I often use the second semester of the first-year writing program where I teach as an opportunity to explore rhetoric through different forms of storytelling, including poetry. In particular, I include a short unit of creative nonfiction, primarily as a way to interrogate our expectations of and obligations to truth (whatever that means) in storytelling. I encourage my students to notice how a writer’s “voice” might change from fiction to creative nonfiction—or, more remarkably, how it might not change. V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage provides perfect fodder for our discussion.
The book is a seminal example of modern travel writing, but I focus on the first two essays in which Naipaul, now living in London, makes the return voyage by sea to the West Indies—the middle passage—and arrives at his birthplace of Trinidad. The island is the backdrop for most of Naipaul’s fiction, including the linked stories of Miguel Street, told in first person by an unnamed narrator who treats the motley crew of characters on his titular street with unassuming respect and appreciation: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.” But in returning to Port-of-Spain in The Middle Passage, Naipaul himself might have been one of those people dismissing it as mere slum, describing the country as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” He portrays the people as “unsure of themselves, having no taste or style of their own.”
Both of these versions of Trinidad seem so real when we read them. Which one is closer to the truth?
This line of questioning allows us to consider the role of storytelling in creative nonfiction, identifying the narrator as a device completely distinct from the writer. What we think of Naipaul the writer should not necessarily color how we read him as a writer. Usually, this idea seems obvious to my students, who are all sophisticated critical thinkers able to separate their emotional reactions from their intellectual work. At this point, I share some more background about Naipaul the writer. In addition to his often scathing, hyper-critical remarks about the West Indies, he has (in)famously said that women are prevented from being the literary equals of men because of their “sentimentality, their narrow view of the world.” Most of my students—and, I’d imagine, most rational people—disagree with this sentiment to the point of disgust.
At this point we read the essay again.
What’s different? How have our impressions changed or not changed? Here, I encourage my students to pay attention to the ways in which language is tied up in identities, how rhetoric can be used to project iterations of our selves onto the page and into the world. It’s a nuance of which I need to constantly remind myself. Naipaul has a complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature. But Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth. Reading Naipaul often leaves me feeling disconnected. I don’t understand how someone who writes so beautifully on the page could say such ugly things about the place where he was born.
Yet I, too, left the island, and have not returned.
One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” In grad school, I wrote an essay that charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up a fossil fuel industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.
And that’s why I love teaching Naipaul’s essay. It reminds me and my students that reading can be complicated and conflicted. It helps me demonstrate the importance of critical reading that acknowledges and embraces the responsibility of the reader to be conscious of her own biases. Every time I read from The Middle Passage I learn something new, about writing, and about myself—which is ultimately what I want for my students.
Colin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, Spry Literary, and the Brevity blog. He is a freelance children’s book writer and editor, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.