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Dr. Keith Ellis

Hailing from Jamaica, Dr. Ellis teaches at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in the University of Toronto and has long been interested in Cuban culture.

Keith Ellis: on "Americanismo" and the Unity of Literature and Society

by Susan Hurlich, Havana, 6 May 98

In a ceremony that was dignified and modest - as is the man himself - Dr. Keith Ellis became the first Jamaican scholar to receive a doctor honoris causa (honorary doctorate) from Cuba'sillustrious University of Havana.

Opening the ceremony in the university's beautiful Aula Magna, Rector Juan Vela Valdes thanked Dr. Ellis for his "outstanding contribution to the study of the literature of "Nuestra America"(Our America).

In her eulogy to Dr. Ellis, well-known Cuban poet and essayis Nancy Morejon says that one of his most important contributions to the study of Hispanic-American literature has been his analysis of the origin and development of modernism, what Dr.Ellis calls "americanismo".

What is this "americanismo"? And why is it that Dr. Ellis himself has been singled out by the prestigious University of Havana toreceive recognition for his work in this area?

The two go hand in hand: "americanismo" and Dr. Keith Ellis.

Today a professor of literature in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Toronto, Dr. Ellis was born in April 1935 in Jamaica. In his words of thanks after receiving the doctor honoris causa in philological sciences, he explains how - when he was a secondary level student, it was hearing Cuban music, language, and ideas about literature and history on Jamaican radio that was "the first stimulus" that captured his interest in Hispanic culture.

Dr. Ellis talks about how he was a member of "a small group of eight" - including P.J. Patterson, now Prime Minister of Jamaica - who reached a higher level of studies in history and literature in their later years of secondary school. Feeling "a thirst that we were unable to satisfy" in a British-imported educational system, they were aware that Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti and Nicolas Guillen were important figures in the Caribbean, but did not know about their work as writers and historic personalities until later.

This passionate interest in the interrelation between history, culture and literature, with a specific focus on Hispanic-American language and literature, was to influence Dr. Ellis's entire university studies, first at the University of Toronto, and later during his post-graduate studies at the University of Washington.

"From the appearance of his first book," says Morejon, Dr. Ellis "directed his attention to one of the fundamental movements of  Hispanic-American literature: modernism." Morejon explains how his seminal book, 'Critical Approaches to Ruben Dario' (1974), is a major contribution to the analysis of the origin and development of this modernism, which Dr. Ellis calls"americanismo" - referring to the new sensibility of form and subject matter that typifies this literature.

This ability to articulate the relation between literature and society, between science and humanity, and to "recognize" the writer in his/her social context, is what Morejon calls "the new and true core" of Dr. Ellis's work. And he does this while  celebrating the rich cultural diversity that characterizes the "New World", affirming - as does Dario - that it is more than simply European, or simply African or simply indigenous. Rather, it is a culture of synthesis of its many rich legacies.

"More than any other region," says Francisco Lopez Sacha, president of the 780-member Writers' Association of Cuba," Caribbean literature is a rich and complex mixture of different social, cultural, ethnic and historical forces. Growing during three centuries of slavery, oppression and resistance, you go 50km in any direction and you find a different people, a different history, a different metropolis, even within the same country."

"Finding the common themes in Caribbean literature is a challenge,"   continues Lopez, "but Keith Ellis - and our own Nicolas Guillen - have accomplished this."

Nicolas Guillen - Cuba's national poet - and another profound link in the work of Dr. Ellis.

During the '70's, while deepening his investigations about the theme of "americanismo", Dr. Ellis turned his attention to the Antilles and began to study the poetry of Guillen, another modernist. It was during his first visit to Cuba in 1972 that Dr.Ellis met Guillen. He  was later to publish his 'Cuba's NicolasGuillen: Poetry and Ideology' (1983), which in 1985 was awarded the prize as "best academic book on Spanish literary themes" by the Canadian Association of  Hispanists. (This book was later published in Spanish by the Writer's Association of Cuba.)

According to Morejon, Dr. Ellis shows that the Hispanic-American literary tradition truly began when writers became aware that literature is not simply "an isolated exercise". One of the distinctive characteristics of Hispanic-American literature is the transparency that writers - "of (their) own will" - give to the events which have affected it from continental society, politics and romanticism.

It is impossible in a short article to enumerate all the accomplishments of Dr. Ellis's career as an internationally-known professor, researcher, essayist and literary critic. He has taught and given seminars in various universities in the West Indies (Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad) as well as in the United States and  Canada. He is the author, editor and translator of a vast body of work as an essayist and literary critic that represents an outstanding contribution to the study of the literature of "Nuestra America". Since '59, he has received numerous distinctions and awards for his work. He has appeared in 'Who's Who in Canada (1990) and is a member of diverse academic and cultural institutions including the Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is an honorary member of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba and the Fundacion Nicolas Guillen.

Since its founding 270 years ago, the University of Havana has awarded only 104 honorary doctorates, the latest to Keith Ellis.This is very few for an internationally-known university. During the last ten years, honorary doctorates have gone to such literary giants as Rafael Alberti, Spanish poet and friend of Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Spanish novelist, and Mario Benedetti, Uruguayan poet and novelist - all fitting company for Dr. Ellis.

The event was attended by about 125 intellectuals, poets, writers and students, as well as by Dr. Ellis's wife Zilpha (professor of French Studies at York University), daughter Carmen (a law student at York University's Osgoode Hall), and cousin Claire Stoessel "representing the family" in Jamaica (and conference interpreter with the United Nations). Also present was Yolanda Wood, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Literature, the cultural attaches from the Jamaican and Canadian Embassies and the second secretary from the Venezuelan Embassy. At the end of the ceremony, the choral group Schola Carolina Cantorum - the same choral group that sang the Mass for the Pope's  first visit toCuba in January of this year - gave a concert in honour of Dr.Ellis with songs based on the poetry of Nicolas Guillen

During the several days following his receipt of the doctor honoris causa, Dr. Ellis continued to demonstrate why he is such a highly regarded scholar. He gave a seminar on "Ernesto Che Guevara as a Writer" at the University of Havana for students and other  interested academics. He launched his latest book "Torrente Prodigioso: A Cuban Poet at Niagara Falls" - jointly published by Toronto-based Lugus Libros Latin America and Cuba's Editorial Jose Marti. Edited and translated by Dr. Ellis and with an essay by outstanding Cuban poet Eliseo Diego, this book is the story of Cuban poet Jose Maria Heredia, who in 1824 - at 21 years of age - wrote his famous "Niagara", generally regarded as the best poem ever written about the Falls.

In honour of Dr. Ellis, Canadian ambassador to Cuba Keith Christie, former student of Dr. Ellis at the Univ of Toronto, hosted a dinner at his official residence. Among those attending were the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Higher Education, the Vice-Minister of  Commerce, and some of Cuba's top literary and intellectual personalities.

But the honours for Dr. Ellis do not stop here. On 20 May, Cuban  Minister of Culture Abel Prieto presented Dr. Ellis with a medal for  "Distinction for National Culture" in a ceremony that was later shown on national TV. This medal is rarely given to foreigners.

And how does Dr. Ellis himself feel about all this attention he is receiving?

"I feel overwhelmed," says Dr. Ellis. "It's an honour that I appreciate very deeply, because the doctor honoris causa comes from the principle academic institution in a country that profoundly and sincerely values education."

"(I've had) the unfailing pleasure to find myself in the midst of a population that is constantly more and more in love with education," continues Dr. Ellis, "and that constantly cultivates and refines its intelligence in the arts and sciences."

Unity and diversity of Latin American and Caribbean culture.Science and culture. Science and poetry. The search for the true literary and cultural expression of "Nuestra America". A synthesis of historical and cultural life, of literary and political history. These are the phrases one constantly hears when Dr. Ellis's work is described - a work in which he articulates the common thread in all these multi-textured dimensions while applying a keen scrutiny of artistic elements.
Thus, Dr. Ellis creates the final synthesis: that between literary criticism and poetry itself.


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