7 minute read

Earl Lovelace Biography

Nationality: Trinidadian. Born: Taco, Trinidad, 1935. Career: Proofreader, Trinidad Guardian, 1953-54; civil servant: agricultural assistant in Jamaica, 1956-66; journalist, Trinidad and Tobago Express, 1967; lecturer in English, University of the District of Columbia, 1971-73; writer-in-residence, Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York, 1986. Since 1977 teacher, University of the West Indies, Saint Augustine, Trinidad. Awards: B.P. Independence award, 1965; Pegasus Literary award, 1966; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1986; Commonwealth Writers' prize, 1997.



While Gods Are Falling. London, Collins, 1965; Chicago, Regnery, 1966.

The Schoolmaster. London, Collins, and Chicago, Regnery, 1968.

The Dragon Can't Dance. London, Deutsch, 1979; Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1981.

The Wine of Astonishment. London, Deutsch, 1982; New York, Vintage, 1984.

Salt. New York, Persea Books, 1997.

Short Stories

A Brief Conversation and Other Stories. London, Heinemann, 1988.


The New Hardware Store (produced London, 1985). Included in Jestina's Calypso and Other Plays, 1984.

Jestina's Calypso and Other Plays (includes The New Hardware Store and My Name Is Village). London, Heinemann, 1984.

The Dragon Can't Dance, adaptation of his own novel (produced London, 1990).



"Earl Lovelace: A Bibliography" by Chezia Thompson-Cager, in Contributions in Black Studies, 8, 1986-87.

Manuscript Collection:

The Lovelace Archives, Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Critical Studies:

"In Search of the West Indian Hero: A Study of Earl Lovelace's Fiction" by Marjorie Thorpe, in Critical Issues in West Indian Literature, edited by Erika Sollish Smilowitz and Roberta Quarles Knowles, Parkersburg, Iowa, Caribbean, 1984; "Salvation, Self, and Solidarity in the Work of Earl Lovelace" by Norman Reed Cary, World Literature Written in English, Spring 1988; "Earl Lovelace's Bad Johns, Street Princes and the Masters of Schools" by Chezia Thompson-Cager, in Imagination, Emblems, and Expressions, edited by Helen Ryan, Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992.

* * *

Earl Lovelace has established himself as one of Trinidad's most well known literary talents. As a writer and storyteller his novels, short stories, and plays explore the effects the significant social, economic, and political change of late twentieth-century Trinidad have had on the lives of individuals and communities. Lovelace has witnessed this change first hand: born into a large family in Toco, Trinidad, in 1935, Lovelace spent his early life in part with his grandparents in Tobago, and in different districts on the outskirts of Port of Spain. This travelling attuned Lovelace to the nuances of local dialects, whether mitigated by class, region, ethnicity, or mood. These linguistic subtleties are utilized in his exceptionally vivid writing, as dialect functions to convey the cultural particularities of his subjects, while also contributing to his distinct brand of lyrical realism. A storyteller at heart, the prevalence of dialect in Lovelace's writing, and the ease with which he uses it, foregrounds the importance of the Caribbean's oral traditions to his writing and narrative structure.

At the thematic center of Lovelace's narratives is an exploration of the ambiguous relationship between change and progress. His characters often must weigh the merits of tradition and cultural continuity against financial gain and upward mobility. In his first novel, While Gods Are Falling, Lovelace considers the dilemma of Walter, whose frustration with the urban congestion, cacophony, and confusion of Port of Spain results in a nostalgia for the imagined opportunities of the rural environment for independence and self-assertion. However, Lovelace reveals Walter's construction of the rural environment to be flawed, influenced more by his dissatisfaction with the present than any long-standing romance with the past. Nevertheless, in his measured representation of both rural and urban environments, Lovelace asserts the reality of the limited opportunities for self-realization available to those politically and economically disempowered in—and by—a colonial society. Continuing this investigation of progress and its inextricable connection to colonialism and power in his second novel, The Schoolmaster, Lovelace presents the small community of Kumaca, whose longing for economic advancement makes them vulnerable to the manipulations of others. The black teacher who arrives to educate the isolated townspeople is a product of colonial schooling, and reproduces the dynamics of domination in his relationship to the illiterate villagers. Even as the local villagers recognize the inevitable intrusion of the ever-expanding Port of Spain into their lives, and desire the skills that will permit them to access the opportunities the nation's capital will provide, they are not prepared for the ways in which the teacher will use his knowledge to exploit them. The novel ends with an uneasy resolution, suggesting that while the residents of Kumaca will adapt, this adaptation does is not a mark of superiority or triumph.

It is the changing nature of Trinidad's annual Carnival, and how these changes are indicative of larger shifts in communities and the nation at large, that is the subject of Lovelace's third novel, The Dragon Can't Dance. Here, the members of a small community define themselves through their participation in the pageantry of Carnival and the roles they assume in it. While the festival itself has remained consistent in many of its practices, the characters must confront how the meaning of enacting the Carnival has changed. For example, those participants previously valorized as warriors have no place in the contemporary city except as "Bad Johns" who cause trouble, while their stick fighting battles have been displaced in popularity and importance by competitions between calypso bands. The nature and rhythms of calypso are central to Lovelace's text. Just as calypso's consistent rhythm overlaid by improvisation results in a repetition-with-difference, new nuances and beats, the changes in Trinidadian culture have caused new forms and meanings to emerge with which its citizens must learn to live.

Music as a repository of cultural and communal practices is also thematically significant in The Wine of Astonishment. As the practice of the Spiritual Baptist religion and its raucous musical style of worship is legally outlawed in the early part of the twentieth century, one small community attempts to maintain faith. This faith, however, receives constant challenges from colonial society and its policies, including the corruption that they engender. Lovelace's ongoing fascination with the dynamics of individual communities, as well as the relationships of individuals within those communities, is at the core of The Wine of Astonishment. While the decriminalization of Spiritual Baptism comes too late for many of its practitioners, who have lost the spirit required for its form of worship, one woman who has maintained her faith recognizes its cultural continuance in the energetic music of the steel bands. Recognized as a form of cultural persistence, this continuity functions as a spiritual affirmation of the people in the face of racial discrimination, economic disadvantages, and other trials. Lovelace does not end this story on an uncritically uplifting note, however. The novel, like his others, is woven through with tragedies and disappointments. Even as characters assert "God will not put on a people more than they can bear," it is clear that what is "bearable" is not by definition necessarily desirable or sustaining.

Lovelace's collections published in the 1980s—Jestina's Calypso and Other Plays and A Brief Conversion and Other Stories—are further investigations of the thematic preoccupations established in his previous work. However, in his latest novel, Salt published in 1997, Lovelace's recurring themes—change, colonialism, community, culture, desire, materialism, belonging, self-definition, etc.—are all reworked via the historical framework provided by Guinea John, resulting in Lovelace's most pointed social critique to date. Guinea John is a mythic figure is said to have fled the death sentence imposed for his part in an unsuccessful slave rebellion by placing two corncobs under his arms and flying back to Africa. His descendents who remain behind in Trinidad alternately struggle to establish a place for themselves or to escape overseas. In this epic tale, Lovelace weaves together narrators from various centuries and the multiple ethnicities that make up Trinidad's multi-ethnic, culturally creolized society, to create a stunning literary portrait of Trinidad's history and its people. Implicit in this tale is the moral and ethical necessity for reparations to those populations displaced and dehumanized by slavery, disenfranchised by colonialism, and continually dislocated by the inheritance of both. Guinea John's rejection of slavery and its "authority" is echoed in his great-grandson's disdain for the façade of Emancipation, which provided financial compensation for those who lost their slave property, but none for those formerly enslaved who had endured generations of stolen labor and other heinous abuses. Lovelace's primary twentieth-century protagonist is the schoolteacher Alford George, whose realization that he spent nineteen years preparing his students to "escape" overseas causes him to reevaluate his relationship to Trinidad. An "Everyman," George struggles to overcome the psychological legacy of slavery in order to teach his people about the necessity of investing one's self in Trinidad. Here the acceptance characterizing the refrain of his previous book, "God will not put on a people more than they can bear," is reworked into an aggressive political manifesto, as characters prove their strength not by endurance, but by action. As always, Lovelace's characters are masterfully drawn, captivating and convincing in their struggles and the resolutions they reach. Salt marks Lovelace's move from writing of the ramifications of what Langston Hughes identifies as "the dream deferred" (by the failure of Emancipation), to asserting the necessity of facing that deferral and demanding the right to realize the dream, the first step being the right to demand reparations. Salt was awarded the 1997 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

—Jennifer Harris

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) Biography