On theorizing Caribbean space: History and linguistic diversity in the Caribbean

Coolitude poetics from the Caribbean

Sewdass Mohabir's Jeewan Jhoti, Courantyne River, Berbice, Guyana.

In order to understand Caribbean Coolitude poetics, one might review the local poetics to illuminate context. Coolitude uses Caribbean poetics — broadly created by and maintained by black intellectuals. Coolitude would be nowhere without its ancestor and kin, Négritude. A question arises: is the Caribbean as one geopolitical space and how have the histories of different colonizers’ languages created disparate yet united experiences in the Antillean archipelago? In his book Caribbean Poetics: Toward and Aesthetic of West Indian Literature, Torres-Saillant posits that in order to understand the literature being produced in the Caribbean the reader must first understand that ideas of literature, literary theory, and language are not necessarily universal. What he means is that the Caribbean must be understood in terms of its own history before any claims can be made about the literary merit of its writings. Moreover, the reader brings expectations to the text with that are contextually and culturally embedded. In this project Torres-Saillant wants “to demonstrate that Caribbean literary texts, at least since the early twentieth century, are linked amongst themselves by an aesthetic kinship born of the more or less common experience lived by Caribbean societies” (Torres-Saillant 11) even though the literatures are written in European languages.

Using T.S. Eliot’s idea of “organic wholes” — that the literature is context specific — Torres-Saillant insists that not only one version of literary theory will fit multiple contexts. He claims that beauty and aesthetics are culturally embedded and unevenly spread due to the effects of colonization. He says, “The texts from nations with a history of imperial expansion automatically possess a greater chance of being ‘universalized’ than those from nations with less influence over the affairs of the world” (13). The work of understanding the various literary contexts falls upon the reader, who must understand the context for the aesthetics, as well as history and the bodies of knowledge that inform the literature.

The literatures of the formerly colonized cannot be understood using the same frameworks of interpretation as Western, dominant literature because of the trajectories of these differing histories. Caribbean literature’s “development corresponds, it seems, to a pace dictated by an insistent nation-building effort which characterized the countries of the region for most of the twentieth century” (17). The example that Torres-Saillant provides is of Aimé Césaire and his experimentations with Surrealism — a French movement that was based on a distrust of language and “fostered the production of non-linear, fragmented, and telegraphic texts” (17). In Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, a long poem, Césaire did not need to prove the en vogue disdain for language that the French showed; he instead believed that Caribbean literature did not share the same preoccupations as European writers.

George Lamming is quoted as saying, “The Caribbean quest for decolonization in the twentieth century can be construed as a people’s continuous and necessary battle for language” (Lamming qtd. Torres-Saillant 17–18). One writer and poet who works within this framework is Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who speaks the language of Caliban. He searches for a language that will help show a Caribbean worldview and a speech for decolonization and liberation. According to Torres-Saillant, Brathwaite

experiments with local sounds, regional speech patterns, vernacular, or dialect or Creole forms — all of which he names under the single term of ‘nation-language’ — as well as rhythmic tonalities which Brathwaite initially draws from jazz, and later from reggae, which highlight the creolized African component of Caribbean culture passed on in traditions of drumming and dance. His search entails the articulation of a native cosmology, a philosophy of history, and a regional aesthetic. (Torres-Saillant 22)

In this way Brathwaite, Lamming, etc. contributed to what Torres-Saillant calls a “counter-discourse,” one that runs opposite of and is disentangled from Western literary discourses. They are both able to rehumanize the dehumanized language of slaves; the always lesser-than dialect derided by colonial masters.

Torres-Saillant posits that scholars of the Caribbean must counter the expectation of articulating why the Caribbean is an ontological whole space from which its literature can be understood. Long has European tradition held and maintained a unifying Imaginary that places them in one grand cultural zone with specific differences. He believes that by positing the “oneness of Caribbean literature” the scholar undoes this damage. In order to understand the Caribbean as a regional scheme, the reader must think of this place as a composite image with multiple signs. And yet challenges remain, such as needing to stop imagining Caribbean writing as literature of the European metropoles — French, Spanish, English, Dutch — and that the writing from these spaces must be united through some mystical “oneness.” Rather these literatures, according to Torres-Saillant, must be viewed and understood on their own terms: nation language by nation language.

The missive then for Torres-Saillant is for the people of the Caribbean to “proclaim their own native vision of wholeness” (43) which is composite, arising from narratives of rupture and fragmentation of culture and identities — that gift of colonization. This can all be realized for the poet through the use of nation language as theorized by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who writes of nation language’s wholeness made from reformed fragments. 

Noise and voice: Postcolonial expressions

For Brathwaite “noise” is a contributing factor to not only the creation and maintenance of nation language but also to poetry that harnesses the inherent poetics of a Caribbean experience. For Brathwaite, the noise that constitutes nation language and poetry of nation language “express[es] the power of the hurricane (Brathwaite 42) but also the sound of the drum/“riddimic aspect” with “the sound-structure of Rastafarian drums” (33–34). The example that Brathwaite gives is from John Figueroa who writes in nation language using this sound construction,


         Watch dem ship dem

         come to town dem


         full o’ silk dem

         full o’ food dem (John Figueroa qtd. Brathwaite 33)

In this sample the reader is guided through the rhythm by the italicized lines, the reader is forced to read in nation language, with the voice of the drum and hurricane.

This voice, then, Brathwaite writes as Caribbean language, that language of those who stayed in the Caribbean past their enslavement, past their contracts of indenture, and creolized into new nations that struggled for inclusion in national discourse. This is the voice of the Caribbean person who is claiming linguistic identity and sovereignty in the face of the hegemonic European linguistic structures around them. The examples that Brathwaite gives include Bongo Jerry whose use of language described as “practically apocalyptic” and calls listeners and readers to “SILENCE BABEL TONGUES: recall and/ recollect BLACK SPEECH” (37).

In his Nobel lecture in 1992 entitled “The Antilles, Fragments of Epic Memory” Derek Walcott speaks of language in the Caribbean that serves as an overarching metaphor for understanding the space — a new iteration of Brathwaite’s nation language poetic. Walcott famously states,

I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad. Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love, which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, that cracked heirloom whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillian art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent” (Walcott 262)

Here Walcott gives a different description of the inherent power of nation language as amalgamative of its disparate parts, glued together with the “white scars” of European linguistic structures. It is with this in mind that the trajectory of nation language and the “voice” is propelled into various spaces and communities. For Walcott, the reformation is poetry. To this Brathwaite adds, “I say you have to be everything to bring those fragments together because fragments by their very nature are everything … They are in fact everything, little seeds growing throughout the scattered diaspora, throughout the Caribbean (Brathwaite qtd. Torres-Saillant 30).


Works cited and further reading

Banerjee, Neelanjana, Kaipa, Summi, Sundaralingam, Pireeni, and Ebrary, Inc. Indivisible an Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2010. Print.

Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant. “In Praise of Creoleness.” Postcolonialisms. Eds. Desai and Nair. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2005. 274—289. Print.

Brathwaite, Kamau. History of the Voice: Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London: New Beacon Books Ltd. 1984. Print.

Carter, Marina and Torbully, Khal. Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora. London: Anthem Press. 2002. Print.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nations and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.

Dabydeen, David. “Coolie Odyssey.They Came in Ships: an Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry. Eds. Joel Benjamin, Lakshmi Kallicharan, Ian McDonald, and Lloyd Searwar. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1998. 263—267. Print

Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.

Mishra, Vijay. “(B)ordering Naipaul: Indenture History and Diasporic Poetics.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies. 5.2 (1996): 189-237. Project Muse. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

Mishra, Vijay. The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary. New York: Routledge. 2007. Print.

Pirbhai, Miriam. Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009. Print.

Satīśa, Umāśaṅkara. Sūrīnāma Meṃ Hindī Kavitā. 1. Saṃskaraṇa. ed. Deharādūna: Jugala Kiśora Eṇḍa Kampanī, 1984. Print.

Shankar, Subramanian. Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular. Berkeley: University of California, 2012. Print.

Torres-Saillant, Silvio. Caribbean Poetics: Toward an Aesthetic of West Indian Literature. Print.

Vasu: Pacific Women of Power : Fiji's First All Woman Exhibition. Suva, Fiji: Vasu Collective, 2008. Print.