Caribbean Literature: The Gorgon’s Head

Sea, the beach, Bob Marley, sun, chillout, hash, Fidel Castro, Rastafari, Haiti, hot, cool… This is just a short list of the answers people gave me when I asked them what was the first thing that came to their minds when I said the word “Caribbean”. One even came up with “ackee and saltfish”. But no one, not a single one, said literature. Not even “Derek Walcott”, or “Aimé Césaire”. Nothing.

There is danger in being too beautiful. Given the particular structure of Western society, this is something you will most often hear from (more or less) successful businesswomen. But let’s take a male example, just to buck the trend. I dare you to carry out the same exercise I have described above and replace the word “Caribbean” with “Brad Pitt”. I’d be interested to know how many times you will get as an answer “great (or lousy) actor”. Certainly not as many as “gorgeous” or “Jennifer Aniston”.


Alas, I do not want to speak here about Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Joe Black, or his performance in Legends of the Fall, but rather try to outline a set of general characteristics that, somehow, apply to all or most of Caribbean literature. An impossible task, I know, but one that is even more impossible if we don’t define concretely what we mean by Caribbean.

In a conversation with Lasana Sekou, Sint Maarten’s most prolific poet, he explained to me how he considered the Caribbean to be a market of well over 30 million people, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, with potential access to roughly another 30 million more, if you go from the Gulf of Mexico southward along the Central American countries (all of which have Caribbean coastlines). Throw Colombia and Venezuela in the mix and you are left with close to 150 million people. Lasana was talking as the head honcho of House of Nehesi Publishers, the only regional publishing house at all interested in fiction, and he was clearly thinking in commercial terms. However, in cultural terms, and, more specifically, in terms of literature, both past and present, there is more to this that seems immediately obvious.

Photo: Wikipedia.

Evidently, the Caribbean is not only a heterogeneous region, it is utterly disjointed. There is no threat that CARICOM will become the next EU – hell, there is no threat it will even become the next Comunidad Andina, and that is far from integrated. At least four colonial powers shaped and remain hugely influential in the geo-political alignment of the islands and states in the area. And yet, the question of identity is one that pervades Caribbean literature in all languages, both old and new. It is unmistakably present in the work of Jean Rhys and the prose of Alejo Carpentier; it is, really, the starting point, of Cesaire’s négritude and, indeed, Glissant’s creolité. Similarly, the question of the double Diaspora that has made Junot Díaz so popular these days is a fundamental component of Caryl Phillips’s intense prose or Jamaica Kincaid’s deliberately confrontational narrative.

Aha, I hear you say, but where is the relation in all this with Central and Latin America? The connection is twofold: sentimental and historical. Let me begin with the more wishy-washy of the too: sentimental, in that there is a shared temperament, a common attitude, a singular, yet recurrent, rhythm that sets the pace to life by the Caribbean Sea. Normally, at this point I would draw on one or two anecdotes to make my argument, but on this occasion there is a global musical phenomenon that perfectly illustrates the case in point. Reggaeton is nothing other than the blend of salsa, reggae and hip-hop to create a hybrid whose identity has become so popular even mainstream ballad singers, such as Alejandro Sanz, have had a (predictably catastrophic) go at it. But that is neither here nor there. What is very much here (as well as reggaeton) is that impalpable sensibility that makes the creation and acceptance of something like reggaeton (or, for that matter, salsa in the late 60’s) possible.

But there is a second, more palpable, literary connection, because I believe a book such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could never have existed (in its present form) without Gabriel García Márquez, who is but the most known representative of the Latin American Boom of the 1960’s, which, in turn, was hugely indebted to writers such as Juan Carlos Onetti and Alejo Carpentier, but also, and inexorably, to Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala), to Octavio Paz (Mexico) and, above all, to Rubén Darío (Nicaragua).

Because there can be little doubt that the XX century, particularly its second half, has spelled the triumph – the emergence, development and ultimate supremacy – of post-colonial literature. And, in Spanish, post-colonial and modernist literature come hand in hand with the name of Rubén Darío.

Mario Vargas Llosa once said he refused to make geographical distinctions in literature, choosing, if he must, to make a distinction of language, instead. But I would sooner make a chronological distinction than a linguistic one. After all, in my library Shakespeare ought to be closer to Cervantes than to Ian McEwan, or even Harold Pinter. Caribbean literature is, of course, much younger than that, so this kind of problems will not arise, but there certainly is a tradition – one that is young and vibrant, one that goes back to the days of Bim and the BBC’s Caribbean Voices, one that is pierced by different languages, different inflections, different realities, one which has fed, and has also been nourished by, the imagination of foreign authors (of Joseph Conrad, of Graham Green, of Herman Wouk, of Ernest Hemingway), but one nonetheless.

Indeed, there are many locks – many strands – that reach forward, almost intimidatingly, from the Gorgon’s head. But if you dare look straight in to its eyes you will be surprised by what you find. And you won’t turn to stone – promise!






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