The Literary Journalism of Seepersad Naipaul

English professor Aaron Eastley is working on a collaborative project involving a collection of Trinidadian journalist Seepersad Naipaul’s articles, as well as a Digital Humanities project that examines Naipaul’s literary journalism and unique style as a Caribbean writer.

PROVO, Utah (May 27, 2015)—After returning from his LDS mission in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies, Aaron Eastley wondered why he had never heard of any Caribbean writers. This inspired him as an English major to read writers such as V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, and now as an English professor, Eastley’s research interests include African, Indian, British, and, not surprisingly, Caribbean literature.

Seepersad_Naipaul_with_Ford_PrefectEastley has an ongoing project with Professor Kenneth Ramchand in Trinidad to preserve and publish a collection of Trinidadian journalist Seepersad Naipaul’s news articles, a project he hopes will shed light on Seepersad’s influence in the literary history of Trinidad. Last October, Ramchand invited Eastley to speak in Trinidad at the Friends of Mr. Biswas lecture series, where Eastley was able to present his research on Seepersad Naipaul as a literary journalist.

Eastley first became interested in Seepersad Naipaul through reading the works of his son, V.S. Naipaul, a famous Nobel Prize winning author born in Trinidad in 1932. After learning more about V.S. Naipaul’s father, however, Eastley became interested in Seepersaud the author, whose writings are generally unknown yet unique and captivating for their time.

Seepersad Naipaul was the first East Indian in Trinidad to become a successful writer. From 1929 to 1953 he worked for the Trinidad Guardian, the leading newspaper on the island at the time.

“Seepersad fascinates me because he was this sort of miracle,” Eastley said. “He went to school, but he basically taught himself how to read and write in English, and then five years later he got hired as a newspaper reporter. It was his flair and confidence that got him the job.”

Realizing that half the population of the island was East Indian, English editor Galt McGowan decided to hire Seepersad to write local pieces about the East Indians who lived in the rural, agricultural communities in Trinidad.

“He had a lot of love for his own people, culture and community, but he was also a pretty harsh critic at times, especially if he felt there were some areas that were sort of backward or superstitious,” Eastley said.

Eastley recounted a story about a time that Seepersad got himself into trouble for his harsh critique of the religious practices of the East Indian community.

“He wrote a series of articles about how Hindu farmers wouldn’t vaccinate their animals. Instead, they’d offer sacrifices to Kali, hoping the goddess of death and destruction would keep away the disease,” Eastley explained.

Eastley continued that after writing a couple of these articles, Seepersad received death threats that if he did not begin to offer sacrifices to Kali, he would die one week later.

At first Seepersad was flippant, Eastley said. Every day for a week a new article from Seepersad would appear in the paper. The first few outright rejected the superstition and refused to comply with the threat. Then, by middle of the week, Seepersad said that his wife and friends were begging him to go along with it and make the sacrifice, but he was still unsettled about doing something he did not believe because of a threat.

By the end of the week, however, he decided not to take any chances, acknowledging that though he did not believe in Kali he would still make the sacrifice out of fear that loyal Hindu followers would kill him.

“It was alright for awhile,” Eastley said. “But a few months later he had a nervous breakdown, and they think it was as a result of that really awful situation, being forced into something he didn’t believe in.”

Eastley also discussed Seepersad’s unique role as an inside reformer. “There were a lot of people that were trying to preserve anything they could from India in the Caribbean, and a lot of people who were saying they should Westernize and forget all about India,” Eastley said.

Eastley explained that nobody had really written about Trinidad from the inside until Seepersad. Though travelers often came through from Europe and wrote about the Caribbean, they could only write about it the way travelers can. Seepersad’s writings reveal an inside perspective that could only be gained from a local voice.

In addition to Seepersad’s unique position in the community, Eastley also addressed the role Seepersad found himself in as a writer. Though Seepersad wanted to be a good journalist, he also wanted to explore the literary, creative aspect of writing as well, a conflict of writing styles that appears in his journalism.

unnamed-1Eastley explained that he found proof of Seepersad’s distinctive writing style in a digital humanities project.

In collecting Seepersad’s articles, Eastley noticed that about 300 were attributed to Seepersad, but that an additional 300 or so were signed by the Chaguanas correspondent or an identifier that could only possibly be attributed to him.

“I took this to Jarom McDonald who does Digital Humanities,” Eastley said. “We compared the writing from the Chaguanas correspondent to the writing that was signed Seeperad Naipaul, and we compared it to the writing of five other journalists that worked for the paper at the time.”

Eastley explained that one way to identify an author is through syntactical stylometry analysis, looking for tiny things that people do when they write that they would not even notice, an almost subconscious element of syntax that distinguishes one person’s writing from another’s.

When Eastley and McDonald compared the Seepersad writings with the others it produced a scatter effect. The syntactic stylometry did not do anything, which McDonald said suggested a strong editorial hand at the newspaper.

“It was not conclusive, so we can’t tell what Seepersad did or didn’t do based on syntactic stylometry, but what we can tell is if you look at the lexical stylometry, his word usage especially, there’s an almost 90 percent match,” Eastley explained.

McDonald concluded from the results of the lexical stylometry that it is almost certain that the same person that wrote the Seepersad articles wrote the Chaguanas correspondence articles.

“You can’t distinguish his writing based on the syntax, but you can tell based on the words that he’s using. He uses all sorts of words that others don’t use. Basically it’s the literariness of his work, it’s the richness of his language,” Eastley said.

Eastley continued, “It was fun to get the digital humanities aspect in there. It was helpful for me because I was able to prove that the Chaguanas correspondence articles were written by Naipaul rather than by someone else, but it also supported this notion that he’s writing something different.”

unnamedLast October Eastley was invited to speak on Seepersad Naipaul at the National Library in Trinidad by the Friends of Mr. Biswas, an organization dedicated to preserving Seepersad Naipaul’s home as a museum for education, cultural tourism and research on the Naipauls and West Indian literature.

Eastley was able to share his digital humanities research and other findings with the Friends of Mr. Biswas organization, several Trinidad Guardian journalists and other members of the community. In addition to his lecture, Eastley donated digital copies of Seepersad’s Guardian articles that were previously unavailable.

He will be returning to Trinidad in September to present at The Three Naipauls conference that will explore the writings of Seepersad Naipaul and his two sons, V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul, who is also a writer.

Eastley went back to Trinidad in April to finish collaborating with a professor named Kenneth Ramchand to publish a collection of Seepersad’s writing. “He’s like the Godfather of West Indian literature,” Eastley said. “He started teaching West Indian literature at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, St. Augustine campus in the early ’60s at a time when nobody was teaching Caribbean or West Indian literature anywhere in the world.”

Eastley met Ramchand six years ago at a conference in Trinidad. “I introduced myself and said I was really interested in the journalism of Seepersad Naipaul, and he couldn’t believe it,” Eastley said.

Eastley told Ramchand that he had been trying to go through microfilms of Seepersad’s newspaper articles and piece them together. Ramchand said that he was working to publish Seepersad’s short stories, and invited Eastley to collaborate with him in a project that would exhibit both facets of Seepersad’s work and make more of his writing available to the public.

“To me it’s been a cool project because I really like the quality of the writing, and the issues are still pretty pertinent,” Eastley said. “It’s of historical interest primarily, but it’s also of contemporary interest.”

He added that Seepersad’s is an important pioneering influence because his writing represents the Caribbean diasporic community at a time when few others recognized the importance of literary work.

“His community was in transition, trying to define and redefine itself constantly, trying to figure out year to year what to try and tenaciously preserve from the past and what things to adopt from the present,” Eastley concluded.

–Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

For more information about Seepersad Naipaul, contact Aaron Eastley.