Literary Caribbeanness: Fact or Fiction?

Recently, I was reading Jeremy Taylor’s review of Conversations with Caryl Phillips (ed. by Renée Shatteman), a compendium of nineteen interviews with the Kittitian-born, British writer, where, according to Taylor, we learn all kinds of details about the author. Among them, the revelation that Phillips “doesn’t see himself as part of a Caribbean literary tradition; in fact, he hardly thinks there is one.”[1] Phillips is certainly not the first, nor the only writer with Caribbean roots to question the notion of a Caribbean literary tradition: Jamaica Kincaid, for instance, has repeatedly confessed that she was unaware of such tradition when she first started writing. V. S. Naipaul has gone further still, launching a sustained and scathing attack at the whole cultural establishment of the region, precisely for its inability to facilitate the kind of intellectual infrastructure that would lead to the creation of a relevant market, of recognized role models, of traditional outlets to develop the sector. In fact, were it not impossible to get the Trini out of Naipaul, he would happily have morphed into a full English aristocrat in his Oxfordshire home. Alas, that we should always seek precisely that which cannot be achieved.

Caryl Phillips. Photo: University of Hong Kong.

These three instances point at different conditions that assail the literary establishment in particular, and cultural life at large, in the Caribbean. While the reality of the islands in the XXI century is dramatically different to what it was when Vidiadhar Naipaul was growing up in the Trinidad of the forties, it remains true that the intellectual aspect remains way down in the list of investment priorities of most Caribbean governments. These days, a nascent tendency, no doubt inspired by the long-standing success of Jamaica’s Calabash, has seen the proliferation of book fairs and literary festivals from Sint Maarten to Dominica, going through Antigua and Montserrat. While some of these initiatives still have a strong touristic motivation, there is every likelihood that some of them will carve a solid place in their societies, making room for a new, more dynamic cultural scene to emerge in the islands.

Quite independent of the internal state of affairs of the literary establishment in the Caribbean, but equally oppressive, is the (outside) perception that Caribbean literature simply isn’t commercial enough – i.e. that it doesn’t sell. Few writers escape this stereotype – and those that do are often placed in far wider categories (such as African American writing) with larger, but not necessarily more relevant, readership bases. In the great scale of literary untouchables, only Walcott and Naipaul escape this fate. But they do so by virtue of having been awarded the Nobel Prize – the Academy’s equivalent to a quality control batch – and not the other way around. There are, of course, other exceptions to the rule, but they only serve to highlight the aberration that luminaries, such as Kamau Brathwaite or George Lamming, just to mention two from the same generation as Walcott and Naipaul, are not only not household names in the larger markets, they are not even part of the mainstream.

Derek Walcott. Source: unknown.

And then there is the usual problem of fragmentation, which I am guessing might be the issue to which Phillips could have been adducing in his interview and which raises the question of whether a group of individuals linked to the same geographical area who nevertheless write independently of each other and without each other’s work in mind really form a common tradition. Which reminds me of that famous interview with Jean Rhys after she had been rediscovered – brought back from the dead, practically – and quite literally forced into the West Indian literary canon with Wide Sargasso Sea. She was asked if she considered herself to be a West Indian writer, to which she shrugged; English? No! French? Yet another shrug.

Wide Sargasso Sea is certainly, self-consciously, post-colonial in its theme, its treatment and its attitude. It is richly informed both of the West Indian realities upon which it touches and the literary foundations it exploits. But in 1966, when it was first published, this was neither new nor unique. Rhys’ prior work, however, dates from 1924 to 1938. A lot of it is set in France and much of it is, if not anecdotal, at least loosely based on her own experiences. At the time, there really hardly was any Caribbean literary tradition as such: yes, there had been José Martí in Cuba, and Rubén Darío, mostly in Paris, but both of them wrote in Spanish; C.L.R. James published his Minty Alley in 1936, the same year when Aimé Cesaire started to work on his Cahier d’un retour au pais natal. And yet, caught between the Modernist aesthetic and condescending attitude of her early work, there is something clamorously West Indian in, say, Good Morning Midnight (1938), Jean Rhys’ most accomplished novel.

Because, in end effect, fight it as Naipaul might, we are but what we are. And even though it would be difficult to set specific boundaries to the category “Caribbean Literature”, the fact that there is a large grey area on both ends of the spectrum does not entail that there is no solid ground in the middle. To that ground belong, unequivocally, Brathwaite and Glissant, to name but two. To be sure, the multifariousness of the Caribbean as a region adds levels of complications to the connections that can be made between its writers. However, older literary traditions face similar problems with questions of chronology – after all, can direct links be made between Irene Nemirovsky and Racine – not to mention Chrétien de Troyes or Marie de France?

Edouard Glissant. Photo:

Literary Caribbeanness is crowded with differences – different languages, different colonial ties, different allegiances and political inclinations, different perspectives, attitudes and, ultimately, purposes. However, a vast proportion of the literature produced by writers linked to the region is concerned with issues of exile and displacement, with questions of identity, with a preoccupation for the role, extent and history of the family and, to a lesser degree, with historical details. Like the region in general, the literati club of the Caribbean is highly heterogeneous. So much so, that a good number of its members are unaware, either by choice or by ignorance, of its existence. But nobody said Literary Caribbeanness had to be a happy family – and, taken together, Fanon and Carpentier, Jean Rhys and Junot Díaz, Danticat, Lamming, Selvon and the rest form a tradition that is all the richer for its complexity. That is a fact.

[1] Jeremy Taylor, “Man in Black”, Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010. 







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