And His World of Literature
By Janet Naidu
Guyana Journal, July 2009
Frank Birbalsingh started his career at York University, Toronto, in 1970, and served as a professor in York's English Department for thirty-three years. His subject was called “Commonwealth Literature” at first, but the name later changed to “Post-Colonial Literature”, that is to say, literature from former British colonies.
Birbalsingh was born in Guyana in 1938 and completed his primary education at Better Hope Canadian Mission School. It is interesting that he would eventually settle in Canada since the Canadian Presbyterian Church worked mainly in the countryside where the population consisted mostly of Guyanese of Indian heritage. Birbalsingh's father was among the first Indo-Guyanese Head Masters in Canadian Mission schools in Guyana, and under his father's tutelage, Frank passed his Primary Common Entrance examination, and won a scholarship to attend Queen's College, the prestigious Government boys' school in Georgetown.
While studying was important, Queen's College (QC) provided also facilities for students to participate in sports such as cricket. Birbalsingh was not deeply involved in sports, but like many other young men, he played a little cricket, though not competitively. His mind was set on completing the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) examination, and in1954, he succeeded in passing this exam in eight subjects, including Mathematics, French, Latin and his favorite subject, English. Between 1954 and 1956, Birbalsingh was in the sixth and final form at QC where he concentrated on studying Latin, French and English. During his years at QC, Birbalsingh made many friends with whom he is still in contact.
QC years were also a period when political issues were emerging in the open in Guyana, and Birbalsingh observed the heightened political consciousness, more specifically in Georgetown, while the People's Progressive Party (PPP) was still in its early years of the struggle for workers' rights. When the British Guiana Constitution was suspended in 1953, he recalls the turbulence in the atmosphere as British troops arrived in Guyana. A regiment named The Argyll and Scottish Highlanders was housed in barracks at Eve Leary, next door to QC, and, for the first time, Birbalsingh saw soldiers at close quarters drilling, marching in formation, playing football or lining up for their meals. It was a time of great tension and uncertainty.
After graduating from QC, Birbalsingh taught at St. Stanislaus College for one year before going on, in 1957, to the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica where he completed his B.A. Honors degree in 1961. While at UWI, he was interested in writing short stories and his first story was read on the BBC radio program “Caribbean Voices” in 1960.
After graduating from UWI, Birbalsingh went back to Guyana in September 1961 to teach at QC. He then won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study for his M.A. in English in India. Being of Indian origin, he found India interesting. He traveled to many parts of India and was thrilled to observe his ancestral culture. But he realized that the M.A. consisted of work he had already done in his B.A. program at UWI, and felt that he would be duplicating his studies, so at the end of 1962, he went to the UK to do his M.A. in English. In London, Birbalsingh stayed briefly with Guyanese friends before finding accommodation of his own. He registered for the M.A. at King's College, University of London, and he found work as a supply teacher in tough Secondary schools similar to the one described by fellow Guyanese, E.R. Braithwaite, in his book To Sir With Love.
For Birbalsingh, a young Guyanese, London was a revelation. Simply listening to the BBC, going to the theater or reading British newspapers was informative and culturally enriching. For the first time, he could enjoy professional opera and ballet and read in a great library like the British Library. Another aspect of life in London to which he was attracted was the pub. In the countryside in Guyana, Birbalsingh knew of rum shops in which people drank alcohol and often fell into drunken brawls or fights. In London pubs, however, ordinary working class people ate and drank and threw darts or played other indoor games. Men and women chatted and joked and went home quietly. It was very different from what he remembered in Guyana. Birbalsingh divided his time between teaching at school in the days and studying at nights. He earned his M.A. from King's College, London University in 1966. His thesis was entitled “Novelists of the British Caribbean, 1940-1963”. During his time in London, he was joined by Norma, his wife-to-be, whom he had first met in Jamaica. In 1967 they moved to Toronto where Frank intended to do a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature.
In Toronto, Birbalsingh worked as a supply teacher in schools while researching for his Ph.D. Since he was unable to gain entrance in the University of Toronto, he registered once again at King's College in London University. Meanwhile, he and Norma got married, and Norma, who had trained as a nurse in England, began working to supplement the family income. In 1970, before he submitted his Ph.D. thesis, Birbalsingh applied for a teaching position in the English Department at York University. It was a time when universities in Canada were expanding and he was hired on the basis of his M.A. and his Ph.D. in progress. He was awarded the Ph.D. in 1972 and continued a life-long academic career teaching at York until 2003.
Interviewing Birbalsingh inside his home, he looks out to his lush garden (which his wife tends), and reminisces about his years at York. He found teaching to be stimulating and gratifying. "I was lucky to have the opportunity to teach at this institution," he smiled. Indeed, one can argue that it was not only luck, but also strong interest and persistence in his desire for higher education. Birbalsingh relishes at least the first half of his experience at York, recalling that he enjoyed teaching and the opportunity to travel to different English-speaking countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, where his older daughter was born. He also spent a sabbatical year in Nigeria in 1976-1977, when his two young daughters nearly died from malaria. He also traveled to other places such as the UK, Europe, India and the Caribbean.
Birbalsingh is the author of many scholarly publications, some of which are at the York and Toronto Public Libraries. Of the three areas of his university career - teaching, service and scholarship - Birbalsingh concentrated mainly on scholarship. In the latter half of his career when he was helping graduate students get their degrees, university life began to change. He felt that the University began to adopt more of a business atmosphere, and the relationship between professor and student began to change. It is not that students were demanding certain grades, but they needed particular grades in order to obtain grants. Frank reminisces about this change, “I don't blame the student, but the system was becoming too much like a corporation, geared to production rather than free discussion and dissemination of knowledge.”
Birbalsingh's interest in post-colonial literature led him eventually to focus on the Indian Indentureship experience. He became a pioneering scholar of Indo-Caribbean studies and edited ground-breaking collections of studies such as Indenture and Exile and Indo-Caribbean Resistance. His books also include From Pillar to Post: The Indo Caribbean Diaspora, and anthologies of Indo-Caribbean writing - Jahaji Bhai and Jahaji. His works appeal especially to students studying at Colleges and Universities or those interested in the experience of Indians in the Caribbean.
After former British Caribbean colonies achieved Independence in the 1960s, Indians began to feel disenfranchised, especially in Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. In Guyana, for example, the African-based Peoples National Congress (PNC) ruled from 1964 to 1992 and in Trinidad & Tobago, Eric Williams's Peoples National Movement (PNM), also African-based, held power continuously from 1956 to 1980. Conscious of the plight of Indo-Guyanese in these circumstances, Birbalsingh applied time and effort to record their experience. His books help to probe this subject and examine the ethnic dilemma and struggle for power that emerged from ensuing racial and political conflict.
In 1988, Birbalsingh organized an Indo-Caribbean Conference to mark the 150th Anniversary of the presence of Indians in the Caribbean. The Conference was attended by international scholars who presented papers and participated in seminars. Caribbean politicians such as Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mr. Basdeo Panday also attended. Birbalsingh's book Indenture and Exile: The Indo-Caribbean Experience is a collection of papers from this conference.
As Indians from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago were immigrating to Canada with their children, Birbalsingh recognized the need for them to have a forum where they could come to learn about their culture and feel a sense of their identity and heritage. From 1986 to 2000, Birbalsingh played a leading role in the Ontario Society for Services to Indo-Caribbean Canadians (OSSICC). Various activities were held to focus on the cultural awareness of Indians in the Caribbean. Activities included seminars, workshops and lectures that generated discussion on Indo-Caribbean experience in Canada and elsewhere. Other activities covered musical events and a play, From Ganges to Demerary, dealing with the experience of Indian women. Between 1989 and 2000, OSSICC held an annual dinner, featuring keynote speakers, such as Dr. Dale Bisnauth (who was then Minister of Education in the Government of Guyana), Professor David Dabydeen from the University of Warwick in England, and Lord Bikhu Parekh. Because of migration, children who grow up in Canada may not know about their heritage and thus OSSICC provided a window for a new learning experience. In the process, OSSICC inspired several publications such as Birbalsingh's writings. Another prominent member of OSSICC, Dr. Ramabai Espinet, also produced a novel, The Swinging Bridge, which studies Indo-Caribbean experience in great depth.
Birbalsingh loves the game of cricket and has a library of cricket books. To him, cricket is not just a game. Like politics, cricket for him is an instrument of resistance in the Caribbean - resistance to colonial rule and oppression. Frank's book, The Rise of West Indian Cricket: From Colony to Nation, is an historical reflection and reminiscence on events, issues, and personalities that are central to the evolution of West Indian cricket from the 1920s to the 1960s. Cricket allowed West Indians to express the best in themselves and be recognized internationally.
In 2007, Birbalsingh published The People's Progressive Party of Guyana, 1950-1992: An Oral History. It is a collection of twenty-seven interviews with members (and opponents) of the PPP, and with commentators who observed the party closely for a long time. The volume attempts to give a balanced view of the Party during this period, and includes interviews with Dr. Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase, Eusi Kwayana, Martin Carter, Eric Huntley, and with commentators from the wider Caribbean, for example, Richard Hart, Lloyd Best, George Lamming and George Belle, as well as independent Guyanese observers such as Father Andrew Morrison, a Roman Catholic priest, Randolph George, former Anglican Bishop of Guyana, and David de Caires, editor of a national newspaper, the Stabroek News. The book not only provides a history of the PPP, but also relates factors that played a crucial role in the party's exclusion from power for most of the second half of the twentieth century.
As one of the earliest critics of contemporary Caribbean literature, Birbalsingh began writing about Caribbean literature in the late 1960s, and played a pioneering role in introducing Caribbean literature to Canada. He was also one of the earliest teachers of Caribbean literature at university level, having started a Caribbean literature course in 1971 at York University. At that time, the subject was not known in the University curriculum in Canada or anywhere else outside the Caribbean. Since then, Caribbean literature is taught widely in Canada. As a sign of his strong interest in Indo-Caribbean writing, Birbalsingh has written essays and reviews of many works of (mostly Caribbean) literature, and a book on the work of Neil Bissoondath, titled Neil Bissoondath: Indo-Caribbean Canadian Diaspora. When asked what he found most interesting and rewarding in writing about Neil Bissoondath's work, Birbalsingh said that Bissoondath, like his uncle, V.S. Naipaul, captures a strong sense of the “displacement” of Indians in the Caribbean. By considering this aspect of Indo-Caribbean experience, Bissoondath raises the issue of his identity as a native of Trinidad & Tobago, questioning whether he is a Trinidadian or a displaced Indian! Bissoondath resolves the question of his identity by regarding himself simply as “Canadian”. He does not consider himself as someone retaining his West Indian culture in a mosaic of cultures in Canada.
Now retired, Birbalsingh still retains his link with York as Professor Emeritus. He remains prolific and continues what he loves doing - reading and writing - and investigating new trends in Caribbean literature. He has no regrets about his role as an academic or the type of academic writing that he does. When asked how he would describe his interest in Caribbean literature and writings to someone who has not read any of his books, Birbalsingh replies, “It is a new area of study that fits into the larger body of writing from former British colonies.” Because of this, his writing would mainly appeal to people of Caribbean heritage. But others, who like the Caribbean, might also be interested to find out about the region's history and especially about slavery and indenture. Nowadays, Caribbean people have made a name for themselves in many areas, notably in literature and sport, and Birbalsingh's writings celebrate these achievements.
Janet Naidu is a poet, short story and biography writer, social and community activist. She is the author of two collections of poems Winged Heart and Rainwater. Her third book of poems is due soon. She lives in Toronto, Canada.