Reference Entry

Literature, English-Language, in the Caribbean

Selwyn Cudjoe

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Literature, English-Language, in the Caribbean

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Although the literature of the Anglophone Caribbean has much in common with the literatures of Latin America and African America in the United States, over the course of time it has developed a identity of its own. An offshoot of the African oral literary tradition (most island inhabitants came from West Africa) and shaped by its Asian and European roots, the earliest Anglophone Caribbean literature can be traced to the proverbs, riddles, and kheesas (tales) of African and Indian literature.Jean Baptiste Philippe's Free Mulatto (1824) was one of the first works of Caribbean Anglophone literature. It was followed by several slave narratives that were published before or after the emancipation of the slaves in 1834. These narratives—The History of Mary Prince (1831), The Narrative of Ashton Warner (1831), The History of Abu Bekr (1834), The Narrative of James Williams (1838), and The Narrative of John Monteith (1853)—describe the inhuman conditions of slavery and dramatize the lives of Africans in the Caribbean.The Barbadian poet and critic Edward Kamau Brathwaite suggests that the anonymous narrative Hamel the Obeah Man (1827) may offer the first complex portrayal of the African in the Anglophone Caribbean. However, Maxwell Philip's novel Emmanuel Appadocca: A Tale of the Boucaneers (1854) may very well be the first fictional narrative published by a person from the Anglophone Caribbean. Through language that reveals his rich understanding of European and classical literatures, Philip stakes a moral claim against a person (his father) and two systems (slavery and colonialism) that made him an orphan. The novel began a tradition in fiction of creative resistance and defiance of the combined forces of slavery, colonialism, and dispossession; this tradition is very much alive today. In an illuminating introduction to the new edition of the novel, the critic William Cain argues that Emmanuel Appadocca should be seen as a “companion piece to such manifestly antislavery texts as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave.”The next major work published by an Anglophone Caribbean author was Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857). In the book Seacole recounts her extensive travels, during which she practiced medicine and set up her own business. Secure enough in her womanhood to strike out independently in the colonial world, Seacole expressed her conviction that women could navigate life on their own. The author recalls, “It was from a confidence in my own powers, and not at all from necessity, that I remained an unprotected female.”Following Seacole's Wonderful Adventures, several works were published between 1857 and 1900. One of the most important of these was Horatio Nelson Huggins's Hiroona, a collection of Carib children's stories from the island of Saint Vincent that was published eventually by Huggins's family in Trinidad. Although the book was only published in 1937, evidence suggests that it was written around 1885. Literary critic Paula Burnett calls Hiroona “the Caribbean's first epic poem.” Of equal interest was Jean-Ch de Saint Avir's The First Two Martyrs of Trinidad (1885), which was serialized in a Trinidadian newspaper and eventually published as a book. Like Hiroona, this tragedy in four acts drew on the activities of the Amerindians who went to Santo Domingo in 1513 to flee the tyranny of the Spanish conquerors.The twentieth century saw the rise of a more sustained tradition in Anglophone Caribbean literature. In the first thirty years of the century several prominent novels were published. The Jamaican poet and novelist Thomas MacDermot (1870–1933, better known by his pseudonym Tom Redcam) published Becka's Buckra Baby (1903) and One Brown Girl and 1/4 (1909). Three other significant novels of this period were Rupert Gray: A Tale of Black and White (1907) by Stephen Nathaniel Cobham, Jane's Career (1914; originally published as Jane: A Story of Jamaica, 1913) by Herbert de Lisser (1878–1944), and Those That Be in Bondage (1917) by A. R. F. Webber (1880–1932). These novels spoke to what George Lamming (b. 1927) in another context called “the peasant” aspects of Caribbean life. Together with other works these novels paved the way for a Caribbean renaissance of the thirties. This flowering of the islands' arts and culture was intimately tied to the rise of Caribbean nationalist parties, decolonization, and labor movements.Coming on the heels of the Great Depression of the 1930s and a rise in the social and political consciousness of Caribbean people, the works of the Caribbean renaissance offered a deeper and more penetrating exploration of the society. Relying on a mixture of naturalist and realist literary techniques—often depicting social conditions instead of psychological issues—these novels had an important effect on society. Beginning with Black Fauns (1935) by Alfred Mendes and Minty Alley (1936) by C. L. R. James, this period culminated in the achievement of political independence that brought colonialism to its formal conclusion. Necessarily, political independence ushered in a new phase of writing that was much more political.The 1940s through the 1960s saw the publication of works such as Corentyne Thunder (1941) and Children of Kaywana (1952) by Edgar Mittelhölzer; Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales (1943) by Seepersad Naipaul; New Day (1949) by Vic Reid; Crown Jewel (1952), which was set in the 1930s, by Ralph de Boissiere; The Hills Were Joyful Together (1953) and Brother Man (1954), one of the first books to depict the Rastafarians in Jamaica, by Roger Mais; Orchid House (1953) by Phyllis Allfrey; The Brighter Sun (1952) by Samuel Selvon; Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (1954) by Martin Carter; In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and Of Age and Innocence (1958) by Lamming; and the early Trinidadian novels The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) by V. S. Naipaul.Five important magazines that provided publication opportunities for Caribbean writers were also created in the early period: Trinidad (1929), published in Trinidad and edited by Mendes and James; the Beacon (1931), published in Trinidad and edited by Albert Gomes; Bim (1942), published in Barbados and edited by Therold Barnes and Frank Collymore; Focus (1943), published in Jamaica and edited by Edna Manley; and Kyk-over-Al (1945), published in British Guiana (now Guyana) and edited by A. J. Seymour. Many of the writers who achieved major recognition in the post-1960 era (Lamming, Derek Walcott, and Theodore Wilson Harris, to name a few) got their starts in these magazines.Anglophone Caribbean literature blossomed in the 1960s and many new and exciting talents were discovered. New writers included the Guyanese Wilson Harris (Palace of the Peacock; 1960), Ismith Khan (b. 1925) (The Jumbie Bird; 1961), and the London-based Naipaul (A House for Mr. Biswas; 1961), both from Trinidad and Tobago. Other outstanding contributors to the emerging Caribbean literature were Michael Anthony (b. 1932) (Year in San Fernando; 1965), Lamming (A Season of Adventure; 1974), the Jamaican poet and novelist Sylvia Wynter (b. 1928) (The Hills of Hebron; 1966), Dominica-born Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea; 1966), and Merle Hodge (Crick, Crack Monkey; 1970). Finally, this period also saw the publication of classics such as Rights of Passage (1967) by Brathwaite—the first part of a poetic trilogy that subsequently appeared as The Arrivants (1973)—and In a Green Night (1962), The Castaways and Other Poems (1965), Another Life (1973), and The Fortunate Traveler (1981) by Walcott.Interestingly enough most Caribbean Anglophone writers had to go aboard (primarily to England) to achieve literary recognition and to gain a sympathetic audience. Many found the British Broadcasting Corporation radio program Caribbean Voices, hosted by Una Marson and Henry Swanzy, an important forum in which to read their works and reach a wider audience. Naipaul, Lamming, the Panamanian-born Jamaican Andrew Salkey (b. 1928), and a myriad of other Caribbean writers had their works read over this program and were able to reap some monetary reward for their work. Earl Lovelace, Erna Brodber, and Walcott, who had remained in the islands to pursue their craft, gradually began to gain fame and acceptance in the metropolis as fellow Caribbean writers abroad piqued international interest in Caribbean literature and art.Although the literary historian Lloyd Brown placed the birth of modern Anglophone Caribbean poetry in the 1940–1960 period, poets such as Brathwaite and Walcott began to enjoy international prestige in the years from 1960 to 1990. Brathwaite won the prestigious Commonwealth Prize for Poetry in 1987 and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1994. One critic notes that Brathwaite's “poetry, prose fiction, historiographical essays, and literary criticism, all reflect a scheme of thought wherein language is seen as a means of communication, a vehicle of cultural identity [and] a principal instrument for liberation from the vestiges of colonial education.” On the other hand the more personalized poetry of Walcott revealed an intensely private response to the Anglophone experience and culminated in the publication of Omeros (1990), an epic poem that drew its inspiration from Homer. This work brought Walcott's genius to the attention of the world and led to his winning the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. Walcott, a prolific playwright, also published plays such as Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958) and Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967).In the 1980s women writers from the Caribbean began to receive as much attention as their male counterparts. At the First International Congress of Caribbean Women Writers, which took place at Wellesley College in 1988, many well-known Anglophone Caribbean writers found a platform to display their talents to the world. This conference brought to the fore remarkable writers such as Brodber (Myal; 1988), Hodge (For the Life of Laetitia; 1993), Glaseda Honeyghan (Father Sleeps with the Mudpies; 1988), Jamaica Kincaid (Annie John; 1983), Michelle Cliff (Abeng; 1984 and No Telephone to Heaven; 1987), Rosa Guy (Bird at My Window; 1966), Lorna Goodison (I'm Becoming My Mother; 1986), Marlene Nourbese Philip (Harriet's Daughter; 1988 and She Tries Her Tongue; 1989), and Olive Senior (Summer Lightning and Other Stories; 1986), Beryl Gilroy (Frangipani House; 1986), Opal Adissa Palmer (Bake Face and Other Guava Stories; 1986), Valerie Belgrave (Ti Marie; 1988), Dionne Brand (Sans Souci and Other Stories; 1988), Joan Riley (The Waiting Room; 1989), and Zee Edgell (Beeka Lamb; 1982).In the 1990s the acceptance and achievements of Caribbean writers continued to rise. Kincaid's success continued (The Autobiography of My Mother; 1996), Lawrence Scott's Witchbroom (1992) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for 1993, and Lovelace won the 1997 prize with Salt (1996). Important literary journals began to pay more attention to the region's literary production. The influential journal World Literature Today, for instance, devoted its Autumn 1994 issue to the life and work of Brathwaite, while Callaloo devoted its Winter 1995 volume to the work of Harris. Meanwhile, younger talents such as Patricia Powell, Willi Chen, Mikeda Silvera, Neil Bissondath, Brodber, and others have begun to invigorate the tradition with new approaches to the literature. In such hands the literature will certainly continue to flourish.See also Colonial Latin America and the Caribbean; East Indian Communities in the Caribbean; Literature, African American; Literature, Black, in Brazil; Literature, Black, in Spanish America: Nationalist Movements and Blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean; Theater in the Caribbean; Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Reference Entry.  1941 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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