Caribbean Literary History

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

According to Britannica Online, the Caribbean possesses "no indigenous tradition" in writing. The encyclopedia cites the fact that the American Indians who existed before Columbus's "discovery" of the islands left very few carving or petroglyphs. Further, their oral traditions seemed to fade as they died out or were exterminated during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, leaving little behind uniquely native to the Caribbean islands. Furthermore, the civilization that was to replace the Indians, made up of several different West African peoples brought to the West Indies as slaves, did not possess a written tradition of its own--nor was it allowed to develop one while it suffered in bondage. But the Africans did in some measure pass on a culture of orality, of storytelling and song -- a culture that writers like Kamau Brathwaite point to as evidence of an African heritage in the Caribbean.

The first literary breakthroughs, departing from mere imitation of the conventions of the European colonizers, came outside the Anglophone Caribbean, in the French and Spanish islands. Beginning in the 1920s, writers like Aimé Cesaire of Martinique, Luis Palés Matos of Puerto Rico, Jacques Roumain of Haiti, Nicolás Guillén of Cuba, and Léon Damas of French Guiana were the first to attempt carving out a distinctive Caribbean literary identity. This identity was based not on European ideals but on links between the black communities of the Caribbean.

The British West Indies did not really pick up this challenge until after World War II. With the growth of newly independent states like Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica, Anglophone writers finally began to develop a tradition that focused on a distinctly Caribbean consciousness. Pioneers in this movement include Vic Reid, who published New Day in 1949, George Lamming with In the Castle of My Skin in 1953, and V.S. Naipaul, who penned Mystic Masseur in 1957 and the canonized A House for Mr. Biswas in 1961. Today a wide variety of Caribbean writing in English exists, finally including female as well as male writers and beginning to take on not only Caribbean issues but (in writers such as Derek Walcott or Wilson Harris) contemporary issues such as Deconstruction.


"Caribbean literature" Britannica Online. [Accessed 09 June 1998].

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