Caribbean Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Caribbean Literature


Caribbean Literature

The following entry presents criticism on authors and works of Caribbean literature.

The Caribbean has long been considered a politically, culturally, and linguistically fragmented region, giving it a uniquely diverse and varied background. Due to the long colonization of Caribbean nations, there is continued debate over the countries that comprise the Caribbean. Some scholars argue for the inclusion of a number of Latin American countries in the Caribbean based on the commonality of culture apparent in these nations, while others stress that the countries in the Caribbean Islands, from Cuba to Trinidad, including those that were previously under Dutch domination, are the mainstay of Caribbean culture. Included in the latter definition are the nations of Haiti, Martinique, Antilles, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and, to some extent, Puerto Rico. Colonized first by Spain, England, France, and Holland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the area passed to the United States, Haiti, and several Latin American nations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. All these influences, coupled with a culture of slavery and political tyranny that continued even after many of the countries gained independence from the colonists, have given rise to a literature that is deeply concerned with issues of ethnic-cultural identity, race-relationships, politics, and nation-building.

The need to form a cultural and national identity that is distinct from their colonized ancestors led many Caribbean intellectuals, including José Martí, Simon Bolivar, and others, to develop the idea of a united Caribbean nation. While that notion is yet to become political reality, there is a commonality of culture across the islands of the Caribbean that links these societies in very fundamental ways. An integral part of this cultural assimilation began on the slave plantations, where a common culture of creativity and expression, influenced in part by religion, continues to flourish today. Beginning with work songs, religious hymns, and spirituals, creative expression among African immigrants survived the era of slavery, and in the twentieth century, it found expression in the works of such writers as Edward Kamau Brathwaite and George Lamming. In addition to people of African ancestry, the Caribbean islands are also home to Spanish- and Dutch-speaking authors, many of whose writings also reflect concerns about national and cultural identity in both prose and poetry. A main thrust in the writing of Spanish-speaking authors in particular is the need to articulate their awareness of the continued existence of inequality in society, and they often use colonial stereotypes in their writing to highlight this awareness.

The political unrest and conflict that continues to plague many of the Caribbean islands has also forced many of its authors to leave their countries for the United States and other parts of the world. Early expatriate Caribbean literature was clearly a literature of exile, since many of the authors writing at that time had fled to the United States to escape political strictures placed on them by their ruling nations. In the twentieth century, authors such as Reinaldo Arenas and Carlos Guillermo Wilson, although they continued to write about their homeland, also incorporated their lives in their adopted countries into their writing. Though modern expatriate writing from the Caribbean continues to be concerned with the state of their native countries, their discourse has expanded to include concern about their experiences in the United States, and many of these writers are now using their adopted language to express these concerns.

Representative Works

Reinaldo Arenas
El central (poetry) 1981
Otra vez el mar (novel) 1982
La Loma del Angel (novel) 1987

Frank Martinus Arion
Stemmen uit Afrika (poetry) 1957
Dubbelspel (novel) 1973
Afscheid van de koningin (novel) 1975
Nobele Wilden (novel) 1979

Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Rights of Passage (poetry) 1967
Islands (poetry) 1969
Mother Poem (poetry) 1977
Gods of the Middle Passage (prose) 1982
Sun Poem (poetry) 1982
Roots (essay) 1986
Words Need Love Too (poetry) 2000

Julia de Burgos
Poema en Veinte Surcos (poetry) 1938
El mar y tú, otros poemas (poetry) 1952
Song of the Simple Truth: Obra poética completa (poetry) 1997

Aimé Césaire
Les armes miraculeuses (poetry) 1946
Corps Perdu (poetry) 1949
Et les chiens se taisaient: tragedie (play) 1956
La tragedie du roi Christophe (play) 1963
A Season in the Congo (play) 1969
Moi, Laminaire (poetry) 1982
Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems (poetry) 1985

Cola Debrot
Mijn zuster de negerin [My Sister the Negress] (novel) 1935
De Vervolgden (novel) 1982

Marcus Garvey
The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey; or, Africa for the Africans 2 vols. (prose) 1923-25
The Tragedy of White Injustice (poetry) 1927
Black Power in America (prose) 1968

José Luis González
El hombre en la calle (novel) 1948
En este Lado (novel) 1954

Nicolás Guillén
El son entero (poetry) 1947
West Indies Ltd. (poetry) 1934

Wilson Harris
The Secret Ladder (novel) 1963

Anton de Kom
Wij slaven van Suriname (prose) 1934

George Lamming
The Pleasures of Exile (essays) 1960
Season of Adventure (novel) 1960
Water with Berries (novel) 1971

Jean Price Mars
Ainsi parla l'oncle (novel) 1928
Silhouettes de Negres et de Negrophiles (fiction) 1960

José Martí
Ismaelillo (poetry) 1882
Nuestra America (essay) 1891
Resolucionies tomados por le emigracion cubana de Tampa (essay) 1891
Versos sencillos (poetry) 1891
Versos libres (poetry) 1913

John de Pool
Del Curazao que se va (satire) 1935

Jacques Roumain
La proie et l'ombre (short stories) 1930
Les fantoches (novel) 1931
Gouverneurs de la rosee (novel) 1944
Bois d'ebene (poetry) 1945
La montagne ensorcelee (prose and poetry) 1972

Andrew Salkey
A Quality of Violence (novel) 1959
Anancy's Score (short stories) 1973

Philip Sherlock
Ten Poems (poetry) 1953

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Pizarro, Ana. “Reflections on the Historiography of Caribbean Literature,” translated by J. Ann Zammit. Callaloo 11, no. 1 (winter 1988): 173-85.

[In the following essay, Pizarro surveys the historical, political, and cultural background that defines Caribbean literature, noting the vast differences among the societies that comprise the Caribbean and theorizing that the literature produced by these societies serves to unite them in a way that overrides many political and cultural conflicts.]

Each social formation has its corresponding social imagery: just as feudalism has an imagery, so the American slave mode of production has its own social imagery. There must have been a quite specific imagery corresponding to the production of sugar, coffee and tobacco using African slaves.1

This observation by Depestre is the point of departure for understanding a world as complex as the one we are trying to approach today. Our concern is to understand how we can formulate historical perceptions about Caribbean literature and the manner in which literatures from different cultural-linguistic regions, each historically oriented toward a different metropolis, find points of articulation and how a geographical area which is fragmented culturally, linguistically and politically manifests, through cultural discourse, a tendency toward unity.

The first consideration to take into account relates to the character of the Caribbean as a regional entity. The non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean, according to A. Ardao, is territory which belongs to Latin America by virture of “accession,” in that over time it has gradually accommodated itself to Latin America and has been adopted by Latin American and Caribbean international organizations. Thus Latin America, together with the Caribbean, is a clearly defined, specific region. During this century, and especially in recent decades, there has been a fundamental change in this respect, with the systematic breaking of colonial ties, as well as a growing awareness of the Caribbean as a specific region. The Cuban revolution, political independence in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in 1962, and Guyana and Barbados in 1966, and, in spite of everything, Grenada in 1974, testify to this.

A research project such as this must give prior consideration to defining or delimiting the area to be considered. The problem of defining the area covered by the term “Caribbean” is not resolved and this has political implications. There are two clear basic options. One, rooted in the existence of the Caribbean Sea, envisages the region as comprising all those territories which surround it, both islands and mainland. This has been referred to as the Caribbean Basin, which is perceived as a center of Latin American development. Another definition which is gaining increasing acceptance is one which comprises the Caribbean islands from Cuba to Trinidad, including those under Dutch dominion, and also the Guyanas. This delimitation of the Caribbean was accepted at the Port of Spain meeting of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America in 1975. However, this definition has the disadvantage of omitting territories such as the Venezuelan coast and Panama, whose Caribbean character is evident. But can the same be said for Nicaragua or Costa Rica? It seems to us that there are problems in deciding what counts as the Caribbean region; in order to resolve the issue it is necessary to make reference to cultural semantics.

It is not only its fragmented, insular nature which makes it difficult to understand the region and its cultural discourse. Difficulty arises because of the need to understand a reality in which, over and above the historical conflict involved in the process of colonization, there are multiple contradictions. Westernization had a durable destructive impact. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, there emerged in the region an awareness of ethno-cultural specificity: Price Mars in Haiti, Césaire in Martinique and Marcus Garvey in the English-speaking Antilles. Large economic enclaves have been established in the region by the big transnational companies and yet at the same time the region has undergone the continent's first experience of socialism. Part of the Caribbean region's tragic history of slavery, piracy and tyranny is the institutionalized North-South confrontation between the USA and Europe on the one side and the Caribbean and Latin American on the other.2 This situation is expressed fully in the region's culture, particularly in the literary discourse which sets the cultural agenda at various levels. Thus the region's geographical location has to a large extent constituted its continuing drama. But it has also forged its sense of dignity.

Despite this apparent dispersion, the tendency toward unity is our point of departure. At a time when the process of Hispanic-American rebellion was still in preparation, Haiti set Latin America an example with respect to independence. Leaders who were involved in making contemporary history circulated among the islands, making them common ground for those who combined thought and action in a libertarian spirit whose ties extended to the continent. Bolivar went from Curaçao to Jamaica and received support from Pétion in Haiti. Later the Dominican, Maximo Gómez, struggled to achieve independence for Cuba. José Martí broadened his own perspective in the larger countries of Venezuela, Central America and Mexico, in what we Hispanics call Our America. They laid the bases for Ramón Emeterio Betances's plan to establish an Antilles Confederation, and for later attempts to unite the English- and Spanish-speaking Antilles, or the development of the idea of a Caribbean nation.

All this was made possible by the fact that the Antilles constituted a micro-universe, an ecosystem, a system of islands with similar social and geographical features, and with a common history articulated by colonial domination which established itself on the basis of the plantation economy. To a large extent this is also what establishes the nexus with Latin American society and culture.

Despite the lack of communication between islands linked to different metropolises, this form of economic development (which was established in the region from the beginning of colonization) gave rise to a type of society which generates cultural formations that are similar in structure and, to a considerable extent, also similar in content. The heritage of different African ethnic groups was assimilated at different points in their development, as runaway slaves (maroons) were absorbed back into society. The African collective memory was traditionally preserved by the elderly, in whom the slave owners had no interest since they provided no real possibilities for economic exploitation. Although the coercion to which slaves were subjected undermined their culture, the people of African origin developed a creative response in terms of mechanisms, themes and similar problems relating to the common experience of plunder and to common historical-cultural reference points. Any difference to be found were, above all, in the relationship with the various cultural forms corresponding to the different colonial powers.

Thus the plantation economy, through its treatment of slaves, gave rise to the cultural unity of the Caribbean during its development process. The plantation created a society with specific characteristics. At the start it was a mere collection of human beings. Its members—all less than 30 years of age and mainly people of different African ethnic origins—practically lived under a system of imprisonment. Moreno Fraginals says of the situation:

This aggregation of humans is subjected to a responsive system which determines the useful part of their life and generally eliminates free time; dietary patterns are standardized for the economic benefit of the owners, housing is planned for economic and security reasons, clothing is produced on large-scale industrial lines; sexual life is subjected to the requirements of production; family relationships are distorted by the imbalance between the sexes and the plantation system of production.3

The plantation is a social order and, as such, it engenders a specific cultural formation. It is a creation of European capitalism and is the tragic product of a number of practices and forms whose purpose was to perfect the system.

Sugar was the first major primary product extracted from the continent and was thus the basis of a whole economic and social formation. It was sugar which imparted dynamism to a substantial part of the Caribbean and to the European economy. It set factories, refineries, spinning mills, ports, and railways in motion. The economic success of the Caribbean and European economies depended on obtaining more slaves for the colonial markets. The largest slave market was in Curaçao, under the Dutch West Indies Company. The Caribbean thus developed a structural unity. Differences were related to the differing externally imposed cultures, but at the same time the region experienced similar socio-cultural processes. Through domination and resistance, this growing entity became cross-cultural in nature. The societies of the Antilles were transformed into creole societies.

Perhaps it was in the French Caribbean, and more specifically in Haiti, that the gradual development of a literature which embodied both an awareness and affirmation of its own cultural values was most in evidence. This was largely due to Haiti having undergone the nineteenth century independence struggles earlier than other countries in the region, having gained its independence in 1804. On the other hand, Haiti also had an early experience of intervention—that other misfortune suffered by the region almost continuously since the end of the last century. This has occurred in different forms in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Panama, and the Caribbean in general.4

However, these interventions and the permanent presence of the United States in the area have also constituted a unifying factor, reinforcing anti-colonial sentiment. The 1915 intervention in Haiti led to the great unleashing of “indigenist” feelings in 1928 when a group of Haitian intellectuals published the first issues of the Revue Indigène in an attempt to reclaim their origins. Cultural values were already being affirmed at the beginning of the nineteenth century in scholarly literary discourse, in “civil literature,” literature with a national awareness, which also emerged in the rest of the continent as an expression of the formation of nation states.

Jean Price Mars's 1928 work Ainsi parla l'oncle is the classic work registering black consciousness; it set in motion a continuing and systematic discourse, whose historical antecedents were to be found throughout the Caribbean in the cimmarronadas5 of the sixteenth century. This work was preceded by lectures given in 1917 and published in 1919 under the title La Vocation d'élite. They discussed the divisions in Haitian society and the values of Afro-American ethnicity. This consciousness was further developed in the journals La Nouvelle Ronde (1926), La Revue Indigène (1928) and La Trouée (1927). Its articulation as an ideological proposition became consolidated in the négritude movement which arose among young Caribbean blacks in Paris. Later this affirmation developed along different paths. As has been well expressed elsewhere, this movement was primarily concerned with the ethnic question, and paid relatively less attention to other important issues such as the dialectic between ethnicity and class.6 In any case, national awareness expressed itself in many ways, for example, in essays, in thematic propositions, and in cross-cultural literary discourse, with the gradual integration of popular literary forms in “creole” into scholarly literary forms which were subversive of metropolitan French.

In the case of the English Caribbean, sustained literary output which generated and accommodated itself to the public came later, in the twentieth century in fact. However, according to Edward Brathwaite, an important precedent is to be found in the 1827 novel Hamel the Obeahman, which is an early portrayal of the human dimension of black people. Throughout the Caribbean from the beginnings of colonization, the popular culture is rich in social images of collective consciousness; rooted in Africa, but restructured by the new conditions which slavery imposed, they constitute a powerful force of resistance or “cultural cimarroneo” (cultural hiding away).7 For Depestre these cultural expressions are the mechanisms devised to confront attempts at “zombification,” a process whereby the loss of their spirit reduces colonized people to nothing more than a labor pool. As a result work songs emerged, as did religious hymns, blues, spirituals, and the many forms of popular stories to be found in the islands and on part of the continent.

The “erudite” or learned literary system developed in the twentieth century, especially with independence and the appearance of important journals. Again, it was a form of resistance and cultural assertion in response to North American invasions. Examples of this are provided by the great English Caribbean poet Edward Brathwaite in Barbados and the prose writer George Lamming. It is this cultural conditioning with all its contradictions which gave rise to a V. S. Naipaul.8

Dutch-Caribbean literature (or rather literatures) provide an example of regional complexity which is worth examining here. This literature exists as a combination of three literary systems, each associated with a different perspective on history, according to the specific manner of insertion in the social universe comprising the islands of the Dutch Antilles. Excluding Suriname, which we do not intend to deal with here, the Dutch Antilles comprise two groups of islands: on the one hand Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, that is those nearest the continent, and, on the other, the islands of St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius, Windward and Leeward respectively.

The literary and cultural complexity of the area is related to the historical importance of the Antilles as a center of production for the primary product, sugar, and, from a geo-political point of view, to its strategic position, as we have already indicated. Thus, these islands were the first to be colonized by the Spanish. (Discovered by Alonso de Ojeda in 1499, Curaçao features in the first accounts of the conquest of the continent.) They were then colonized by the Dutch who established an important center for slave trading there. Juan de Ampies took possession of the islands on behalf of the Catholic kings and for more than a century they remained under Spanish sovereignty. In 1634 the Dutch seized Curaçao. As elsewhere in the Carribean, the indigenous population—in this case the Arawaks—were practically exterminated. These few references to history point to the three cultural lines which basically shape the islands' profile: the Spanish, the Dutch and the Creoles who speak Papiamento.

There are various theories concerning the local language, Papiamento. The earliest identified Papiamento as a form of Spanish, and the modern authority P. Henríquez Ureña considered it a Spanish dialect. The second, that of Rodolfo Lenz (1928), considers Papiamento to be a Portuguese dialect brought by slaves from West Africa and developed through the ongoing cross-cultural process. More recently, T. Navarro Tomás and Van Wyck have suggested that it is a form of Afro-Portuguese which constitutes a kind of proto-creole.9 Whatever the case, for the region's inhabitants Papiamento is one corner-stone of their identity within the multifaceted cultural formation bequeathed them by history. The assertion of Papiamento in the area has become an anti-colonial phenomenon. Enormous efforts such as those by the Antilles Linguistic Institute are made to introduce the teaching of Papiamento into schools, to arrive at an agreement on its written form and to translate major works of world literature into Papiamento. Henry Habibe, poet and founder of the literary review Watapana, writes:

As someone from the Dutch Antilles, I am engaged in a search for myself, for my own identity. It makes sense to tie oneself to a situation such as this, to something which is entirely one's own. For me as a poet this something of my own is my language; Papiamento is mine, so I search for my own identity in this language.10

The Papiamento oral (literary) tradition at times takes a written form in what are called “banderitas,” a short poetic form presented on narrow strips of paper wrapped around a small stick.11 It is also expressed in popular stories of African origin, in which the central character is a spider. The spider and rabbit form a couple in popular tales from the West African jungle and grassland regions. A series of such stories expresses the values of both these African cultures.12 In Surinam this character is called Anansi and in Curaçao, Compa Nansi.

The novelist,...

(The entire section is 7196 words.)

Criticism: Ethnic And National Identity

Edward Kamau Brathwaite (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. “The African Presence in Caribbean Literature.”1 In Africa in Latin America: Essays on History, Culture, and Socialization, edited by Manuel Moreno Fraginals, translated by Leonor Blum, pp. 103-44. New York: Holems & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1984.

[In the following essay, Brathwaite examines African influences on Caribbean folk traditions, stressing that although highly focused on religion, African cultural practices and norms not only survived periods of slavery and colonization, but that they continue to influence Caribbean folk culture in form, literature, and rhetoric.]

in december to about...

(The entire section is 16903 words.)

Ineke Phaf (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Phaf, Ineke. “Caribbean Imagination and Nation Building in Antillean and Surinamese Literature,” translated by G. J. van Excel, with assistance from Maureen Berkel. Callaloo 11, no. 1 (winter 1988): 148-71.

[In the following essay, Phaf explores the interplay between the Caribbean imagination and the literature of the countries comprising the Caribbean basin, focusing particularly on the Antilles and Surinam.]


This essay examines an important function of the Caribbean imagination in that part of the region where, in the seventeenth century, colonies were established and administered “in the...

(The entire section is 13356 words.)

Criticism: Expatriate Caribbean Literature

SOURCE: Luis, William. “Latin American (Hispanic Caribbean) Literature Written in the United States.” In The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature: The Twentieth Century, vol. 2, edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker, pp. 526-56. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Luis provides an overview of Spanish-Caribbean literature written in the United States, briefly discussing the works of such authors as Reinaldo Arenas, José Martí, and others.]

Hispanic Caribbean literature written in the United States is a relatively new field in literary history and criticism. In recent years, Spanish...

(The entire section is 14641 words.)

Criticism: Literary Historiography

Julio Rodriguez Luis (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Luis, Julio Rodriguez. “Literary Production in the Hispanic Caribbean.” Callaloo 11, no. 1 (winter 1988): 132-46.

[In the following essay, Luis provides an appraisal of the literary histories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo.]

Alejandro Losada in 1983 proposed a model for studying the development of literary production within the Latin American context which seems particularly useful, and which I intend to employ as a point of departure to draw my own conclusions regarding the literary histories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo. These conclusions are of necessity very tentative at this stage and even more so with respect to Dominican...

(The entire section is 8394 words.)

Maria Cristina Rodriguez (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Rodriguez, Maria Cristina. “Women Writers of the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean: An Overview.” In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, pp. 339-45. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rodriguez provides a brief literary and political history of the Caribbean, focusing mainly on its female writers and their place in traditional Caribbean cultural society.]

If we agree that the Caribbean is a fragmented, small region because of its political, economic, and language differences, we must also agree that even within so-called common language sectors, great differences...

(The entire section is 2997 words.)

Further Reading


Olliz-Boyd, Antonio, and Gabriel Asoanab Abudu. “Afro Iberian Identity in the Early Literature of Spain: Precursor to the Afro Hispanic Identity.” In Imagination, Emblems and Expressions: Essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and Continental Culture and Identity, edited by Helen Ryan-Ranson, pp. 283-99. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1993.

Analyzes the depiction of African identity and culture in Spanish literature of the Middle Ages.

Piedra, José. “Through Blues.” In Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? edited by Gustavo Pérez Firmat, pp. 107-29. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press,...

(The entire section is 247 words.)