PASSION AND POETRY - Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides

Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)


The Lesser Antilles has a rich literary tradition - albeit a relatively young one, because for centuries stories and poems were passed down by word of mouth.

The islands of the Eastern Caribbean inspire passion and poetry in equal measure. And in impressive quantity. Few parts of the world can have produced so many top-class writers from so small a population. Although many of them today live abroad, the landscapes, language, and people of the islands fill their work with the unmistakable flavor of home.


Nobel Prize winning-poet Derek Walcott.

Bert Nienhuis

Yet literature is a relatively late arrival in the Caribbean. The great Barbadian novelist George Lamming was guilty of only slight exaggeration when he said in the 1960s that Caribbean writing was just 20 years old. However, there has, of course, always been plenty written about the region - from the 17th century, priests, merchants, and other itinerant observers sent back their impressions of island life, to be replaced in the 19th century by travel writers who invariably made their trip “down the islands” with a book in mind.

Love for an island is the sternest passion: pulsing beyond the blood through roots and loam. Phyllis Allfrey, Dominica


George Lamming explored his Barbadian childhood in his novel: “In the Castle of my Skin.”

Getty Images

Early storytellers

But literature by local people was for a long time in short supply. Slavery, illiteracy, and constant inter-colonial warfare were not ideal conditions for a thriving literary culture, while most slave owners or landlords tended not to be bookish by inclination. Significantly, one of the earliest examples of Caribbean poetry is Barbados (1754) in which Nathaniel Weekes offers useful, if unromantic, advice to the island’s planters:

“To urge the Glory of your Cane’s success, Rich be your Soil, and well manur’d with Dung,Or, Planters! what will your Labours yield?”

The culture of the slaves was oral rather than written, and their tales, riddles, and proverbs were handed down by storytellers in spoken form. Since slave-owning societies actively discouraged the formal education of the black majority, it was hardly surprising that few books were read, let alone written.

Even some time after Emancipation, the Lesser Antilles lagged behind larger territories like Cuba and Haiti in literary output. The small islands lacked publishers, bookstores, libraries, and, above all, a reading public. Amid widespread poverty and lack of education, only occasional clerics or dilettantes put pen to paper, but their poetry tended to be little more than tropical adaptations of well-worn European conventions.


Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul at the 2011 Venice Literary Festival.


One remarkable exception to the rule was John Jacob Thomas, a self-educated black Trinidadian. In 1888, Thomas read The English in the West Indies, which was a study of British colonialism in the Caribbean by the eminent Oxford professor, James Anthony Froude. Incensed by Froude’s patronizing and prejudiced view of black society, Thomas wrote a devastating riposte, Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained (1889), in which he accused the pompous professor of “fatuity” and “skinpride.”

On the literary map

Several factors coalesced in the 1940s and 1950s to put the region on the literary map. World War II and the immediate post-war years witnessed a massive increase in migration and mobility as islanders seized work opportunities in Europe and the US. Young men like Lamming, and Trinidadians V.S. Naipaul (knighted in 1990 and Nobel Literature Laureate in 2001) and Samuel Selvon found themselves in London, exposed to a range of new influences. It may have been cold and hostile (as comically described in Selvon’s masterpiece, The Lonely Londoners, 1956), but it had publishers and literary reviews eager for fresh material.

And yet it was a land of verdant hills and clear waters, beneath a sun every day more radiant. Simone Schwarz-Bart (Between Two Worlds)

Other would-be writers from the English-speaking islands went to New York or Canada, while those from Martinique and Guadeloupe reveled in the cultural ferment of post-war Paris. From these experiences of self-imposed exile emerged some of the enduring themes of Caribbean literature: identity, rootlessness, nostalgia, the bitter-sweet reality of returning home.

This period was also one of political and cultural re-evaluation as the islands moved toward independence or greater autonomy, creating a sense of nationalism, of regional identity, long suppressed by colonialism. Fast disappearing were the days when schoolchildren would have to write essays entitled A Winter’s Day, and writers began to find a distinctive, Caribbean voice. Often this voice was satirical, mocking the colonial system and values that had dominated for centuries. The title of Barbadian Austin Clarke’s memoir, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980) is typical of the anti-colonial genre.

Home-grown talent

As writers and intellectuals reassessed their mixed cultural heritage, the beginnings of a local literary establishment emerged. Most early authors were published in London or New York, but a handful of literary journals such as Bim, founded in Barbados in 1942, began to publish the work of home-grown talent. The 1950s was the decade in which Caribbean literature finally established itself overseas. Three novels created international reputations for their authors and set out some of the principal themes and attitudes which were to follow in much more fiction.

Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953) explored the decline of British colonialism in Barbados and the awakening of new aspirations within a small rural community. Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) followed a group of Trinidadian emigrants to Britain and the ensuing culture shock they endured. Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur (1957) painted a bitter-sweet picture of incompetence and pretentiousness in colonial Trinidad. Each novel, in its own way, dissected the legacy of British rule and the question of contemporary Caribbean identity.

The smaller English-speaking territories started producing top-rank literature in the 1970s and 1980s with work by Derek Walcott (St Lucia), Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite (Barbados), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Earl Lovelace (Trinidad), and Caryl Phillips (St Kitts). Phillips, now based in England, continues to produce both fiction and non-fiction exploring the timeless themes of belonging, identity, and race.

Official recognition came in the 1990s for two authors whose work is rooted in the region. In 1992, Derek Walcott received the Nobel Prize for Literature, in tribute to his long and productive career as a poet and playwright. In 1990, his magnificent Omeros, a reworking of the Homeric legend amid a fishing community in St Lucia, had confirmed his status as one of the world’s leading poets. The previous year, the Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau had won the Prix Goncourt for his complex novel Texaco, a sought-after sign of approval from the Parisian intellectual establishment.

While not specifically from the Lesser Antilles, Marlon James’s 2015 Man Booker Prize win for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings shone a highbrow spotlight on Caribbean literature. James became the first ever Jamaican writer to receive this distinction. His novel tells the story of an 1976 attempt to take Bob Marley’s life and explores several decades of Jamaican turbulent history, from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Vibrant French literary scene

The literary productivity of two of the French overseas regions - Martinique and Guadeloupe - is as impressive as that of their Anglophone neighbors. The white Guadeloupean poet St-John Perse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960 (although it is generally known he disliked his island of birth), while Martinique’s Aimé Césaire wrote the trail-blazing surrealist epic, Return to My Native Land, in 1939.

Nowadays, thanks to first-world levels of education and opportunity, the two islands enjoy a vibrant literary scene, which is taken more and more seriously by big Parisian publishers. Interestingly, many of the most prominent novelists from Martinique and Guadeloupe are women, who mix specifically female themes into the wider theme of French/Caribbean identity - Maryse Condé, Simone Schwarz-Bart, and Gisèle Pineau are three of the better known.


The work of Gisèle Pineau explores French/Caribbean identity.


Two of a kind

The small, mountainous island of Dominica is the birthplace of two celebrated novelists, both women from white families.

After a notoriously Bohemian career in 1930s Europe, Jean Rhys disappeared until her book Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) became a cult classic. Its eerie atmosphere of tropical menace and madness (the book is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with the protagonist a re-imagining of Mrs Rochester, the “madwoman in the attic”) bears some resemblance to the decadent island world described in The Orchid House (1953) by Phyllis Allfrey. Although of the same generation, the two women never met (Rhys only returned to Dominica once) but they corresponded extensively.

Influences from abroad

There are some common themes. Many authors continue to examine the relationship between the islands and the European powers. Michael Anthony’s Butler, till the Final Bell (2003) has as its setting the fight by oil workers in Trinidad for better wages and living conditions under the British. The reclamation of African identity has also been a pervasive theme, as shown in Earl Lovelace’s novel, Salt, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1997.

The influence of the US, from tourists to CNN, is another widespread motif as writers struggle to define what is culturally distinctive about their homelands. US TV soaps feature prominently in Tide Running (2001), an unsettling study of sexploitation in Tobago, written by Grenadian Oonya Kempadoo.


Raphaël Confiant.


In this context, language itself is an important issue, and many authors highlight the richness of local creole or patois. Trinidadian Joanne Haynes, in her coming-of-age novel, Walking (2007), even includes a glossary of terms for other English speakers. In the French islands, in particular, writers such as Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant have championed their expressive creole against the dominance of “official” French. Dialogue has become very colorful.

Caribbean travel writing

Many travelers through the islands in the 20th century felt moved to put pen to paper to describe their experiences and their findings. These were often idiosyncratic and not always favorable. Colonial government of all nationalities came under critical scrutiny for allowing the people to live in unrelenting poverty, but sometimes it was just the weather that wore down early seafaring travelers. Unremitting rain while stuck in port or in a run-down, leaking hotel leaves lasting memories. The classics include: Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree; Alec Waugh, The Sugar Islands; Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another; James Pope-Hennessy, West Indian Summer.

Writers are beginning to explore more recent periods of history. Monique Roffey’s novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010) is set at the time of Eric Williams and the political upheavals of the 1960s in post-colonial Trinidad, as seen through the eyes of an outsider, a white woman. Earl Lovelace’s most recent novel Is Just a Movie (2011), winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, is set in 1970 just after the failure of the Black Power rebellion and follows the daily lives of villagers re-examining their community.

The modern Caribbean writer is above all aware of the fragility of his or her island home in an age of mass tourism and rampant development. In accepting his Nobel Prize, Walcott spoke of a way of life threatened by such progress: “How quickly it could all disappear! And how it is beginning to drive us further into where we hope are impenetrable places, green secrets at the end of bad roads, headlands where the next view is not of a hotel but of some long beach without a figure and the hanging question of some fisherman’s smoke at its far end.”


The local scenery has provided much literary inspiration.

David Mac Gillivary/Montserrat Tourist Board