August 2011

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At the intersection

Prof Barbara Lalla has been catching the voices of real and different people

By Serah Acham

“I would like to see a greater independence of learning …we have to get our students to think more independently, to actually read … and we have to find ways of encouraging that.”

Ask Professor Barbara Lalla how she was drawn into the fields of English Language and Literature and you’ll be greeted with a bemused expression and a simple explanation: “that is what interested me.” She’ll tell you about her fascination with literary writing, “for the usual reasons that people are interested in Literature – the way in which it represents life, the way in which it creates worlds.” But specifically, she says, it’s “the language of the writer” that has always held her interest.

So she had no trouble deciding what to get her degree in when she applied to The UWI’s Mona Campus in the late 1960s. “I did the BA Special Honours in English,” she says, which comprised mainly of Literature courses, “a lot of British Literature and I liked it,” but also included a few in Linguistics. After earning her Bachelor’s degree, she continued her studies at Mona, pursuing her MPhil which she later upgraded to a PhD. While there, she says, “I was also interested in language history and so I ended up doing my graduate work in Medieval Studies Language and Literature.”

In 1976, Professor Lalla came to Trinidad as an assistant lecturer at The UWI’s St. Augustine Campus. She began her career as a teacher of Linguistics and, in 1999, was appointed Professor of Language and Literature. Now, looking back on her time teaching at The UWI, she says, “I spent most of my time at UWI in Linguistics really, so I work at the intersection between Linguistics and Literature.”

She says that in the 35 years between when she first came to the St. Augustine Campus in 1976, and now, there have been developments in both Literature and Linguistics. “There has been a growth of understanding in both disciplines of the mutual importance of them.” In the area of Literature, she says, “the significance of studying Literature as discourse, of critiquing Literature by applying tools of language analysis ... we have really built that over the past few years.” It’s similar with Linguistics she continues, where “the applied areas of Linguistics have gotten increasingly important,” and there has been growth particularly in the area of Literary Linguistics. “So the intersections of the two disciplines, Language and Literature, have developed in ways that have interested me a great deal.”

As a professor of Literature, Professor Lalla says that there have been some significant changes in how it has been taught since she was a student. “When I was studying it at an undergraduate level, it was very much associated with literary periods, the Medieval, 17th century, 18th century and so on, and then of course, more and more attention began to be paid to other literatures besides British Literature ... and a great deal of attention started to be given to Indian ... African ... Latin American literature.” This, she adds, was “quite apart from West Indian literatures in English,” since, “obviously we had to pay attention to that.” The result is that “we developed here, not just a Department of English Literature, but of Literatures in English.”

Never static, the teaching of Literature has continued to evolve. She calls on recent discussions with those in her field, “about the ways in which we might begin to look at particular topics without looking specifically at the geographical spread, American or Indian or African, or the historical spread.” She says that they’re exploring, “more creative ways of looking at (Literature) in terms of topics.” For example, how “a particular topic, like love or death, has developed over the ages and across geographies and across genres.” The outcome of this, she says, “is that we have diversified our ways of thinking about the teaching of Literature and categorizing it.”

There are improvements yet to be made, however. With regards to teaching, Professor Lalla says that, “I would like to see a greater independence of learning,” and to achieve this, “we have to get our students to think more independently, to actually read … and we have to find ways of encouraging that.” She recommends that her colleagues “find ways of not answering the questions so much as prompting the students to develop their answers.”

She also thinks that The University should “build on the interconnections between the disciplines,” for example, “between literature and film, literature and cultural studies, literature and linguistics.” But, she says that in doing that, it’s also important that the “the integrity of the disciplines” is maintained.

Professor Lalla continues that another thing she’d like to see is a development in the strength of “Caribbean interpretation and attention to other literatures.” She asserts that, “in the very same way that we have British and American critics critiquing the Caribbean, I would like to see a greater development in the Caribbean critique of other literatures.” She maintains that such critique does occur, citing an example from one of her classes in Shakespeare, “when I taught Othello we talked about race.” But, she says, “more of what we’re doing,” should “percolate down into the schools.” Students may be more interested if, when “studying something really remote, like Chaucer ... they could be encouraged to see the similarities between the 14th century pilgrimage and Trinidad Carnival ... the infusion of our perspective on other literatures would assist people in connecting and relating to other literatures.”

Now retired, Professor Lalla believes her most significant contribution to West Indian literature is her research on the analysis of its language. We have “a multi-vocal situation in the Caribbean with the influence of so many different languages and registers – Standard English and Creole and so on,” she explains, and what particularly interests her, are “the ways in which that multi-vocal literary discourse of the Caribbean, defines literature.”

She hasn’t abandoned her interest in language history, however. “I’ve also been particularly interested in contributing to our knowledge of language history in the Caribbean, by finding and analyzing textual evidence of it ... to find actual representations of Creole so as to be able to trace the development of and the changes in Caribbean language.”

But the creative writer in Professor Lalla can’t be neglected. She has published two novels – Arch of Fire, published in 1998, and Cascade: a novel, published in 2010. “My interest in language ... has assisted me in writing because I am particularly interested in trying to catch the voices of different people of different ages and different regions ... that sense of representing the voices of real people.”