Caribbean Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.