The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Caribbean writing

BEFORE

1949 Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier publishes his novel The Kingdom of this World, which negotiates Caribbean history and culture.

1953 In the Castle of My Skin, by Barbadian writer George Lamming, is one of the region’s key autobiographical novels and wins the Somerset Maugham award in 1957.

1960 In Return to My Native Land, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire discusses négritude, or black consciousness, as a form of identity for people whose ancestors had been dislocated from Africa.

AFTER

1995 To Us, All Flowers Are Roses: Poems confirms Lorna Goodison as one of the finest Jamaican poets of the post-war generation.

History and memory have always been a part of the Caribbean literary landscape, and writing from the region has highlighted the struggle to find a truthful voice that reflects the reality of alienation in a colonial situation. Caribbean authors – contingent on who their islands’ previous colonial owners were – write in Spanish, French, English, or Dutch. Each writer negotiates the known fragments of his or her own history within the particular postcolonial situation.

Intertwined narratives

A towering figure in this literary landscape is St Lucian author Derek Walcott (1930–). In 1992 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”.

Walcott’s magnificent and hugely ambitious 300-page poem Omeros (the Greek name for Homer) endorses the judges’ claim. Epic in length, it references Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, while also celebrating the landscape, people, and language of St Lucia. The poem follows Dante’s The Divine Comedy in its use of terza rima, a three-line poetic form, or tercet, in which the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next tercet. At the same time, Walcott honours the tone and rhythm of the local Caribbean patois from the very beginning of the poem. While some of the characters’ names, such as Achille and Hector, are classical in origin, they are also not unusual names for St Lucian fishermen.

Omeros interweaves time and place to interrogate topics such as slavery, American-Indian genocide, and expatriates in the Caribbean. Walcott fuses stories from Africa, the USA, London, and Ireland with St Lucian events to create a mosaic narrative of collective memory.

Island life, memories of Africa, and the vestiges of colonialism remain the focus for Caribbean writers as they attempt to make sense of their disjointed histories.

See also: Iliad • Odyssey • The Divine Comedy • Ulysses • A House for Mr Biswas