Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary)

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Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary)


The work of Caribbean-American writers generally reflects a sense of rootedness in the American landscape while simultaneously expressing a connection to and knowledge of their Caribbean home cultures, be it Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, or Jamaica. Poised between two cultures, this literature belongs equally to both spaces and reflects a Pan-Caribbean perspective. This includes Dominican American writers such as Junot Diaz, Angie Cruz, Loida Maritza Perez, Julia Alvarez, and Nelly Rosario; writers of Jamaican descent such as Patricia Powell, Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes, Claudia Rankine, Thomas Glave, Ifeona Fulani, Donna Hemans, and Shara McCallum; Haitian American writers such as Edwidge Danticat and Danielle Legros Georges; and Trinidadian writer Elizabeth Nunez. Many of these writers belong to the canon of American immigrant literature, yet they explore the tensions between Caribbean cultures in the region and the diaspora. Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) and Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) are novels about young women from the Caribbean coming of age in New York, where they must negotiate the cultural baggage brought from their respective homelands. Yet other novels by these authors, such as Danticat's Farming of Bones (1998) and Alvarez's In the Time of Butterflies (1994), explore a history of racial tensions in Haiti and Dominican Republic, which for Danticat culminates in the 1937 massacre of Haitian migrant laborers in the Dominican Republic, and for Alvarez concerns the making of a totalitarian president in the form of Rafael Molina Trujillo. In chronicling moments of contact, conflict, and even pleasure, these writers engage in a conversation about a Pan-Caribbean sensibility and sense of responsibility for shared regional histories.

From as early as the 1920s, with writers such as Claude McKay and Eric Walrond, early Caribbean/North American writing has been Pan-African and anticolonial in orientationfocusing on a larger black world outside of the United States and the Caribbean. In novels such as McKay's Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), or Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983), writers have created spatial scenes where various black identities meet and discover what differences of nationality, class, and gender mean for their sense of racial connection. For McKay, socialism is the uniting factor, whereas for Marshall it is an Afrocentric spirituality.

Today's literature builds on these earlier themes, focusing on questions of diaspora and postcolonialism. Like McKay, the novels of Colin Channer (Waiting In Vain [1998] and Satisfy My Soul [2003]) deal with contemporary black diasporic subjects. Set in New York, London, and Jamaica, Waiting in Vain chronicles the romance of Fire, a Londonand Jamaica-based Booker Prizewinning author, and Sylvia, a magazine editor who is a second-generation Caribbean-American living in Brooklyn. They meet by chance on a Manhattan street and proceed to fall in lovein spite of complications of geographical distance and the entanglements of past and present relationships. While they are both Jamaicans, class background makes all the difference. As an American immigrant of working-class Jamaican origins, Sylvia left Jamaica as a child and has never returned. In contrast, Fire is from a wealthy Jamaican family, maintains homes in London and Jamaica, and considers the latter his primary residence.

Adhering to the plot structure of the romance genre, class, geographical differences, and time spent abroad are rendered insignificant as the novel ends with the possibility of Sylvia and Fire's reconciliation. She leaves the safety of Brooklyn and goes to Jamaica in search of Fire. There she is received by the local community, which suggests the possibility of her re-integration in Jamaica, despite the years of her American absence. Significantly, while their romance starts in Brooklyn it gets resolved in Jamaica. The message here for Channer's Caribbean diasporic readers is that you can go home again, and that you will be welcomed.

Satisfy My Soul, in contrast, is a narrative of romantic failure and points to the limits of diaspora. While our contemporary moment of rapid globalization brings various black diasporic subjects together in one localeChanner shows how distinctions of origins matter, since they shape one's worldview. Although the story begins in Jamaica, Channer goes to great length to make his characters more than Caribbean. The hero, Carey McCullough, a thirtyeight-year-old Cambridge-educated New York playwright, for example, is born in Harlem but raised in Cuba and Jamaica to a mother of Jamaican Jewish ancestry and a father who has Ghanian and southern black American roots. The heroine, Frances Carey, the owner of a small construction company in Kingston, has similar black Atlantic roots: born in Guyana, she moved to Jamaica at seventeen. But her parents are Ghanian and she stills speaks Hora, her native Ghanaian language. More importantly, the narrative emphasizes that she also lived and worked in the United States as a jazz singer. While their roots and routes span the black Atlantic world, the novel still retains a Jamaican undercurrent. But rather than the romantic happy ending, this novel presents a love plot in which differences between lovers are irreconcilable.

Channer's treatment of cosmopolitan black characters who are at home in the world, yet who cannot resolve differences of interests to sustain a lasting love relationship, points to the limits of diaspora. These differences are predicated upon how various diasporic sites distinctly mark and make each subject. Black diasporic subjects carry their old world histories with them, and these histories complicate and often compromise how they relate to each other. In this novel, the diaspora does not become a space where people meet and reconcile differences, as in Waiting in Vain. Instead, it is a place where differences collide and people have to find a new language to communicate across the gulf of divergent imperial histories. It is the failure to create new modes of communication across ideological borderlines, in the end, that makes the gulf unbridgeable.

The relation between sexuality and national belonging is another theme explored by Caribbean-American writers. Michelle Cliff, Thomas Glave, and Patricia Powell, for example, address how a homosexual identity impacts one's sense of belonging to the nation-state. Powell's Pagoda (1998) tells the story of Lau A-yin Ling, who faces famine, clan fighting, and gender restrictions in nineteenthcentury patriarchal China. Then, disguised as a young man, she travels to the West Indies. In her oceanic passage in search of freedom, Ling's true gender and sexual identity is uncovered by Cecil, the white shipmaster. With no law to protect her at sea, Cecil repeatedly rapes Ling aboard the ship, despite her numerous attempts to kill him. By the time they arrive in the new world, Ling is pregnant. After giving birth to her daughter, Lizabeth, Ling cloaks her female identity and assumes a Chinese maleness in order to survive as a Chinese single mother on the island. When Lizabeth is two years old, Cecil establishes Ling as a local male shopkeeper and renames her Lowe. To complete the masquerade, he brings Miss Sylvie, who appears to be a white creole, to play mother to Lizabeth and wife to Lowe. Another level of passing ensues here, as Miss Sylvie is, in fact, a black woman who was married to a white man. When her pregnancies result in visibly black babies, she kills her husband before he kills her for "darkening" and, therefore, bringing shame to his white patrilineage. Cecil joins these two nonblack, but "not quite white," women together in marital union, protecting the secrets of their racial and gender identities, while they secure his economic interests. Furthermore, with the profits he makes from his trafficking in enslaved and indentured women's bodies, Cecil sets them up in a house that "stood grandly on the very pinnacle of the hill," and from which they "gazed down at the villagers' mud-and-wattle, thatchroofed hovels and huts" (p. 103). Based on public appearances, the villagers would have envied Lowe, a newly arrived Chinese immigrant, for so quickly forming relationships with that society's elite and living an idealized interracial heterosexual romance. What they do not yet know, however, is the private trauma Ling relives every day for her "apparent" privilege. This gender and sexuality passing, with the accompanying loss of body, language, history, and family is the drama that unfolds.

With this focus on the violated sexed body, Powell belongs to a new generationa third waveof Caribbean women writers. These women explore questions of sexual violence enacted against women and girls. In previous generations, these stories were protected through silence and concealment in national and family histories. In this post-postcolonial moment, these writers excavate those buried stories and explore the existing cultural narratives that enable various kinds of sexual trauma against women to continue relatively unchecked by the culture. Among these writers are Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Nunez, Nelly Rosario, Patricia Powell, Julia Alvarez, Angie Cruz, Shani Motoo, Dionne Brand, and Marlene Nourbese Phillip.

Through their fictional narratives, third-wave writers highlight that sex is one vehicle through which power is exercised and maintained over the minutest details of women's lives. Not content to have the politics of sexuality severed from other sociopolitical issues, trivialized, or rendered "merely" private, these writings address issues of domestic violence, sex work, and sexual abuse, making explicit the implications of these occurrences for women's experiences of citizenship, of belonging to a national community with rights of protection. Challenging dichotomous readings that celebrate Caribbean women's resistance on the one hand, or lament their victimization on the other, these writers show that women are not without power to reproduce sexual violence themselves. Such narrative emphases go against conventions of respectability and received narratives, and also allow for a more complicated understanding of the relationship between the individual body, the state, and society. Put another way, third wave texts make explicit the linkages between the Caribbean female body, sexuality and citizenship.

At once (though not simply) queer, feminist, immigrant, Latino, African American, American minority literature, or science fiction, Caribbean North American writings further complicate our understanding of global black identities and what it means to be a Caribbean person in the twenty-first century.

See also African Diaspora; Danticat, Edwidge; Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean; Marshall, Paule; McKay, Claude; Walrond, Eric Derwent; Women Writers of the Caribbean

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