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Amodern 7: Ephemera and Ephemerality
December 2017


Caribbean Voices on the BBC

Mollie McFee

In 1979, during a lecture at Harvard University, the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite laid out a history and theory of Caribbean literature that placed sound at its center. In his talk Brathwaite made a now canonized statement that, “The poetry, the culture itself, exists not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word… When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning.”1 During this oral presentation, Brathwaite played a range of recordings to demonstrate the distinct sound surfacing in contemporary Caribbean literature after a long period of production during which European forms dominated, including prominent Caribbean poets like Claude McKay and George Lamming reading poetry aloud, popular Jamaican dub poetry that imitated the speech and sounds of street life, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.2 However, despite the prominence assigned to sound in Brathwaite’s discourse, the talk was ultimately published, first in an edited work entitled English Literature: Opening up the Canon and later as a monograph entitled History of the Voice: Nation Language in the Anglophone Caribbean. As the talk passed into print publication, it lost the aural dimension so central in Brathwaite’s original lecture. In the talk’s first print iteration, the edited volume English Literature: Opening up the Canon, the editor Houston A. Baker refers to the lost aurality of the talk in a series of notes. In the first, Baker writes, “Surely this written representation of Professor Brathwaite’s unscripted remarks, which I have edited, loses some of the magnificent force and meaning that his live performance conveyed in Cambridge.”3 Acknowledging the centrality of the voice in Brathwaite’s talk as both theme and medium, Baker alerts the reader that the text before her eyes is an incomplete replica of the author’s message. Brathwaite’s published monograph of the essay History of the Voice similarly contains footnotes that highlight the gap between the oral and textual versions.

The complicated interplay between ephemeral sound and enduring text tells an important story of twentieth-century Anglophone Caribbean literary production in miniature. Much of the region’s literature produced during the mid-twentieth century has suffered the same fate as Brathwaite’s talk: though originally circulated orally, the ephemeral voice has vanished from archival records. The major public forum for Caribbean writers during the period was a BBC literary radio program entitled Caribbean Voices. As with Brathwaite’s lecture, sound was not an incidental component of literature broadcast on Caribbean Voices; rather, the aural dimension of radio provided an opportunity to explore the distinct sounds of Caribbean literature, including accent and linguistic forms unique to the region. And yet, despite the centrality of sound to these broadcasts, only the written scripts of the program have been preserved. While Brathwaite’s lecture might lead a reader to think these textual remnants empty vessels for the voice’s fundamental expressive capacity, examining the scripts in fact reveals a critical dimension of literary production and cultural change in the mid-twentieth-century Caribbean. Examining these textual traces uncovers the dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation, presence and absence, and text and sound not just in the archive, but in the region’s literary culture. These interdependent forces were rarely part of a harmonious trajectory, but were in fact contested through Caribbean Voices’ oral and aural dimensions. Ultimately, the radio program’s partial archival record reveals as much as it erases, pointing to the importance of ephemeral sound and the literary transformations that informed it.

From 1945-1958, Caribbean Voices was broadcast to the Caribbean weekly on the BBC’s Colonial Service.4 Caribbean Voices originated in the efforts of Jamaican journalist and political activist Una Marson who won the support of BBC producer Cecil Madden in 1939.5 As WWII escalated and West Indian soldiers came to England to support the British military, the BBC increasingly dedicated programming to boosting morale in Britain’s colonies. Marson was critical in developing this programming for the West Indies, and her own connections with West Indian artists in England and in the West Indies provided the material for precursors to Caribbean Voices, including Calling the West Indies.6 Due to overwork and fatigue compounded by the social pressures of being a woman of color in the imperial radio infrastructure, Marson grappled with mental health conditions that ultimately required her to leave her position at the BBC in 1945 during Caribbean Voices’ early days.7

Upon her departure in 1945, Henry Swanzy, an Irishman raised in England, took over the program. Swanzy served as Caribbean Voices’s editor until his departure from the program in 1954 to work for the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service.8 Under his direction Caribbean Voices gained enormous traction in the West Indies. The program featured work by a host of Anglophone Caribbean writers early in their careers, including Brathwaite, George Lamming, VS Naipaul, and Derek Walcott. Preceding the creation of Caribbean Voices, literary journals like Bim, Kyk-ovr-Al, and Focus were virtually the only publishing outlets for Caribbean writers, and their circulation was limited. By contrast, Caribbean Voices, produced in London and accessible throughout the Caribbean, quickly became the premier venue for Caribbean literary publication. As Rhonda Cobham has argued, the aural dimension of Caribbean Voices had a lasting impact on Caribbean literature, notable in the work of authors who wrote for the program and the regional tradition as a whole.9 West Indian migration to the metropole produced circumstances in which West Indian readers could record broadcasts for the program, further increasing the importance of West Indian sound.

Owing to these circumstances and Swanzy’s editorial hand, during Caribbean Voices’ thirteen years on the air, the use of Caribbean vernacular in literature became common practice. Swanzy favored textual material that depicted facets of Caribbean life, and made comments on the air encouraging writers to explore local themes in their submissions. He also made the editorial decision to primarily employ Caribbean readers to record literature selected for broadcast, a departure from the BBC’s practice of using readers from England. Some of these trends originated in Una Marson’s work, as she drew upon her own West Indian connections in London for programming. Swanzy, however, explicitly discussed on air and in private correspondence the West Indian sound of literature broadcast on Caribbean Voices. Radio as a medium was a particularly apt venue for the promotion of language written in the vernacular given its unique capacity to replicate the sounds of Caribbean speech, as opposed to texts which only transcribe Caribbean dialects and accents. The use of Caribbean readers, many of whom had lived experience of these vernaculars, was critical.

Though Caribbean Voices was a radio show, its archives consist primarily of scripts from radio broadcasts housed in the BBC Written Archives Centre in Cavesham, England, in addition to copies held at the University of the West Indies Mona and St. Augustine campuses. This archive preserves literary texts broadcast on the program and reveals some of the conditions for the emergence of this literary moment. But the critical aesthetic component of the voice has been permanently lost. Though Caribbean Voices was recorded for broadcast, rather than performed live on the air, these recordings have been destroyed. In the early days of the BBC, magnetic tapes of recordings for broadcast were frequently erased so that they could be reused for other programs. The voice’s ephemerality thus extends to the very medium intended to preserve it.

While Brathwaite does not mention Caribbean Voices anywhere in the body of History of the Voice, he remarks upon its centrality to Caribbean literature in the bibliography attached to the print version of the piece. Among the panoply of categories that organize the bibliography, Brathwaite includes Caribbean Voices not under any of the general categories that could encapsulate the program (such as “Caribbean Culture” or “Oral Tradition”) but under the heading “BBC.” Under the entry “Caribbean Voices London: Caribbean Service (1945-1958),” Brathwaite writes, “The single most important catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English: 15 half-hour weekly years: A most significant contribution to and confirmation of our oral tradition though, alas, the BBC has (had to) scrub(bed) this tremendous archive.”10 Brathwaite bemoans the lost recordings of Caribbean Voices as a loss of a critical archive in Caribbean literary history, placing the program at the center of Caribbean literary history (though curiously bracketed by its bibliographic placement apart from other aspects of the region’s history). Caribbean literary history itself is identified as a single and collective tradition through the possessive pronoun “our.” Each of these assertions works to construct a history of which Caribbean Voices has played a central role despite its vanished sounds.

If we subscribe to Brathwaite’s claims that noise produces part of the meaning in Caribbean literature, accessing only the program’s textual documents appears at first to produce a necessarily impoverished and incomplete version of the literature originally broadcast. However, the remaining textual traces of the program in fact challenge Brathwaite’s assertions that Caribbean Voices was a cornerstone in a unified Caribbean tradition. Rather, these remaining documents reveal that sound’s role in Caribbean literature was contested, and ultimately contingent upon institutions and technologies that supported its promotion. The BBC and its editorial policies were critical to the particular ways sound was foregrounded in Caribbean Voices and for the organization of a program that both addressed and spoke for the Caribbean. Michel Foucault’s insights on the archive in The Archaeology of Knowledge provide a helpful amendment to Brathwaite’s sweeping statement. As part of an extended meditation on the emergence of discursive fields, Foucault makes a distinction between versions of history that establish past events as unique and unprecedented and his own argument that discourse only ever emerges through preexisting systems of knowledge. Foucault insists that the event is always determined by its archive which permits its passage to discourse. Similarly, I turn to the archival documents of Caribbean Voices and Brathwaite’s History of the Voice to show that, “Far from being that which unifies everything that has been said in the great confusing murmur of a discourse, far from being only that which ensures that we exist in the midst of a preserved discourse, [the archive] is that which differentiates discourses in their multiple existence and specifies them in their own duration.”11 Complicating Brathwaite’s description of Caribbean literary history as the exploration of a long buried tradition of orality, the textual traces left in Caribbean Voices’s archive demonstrate tensions within Caribbean literary production that emerged around the voice.12 Emphasizing the voice’s centrality to the program thus constitutes an anachronistic reading of Caribbean literature that overlooks the tensions between voice and text that expressed broader conflicts in Caribbean literary production of the twentieth century.

This archive and the readings it invites demonstrate the ways that fixation on the ephemeral can lead to a fetishization of the vanished object. Peggy Phelan’s foundational work on performance studies in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance celebrates the ungovernable quality of ephemerality: “Performance in a strict ontological sense is non-reproductive… without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility – in a maniacally charged present – and disappears into memory, into the realm of unconscious where it eludes regulation and control.”13 In such an account, the ontological and political value of ephemerality become more significant than the content of a performance and erase the performance’s lingering effects beyond the fleeting instant of performance. Further, because vanished, these lost traces can be elided all the more easily in the construction of history. This is not to say that the goal of literary historical analysis should be to recuperate an authentic tradition or origin; rather, the conditions of the emergence of literary history grant insight into our accounts of culture and its objects today.

The written traces of Caribbean Voices reveal a relationship between print and sound that expresses the fraught emergence of a Caribbean literary aesthetic in the midst of rapidly changing Caribbean societies. Concerns regarding fading traditions, migration, and impending decolonization were often projected onto the Caribbean voice and its distinct sounds, but the conflicts and anxieties surrounding these transitions are clearly revealed in the program’s textual records. While Brathwaite’s valorization of the voice and Phelan’s celebration of the ephemeral might make such archival documents appear at best superfluous and at worst technologies of oppressive structures, their insights destabilize positions that would promote sound at text’s expense. Rather, text and sound in concert reveal the dynamic emergence of twentieth-century Caribbean literary culture.


Voice, From Tradition to Broadcast

The problematic of the underappreciated oral tradition that Brathwaite sketches in his discussion of Caribbean literary history has received significant attention in scholarship published after History of the Voice. The introduction of European print culture in the colonized world was a technology of colonization that devalorized and suppressed non-print cultural traditions. Diana Taylor frames this as a conflict between written texts and performances, in which the former are legitimized by their inclusion in archival institutions, and the latter are neglected by European systems of knowledge production that privilege writing. Taylor maps these distinctions onto the archive and the repertoire. She defines the archive as that which contains “supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones).”14 Taylor argues that the archive has been the privileged source in the Western world for establishing authority, power, and tradition, ignoring or actively suppressing performed and non-written cultural traditions Taylor refers to as the repertoire. By Taylor’s account, through its use of embodied phenomena such as gesture, location, and orality, the repertoire transmits forms of knowledge the archive cannot. Brathwaite’s history of the voice similarly identifies sound as a conduit for cultural practice and local phenomena that reflect the environmental and social specificities of the Caribbean. These accounts of the repertoire point to forms that are not in and of themselves ephemeral, but rather become ephemeral through the twin forces of colonial rule and the hegemony of print culture. Thus, though European colonizers suppressed the repertoire by imposing their own written and recorded forms, both Taylor and Brathwaite point to the endurance of the repertoire despite European intellectual hegemony.

However, the persistence of the repertoire does not correlate to the self-same repetition of cultural practice across time. Taylor notes that, unlike the archive, the repertoire is marked by evolving cultural practice, often in direct response to colonizing or neoimperialist forces.15 The repertoire then becomes an expression of cultural history in its capacity to register social change. Caribbean Voices, too, registered social and cultural transitions through the aural dimension of the voice. The voice became a contested site at which connections between Caribbean cultural history and the region’s cultural future were negotiated. While dichotomies between text and performance might lead one to think that the program’s print archival records cannot adequately represent these transformations, on the contrary they reveal the ultimate ephemerality of tradition, despite cultural investments in its continuation.

Henry Swanzy’s editorial policies at Caribbean Voices were directly concerned with reanimating elements of the repertoire and granting them a central place in the emerging canon of Caribbean literature. This entailed selecting and producing Caribbean literature in which the voice was foregrounded as a unique cultural marker. In one of his cumulative “The Last Six Months” reviews, Swanzy tied the sound of the West Indian voice specifically to the literary tradition the program intended to nurture: “We ourselves were and are satisfied with this policy of using West Indian voices to read West Indian material… We do realize that the European voice, as well as the European way of looking at things, may not entirely help the West Indies, which has its own voice-rhythm and its own view of life.”16 Swanzy’s preference for representation of local life indicated that the literature being produced in the Caribbean drew upon sources unique to the region, and as yet underrepresented in literature published by metropolitan institutions. By Swanzy’s account, developing Caribbean literature entailed rendering extant traditions like oral literature, folklore, and the myriad cultural dimensions of quotidian life legible in forms cognizable to European cultural institutions. Radio proved an influential medium through which to pursue this goal as orality came to the foreground through regional oral tradition and the medium of radio. However, enduring traces of the program attest to institutional limitations of Caribbean Voices. While the program prioritized Caribbean tradition, efforts to lift such traditions into the institutionalized radio broadcast or script fell short of such ambitions.

These tensions between archive and repertoire emerge in revealing ways not only in the program’s self-reflective relationship to Caribbean literature, but in the material it recorded. In February 1949 a broadcast was dedicated to the opening of Carnival season in Trinidad and included a poem on Carnival, a historical piece describing its origins, and a personal narrative written by an older Trinidadian man, Charles Penney, describing the Calypsoes of his youth.17 Penney himself recorded his narrative, framing his radio broadcast as an endeavor to preserve the tradition for future generations: “For the benefit of the younger generation, I shall try to give an idea of the songs which were considered to be very good by the local critics of the day, who expressed their approval of the song with the words, ‘Calyp me jhames’ and their disapproval with a loud ‘please.’”18 At the same time that Penney hopes to preserve cultural knowledge, his description demonstrates the limits of his project. The tradition of Calypso is not simply a record of musical pieces and social practices, but an interactive scenario before a live and responsive audience. Penney’s attempt to guarantee the endurance of this tradition has been altered by the context of its monologic performance. Though itself oral, Penney’s representation lifts the performance from its live and dialogic context, stripping the repertory traditions of Carnival of their embodied, interactive qualities. Penney’s piece attempts to establish a cultural past not in embodied practice, but through a decontextualized transmission of tradition.

Two distinct forms of endurance surround the radio broadcast. The first rests upon preserving a Caribbean cultural tradition rooted in site-specific collective performances; however, the tradition cannot be translated for radio broadcast and seems to have vanished. The second relies upon an archived script derived from mediations of a live performance and persists ambivalently in Caribbean Voices’ archives. In both, the voice’s absence indicates a loss of meaning. The partial failure of each type of preservation reveals disconnects between Caribbean Voices’ project of incorporating aesthetics of the Caribbean voice presumed representative of the region’s cultural history and the program’s efforts to influence an emergent literary canon. The seemingly direct transmission of Caribbean culture loses much of its significance as it moves across media from the live contexts of ritual and collective performance to script and radio broadcast. Thus, though the program exemplified many of the ideals Swanzy and Brathwaite articulate regarding the voice’s capacity to convey local culture and tradition, such performances are, in Penney’s case, removed from the culture they are presumed to represent. Rather than assume that the voice fulfills the cultural role attributed to it, we must look critically to the transformations tradition undergoes, even in such seemingly immediate media as the radio broadcast of a memoir read by someone with direct experience of a tradition.

Penney’s segment further identifies many of the tensions between the archivable literary tradition that Caribbean Voices aspired to and the oral and ephemeral traditions it drew upon through the script’s status in Penney’s performance. Though the printed script produced for broadcast survives today in the BBC Written Archives’ Centre, Penney did not read from the script when the broadcast was recorded. Cataracts preventing him from reading required Penney to memorize the script before recording it. The script indicates that Swanzy informed listeners that Penney would be speaking (and singing?) from memory. Due to his blindness, Penney’s body usurps the text’s privileged place as a template for the broadcast and in the archive. The text loses its referential authority when the body prevents the speaker from relying on text: only through Penney’s memory is the past captured, and only through his vocal utterances is it passed on to future generations. While Gunhild Borggreen and Rune Gade claim that the script is a blueprint for innumerable repetitions in the introduction to Performing Archives/Archives of Performance, Penney’s performance demonstrates limitations to the script’s status.19 The voice encapsulates an excess: because Calypsoes were sung, and no musical notation accompanies the broadcast, only the memory of a singer who has directly encountered the material can reproduce it. Ultimately, then, a number of original sources for the broadcast disrupt each other’s capacity to ensure the continuation of cultural memory of Caribbean Carnival. While a series of memories culled from embodied experience form Penney’s narrative, those live instances and even the traditions that underwrite them have faded. The text preserved in the BBC’s archives has withstood the passing of time, but without Penney’s voice to animate it, its record of tradition is only partial. If the broadcast claims to be representative of Caribbean tradition or voice, it sits at the intersection of a number of unstable sources, each limited in its capacity to transmit the Calypso.

The embodied qualities of the voice brought facets of Caribbean repertoires to Caribbean Voices, undertaking a cultural project of preserving and valorizing elements of culture previously neglected by the canonizing institutions of European literature. These translations and transitions placed Caribbean traditions in archival systems, but also abandoned many of the aspects that defined and sustained these traditions, such as embodied collective performance. Though the archive does not preserve the essential conduits of voice and body, it serves as a reminder that just as the archive is a transcription of voice to text, the performance itself bears the marks of translation.


Voice, Diaspora, and Literary Economies of Sound

Though Penney’s calypso recitations encapsulate gaps between the archive and repertoire in the endurance of Caribbean culture, they also reveal ways the program marked the emergence of a Caribbean literary tradition undoubtedly formed by regional cultures and their soundscapes. Emphasizing sound, Brathwaite posited that Caribbean literature’s embrace of regional sound signals a rejection of European poetic forms. And yet, much of the impetus for Caribbean sounds emerging from Caribbean Voices came from within a metropolitan infrastructure and institution – radio and the BBC – providing artists with a high profile, well-connected venue in which to publicize their art.

Radio and text collaboratively negotiated the distances between the colony, where the sound of Caribbean literature ostensibly originated, and the metropole, where the majority of the material resources for institutionalized literary production were located. Writers who contributed to Caribbean Voices first sent their pieces in print to the program’s producers, either Henry Swanzy in London or Cedric Lindo in Kingston, for consideration.20 Authors in the Caribbean would send pieces to Lindo initially, who would then pass a selection to Swanzy in London for a final decision. Swanzy was the primary contact for authors already resident in the metropole. After pieces were selected for broadcast, they were recorded in the BBC’s studios in London. Once selected, these recordings were then broadcast to the Caribbean. Attending to these networks demonstrates, as Alejandra Bronfman has argued, that “Mapping wires and sound waves as they revised sonic spaces requires attending to shifting notions of the region itself. The Caribbean is not a firmly bounded place but rather a series of claims about space.”21 The networks of literary production realized through this mapping of wires, sound waves, and writing in the 1940s and 1950s reveal a Caribbean tradition in the making through circuits of text and sound, rather than arising from preexisting oral tradition.

Indeed, Caribbean Voices was produced during a historical moment in which a new sense of the Caribbean as a region was arising from the phenomena of diaspora and imperial politics. Designing literary programming for the region as a whole required the incorporation of a diverse host of identities and their corresponding sounds, resulting in a program that configured the region as united amid its diversity. Migration to the capital after WWII compounded this sensibility, producing new ideas regarding the Caribbean as a regional space. As George Lamming wrote of his own status as a migrant, and as historians and literary critics have confirmed, “No Barbadian, no Trinidadian, no St Lucian, no islander from the West Indies sees himself as West Indian until he encounters another islander in foreign territory.”22 Lamming’s remarks describe the emergence of a new pan-regional identity, one that is notably limited to those who left the region. West Indian identity was particularly pronounced among London’s literary set, perhaps encouraged by Swanzy’s influence. During his tenure as editor of the program, literary networks and opportunities in London often passed through the BBC program.23 Lamming’s remarks also describe the diversity and isolation among West Indian islands, and Caribbean Voices’ listeners often protested the program’s regional approach. Some complained that regional accents or dialects were incomprehensible, while others objected that their island had been underrespresented among pieces selected for broadcast. It is not the aim of this article to debate the nature of Swanzy’s role in producing the region’s literature as John Figueroa, Glyne A. Griffith, and Philip Nanton have.24 Nevertheless, these circuits between the Caribbean and London grant insight into the construction of Caribbean literature. Caribbean Voices thus reveals emergent fractures both among West Indian islands and between the region and migrants in England.

Migration had a palpable influence on the literature of the period in the work of authors who stayed in the Caribbean as well as for those who had left. Radio rendered the effects of distance uncanny, as Caribbean Voices’s weekly broadcasts from the distant metropole to London provided forms of contact between writers who had left the region and those who had stayed. The Tobagonian poet EM Roach, who never relocated to London, sent a poem entitled “Letter to Lamming” to Caribbean Voices in April 1952 that described the feelings that arose upon hearing a friend’s voice on the radio: “I hold my narrow island in my hand / while you have thrown yours to the sea / And jumped for England, where, beyond my gaze, / I hear only your seasonal voice, / A seagull’s, crying on Atlantic. / A stranger is my brother’s voice, / But memory beams on exile, as on love / Lost or on the lately dead.”25 Both in Roach’s narrative address and in the performance of the poem, Lamming’s voice arrives from an unseen elsewhere, rendered unfamiliar by the distortions of radio broadcast and the absence of his speaking body. Roach expresses nostalgia at hearing Lamming’s voice, but this partial presence only serves to emphasize the remove of the absent body. The fleeting presence of Lamming’s voice comes to emphasize his physical absence. The poem can be read as a broader metaphor for the dispersed West Indian artistic community united only by voices mediated through writing and uncanny sound. Though its title signals Lamming as its addressee, the poem addresses an open ended “you.” The poem laments not only Lamming’s absence, but that of a unified group of Caribbean artists. Both the metaphor of brotherhood and the sign of the voice represent the common poetic cause of a Caribbean artistic movement fractured by distance as by death.

The poem’s reflection on radio’s partial bridging of diaspora is all the more pointed given that Lamming, the subject of the poem, read the work for broadcast. As Lamming reads Roach’s words back to the Caribbean, the voice becomes the ultimate expression of the disjointed production of Caribbean literature, a dynamic in which even literature framed as a veiled critique of the metropole’s outsized influence on literary production becomes an address to the Caribbean. The poem’s address is thus inverted as the direction of radio broadcast reverses the trajectory the poem describes. The performance of Roach’s poem is all the more poignant for its attachment to Lamming and its reflection on the momentary presence his voice seems to provide. Metonym for an absent artistic community, the voice only briefly evokes its bodily essence in transmission.

However, two particular features of the embodied voice undercut Lamming’s apparently dominant position in the literary economy of sound. In the poem’s last stanza, Roach asserts the importance of the Caribbean as a physical location for the poet to inhabit: “Here by the sea I pen my prayer for you / Waiting the poems of your fames you write upon the pages of your taken climate, / Man of islands. You will remember / The casual cadence of our slipshod patois, / The old men’s goatskin drumming, / The young men’s tin percussion, / The urgent sun insistence in our blood.”26 Roach describes the Caribbean as the privileged location of an aural aesthetic accessible through bodily phenomena from which the exiled writer is estranged. Though the voice draws attention to the diasporic writer’s seemingly dominant position as speaker in the oral economy of literary production, he is no longer bodily immersed in Caribbean soundscapes, a site of literary aurality. For the exiled writer, the rhythms of daily life must be remembered, and even the blood of Lamming’s body must be recalled by his friend. Climate, the air across which literature is broadcast, becomes the page for Lamming’s remembrances of a local Roach invokes in the immediacy of his own writing – and listening. And, though Lamming’s poems cast across the climate fade, the live soundscapes of the Caribbean local endure.

In Roach’s account, the aural ultimately overcomes the oral as the critical element of Caribbean literary production. The Caribbean listener, the recipient of sound through his bodily presence in the Caribbean, might experience both the soundscape of the place and the production of Caribbean literature through Caribbean Voices. And yet, despite the significance of the aural in the construction of a Caribbean literary scene (both through the act of making, or poesis, and the institutional structures in place to support the emergence of this tradition), text was a critical intermediary. Given that literary works broadcast on the air were first produced as texts, sound was a secondary addition at the time of radio broadcast. Indeed, Roach’s depiction of Caribbean literature as a product of listening emphasizes that the sound produced in the BBC’s London studios is the result of multiple mediations, as Caribbean soundscapes are first transcribed and then undergo a secondary translation into sound as they are recorded. To claim that the Caribbean literature of the period was at its foundations either an aural or an oral literature would be to ignore writing as a technological and poetic tool and the multiple mediations that surrounded sound.

Thus, the voice can be seen neither as purely ephemeral nor as enduring. Rather, in the archive of Caribbean Voices text and voice are always present within one another through structures of literary production. Just as the quotidian sounds of the Caribbean form literary production in the region, text served as a necessary intermediary between colony and metropole. Text and sound engage in a play of presence and absence as text recreates the sounds of daily life and sound reanimates text in radio broadcast; similarly, colony and metropole engage in a multidirectional economy in which Caribbean listeners also produce and convey sounds absent to their metropolitan colleagues.


Traces of the Absent Voice in the Archive

Turning to the archival documents preserved from Caribbean Voices provides insight into the interplay between the enduring written texts and the absent au/oral component of the program. Penney’s program on calypso and Lamming’s reading of Roach’s poem illuminate two dimensions of the lost audio archive: its ambivalent relationship to Caribbean cultural history and the economies of speaking and listening at the heart of au/oral literary production. The lost recording of Penney’s calypso broadcast is one of many instances of the erasure of an oral and embodied repertoire from the archive. While the textual information that remains describes many of the practices of Trinidadian carnival, neither the embodied singing voice of a Carnival performance nor the voice broadcast over the radio nor the traces of song appear in the archive. Similarly, while the trace of Roach’s poem in the archive allows us to reconstruct the dynamics of diaspora in Caribbean literary production, the absence of any recordings prevents us from more fully grasping the phenomenology of listening in mid-twentieth-century Caribbean literature. Roach’s poem precisely identifies this problem. Its description of local listening assembles the range of experiences available through sound, from the distances of diaspora to the presence of a distinctly Caribbean quotidian, further enacting the reader’s limited experience by rendering these phenomena in print. While the absent sonic archive points to the voice’s unique role in the development of literature, the cases studied above demonstrate that the voice cannot, as Derrida argues, be read as an indicator of full presence or unmediated origins.27

Both cases also converge around a third reflection on the ephemeral resulting from the absent sonic archive: affective responses to the unwieldy construction of a unified Caribbean literary history. Penney describes a series of specific traditions fading from Caribbean society as his own body deteriorates. We are similarly left to wonder what feelings Lamming’s reading of a poem written by a friend lamenting and perhaps even scolding his migration to England might produce. Indeed, Roach’s poem seems to highlight a conflict between the Caribbean and its diaspora that Lamming himself meditated upon elsewhere. Lamming’s essay on Caribbean writers migrating to London, “The Occasion for Speaking,” includes his own experience of migrating to England to pursue his literary career. Nine years into his self-imposed exile, Lamming writes,

Already I feel that I have had it (as a writer) where the British Caribbean is concerned…This may be the dilemma of the West Indian writer abroad: that he hungers for nourishment from a soil which he (as an ordinary citizen) could not at present endure… Yet there is always an acre of ground in the New World which keeps growing echoes in my head. I can only hope that these echoes do not die before my work comes to an end.28

Lamming’s essay articulates insecurities that echo Roach’s suggestion that he was losing touch with the Caribbean ordinary that so informed his early work. The corner of the new world can only grow echoes for Lamming – an ambivalent image, given that echoes are replicas that fade in their repetition. Confident proclamations like Brathwaite’s in History of the Voice, which traces a steady trajectory in Caribbean literature from imitation of European forms to liberated Caribbean sound, mask the affective tensions sketched in the textual archive of Caribbean Voices. And yet, the text itself does not entirely reveal the nature of these live moments or their potential effects on the emergent literary movement. After Lamming’s reading of Roach’s “Letter to Lamming,” the script notes that Henry Swanzy seemingly casually asked Lamming, “Now, George, what have you to say to that?”29 Next to Lamming’s name is a blank section of script. Though the script flags a spontaneous and explicit reflection on the poem, Lamming’s live remarks are lost.

Though Lamming’s missing reflections on Roach’s poem are a stark case of the archive’s silence, other elements of the voice and its affects endure in the scripts. Though in most cases a script is the stable textual counterpart to the unique and ephemeral performance, the scripts of Caribbean Voices carry traces of their performance. A series of palimpsestic markings dating to different moments in the program’s history edit the seemingly stable script. Many of these markings indicate last minute changes to the scripts or their readers after the scripts had been prepared, but before they were recorded. This first set of markings thus precedes broadcast and reveals internal debates or uncertainties regarding the program’s priorities for broadcast. The scripts also contain a second series of marks made after the programs were broadcast, but before the tapes were destroyed. Though the broadcasts of Caribbean Voices were destroyed, the scripts were checked against the recordings before this took place. Thus, each script of a program is marked to indicate whether the script was checked with the broadcast and sometimes contains changes made during the recording itself.

Palimpsestic markings on the script of a 1948 broadcast reveal Swanzy’s uncertainty about his influence on the show and its potential conflict with his audience’s preferences. The initial script and the edits made to it convey Swanzy’s trepidation addressing the audience response to voices broadcast on Caribbean Voices. This particular show was recorded before the influx of Caribbean writers to London had accelerated, and was early in Swanzy’s tenure at the program. In it, he explores the question of readers’ accents with a clear sense of uncertainty regarding his role as editor of the program. In the text initially scripted for broadcast, Swanzy wonders at the dearth of submissions, and proposes that writers object to the use of untrained West Indian readers. However, Swanzy’s reference to “untrained” readers in fact covered a range of social issues unrelated to professional development. In a letter penned shortly after the “Last Six Months” broadcast cited above, the prominent Barbadian literary figure Frank Collymore informed Swanzy,

Most of my friends still complain about the quality of the Voices. Woolford and Hendriks are, as you note, extremely good, but there are occasions where listeners find it very hard to understand what is being read. Each W.I. island has its own peculiar accent, and the stronger the accent, the greater the risk of the voice being almost incomprehensible. There is no standard W.I. accent; therefore I think the solution would be to select those that approximate most nearly to the English pattern.30

Under the broad category of “quality,” Collymore slides in the critical issue of incomprehensibility. Quality and accent here are likely coded ways of addressing social class – the more educated and wealthy a West Indian, the more likely that person spoke with fewer regional markers of accent or dialect. Historian Ann Spry Rush describes the desire among upwardly mobile West Indians to consume and project an image of themselves that closely adhered to English notions of respectability: “It was not unusual for listeners to express concern that West Indian speakers on the BBC broadcasts sound educated and cultured… In a 1948 letter about W.A.S. Hardy, one reader complained that Hardy’s ‘atrocious’ accent was not that of an ‘educated West Indian.’”31 A host of West Indian social issues thus cohered around the contested voice.

However, this candid exploration of tensions between Swanzy’s London-based editorial oversight and Caribbean writers themselves is marked as “cut” from the script. These concerns were ultimately included in the broadcast, but in a decidedly oblique way. At the end of the program, Swanzy promises “to bring in more voices than we have done hitherto, Yorkshire Voices perhaps and Devonshire Voices, as well as Oxford Voices.”32 This explicit discussion of accent displaces concerns regarding Caribbean aesthetics onto English diversity, allowing Swanzy to avoid direct discussion of the debate and perhaps indicating uncertainty regarding his ability to intervene in deliberations over the aesthetics of a region from which he did not originate. Instead, he refers to England as a common point of reference for himself and other imperial subjects, nevertheless highlighting the diversity within that metropolitan monolith.

Another passage cut from the program grants further insight into Swanzy’s navigation of these competing priorities and his privileged position influencing the region’s literary landscape. The originally scripted opening includes Swanzy musing that, “You must have got rather tired by now of hearing my didactic, Oxford voice poking its slightly supercilious nose round the treasures of your Caribbean foreshore.”33 Before the passage was entirely cut, Swanzy had edited “didactic, Oxford” to the more general “Uncaribbean.”34 Here, not only does the script refer to Swanzy’s voice, it evokes its own inability to properly record Caribbean literature, a shortcoming unique to radio. The script, marked by a nervous editorial hand, grants us access to fluctuating affect potentially revealed in Swanzy’s reading. What’s more, it evokes the absent listener, and her expectations and desires not just for the program’s literature, but for its sound. A second editorial hand signals the archivist’s preoccupation with the program’s disappearing sounds. Only through these multiple editorial markings are we able to grasp the uncertainty and insecurity in Swanzy’s editorial decisions; the archivist’s hand rather preserves both the originally scripted material and the revisions. Were we left only with sound recordings, this vacillation and the conflicts to which it grants insight would be lost.

The scripts of the program thus maintain a certain degree of liveness despite the now vanished voice. The scripts also provide a momentary glimpse of the Caribbean tradition Brathwaite narrates in History of the Voice. These documents affirm Brathwaite’s conviction that sound is critical to contemporary Caribbean literature, but they cast some doubt on the origins and context of that development. In the archival scripts, sound is described as a contingent rather than necessary element of the literary tradition, one that was supported by Caribbean Voices’ clout in the region’s literary production by virtue of its ability to reach broad Caribbean audiences and its potential to provide connections to metropolitan publishers. Furthermore, the preferences of the program’s editor contributed to artistic foregrounding of distinctly Caribbean sound. The scripts and their relationship to sound remind us that even the enduring tradition is the product of ephemeral moments.


Conclusion: The Voice’s History, from the Ephemeral to the Enduring

Brathwaite’s description of Caribbean literary history as a history of the voice identifies an aesthetics of the voice in the region, describing instances of poetic forms through which the seemingly ephemeral voice has endured across the region’s history. Yet, the archival documents of Caribbean Voices reveal that sound was not so consolidated an influence as Brathwaite might have it. These documents uncover a fragmented Caribbean literature in which access to sound reception and production was unevenly distributed, and the future of the region’s tradition was uncertain. The textual record of correspondence between the Caribbean and London and its explicit discussion of sound’s formative role in the literary economies of production and consumption demonstrate that, rather than collaboratively contributing to a clear regional literary project, exiled and local writers negotiated fragmented experiences. The enduring tradition of Caribbean literature is thus, like all histories, selective, a product of its archives.

The array of material both preserved and lost from Caribbean Voices leads us to a number of conclusions regarding ephemerality and its relationship to the archive. The voice’s absence in the Caribbean Voices archive amounts to the loss of a critical dimension of the literature whose features are sketched in the cases above. Both historically and aesthetically, the voice shaped the meaning of the broadcasts on the program. And yet, the extant archive and indeed the program’s relationship to Caribbean literary history demonstrate that text and voice, performance and tradition, the enduring and the ephemeral, are bound up with one another. The first point to be taken from these cases follows from scholarship in performance studies’ insistence on the ineluctable present and presence of performance. Peggy Phelan’s claim that performance is ontologically non-reproductive, resisting late capitalist tendencies towards finding value only in that which can be commodified and reproduced, neglects that the presence and present of performance has an afterlife apart from the archive in its formative influence on its audience and its performers.35 As Brathwaite’s talk demonstrates by its bibliographic inclusion of Caribbean Voices, the broadcasts had a life beyond the present in which they were performed. The Caribbean Voices broadcasts are influential in the contemporary writing and reading Caribbean literature, even if no record of those sounds exists. The tradition endures, formed by ephemeral contributions, even when those discreet instances of sound do not.

The second point to be taken from these tensions between archive and performance lies in the dangers of fetishizing the vanished ephemeral. While Brathwaite rightly names sound as a critical element of Caribbean aesthetics permanently lost, enshrining the voice as the ultimate expression of regional tradition obscures what the print archive makes visible: the emergent quality of the voice in Caribbean literature, and the tensions between print and sound, between diasporic and local West Indian writers, between London and the Caribbean. Indeed, viewed from our present, Brathwaite’s account appropriates Caribbean Voices into a smooth development of aural and oral literature, one that traces Caribbean sounds through Caribbean voices to his own present, at the apex of Caribbean literature.36 Throughout History of the Voice, Brathwaite plays the recordings that most clearly model a particular history of nation language, one that moves from the imitative literature of the early twentieth century to the liberated folk poetry of his own era. Indeed, Brathwaite’s talk reveals the extent to which creating a narrative of Caribbean literature has required privileging certain voices in the archive and effacing the formative influence of traditions lost to its records. In other words, Brathwaite provides an example of the potential productive and reproductive ends of performance through his use of sound to establish and perpetuate a notion of literary tradition. As we have seen, print provides not only glimmers of this history and the tensions surrounding it, but also traces of live broadcast and its affects in edited scripts. Neglecting print archives to privilege sound risks further disappearance and erasure of the lost sonic archive of Caribbean Voices lingering in its print documents.

Ultimately, the enduring trace of the ephemeral can be located not just in the textual records of Caribbean Voices, but in the literary and cultural tradition that it shaped. The vanished sounds of Caribbean Voices were formative in the region in ways that the notion of ephemerality overlooks. While the voice itself and the lasting records of it are lost, its effects and affects inform the tradition that Brathwaite discusses. Having lived through the program’s years on the air, Brathwaite came up through its ranks as a young Caribbean poet, writing and occasionally reading for the program while studying at Cambridge. Moreover, the program’s editorial remarks and literary broadcasts reached writers and readers throughout the region, leaving its mark despite the current absence of its sounds. Latent in Brathwaite’s comments are all the affective experience and sonic instances that have been relegated to ephemerality while others have been preserved. While Brathwaite’s history of the voice acknowledges the sounds of the Caribbean, it neglects the sounds of conflict, migration, insecurity, and separation, even as they form that history. Though an ineluctable element of the Caribbean literary tradition has been lost to the voice’s ephemerality, the voice continues to haunt the written archive. Ultimately, then, in the case of Caribbean Voices the enduring medium of print and the ephemeral voice are latent within one another, as the script directs the voice and the voice reacts to the script. Ironically, archival and scholarly practices that privilege the voice allow the voice as fetish to overtake the practice in which it participates.

  1. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon Books, 1984), 17. 

  2. Brathwaite, History of the Voice. 

  3. Houston A. Baker, English Literature: Opening up the Canon (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 51. 

  4. James Procter’s article “Una Marson at the BBC” questions whether or not 1943 was the year of the first Caribbean Voices broadcast, comparing the date given in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s biography on Una Marson, March 11, 1943, with scripts from broadcasts that begin March 11, 1945. Procter suggests that 1943 might have been a typo in Jarrett-Macauley’s work. Procter cites archival evidence suggesting that the show was first broadcast October 1, 1944. Most histories of the program cite either 1943 or 1945 as the program’s inaugural year. See James Procter, “Una Marson at the BBC,” in Small Axe 19.3 (November, 2015): 1-28. 

  5. Delia Jarrett-Macauley, The Life of Una Marson, 1905-65 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998), 144. 

  6. The program emerged from BBC Colonial Service programming instituted during the Second World War to boost morale in islands of the British West Indies that were home to soldiers contributing to the war effort. Calling the West Indies included messages read on air by soldiers to maintain contact with their families. Eventually, Calling the West Indies began to incorporate literature into its programming. Glyne Griffith, “This is London Calling the West Indies: The BBC’s Caribbean Voices” in West Indian Intellectuals in Britain, ed. Bill Schwarz (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), 197. Anne Spry Rush and others have written more extensively about the BBC’s efforts to cultivate a sense of imperial unity through overseas service broadcasts. See Anne Spry Rush, Bonds of Empire: West Indians and Britishness from Victoria to Decolonization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), esp chapters 7 and 8. 

  7. Procter, “Una Marson at the BBC,” 11, 13-16, 18-21. 

  8. While Swanzy speculated that he was asked to leave for his encouragement of West Indian nationalism, there is no archival record to support this suspicion. See Glyne A. Griffith, The BBC and the Development of Anglophone Caribbean Literature (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) 90-1; Rush, Bonds of Empire, 198. 

  9. Rhonda Cobham, “The Caribbean Voices Programme and the Development of West Indian Short Fiction, 1945-1958,” in Peter Strummer (ed.) The Story Must Be Told: Short Narrative Prose in the New English Literatures (Beyreuth: Konigshanson and Newmann, 1986). 

  10. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 87. It should be noted, nevertheless, that the BBC did take the precaution of preserving some of its recorded broadcasts, which are now housed at the British Library. Among these are speeches given by Adolf Hitler and Charles de Gaulle during WWII. Asa Briggs, History of Broadcasting the United Kingdom, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 390, 607. 

  11. Michael Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (London: Tavistock Publications, 1972), 129. 

  12. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 13. 

  13. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), 148. 

  14. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), 19. 

  15. Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire, 30-1. 

  16. Henry Swanzy, “The Last Six Months,” Broadcast August 15, 1948, Box 20964, Folder 4, Caribbean Voices Scripts, BBC Written Archives’ Centre, Cavesham, England. 

  17. The Calypso here forms part of a cannon of performances that mark the beginning of Lent, which have developed and transformed over the course of Trinidad’s history. Calypsos, songs defined by their rhythm and particularly their pointed lyrical composition, have been a consistent part of these rituals. Calypsos often incorporated current events into their themes and lyrics, producing a live dynamic of social commentary. See Peter H. Manuel, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey, Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Reggae to Rumba (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 183-205. 

  18. Charles Penney, Untitled Segment Broadcast Feb 19, 1949, Box 20964, Folder 4, Caribbean Voices Scripts

  19. See Gunhild Borggreen and Rune Gade, “Introduction: The Archive in Performance Studies,” in Gunhild Borggreen and Rune Gade (eds.) Performing Archives/Archives of Performance (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013), 12. 

  20. While much of Henry Swanzy’s Caribbean Voices correspondence with the Caribbean producer of the program is addressed to Gladys Lindo, Cedric Lindo’s wife, Glyne Griffith has convincingly argued that Cedric Lindo was in fact responsible for Caribbean Voices editorial decisions and correspondence. For more, see Griffith, The BBC and the Development of Anglophone Caribbean Literature, 42n1. 

  21. Alejandra Bronfman, Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 5. 

  22. George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 39. See also, Gordon K. Lewis, The Growth of the Modern West Indies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968), 350; David Lowenthal, The West Indies Federation: Perspectives on a New Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 67. 

  23. Lawerence A. Breiner, “Caribbean Voices on the Air: Radio, Poetry, and Nationalism in the Anglophone Caribbean,” in Susan Merrill Squier (ed.) Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 97. 

  24. See John Figueroa, “Becoming a Caribbean Man” in Ferdinand Dennis and Naseem Khan (eds.) Voices of Crossing: The Impact of Britain on Writers from Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2000), 51-57; Glyne A. Griffith, “Deconstructing Nationalisms: Henry Swanzy, Caribbean Voices, and the Development of West Indian Literature,” in Small Axe 5.2 (2001): 1-20; Philip Nanton, “What Does Mr. Swanzy Want? – Shaping or Reflecting? An Assessment of Henry Swanzy’s Contribution to the Development of Caribbean Literature,” in Caribbean Quarterly 46.1 (2000): 61-72. 

  25. EM Roach, “Letter to Lamming,” Box 20964, Folder 8. Caribbean Voices Scripts. It is worth noting that Roach published a print version of the poem, with some notable differences in syntax, in a 1952 issue of the Caribbean literary magazine Bim

  26. Roach, “Letter to Lamming.” 

  27. Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2011), 65-74. 

  28. Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, 50. 

  29. Henry Swanzy, Broadcast April 13, 1952, Box 20964, Folder 8, Caribbean Voices Scripts. 

  30. Frank Collymore Letter to Henry Swanzy, Aug. 28, 1948. Box 1, Folder 2, Caribbean Voices Correspondance, UWI St. Augustine West Indiana Collection, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. 

  31. Rush, Bonds of Empire, 192. 

  32. Henry Swanzy, “Talk,” Broadcast Jan 11, 1948, Box 20946, Folder 3, Caribbean Voices Scripts. 

  33. Swanzy, “Talk.” 

  34. Swanzy, “Talk.” 

  35. Phelan, Unmarked, 148. 

  36. “Indeed, since this History was first conceived and presented at Carifesta 76 in Jamaica, there has been such a liberation of the voice in Caribbean poetry, that nation language has become not the exception but almost the rule, except that because of its organic, fluid/tidal rather than ideal/structured nature, that word won’t really be appropriate in this context.” Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 49. 

I would like to thank the many thoughtful interlocutors that have shaped the writing of this piece. First and foremost, my deep gratitude to Priti Joshi and Susan Zieger for organizing the 2016 ACLA seminar “Ephemera and Ephemerality: Media, Archive, Memory,” which provided me the opportunity to begin writing about the topics explored in this paper. Many thanks as well to the seminar’s participants for providing evocative papers and questions to think with. Priti and Susan have also been generous with their time and intellect in editing this special issue; my thanks to Priti particularly for her thoughtful and thorough notes on my paper.

I am grateful to Chloe Blackshear, Alia Breitweiser, Monica Felix, and Michal Peles-Almagor for feedback on an early draft of this paper, and to the Franke Affiliated Fellows at the University of Chicago for their insights.

Finally, archival research cited in this paper was conducted with the generous support of the Nicholson Center for British Studies and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago, who funded travel to visit the archives cited.

Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.