Blog: Dominique Le Gendre Reflects on her two month residency

June 11, 2024

How do I measure the value of this two-month residency at the GPI? Every week, for the past eight weeks, I have sat for four and a half hours (on average) with one unassuming blue foolscap folder containing correspondence and a box file of newspaper cuttings, handwritten notes, typed programmes, photographs, replies to invitations, guest lists, lists of expenditure, lists of members who have sold tickets, and letters of acknowledgement, drafts of press releases. In short, all the paraphernalia that accompanies the production of a poetry event, a literary reading, or a theatre production. And what has this all added up to?

This weekly ritual of sitting with archives was motivated by my search for testimonies of Caribbean lives in the UK, that would inspire and inform a song cycle that I would compose. I had imagined translating these testimonies into lyrics of songs that would be held together by the same theme: the immigrant’s tale, a way of understanding my own journey at the age of 19, from my native Trinidad to the UK via France.

What I found was a rich tapestry of dreams of change, evidence of rich seams of artistic, cultural, and political activity, confident in its many modes of expression, taking its place in London while retaining close ties and exchanges with all that was happening at the same time in the Caribbean and the Caribbean intellectual diaspora spread across the world. This deep connection between the newly independent Caribbean Islands and the Caribbean diaspora emerges through the archive of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM). It has created a mental bridge that allows me to see, from the perspective of time, distance, and maturity, the writers, poets, artists, activists, politicians, and leaders, thinkers, and pivotal events that were integral to the first 19 years of my life growing up in Trinidad: The Black Power marches of ’69 and ’70 that passed through our neighbourhood and that we joined lustily as children. The writers we read in high school in the ’70s, Andrew Salkey, Samuel Selvon, Edward Brathwaite, George Lamming, Naipaul, Walcott, to name a few. The Caribbean history that we studied and took for granted, unaware of the battles that historians like Edward Brathwaite and his peers were having to fight in the UK and in our islands, simply to achieve its inclusion in school curricula.

The language of the correspondence between writers is of particular interest to me and invites emulation. Letters are a mix of rigorous criticism of the societies, governments, institutions, and events that surround the writers, witty reports of petty rivalries, critical appreciation of each other’s work and activism alongside the expressions of deep affection and consideration for each other and their families.

As my weekly visits to the archive come to a temporary end, the story that I will seek to portray will juxtapose the intimacy of letter writing between two writers over a span of twenty years against a backdrop of seismic changes in the worlds they occupy. And just as these writers and activists have had to stretch existing forms to accommodate their Caribbean experience, born of a history without precedent, so too will I have to stretch the existing musical forms of either opera or oratorio to fit this immense story of a dream to change the world, presently found in a few blue foolscap folders in an unassuming house on Stroud Green Road.

Dominique Le Gendre, May 2024


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