way the project worked was that each group was supposed to read five texts four of the texts were sort of common to all groups which were I should remember them since em, Brick Lane by Monica Ali was the first one, Small Island by Andrea Levy, or Leevy as they say in Jamaica, White Teeth by Zadie Smith … Those three books which I suppose you could say generally are about the kind of post-colonial sort of migrant experience in Britain then the Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay and then the groups were meant to choose their fifth book and we chose as you know Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which had just been published.
I had to sort of suppress a smile when Greg Myers [one of the keynote speakers at the conference] sort of went through the list of stereotypical characteristics of reading groups because you know it was like living room check snacks check (laughing) gossip check, middle age women check, the only thing we didn’t do was tea and coffee. That was because we actually I think uniquely among all the reading groups drank quite a lot of alcohol, that was one of the ways that I got people to participate by promising alcohol (laughing)
I’ll skip to dominant interpretive values and not tell you how delinquent we and sort of scandalous we were. I think the fact that almost everyone in the group was involved in the media in publishing and in writing in some sense certainly informed the way we talked about the books there was a lot of discussion of sort of technical aspects of how to construct a narrative how to construct a plot how to construct a character and a lot of analysis of what went wrong in the books, what we didn’t like. But at the same time I think the group members generally took a very kind of old fashioned interest in things like character psychology. Did we believe the characters? Did we think they were credible? And if we didn’t what could the writer have done and we spent I’m sorry to say a fair amount of time discussing the characters’ sex lives especially sort of suggesting things that writers could do to make characters’ sex lives more convincing …
One thing that’s I think that’s kind of interesting to point out is the book that we liked the least as a group was actually Small Island the Andrea Levy book and interestingly enough it was because I think because the subject matter was over familiar to the group who were you know all fairly well read in sort of West Indian literature you know the works of Selvon and the writers who described sort of West Indian migrant experience in Britain and collectively the group felt that Andrea Levy didn’t really have anything new to add. The story wasn’t particularly original or insightful. The characters weren’t convincing, we felt we knew these people better. I should also mention that of the group members more than half had lived in Britain for some time, usually at university, so that actual kind of knowledge of what life is like in London from the late ‘50s to the present day informed the discussions as well.
The other thing that’s kind of interesting listening to the recordings now you know some months after the reading group ceased to meet is that I was able obviously to hear things that I couldn’t hear at the time one of which is the extent to which there was some interesting intellectual sparring going on. I could hear the kind of rivalries between specific members of the group I could in fact you know notice I could hear myself sparring with one person in particular repeatedly over the course of the five meetings, something which I didn’t do consciously at the time but listening to it now I can certainly detect it
Finally I just want to say that I am so glad that I didn’t have the kind of information that Greg Myers provided (laughing) because I don’t think I would ever have done it and I’m a little terrified on behalf of whoever it is that’s doing the transcription and I was telling Gemma earlier I I think that you know H H H as a code for laughter probably will not suffice in the case of this slightly intoxicated very raucous (laughing) possibly sex obsessed scandalous Trinidadian group! I think you’re going to need to find something much more emphatic and I suspect there are entire long periods of like twenty or thirty minutes in the recording where there is nothing but laughter over which you could hear nothing else!