Professor given grant for Caribbean research

April 24, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

Ronald DeAbreu, an associate professor at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), learned a great deal about the writings of dead European men in his Catholic school in Guyana.

But what really affected him was the handful of books he read by West Indian authors.

"As a child in Guyana, I read whatever West Indian novels I could get my hands on because of the delight I took in seeing depicted a world that was familiar to me," he said.

One of the first books was an early novel by V. S. Naipaul called "The House of Mr. Biswas," a Dickensian comedy about a man from Trinidad who tries to build his own house.

"It's a warm, funny, poignant novel, and it says a lot about what people want," said Mr. DeAbreu, 46. "The search for identity is found in the writings of all cultures."

This summer, with a $3,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mr. DeAbreu will spend six weeks studying books and short stories by writers from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and his native Guyana. His homeland is off the northeast coast of South America.

Now head of the English and Reading Department at AACC, Mr. DeAbreu plans to start a study group next fall so students can read and discuss the writings of West Indian authors such as Mr. Naipaul, Wilfred Cartey and Wilson Harris.

The following passage from Mr. Naipaul's short story, "The Baker's Story," illustrates some of the differences in language between English and West Indian literature:

"Now the funny thing happen. In Laventille the people couldn't have enough of the bread I was baking -- and in the last few months was me was doing the baking. But now trouble. I baking better bread than the people of Arouca ever see, and I can't get one single feller to come in like man through my rickety old front door and buy a penny hops bread. You hear all this talk about quality being its own advertisement? Don't believe it, boy. Is quality plus something else. . . ."

Mr. DeAbreu acknowledges that most people aren't familiar with the genre. But he promises "a whole wonderful world" for the people who do read it.

One reason for the relatively obscurity of West Indian authors is that they weren't published until this century.

"The first piece was published in 1903, so it's modern, and the first exhaustive study of West Indian literature wasn't written until 1970," he said. "Their writing was strongly influenced by British forms, so it took a while for a unique West Indian style to develop."

Gradually, some authors, such as Mr. Naipaul, used the West Indian dialect -- a sort of rhythmic patois -- in their writings. The move was somewhat risky because it could have alienated readers used to English speech patterns.

"West Indians speak with a different rhythm, and when I fall into my old speech patterns while visiting with friends who are from Guyana, my wife sometimes has trouble following the conversation," Mr. DeAbreu said.

Mr. DeAbreu met his wife while attending Towson State University on a scholarship. He earned his master's degree at Boston University. Their return to Maryland coincided with the birth of twins, a boy and a girl. Mr. DeAbreu has taught at AACC for 17 years.

He came to America to pursue his education. At the time, Guyana had no university.

"I going away," said Mr. DeAbreu, lapsing into the West Indian form of English. "Growing up you heard this phrase a lot. People were always leaving, for education or for economic reasons -- especially writers."

While Guyana and much of the West Indies are among the most literate of countries, their residents are often too poor to buy books.

"A great deal of West Indian literature is written in exile," said Mr. DeAbreu. "They have to write from abroad. A lot of the themes are about leaving and coming back and the issues surrounding that."

Mr. DeAbreu, now a U.S. citizen, visits his homeland every few years.

"But not many days go by when I don't flash on an experience in Guyana, you know, one of those flashes you get while driving somewhere," he said. "The vegetation and the odors around here are totally different, so I don't know what triggers it. I guess

inside I'm still Guyanese."

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