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Caribbean: E. A. Markham

novel novels indian west

With its rich literary heritage—French, Spanish, Dutch, and oral—Caribbean literature is not best served by focusing on one tradition to the exclusion of others; talking about the English literature of the Caribbean might seem to legitimize certain old colonial arrangements which still disfigure the region. Also, it limits literary cross-cultural discussion that may be valuable. An example: Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea—the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847)—offers fascinating glimpses of aspects of British and Caribbean society. But when we encounter the Guadeloupean Maryse Condé's Winward Heights, a 1995 reworking of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), that, with the Jean Rhys, might provoke an equally productive cross-Caribbean cultural discussion. With that proviso, let us look at the fiction produced in the Anglophone Caribbean.

The literary critic Kenneth Ramchand in The West Indian Novel and Its Background (1970) famously reminded us that people in the region before, say, 1930 had, among other privations, to endure a ‘life without fiction’. That meant in part that the ability to read was limited to the few, and the habit of reading was undeveloped. The 1920s saw the growth of national consciousness, and the establishment of literary journals which provoked a readership and necessary encouragement for local writers. The first novelist of note was the Jamaican Herbert G. de Lisser (1878–1944) described as being of ‘mixed descent’. His two most enduring books have proved to be Jane's Career (1914) and The White Witch of Rosehall (1929). The first charts the progress of a young Jamaican woman from country to town and the compromises she is led to make in a rapacious Kingston environment. The White Witch of Rosehall is an exotic romance, and an absorbing read.

After de Lisser came Claude McKay (1890–1948), also from Jamaica, who migrated to the United States in 1912, and was to be associated with the Harlem Renaissance. His Home to Harlem (1928) was a best-seller and his other novels and stories won critical praise. McKay travelled widely, as far afield as Russia, and was the first West Indian writing in English to gain an international reputation.

The novels of the Beacon group in Trinidad, followed: Alfred Mendes' Pitch Lake (1934) and Black Faunus (1935) and C. L. R. James's Minty Alley in 1936. These social realist novels sought to capture a West Indian (as opposed to colonial) perspective of the everyday world in which they lived. By the late 1940s and early 1950s the novel as political statement manifested itself strongly in the work of Vic Reid and Roger Mais, both Jamaicans. V. S. Reid's New Day (1949) is a historical novel, the first, perhaps, to present the emancipated slave in terms other than as something victimized and oppressed. Reid's The Leopard (1958) is overtly set against the background of Kenya's ‘Mau Mau’ struggle. Roger Mais, in novels like The Hills were Joyful Together (1953), evokes the life of squalor of the ‘yard’ and hints at a possible avenue of escape through rastafarianism. Edgar Mittelholzer (1909–65) from Guyana won critical attention with A Morning at the Office (1950), a novel set in Trinidad which teases out the absurdities inherent in a race- and class-conscious society. His Kaywana trilogy (1952–4), an epic treatment of a Guyanese family from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, was a popular success.

The writers that followed, from 1950 to 1970, are sometimes referred to as the first ‘Great Wave’. George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin (1953), Samuel Selvon's second novel, The Lonely Londoners (1956), V. S. Naipaul's biting social comedies leading up to his masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1960), all of Jean Rhys, including Wide Sargasso Sea, which made her reputation—signalled the coming of age of West Indian fiction. In the Castle of My Skin is in one sense about childhood and growing up in rural Barbados. The richly textured prose seemed to reflect the boy's maturing consciousness with a sensitivity not encountered before on this scale in a home-grown subject. Lamming's work is radical, but maintains its literary integrity, even while it invites us to challenge the relation between colonized and colonizer.

V. S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon are East Indians from Trinidad and, although the work of both issues from a comic impulse, Naipaul comes over as the more (relentlessly) bitter satirist. He is an elegant writer with a loathing for most things West Indian. A House for Mr Biswas is the portrait of an East Indian family in Trinidad in the process of creolization. Naipaul's is a literary family; his father, Seepersad, younger brother, Shiva, and nephew, Neil Bissoondath, are all published writers. Unlike V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon identifies himself with the folk tradition and has been much imitated. Selvon's novels and stories contain a similar gallery of comic types, but they are presented with indulgence rather than scorn. In The Lonely Londoners we encounter the portraits, both comic and poignant, of Caribbean migrants new to England. (‘Boy, you black like midnight,’ says one of the ‘boys’, on seeing one of the new arrivals to England. He takes another look at the newcomer's impressive blackness. ‘No, you more like Five Past Twelve.’) This pioneering book breaks the taboo of relegating dialect (now called Nation Language) to characters of inferior social rank or private moments of stress or intimacy, and makes it the narrating voice.

Of other writers mentioned above Wilson Harris is the most unusual. He comes from Guyana and is therefore assumed not to have the ‘island mindset’ of other West Indians. (He shares a certain panoramic vision with his Guyanese contemporary, the artist Aubrey Williams, whose paintings enliven many a Caribbean book-jacket.) Harris's hallucinatory technique seeks to reconnect fragments of history, long severed. His many short novels demand care and vigilance from the reader. In his first and best-loved book, Palace of the Peacock, we witness a river journey in the interior of the country, a journey that might have happened in the past, or might be happening in the future (or the present). On board are representatives of the Amerindian and the African—past and present.

By the 1970s the themes of West Indian fiction seemed to be set: childhood and growing up, often in a rural setting; the evils of class and colour-consciousness; revisiting the plantation/slave experience; the experience of life as a migrant. Among the many who contributed to the story were Garth St Omer (St Lucia), Roy Heath (Guyana/London), and Michael Anthony and Earl Lovelace, both of Trinidad. Anthony's lyrical talent comes through in novels and stories about growing up in rural Trinidad such as Green Days by the River (1973). Lovelace is probably one bridge to the new wave, even though two of his novels appeared in the 1960s. His 1979 novel about carnival, The Dragon Can't Dance, juggles with the possibilities of heroism and self-betrayal among the poor in a Trinidad slum yard. His prize-winning Salt (1996), investing the ‘folk’ with a sense of history, has added to his reputation.

And so to the present: one challenge now is against type-casting. The short-story writers are among the most adventurous, and their most exciting work is collected in The Penguin Book (1996) and The Oxford Book (1999) of Caribbean Short Stories. Olive Senior's Discerner of Hearts (1995, stories) shows her to be ever more adventurous in the formal aspects of story-telling. True, novels about slavery and the plantation system proliferate (Caryl Phillips and Fred D'Aguiar have written particularly fine ones); but there is also Phillips's The Nature of Blood (1997) that explores themes of race and history through a largely non-Caribbean context.

Erna Brodber (Jamaica) and Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua/USA) share a prose style akin to poetry. Brodber's appearance in 1980 with Jane and Louise will Soon Come Home and Kincaid's early stories, At the Bottom of the River (1983) mark them out as unusual stylists. A different sort of stylist is Michelle Cliffe (Jamaica/USA). Her No Telephone to Heaven (1987) takes on the stock themes of colonization and race, but by eschewing naturalism, makes it all seem fresh.

Four names to end with: Pauline Melville, Andrea Levy, David Dabydeen, and Lawrence Scott. Melville, from Guyana/Britain, manages to blend the magical and quotidian and portray a world of risk and adventure that we recognize instantly as our own. Shape-Shifter (1990, stories) and The Ventriloquist's Tale (1997) are required reading. Andrea Levy (b. 1966, Jamaican/British) in her second novel, Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994), shows the new black British generation to be intimate with her English surroundings; and surprises us with the effects that still can be achieved in a naturalistic mode. David Dabydeen in his fourth novel, A Harlot's Complaint (1999), breaks free from the racial stereotyping, his central narrator being an African—presented with empathy by this writer of Indian heritage. And Lawrence Scott's Aelred's Sin (1998) is a novel about homoeroticism which is both courageous and beautifully written.

Childhood: Jan Dalley [next] [back] Canada: Aritha van Herk

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9 months ago

I don't understand all that you've written, make me understand.

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over 1 year ago

Very informative article