Commentary on The Dragon Can’t Dance – Lam Ngo Tun Milton

Our culture essentially defines who we are, so there is certain significance towards preserving our roots. Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace echoes this notion in his passage “The Dragon Can’t Dance”, where he describes the evolution of the Carnival, which has always been a fundamental part of the culture of the villagers up on Calvary Hill. By describing the changes one of the villagers, Aldrick Prospect, experiences on this particular Carnival Monday, Lovelace shows how the Carnival has gradually lost its significance over time, and that the villagers’ memory of their rituals and culture have gradually faded away. This essay will focus on examining how Lovelace’s manipulation of structure, as well as his use of repetition and imagery, contributes to the overall effect of this piece.

“The Dragon Can’t Dance” is structured into two paragraphs, where in the first paragraph, it may consist of only two lines, but seventeen of them make up one single sentence. The long continuous sentence symbolises the unbroken attempt by the villagers to keep the culture alive over the centuries. It represents the procession of not just one Carnival, but how over time, this culture has been kept alive continuously. The fact that the full stop in line 17 cuts off the procession of thoughts in the present Suggests the aforementioned attempt may have to come to a end. Moreover, the phrase “across the Middle Passage” in line 6 is meaningful once we consider the context of the piece: firstly, it denotes how these people were shipped from West Africa to the West Indies across the Atlantic Ocean, which is historically known as the crossing the Middle Passage; secondly, the piece is structured in such a way that Lovelace mentions the “Middle Passage” (6) in the middle of the passage, which is a subtle yet clever touch by him in establishing the historical significance of the villagers’ culture. Those villagers, who originated from Africa, had been forcefully removed from their homeland against their freewill and transported as slaves generations ago, but despite the adversities they faced over the years, they never forgot their roots and continued performing their rituals just as they did back in Africa, now known as the Carnival. The Carnival is used throughout the passage as a symbol for their heritage, and to Aldrick Prospect, there was a scared obligation in “[upholding their] unending rebellion” (18) by honouring their culture during the Carnival. However, Aldrick Prospect sensed something different about this particular Carnival, which is shown by the contrast between the traditional Carnival as depicted in paragraph 1 and recent Carnivals as depicted in paragraph 2. Interestingly, by starting the second paragraph with “but” (21), it acts as a fulcrum, to the passage in a literal sense, and the Carnival in a figurative sense. By contrasting how Aldrick Prospect initially treated the Carnival with utmost regard, as shown by his determination in preserving his “ancestral authority” (14), to how he felt like “alone” (35) during this particular Carnival, it sheds light as to how traditions and customs have since been neglected, and that the villagers’ culture have gradually been diluted and rendered insignificant. Lastly, similar to how the second paragraph opens with a “but”, it also ends with a “but” (39). This “but” acts as another pivotal point in “The Dragon Can’t Dance”, as the whole piece essentially boils down to the final sentence, where Aidrick Prospect acknowledges how he, the “last symbol of rebellion and threat” (22), has seemingly lost faith in “the dragon” (40). The dragon is used throughout the text as an extended metaphor for the Carnival and the heritage it embodies. Now that this creature has been sapped of its soul and can no longer extend its claws as it used to, this might be the moment their culture finally dies out. This would inevitably happen, as an individual would not be able to single-handedly keep a culture alive, for the simple reason that culture is collective.

Furthermore, the use of repetition also adds to the overall effect of reinforcing the loss of the villagers’ culture. The most prominent example of repetition would be the repetition of “black” used to illustrate how the villagers used to celebrate the Carnival in lines 27-29. “Black” is suggestive of their African roots, and is also used ironically to describe the villagers’ exaggerating their “blackness” (26) to an extent they seem to be deliberately flaunting their blackness. This is also shown by how the villagers used to dress up as “devils” (26), supplemented by descriptions such as “horns on their heads” (28) and “tridents in hand” (29), both images associated with the devil, which was Westerners traditionally treated people with coloured skin: they were descendants of the devil and were hence linked to evilness. This sheds light towards how they used to be discriminated for their skin colour, but despite being considered as inferior historically, they never gave in to such discrimination and are proud to stand up for their own cause – a form of “rebellion and threat” (22), which was a fundamental aspect of the Carnival. However, the Carnival has since been replaced by symbols of happiness and fun, as shown by “clowns” and “fancy robbers” and “fantasy presentations” (37) being the new norm of the Carnival. Moreover, people are now dressed up in “satin and silk…and rhinestones” (38-39), which creates a stark contrast with how the villagers used to scantily dressed: “masked” and “greased”. In addition, the repetition of “once upon a time” and “once” in lines 24-25 resembles an anaphora, and the phrase “once” indicates how the Carnival and the heritage associated with it seems to be a distant memory of the past.

Moreover, the use of imagery is also important in this piece, as it recreates the typical Carnival vibe. Lovelace combines auditory imagery in lines 3-4 in “blowing whistles” and “beating kerosene tins for drums”, with visual imagery such as “stickfighters” (25) and of course the dragon to recreate the lively festive atmosphere as the Carnival snakes through the town. Being rich in imagery, the reader is actively engaged in the piece, where everywhere the reader looks there seems to be a noise, a colour, a movement – recreating the Carnival before the eyes of the reader. Because of this, it makes the abrupt end to the Carnival, as indicated by the phrase “suddenly” in line 34, much more emphatic, hence effectively evoking a sense of pathos from the reader repetition, hence showing the dying of their culture. In doing so, Lovelace prompts the reader into reflecting the importance of preserving our roots and culture, especially when he has experienced the loss of his own heritage.

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