Women Writers of the Caribbean
Women Writers of the Caribbean
In 1831, when Mary Prince published the vivid autobiographical narrative of her experiences as a slave, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, black women in the Caribbean and Latin America lived in circumstances that precluded their development as writers. The institution of slavery had been abolished in the British Caribbean in 1834, just three years after Prince's narrative—the first ever published by a black woman in England—had become a best seller with three editions in its first year. Slavery remained alive in other countries in the two regions, however, until 1888, the year it was abolished in Brazil.
The end of slavery did not put an end to the enduring power of the plantation system, nor to the social and economic oppression suffered by people of African ancestry. The lack of access to land for cultivation and restricted access to training and educational opportunities meant that as late as the early years of the twentieth century the literacy rates among former slaves in the Caribbean and Latin America remained as high as 97 percent in rural areas. With some salient exceptions, such as that of Mary Prince, most literary writing remained in the hands of the white or light-skinned upper and middle classes until well into the twentieth century. Whereas the publication of The History of Mary Prince played a significant role in the fostering of pro-abolition sentiment in Britain, for example, the most salient antislavery literature in the rest of the region was published by whites. Sab (1841), the most powerful antislavery novel in Spanish, for example, was written by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a white upper-class Cuban woman. In the nineteenth century, for the masses of African-Caribbean women, whose lives were circumscribed by the plantation, a writing career seemed an impossibility.
It is precisely the difficulties inherent in emerging as a writer from the prevailing conditions in the Caribbean and Latin America in the nineteenth century that make the writings of individuals like Mary Prince and Mary Seacole so significant. Prince, the daughter of slaves, was born in Bermuda in 1788. Her life as a slave, which she narrates so lucidly in her autobiography, took her from field hand to the salt mines of Turk Island, where she was taught to read and write by the Moravians. The publication of her book, a remarkable tale of abuse and endurance, was promoted by the Moravians, who saw it as a powerful weapon against the institution of slavery.
Mary Seacole's The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) is in many ways a testament to how deeply the abolition of slavery had changed conditions for urban black women in the Caribbean by the mid-nineteenth century. Seacole—born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica in 1805—had learned nursing from her mother, who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers in Kingston. After the death of her husband in 1844, Seacole, who had already traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and visited England, moved to Las Cruces, Panama, where she ran an inn and developed her knowledge of herbal medicine, gaining renown through her successful treatment for yellow fever. Nursing became the path to fame for Seacole. After unsuccessfully offering her services during the Crimean War (1853–1856) to Florence Nightingale, who was then assembling a contingent of nurses to follow the British Army to the Crimea, Seacole went to the war front and set up the hotel/hospital for which she became famous. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands was written after her return to England at the conclusion of the war. It was purportedly an attempt to reestablish her finances after her losses during the war, but it became a lively vehicle for her claim to recognition as a woman of African descent in the midst of an empire that sought to reduce her to a minor role. The text pits her against Nightingale, and she represents herself as a heroine and claims for herself equal, if not higher, status than Nightingale, since she had done better nursing with surer skills and fewer resources—though she had been turned down by Nightingale for what she hinted were racial objections. She marshaled her fame into a position as masseuse to Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, and was received by Queen Victoria.
The success of Prince and Seacole as writers was built on the autobiographical element in their work. They did not offer their readers the creative work of their imagination, but served as witnesses who claimed the truth of testimony. As such, their work could fit into the nineteenth-century canon not as "literature," but as a "slave narrative" and the "adventures" of a colorful character that readers had come to know through newspaper reports about the Crimean War. They remained the only women of African descent writing in the Caribbean or Latin America in the nineteenth century.
The circumstances that made Prince and Seacole such rarities as writing women in the nineteenth century prevailed through the early decades of the twentieth. During this period, the writer most associated with the representation of African-Caribbean culture, Lydia Cabrera (1899–1999) was not a woman of African descent, but a mundele (white woman) of the Cuban upper middle class. Cabrera, a mostly self-trained ethnologist and anthropologist, is still considered a leading authority on Afro-Cuban religion, culture, and healing traditions. Having established long-lasting relationships with the black servants in her parents' house, she used the African folklore she learned from them as the basis for stories she described as "transpositions." Methodologically, she would use African folk tales as the basis of her narratives, recreating and altering elements, and fusing them with European folk narratives and tales derived from Caribbean and Latin American colonial history. Her most famous work of fiction, Cuentos negros de Cuba (1940), was followed in 1954 by her seminal ethnographic work, El Monte, which remains a basic text for the study of traditional Santería and healing practices in Cuba.
Cabrera's writings were not isolated phenomena, however. They were important texts in an exploration of the African roots of Caribbean cultures, and they would have a profound impact on the development of decolonization movements and on the process of national formation that followed independence in the 1950s and 1960s. It was from the islands at the forefront of that decolonization movement that the first generation of twentieth-century African-Caribbean women writers emerged. In Jamaica, Una Marson (1905–1965), the Anglophone Caribbean's first major poet and a social activist who was once Haile Selassie's secretary, produced a poetry in which she mixed Calypsonian rhythms and the cadences of local speech in a conscious attempt to create a poetry true to Jamaica's Africa-derived culture. She would go on to conceive and direct the influential BBC Radio show Caribbean Voices, which offered a space for the dissemination of Caribbean writing in London. Among the writers for whom Caribbean Voices became a crucial vehicle was Jamaica's beloved poet and folklorist Louise Bennett ("Miss Lou," 1919–), an important figure in the development of a Caribbean literature in English that sought to break away from British models to become the conduit for local culture and language. Miss Lou's best-known books of poems, Jamaica Labrish (1966) and Anancy and Miss Lou (1979), use Jamaican Creole as an affirmation of what she calls "diasporic wisdom."
Francophone writers of Marson's and Bennet's generation, such as Mayotte Capécia (1928–1953), Michèle Lacrosil (1915–), and Jacqueline Manicom (1938–1976) focused instead on voicing the historical plight of the Caribbean mulatto, adrift between the black masses and the longed-for acceptance into the world of whites. The protagonists of their novels—of Capécia's Je suis martiniquaise (1948), Lacrosil's Sapotille et le serin d'argile (1960), and Manicom's Mon examen de blanc (1972)—are mulatto women burdened by a feeling of inferiority in society who thus seek to identify themselves with the whites, to their eventual detriment. Their quest for autonomy and racial identity is meant to mirror the African-Caribbean woman's problems of race, gender, class, and social power. Yet they fail to strike a balance between personal autonomy and acceptance as women of mixed race within their communities.
The most significant African-Caribbean writer of this generation is the Haitian novelist Marie Chauvet (1916–1973), the author of five novels. The two considered her best are Amour, Colère, et Folie (1968) and Fonds-desnègres (1960). Chauvet, like her male contemporaries Seymour Pradel and Jacques-Stéphen Alexis, waged a frontal battle against the violence, hunger, and oppression that became the reality of life for most Haitians under the dictatorship of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier and that of his son, Jean-Claude. Her trilogy Amour, Colère, et Folie offers a devastating indictment of tyranny and repression in Haiti, seen primarily through the abuse and torture of the female body. Her dissection of the impact on a middle-class Port-au-Prince family of the appropriation of their lands by the Tonton Macoutes (the Duvaliers' dreaded militia) in Colère is the most acute and detailed indictment of the complex web of social, historical, and political forces that sustained the Duvaliers' extended dictatorship. Chauvet's blend of eroticism, social realism, and political engagement makes hers a unique voice in Caribbean writing. Her Fonds-des-nègres is the most nuanced and compelling literary depiction of the importance of Vodou in Haitian culture and of its powerful hold on the hearts of the Haitian people.
The generation that followed Chauvet's—that of writers born after World War II who began to write in the 1960s and 1970s—was part of a veritable explosion in Caribbean women's writing. During the 1970s, women's voices moved into the mainstream of literary activity in the region after decades of relative silence and neglect. Women of African descent moved for the first time in Caribbean literary history into the center of literary production, bringing racial oppression and African culture into the forefront. In their work, these women writers sought to articulate their gendered position in Caribbean societies through narratives that told of their search for "agency" in their personal and social lives.
The earliest texts by this generation of writers were the five great female bildungsroman (novels of development) of Anglophone Caribbean literary history: Merle Hodges's Crick Crack Monkey (1970), Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb (1982), Michelle Cliff's Abeng (1984), and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John (1986). Hodge, born in Trinidad in 1944, writes in Crick Crack Monkey about the plight of a young girl, Tee, who must leave her native rural village, with its African-derived values and culture, to live with her aunt in an unfamiliar city marked by its anglicized culture. Tee's painful trajectory allows Hodges to trace the devastating psychological costs of the imposition of colonial mores and racial categories on a young black girl. The novel has become a classic of West Indian fiction, and it is often compared with Edgell's Beka Lamb, with which it shares many thematic elements.
Edgell, born in British Honduras in 1940, sought in Beka Lamb —published the year after her country became the newly independent nation of Belize—to trace her country's complex social and racial stratification through her protagonist Beka, a young black girl in a multiethnic country. Edgell's interest in portraying the political dimensions of the struggle to create new nations out of former Caribbean and Latin American colonies through her central characters is echoed by the Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff (1946–) in Abeng and her subsequent novels. Cliff's central concern is that of portraying the hybrid nature of identity in former colonies where racial and social categories have led women to problematic allegiances and psychological confusion. In Abeng, Cliff traces the need to recover and acknowledge the individual's and the nation's African past. The story is told through the struggles of the protagonist Clare—a young light-skinned girl of the impoverished middle class—to establish her identity as a Jamaican. Cliff, a fierce critic of her country's class hierarchies and dependence on color stratification, uses the form of the bildungsroman to great effect in dissecting the destructive impact of these hierarchies on the developing identities of the young.
These same concerns appear, although in more muted and less overtly political form, in Kincaid's Annie John. Kincaid, born in Antigua in 1949, sought in her autobiographical first novel to explore the conflict experienced by Annie when her deep affection for her mother and for her island nation (which had gained its independence in 1981) needed to give way to separation and independence. Through carefully articulated parallels between Annie's mother and British colonialism, Kincaid subtly weaves her depiction of the complexities of growing up female in a colonial environment. Kincaid would move on from Annie John to become one of the most widely read of Caribbean writers. She is the author of Lucy (1990), A Small Place (1988), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), My Brother (1997), and Mr. Potter (2002).
Closely linked to this generation of authors of bildungsromans are two of Jamaica's most successful writers: Erna Brodber (1940–) and Olive Senior (1941–). Senior, a master storyteller, is the author of three collections of short stories: Summer Lightning (1986), Arrival of the Snake-Woman (1989), and Discerner of Hearts (1995). Her writing—at times autobiographical but always rooted in her experiences as a rural Jamaican—is deeply committed to exploring the Caribbean region's struggles for definition after centuries of colonial rule, which she sees as her duty as a writer. Olive, the daughter of peasant farmers, grew up with affluent relatives whose way of life and mores were quite different from those of her rural childhood. In stories like "Bright Thursdays," where she recounts the travails of a child like herself trying to adapt to the ways and notions of rich town relatives, Senior's talent for characterization and for recreating the cadences of everyday speech shine through. Her stories have been praised for their delicate exploration of the human spirit to face adversity, and for their insightful explorations of relationships across race, class, and gender differences.
Erna Brodber is the author of three novels: Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980), Myal (1988), and Louisiana (1994). Her concerns as a writer were influenced by her growing up in a family of committed community activists and by contact with the Black Power and women's liberation movements while studying in the United States. A social scientist by training, her first novels were conceived as test cases to help her students understand the dangers of losing touch with community values and one's native culture. Brodber is, above all, interested in showing how characters who have strayed from their culture and community, like light-skinned Ella in Myal, can be healed through the combined efforts of a diverse but unified community.
While women writers in the Anglophone Caribbean have occupied center stage since the 1980s, writers from the Francophone Caribbean have struggled for a readership and international recognition, remaining in the periphery of a literature dominated by Edouard Glissant and later the members of the Creolité movement—Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant among them. The two names most immediately recognized are those of Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe, 1934–) and Simone Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe, 1938–).
Condé is a prolific and widely translated author whose novels have addressed a variety of topics, from Africa's epic past in her historical novel Sègou (1984–1985), through the history of witchcraft in the United States (Moi, Tituba, sorciére noire de Salem, 1986), to a rewriting of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (La migration des coeurs, 1995). Her first novel, Hérémakhonon, the story of a young woman seeking her roots in Africa, appeared in 1976. Its exploration of the confrontation between a naive young woman from the diaspora seeking her identity in Africa only to come to terms with political corruption and profound disillusionment is reprised in Une saison à Rihata (1981). Condé's central concern as a writer is that of exploring the historical and mythical links between Africa and the nations of the diaspora through the prism of a painful history of European imperialism and the shadow of contemporary Africa as a continent of troubled and often corrupt nations.
Simone Schwarz-Bart is the author of four novels, among them Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (with her husband André Schwarz-Bart, 1967), Ti Jean l'horizon (1979), and Pluie et vent sur Telumée miracle (1979). A writer concerned with the many diasporas of the twentieth century, she was encouraged to write by her husband, the author of Le dernier des justes (1959), which charts the history of a Jewish family since the year 1000. Together they produced Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (1967), which tells the story of Mariotte, a Martiniquan woman whose search for her own identity and her alienation from French society is told from her confinement in an asylum
for the aging. The novel was meant as the first of a cycle of seven novels covering the period between slavery and the present in the Antilles. Their second collaboration produced La mulâtresse solitude (1972). Simone Schwarz-Bart's first solo contribution to this project, Pluie et vent sur Telumée miracle (1972), the moving story of a young woman brought to the edge of madness by alienation and heartbreak—and of her healing through the Africanderived practices and rituals of her grandmother—was praised by readers and critics for its lyrical examination of a woman's struggle to come to terms with herself and her island, as well as for the insightful rendering of the history of the Caribbean in the twentieth century through the eyes of a peasant woman. Her fourth novel, Ti Jean l'horizon (1979) fuses magical realism and folk myth to tell the story of a legendary Guadeloupean folk hero.
Whereas women of African descent have been able to maintain central positions in the literary histories of the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean, the same cannot be said about writing in the Spanish-speaking Antilles, where literature by women continues to develop primarily among white or light-skinned women like Rosario Ferré, Magali García Ramis, Daína Chaviano, Zoé Valdés, and Angela Hernández. Ironically, the Cuban Revolution, despite its efforts to give a voice to the formerly oppressed masses of former cane workers, has produced only one Afro-Cuban writer of note, Nancy Morejón.
Morejón, Cuba's best known and most widely translated contemporary poet, was born in 1944. She was the first Afro-Cuban to graduate from the University of Havana. Her work—which is collected in Mirar adentro (2000)—addresses topics such as Cuba's Afro-Cuban identity, folklore and ethnicity, history, gender and race, and sociopolitical issues. Her poems, beginning with her most famous and most-often anthologized, "Mujer negra," incorporate the rhythm and language of Afro-Cuban speech and music while insisting that blackness is an integral part of the broader Cuban literary tradition. Working within the Afro-Antillean tradition established by Nicolás Guillén, her poems celebrate the hybrid nature of Cuban culture and explore its connections to the broader Caribbean and Latin American cultures. Critics have noted her use of humor as a vehicle for the presentation of subtle and nuanced critiques of the history of imperialism in the Caribbean, indictments of slavery and its impact on social development in the region, and the inhumane treatment of the oppressed. Her books include Piedra pulida (1986), Elogio y paisaje (1997), and La Quinta de los Molinos (2000).
In Puerto Rico, Ana Lydia Vega's often hilarious short stories—collected in Encancaranublado y otros cuentos de naufragio (1992) and Pasión de historia y otras historias de pasión (1987)—set the tone for Puerto Rican feminist literature in the 1980s. Vega addresses questions of race as part of her efforts at voicing the concerns of the poor and oppressed classes with which she identifies. Her stories depicting the plight of Haitians as a despised black group among lighter-skinned mulatto Antilleans are among the best of her work. The one writer to make African-Caribbean culture the very center of her work, however, has been Mayra Montero, who was born in Cuba to a white family and has been a resident of Puerto Rico most of her life. Her work bears mentioning here because of her commitment to laying bare the Haitian people's struggle against repression and poverty. This commitment was already evident in her first novel, La trenza de la hermosa luna (1987), a beautifully rendered tale of an exile's return to Haiti after twenty years as a wandering sailor, including the transformation that leads him from disillusionment to passionate commitment to action against the Duvalier regime. In Del rojo de tu sombra (1992), Montero unveils the vicious and corrupt politics and African-derived religious traditions that link the Dominican Republic and Haiti, despite the enmity that has existed between the countries for centuries. In Tú, la oscuridad (1995) she uncovers a new and haunting postcolonial space built upon the conflict between a scientific and an animistic worldview. This space is marked by the extinction of species due to a collapsing environment; the troubled landscape of Haiti, peopled with zombies and other frightening, other-worldly creatures; and political corruption, violence, and religious turmoil.
Of the new generation of Puerto Rican writers that followed in the wake of Rosario Ferré, Magali García Ramis, and Ana Lydia Vega, Mayra Santos-Febres (1966–), a Puerto Rican of African descent, is the most accomplished. Known as a poet—she has published a number of poetry books, including El orden escapado (1991), Anamú y manigua (1991), and Tercer mundo (2000)—she emerged in the first years of the twenty-first century as a gifted prose writer. The texts of Santos-Febres's short stories, collected in Pez de vidrio and El cuerpo correcto, are erotic urban vignettes about desire and its frustration as they play themselves out in contemporary Puerto Rico. Her novel Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000), the story of a gay teenage boy earning a living on the streets, and of the transvestite who recognizes the crystalline sweetness of his singing voice and helps him become a famous travestí in the Dominican Republic, is one of the best narratives to come out of the Caribbean in many years. Santos-Febres represents the bright future of Africa-Caribbean women's writing.
See also Bennett, Louise; Brodber, Erna; Condé, Maryse; Danticat, Edwidge; Kincaid, Jamaica; Literature of Haiti; Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean; Marson, Una; Morejón, Nancy; Prince, Mary; Santos-Febres, Mayra; Seacole, Mary; Wynter, Sylvia
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lizabeth paravisini-gebert (2005)