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Table of Contents
How many Caribbeans?
Literature, feminism, and sexual politics
Maroons, "dialect" poetry, and drama and political reality
Narrative and ideology
List of contributors
SPCIL ISSUE 1988
SPECIAL ISSUE 1988
West Indian Literature and Its Political Context: Proceedings
of the Seventh Annual Conference on West Indian Literature
25 28 March 1987
College of Humanities
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
The concept for the cover design was suggested by Edward Kamau Brathwoite's "Poem for Walter
Rodney." Design by Lowell Fiet.
Materials not to be reproduced or quoted without express consent of the individual authors.
1988 by Lowell Fiet and the College of Humanities, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras,
Puerto Rico 00931.
WEST INDIAN LITERATURE
ITS POLITICAL CONTEXT:
Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference
on West Indian Literature,
25-28 March 1987
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
As in any project of the scope of West Indian Literature and
Its Political Context, there are always more people to thank than
space permits. Furthermore, since the process covers the 25-28 March
1987, 7th Annual Conference on West Indian Literature as well the
current Proceedings, the list becomes even longer. I hope to be
able to include all the major protagonists here, and my apologies
to anyone mistakenly overlooked.
Juan R. Fernandez, Chancellor, and Manuel Alvarado Morales,
Dean of Humanities, of the Rio Piedras Campus of the University of
Puerto Rico, supported our hosting of the Conference from the
moment I first proposed it to them, and facilities, funds, and
encouragement were immediately made available. Diana Rivera, from
the Chancellor's office, then became instrumental in cutting
through red tape, posing creative solutions to unforeseen problems,
and especially in making the arrangements for the showing of the
film Black Shack Alley and the performance of Foto-estatica.
Similarly, although in a different time sequence, Nl6ida Muioz de
Frontera, Director of the College of Humanities' Publications Office,
has been unstinting in her efforts to bring this volume to print.
Joan McMurray, Director of the English Department, lent her
support and allowed me to exploit the talents and time of department
personnel. Yvette Hernmndez and Elisa Rivera, secretaries and
friends, worked far beyond normal duties and hours to prepare
materials for the Conference. Rafael Gracia and his staff at the
Audio-Visual Center (CEDME) were extremely gracious in providing
sound equipment and projectors. Luz Minerva Betancourt, Assistant
Dean of Humanities, facilitated scheduling of and access to
Conference rooms. Publication of West Indian Literature and Its
Political Context: Proceedings would not be possible without the
support of Eduardo Rivera Medina, Dean of Academic Affairs,
Rio Piedras Campus, University of Puerto Rico.
On an active, day-to-day basis, the 25-28 March 1987, 7th
Annual Conference on West Indian Literature was made possible
through the encouragement and collaboration of my Sargasso
co-editors and co-workers, especially Janet Butler Haugaard (who
was crucial early on in the planning and organization, even though
she could not attend the Conference itself), Tom Sullivan, Ada
Haiman, Myrsa Landr6n, Aileene Alvarez, Maria Soledad Rodrlguez,
and Maria Cristina Rodriguez (who became pivotal in the actual
running of the conference, introducing speakers, toting projectors,
film canisters, posters, and programs, and maintaining a sense of
tranquillity throughout). Special thanks to graduate students
Franklin Turner, Judith Pagan, Luis Panales, Juan Carlos Canals,
Alicia Jones, and others who also helped out. And again, my
appreciation to the entire staff of the English Department, and
especially to Joan Mclurray, Frances Bothwell (then Assistant
Director), to Elisa and Ivette, to Aileene, to Angel Rivera and
Luis Vazquez in the Language Resource Center, and to all the
students and professors from Humanities who participated in and/or
attended the 7th Annual Conference on West Indian Literature.
Finally, I must thank the English and Literature Departments
of the Mona (Jamaica), St. Augustine (Trinidad), and Cave Hill
(Barbados) campuses of the University of the West Indies, the
University of Guyana, and the St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses of
the University of the Virgin Islands for inviting the University of
Puerto Rico to participate in the annual "Conference on West Indian
Literature" and accepting our organization and sponsorship of the
7th Annual Conference. Thanks to all who came, helped, listened,
spoke, read, watched, acted, asked questions--it was a marvellous
The staff of the Office of Publications, College of Humanities--
director, N6lida Mufoz de Frontera, secretary Aida Claudio, and most
notably, Norma Maurosa, who typed the final copy and put up with my
last minute notes, changes, and corrections--deserve an additional
note of appreciation. Also, for emergency proofreading and much
other assistance, I again thank Ada Haiman of the English Department.
The proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference on West Indian
Literature: "West Indian Literature and Its Political Context"
include the opening addresses, the panel discussion "How Many
Caribbeans? The Politics of Different Literatures/Languages," and,
nost importantly, the 16 papers that were presented (15 of which
are reproduced here). These papers constitute the raison d'etre of
the conference and the body of this volume. But much else happens
on the edges, around the corners, between and after sessions, and
even during presentations, that cannot always be scripted.
Notations such as [laughter] or [applause] or even [tears] might be
helpful, but they do not capture the affective texture of the
context in which those reactions are embedded or record how they
mark and determine the impression left by the conference as a whole.
The subtext of the conference surely includes details such as
Josemilio Gonzalez's tears as he read poems on Haiti as part of the
opening session, the laughter occasioned by Gordon Lewis' droll
recollections of writers and their personal idiosyncracies and
blunderings, and the sense of caution aroused by Merle Hodge's
straightforward questions, which no doubt frightened some of the
more timid and conservative listeners, and which served as the
framework for the conference by affirming the need for Caribbean
unity and cultural sovereignty in the age of neocolonialism and
media penetration--an omnipresent theme, but one few others cared
to address so directly.
If Merle Hodge, without mentioning it, reminded us all that
we live in the post-Grenada-invasion Caribbean, then the five
papers on women, women writers, and sexual politics brought forth
a realization of the importance of personal, domestic, and gender-
related conflicts in Caribbean literature as reproductions of
broader and more far-reaching patterns of political power and
domination. I suspect that those papers, perhaps more than others,
fully captured the sense of "the political context" of West Indian
literature. Feminism seems to threaten nearly all positions of the
traditional right to left political spectrum equally, which, as well
as being a virtue, confirms its cultural validity. However,
alongside those views, there were also moments of nalvete and
incredulity, especially in question-and-answer sessions, which
revealed the distances that still separate English and Spanish-
speaking Caribbean societies and demonstrated how impenetrable the
barrier of language difference can, at times, be.
The conference also included two live performances. 3 pieces
consisted of two long poems by Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri and my
own performance poem "To make the world smile." It was performed
in the open-air vestibule of the College of Education by a group of
six children and young adults and attempted to represent such issues
as emigrant life and sexual difference in a somewhat altered form.
That performance was followed by the showing of Black Shack Alley,
the Martinican film based on Joseph Zobel's novel La rue cases-nbgres.
The second performance was Foto-estatica, an ensemble creation
conceived and directed by Rosa Luisa Mrquez and Antonio Martorell,
which records in vibrant, wordless images the disintegration of
"the Puerto Rican family" in the face of consumerism, cultural
penetration, and social violence and upheaval. Among its many
virtues--one of which is its ability to be understood by a
non-Spanish-speaking audience--is the fact that the performance
remains ironic and humorous and does not pretend surface realism
or fall into melodrama.
After three nights of scheduled activities and two nonstop
days of papers, most conference participants arrived at the
Saturday morning (and final) session worn down, ready to
congratulate each other on the conference's success and relax
before taking planes home the following day. Instead, during the
business meeting, they were confronted with my critique of some of
the methodological implications of our collective enterprise.
By that point, I was running on adrenaline and felt so enthusiastic
about the conference and its nearly hitchless functioning that I
could not at first understand the dismay as I went on about our
over-dependence on authorial intentions, auto-and biographical
criticism, nationalist politics, social realism, et cetera.
Fortunately, the situation was saved by the goodwill of the
participants and the extraordinarily relaxing and enjoyable party
given for conference participants that evening by Sybil and
Each participant would no doubt write about a different
series of episodes as the subtext or affective nature of the
conference. What I offer above is simply my version of some of
the more memorable moments of an event distinguished by a diversity
of views and opinions over a wide range of Caribbean novelists,
poets, and playwrights. Also, the fact that at least four of the
papers given extended their perpectives to include Caribbean
literatures in French and/or Spanish as well as English seems
particularly important. In Puerto Rico, at least, our work will
became increasingly bi- and trilingual as we attempt to break
through at least some of the barriers of language and cultural
The essays printed here do not appear in the order they were
presented during the conference. The initial panel "How Many
Caribbeans?" retains its original order and composition, although
it was not possible to include informal comments, audience
questions, and general discussion. The other papers fall rather
neatly into three categories. "Literature, Feminism, and Sexual
Politics" includes five papers and covers a range of writers that
runs from Jean Rhys to SISTREN to Zee Edgell to Maryse Cond6 and
Jacqueline Manicam, from Ana Lydia Vega and Carmen Lugo Filippi to
Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, and Louise Bennett, and from Jamaica
Kincaid and Michelle Cliff to Elaine Showalter, Kate Millet, and
Julia Kristeva. Taken together they constitute one of the more
comprehensive critical views of Caribbean writing by women available
"Maroons, 'Dialect' Poetry, and Drama and Political Reality"
contains three papers: Pereira, "The Maroon as Political
Motif. .", M. Lashley, ". .the 'Dialect'Poetry of Bruce
St. John," and Creighton, "Caribbean Drama in a Political Context."
(Unfortunately, Patricia Ismond's paper on Derek Walcott--presented
during the conference--could not be included here.) Their unity
seems more accidental than formal, yet the concerns with language
and image in poetry and drama seem sufficiently different from
those of narrative to group them together.
The final section, "Narrative and Ideology," includes seven
papers and covers a wide range of novelists: V.S. Naipaul
(Guinness), Earl Lovelace (Warner-Lewis), Austin Clarke (Baugh),
Michael Anthony (Carter), Wilson Harris (Stewart), Vic Reid, John
Hearne, Neville Dawes, and Andrew Salkey (Chang), and V.S. and
Shiva Naipaul, Peter Abrahams, Don Walther, and Lionel Hutchinson
(Salick). The perspectives of these essays seem to have in common
the search for an ideological stance on the part of the novelist
or the analysis of narrative action as it proposes an ideological
solution to character and/or collective problems. Thus, each paper
seems to ask what is the ideology behind the writing and/or the
writer?, how does the writer describe the relationship between
people and power?, and what does that description say about both
the writer and the nature of society?
In editing these essays, I tried to allow each writer as
much stylistic freedom as possible. There are points of difference:
British and American spelling, documentation form and information,
style sheet considerations. I aimed at consistency within each
paper as opposed to a consistency throughout, although there were
some points which required a degree of standardization.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these papers is their
demonstration that the literature of the Caribbean remains in close
touch with the political realities of the region. They also show
us that traditional political perspectives--nationalisn, class
struggle, party organization, economic and cultural sovereignty--
are increasingly mediated by new interpretations that include
sexual, domestic, subjective, anti-institutional, environmental,
and esthetic concerns. The political context of West Indian
Literature continues to expand, and the post-Grenada-invasion
Caribbean and its literature face new challenges.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
Lowell Fiet ...................................... 1
Juan R. Fernandez, Chancellor .................... 5
Manuel Alvarado Morales, Dean of Humanities ...... 6
HOW MANY CARIBBEANS?: The Politics of Different Languages/Literatures
Cliff Lashley (On the Political Context of West Indian
Literature) ........................................... 7
Gordon K. Lewis ............................................ 12
Merle Hodge ................................................ 15
Josemilio Gonzalez (Six Poems on Haiti) .................... 20
LITERATURE, FEMINISM, AND SEXUAL POLITICS ....................... 26
Feminist Consciousness: European/American Theory,
Evelyn O'Callaghan .............................. 27
Sexual, Racial, and National Politics:
Jacqueline Manicom's Mon examen de blanc
Betty Wilson .................................... 52
The Politics of Colours and the Politics of Writing in the
Fiction of Jean Rhys
Elaine Savory Fido .............................. 61
Sexual Politics in Contemporary Female Writing in the
Annette Insanally ................................ 79
Politics and the Female Experience: An Examination of
Beka Lamb and Heremakhonon
Sheila Coulson .................................. 92
MAROONS, "DIALECT" POETRY, AND DRAMA AND POLITICAL REALITY ...... 106
The Maroon as Political Motif in Contemporary Caribbean
J. R. Pereira .............................. 107
Identity as Ideology in the "Dialect" Poetry of Bruce St. John
Marva L. Lashley ............................... 121
Caribbean Drama in a Political Context
Al Creighton ..................................... 130
NARRATIVE AND IDEOLOGY .......................... .............. 140
V. S. Naipaul: Should He Come Home and Stop Criticizing
the Third World?
Gerald Guinness .................................. 150
Saviours, Tyrants and Rebels: Earl Lovelace's Fictional
Portrayal of Power Relations
Miaureen Warner-Lewis ............................. 151
Education and Politics in West Indian Fiction:
Austin Clarke's Proud Empires
Edward Baugh ..................................... 166
Michael Anthony's Golden Mystery: All That Glitters
Steven R. Carter ................................. 175
The Latent Ground of Old and New Personalities:
Wilson Harris's Politics
Joyce Stewart .................................... 187
Images of the Politician in Four Jamaican Novels
Victor L. Chang .................................. 202
Gestures of Faith: An Anatomy of Idealisn in the
West Indian Novel
Roydon Salick ................................... 211
LIST OF COrTRIBUTORS ...... .............................................. 223
Juan R. Fernandez
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
In my official capacity as Chancellor of the Rio Piedras
Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, I want to personally
welcome distinguished visitors and conference participants from
sister institutions in the Caribbean, from Guyana, from Trinidad-
Tobago, from Barbados, from Jamaica, from the Virgin Islands, and
from this and other university campuses in Puerto Rico. As we say
in Spanish, Nuestra casa es su casa--our house is yours. We
welcome you as colleagues and as neighbors and as friends.
Together we are bound up in the same intellectual enterprise:
understanding ourselves and each other as the actors in this very
diverse and yet remarkably similar experience called the Caribbean.
Bienvenidos--welcome. Nuestra casa es su casa.
Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking country where English is
taught as a second language, is very happy to host this conference.
The literature of our English-speaking neighbors in the Caribbean,
distinguished by names such as Lamming, Naipaul, Walcott,
Brathwaite, and so many others, is one of the most important
regional literatures of the world today. The experiences portrayed
often parallel and amplify Puerto Rico's historical and cultural
development. By welcoming the participants in this conference on
"West Indian Literature and Its Political Context," I am also
welcoming and encouraging the further study and appreciation of
Caribbean literature, regardless of language, as the natural
terrain of the Humanities in Puerto Rico and in the Caribbean in
general. Welcome to Puerto Rico and to this your house on the
Manuel Alvarado Morales
Dean of Humanities
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
The College of Humanities of the Rio Piedras Campus of the
University of Puerto Rico takes special pride in hosting the
7th Annual Conference on West Indian Literature. The College of
Humanities is no stranger to the study of the literature of the
English-speaking Caribbean. Dr. Piri Fernandez de Lewis of
Comparative Literature and Dr. Eugene V. Mohr of the English
Department, both now retired, were the first to introduce West
Indian fiction, poetry, and drama into our curriculum some 20 years
ago. They have been followed by another generation of critics and
scholars such as Susan Homar, Gerald Guinness, Ana Lydia Vega,
Steven Carter, Jean-Claude Bajeux, Lowell Fiet, Maria C. Rodrlguez,
among numerous others, whose studies combine an interest in
English, French, and Spanish-language Caribbean literatures.
The University of Puerto Rico also has a history of bringing major
literary figures from the Caribbean to this campus as guest
speakers and visiting professors. Most recently, for example, Derek
Walcott was here in 1982 and, through the efforts of Dr. Gordon K.
Lewis, George Lamming spent a semester with us two years ago.
Thus, the study of West Indian literature has played an
important role; however, I think this conference gives the study of
West Indian literature a new dimension. There are sane 30 speakers
and/or participants from universities in Trinidad, Barbados,
Jamaica, Guyana, St. Thomas, and St. Croix as well as numerous
representatives from this campus and other university campuses in
Puerto Rico. That represents what is perhaps the largest English-
language literature event on this campus in recent memory.
Furthermore, it indicates an increased interest in Caribbean studies
and Caribbean cultural identity.
I welcome you to this opening session of the 7th Annual
Conference on West Indian Literature in the name of the faculty and
students of the College of Humanities. May your labors here in the
next three days prove both fruitful and enjoyable. This is the
first time this conference has been held in Puerto Rico, and I hope
that there will be continued participation from this campus and
that the conference can return here at some time in the next several
years. Welcome to our faculty.
HOW MANY CARIBBEANS?
The Politics of Different Literatures/Languages
On the Political Context of West Indian Literature
University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas
There is a temptation to make my basic observation, which is
that West Indian literature is ineluctably in its political context
and has to be written and read there, and then shut up since that
observation is a platitude and its implications obvious. But there
is a greater temptation, doubtlessly rooted in the biology of the
species and in the organization of nature, to exercise the power
over ten minutes or so of your learned attention which conference
panel protocol gives me to propagandize for a more consciously
political perspective on West Indian literary criticism and in the
teaching of West Indian literature.
By politics I don't mean anything as limited and quite as
nasty as our usual party politics though my definition is
inclusive. I mean the way the institutions of literature are
constituted, maintained and used in constituting, maintaining and
using the culture (both lower and uppercase). Such use is always
for ends which are in some individual or group self-interest.
Politics is about the getting, holding and using of power in your
or your group's self-interest.
By West Indian literature I understand that burgeoning body
of text (including orature, popular song, etc.) in Creole, English
and various interlingua in which mostly Black Commonwealth
Caribbean writers and readers-in symbiosis--have been doing for
themselves what Adam did for the animals: calling their Proper
name. Now self-naming like self-crowning isn't institutionalized
in democracies, isn't the name of the game. So a basic question
is why the West Indian has been obliged to inscribe his or her own
name. Any answer entails many difficult issues which might be
sunmed up and resolved in a full account of the political context
of West Indian literature and its implications for how West Indians
use literature. I am obliged to sketch such a big scene in too few,
maybe over bold strokes.
West Indian literature was born out of the same impulse as the
labor and independence movements. The impulse was quite properly
the self-interest that expresses itself as patriotism and nationalism.
Norman Manley articulates this impulse in his introduction to Roger
Mais' collected novels, 1966. Manley wrote:
The new birth of Jamaica in 1938 did many things, but
one thing stands out like a bright light: the National
Movement brought with it a great upsurge of creative
energy. We suddenly discovered that there was a place
to which we belonged, and when the dead hand of colonialism
was lifted, a freedom of spirit was released and the
desert flowered. Our best young men plunged deep into
the lives of the people and came up with poems and
paintings and with vivid and powerful books.
It was a strange world they discovered; strange most
of all in the fact that it was not a world where different
cultures had blended into any single significant pattern,
but a world divided and split in a manner as peculiar as
it was deep-seated. It was not just a question of color[,]
not yet of rich and poor; it was a matter of differences
that involved widely different acceptance and rejections
of values, different interpretations of reality, the use
of identical words to express different concepts and
No Jamaican writer working in those early days of our
National bMvement could do a greater service for all of
us than to interpret that other world to which the
majority belong for the rest of us to see and understand.
Manley's account makes the link between decolonization and
creativity and emphasizes that there wasn't a unified colonial
culture but rather conflict caused by differing cosmologies, values
and the languages that mediate them. He acknowledges the need of
the decolonizing intellectual to understand the place to which he
has just discovered he belongs. This place is largely composed of
"that other world of the majority" and it is the writer's
responsibility to interpret it for a literary minority. This
account of the origins of West Indian literature makes it clear that
the impulse was political, that literature would be concerned with
power and color and class and the values and beliefs--the ideologies--
that underpin them. Manley clearly implies what a nationalist
literature which is intended to end the cognitive dissonance of
colonialism will be about and what West Indians use such a literature
for, which is to help make themselves sovereign and whole.
It is not only the intellectual elite, however, who are
alienated and suffer cognitive dissonance. It is the entire
society. Evidence for this--for the extent to which the Jamaican,
for example, has no Proper name and is complicit in his pejoration--
could be traced through the history of a single word like quashie.
Quashie degenerated from the generic Ashanti Twi day-name
for a male born the first day of the week to a generative pejorative
which the Dictionary of Jamaican English defines as a name typifying
any negro male, a bumpkin, fool, a backward person who refuses
improvement; of course improvement towards English imperial values.
The history of that degeneration of the meaning of an African
word which is now a Creole word is connected to the intellectual's
discovery of himself as Other-as colonial--which is implicit in
Manley's account. Indeed the entire education of the West Indian
intellectual, his inevitable internalization of literacy, is a
journey towards acceptance of the self as Other, as quashie,
ignoble savage, etc., etc. It is not only the self that undergoes
acquiescent pejoration but the place, the tropics as well. We have
the paradox that the West Indian, following imperial inscription,
accepts the place he belongs to as both paradise on earth and as
the hellhole where he, like the white man, bears an intolerable
burden. The West Indian is ccmplicit in this confusion of
meanings. His various tourist boards use these confused images
simultaneously inviting you to come back to the way it was, to
paradise where it is better (as in the Bahamas), while hoping that
there will be no political activity by the restless natives to
weaken tourism profits. We begin to see how naming and text work
in creating or supporting ideology.
We can now rationally shift the locus of our inquiry to the
politics of language, that material out of which literature is made
and the principal tool not only of our criticism and teaching but,
excepting only our bodies, of living.
It is important to understand the consequences of internalizing
the meanings as well as the mechanism of English literacy. The
mechanism affects cognitive style and can be in conflict with the
different cognitive style of our largely oral societies. The
meanings include a cosmology, sets of value, even kinetics which
are often crucially antagonistic to those of what Manley called
the world of the majority--those who largely comprise the nation
Manley and other intellectuals hoped to make out of the place they
discovered they belonged to and intended to rule. What happens is
that your typical poor black West Indian (the majority of our
literary intellectuals) who gets the opportunity quite understandably
internalizes English literacy as his ticket to upward mobility.
That upward mobility is not only financial but even kinetic as well.
He learns "literate" gesture to accompany "literate" speech. The
pleasure of that journey of upward mobility is both status and
justifiable self-esteem. But the price of the ticket is alienation
and cognitive dissonance because he has to learn of himself as
Other. The resulting cognitive dissonance hampers creativity.
But it is also what often produces the urge towards decolonization,
towards wholeness, as Manley indicates.
In more narrowly literary terms, the West Indian writer whose
experience of language is identical to that of all other native
intellectuals and whose literary education is more nakedly imperial
propaganda than say medical studies are, that West Indian writer
has to find a way to end cognitive dissonance, a way that reflects
and resolves the dynamic, contending meanings of his society. He
has to invent a native literary language which asserts and privileges
himself, his place, and the world of the majority. It is obvious
that he cannot do this and be a political neuter as is disingenuously
claimed by notorious Vivida Nightfall [disguised reference, ed. ]. The
political context of West Indian literature is the political-
conflict of West Indian society mediated by the contending West
Indian languages. The political context of West Indian literature
is its language conflict. An obvious conclusion. But it gives us
criteria for judging our literature and a language-based
methodology for doing so. The criteria is subtly political: how
is native meaning being made out of the conflict between cosmologies,
values, languages that had previously been used to coopt the native
in his own pejoration, to make him/her see himself as Other, as
quashie, ignoble savage, living in the hellhole paradise, etc., etc.
This involves creating a literary language. It can be created
out of the Creole or a way can be found to subvert English so that
it expresses the native. In any case the world of the majority
must be given voice if only because the self-interest of the
minority needs it. You must have something--ideals-in common with
those you rule democratically.
In criticism this means, for example, looking at how the
narrator relates to the native actants, whether the various
attributive propositions that comprise what is usually called
character are self-referential because they are constituted in
native terms, or, to use and extend a formulation of Kenneth
Ramchand's, if the narrator is inward in his use of the character's
dialect to express native self-consciousness. Such operations
involve a political perspective but are specifically literary
operations which scrutinize the language use of the text. Various
younger West Indian writers such as [Earl] Lovelace and [Erna]
Brodber and some of the poets in London are offering works which
demand linguistic and semiotic techniques and a political
perspective. This means that our curricula must be revised to
teach the linguistic and interpretative skills as well as the
social science, philosophical and psychological concepts that you
need to interpret discourse and understand how meaning functions
socially and psychologically, how West Indians use text politically
to make themselves sovereign and whole. We will have to teach the
analysis of culturally relevant texts--cultural studies-if we are
to again attract students, not to mention majors, and if we wish to
do that greater service Manley said Mais and other writers were
performing. It was, of course,political service.
HOW MANY CARIBBEAN S? (Continued)
Gordon K. Lewis
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
I start with two brief caveats: the relationship between
politics and literature has always seemed to me to be so self-
evident a truth that I am always astonished at the current schools
of literary criticism, including West Indian, that make so much
a. .fuss about it. In the second place, as a political scientist
and historian I have a great deal of impatience with the obsession
of the schools of literary criticism with methodological apparatus.
I am no expert in that and don't care to say anything about it.
What I would like to say covers three or four major points
that I think are important about West Indian literature. In the
first place, there certainly are differences, because there are
cultural and language differences. But I think there are also
common similarities of themes in Caribbean literature as we read
it over the last 40 years. There's the theme, for example, of
race and colour which goes back--Mr. Lashley seems to imply that
this all started with Roger Mais in the 1940s--but it goes back
more than 150 years in Caribbean literature. When I read [Juan
de] Villaverde's Cecilia Vald6z or when I read Ren6 Bonneville's
Le Triumphe d'Eglantine, I am reading there, in the late nineteenth
century, classic books on mixed blood, tainted blood, racial shame.
Or again, there is the other theme of the conflict or the
confluence of different groups of colour and culture in every
Caribbean society; that is, of white, brown, and black groups.
It is there in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and, interestingly,
in Phyliss Shand Allfreys' The Orchid House, which deals with the
same problem of how these different groups manage to survive: in
the case of Sargasso, in post-emancipation Jamaica, and in the
case of The Orchid House, in the Dcminica of early in this century.
Incidently, both of those women authors were friends of each other
and influenced each other's work.
And then, of course, there is the theme of the creative
interaction between the internal influence--which Cliff Lashley
has talked about--and the external influence. They're both
important because the Caribbean has never been a closed society;
it has always been an open society. And so the external literary
influences are self-evident. There's the influence of Marxism in
the work of Jacques Roumain; there's the influence of Surrealism
in the work of Aim6 C6saire; there's the influence of Existentialism
in the work of George Lamming.
With all these writers, and we all know their names, there is,
of course, their own internal, private history of development or
possibly, at times, of regression as creative writers. I think,
for example, of Vidia [V.S.] Naipaul. (I see my friend Gerald
Guinness is going to read a paper saying why doesn't Naipaul come
back and stop criticizing the Third World--Come back, Shane!;
Come back, Naipaul!) I tend not to be so critical. There's a
strain of ribald irreverance in West Indian life, and Naipaul
brought that out beautifully in his early works--The Mystic Masseur,
The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street. The later others slow to
progression or retrogression of Naipaul as he develops his
cynicism about the Third World and envelops himself in a brooding
self-analysis of his own persona. It reminds me of the witticism
of one of the London friends of Henry James when he said that there
are three stages in the history of Henry James as a writer: James
the First, James the Second, and James the Old Pretender! I rather
suspect that the elder Naipaul is beginning to enter into that third
And after all, what does make the creative writer? That's a
question that is unavoidable in this kind of conference. Personally,
I don't know. In my thirty years of experience in the Caribbean,
I have been able to witness face-to-face various creative artists
and see how they work and play. I remember seeing Dylan Thomas
drunk at Harvard in 1951. I remember meeting Derek Walcott at the
University of Puerto Rico in 1982, arrogant as usual [. . reference
inaudible, ed.] even by West Indian standards. I remember
hearing Juan Bosch holding court like a medieval king in Havana in
1981. Going Back still earlier, I remember George Orwell holding
forth in a London pub in 1943, as if he thought he was as good in
the anti-totalitatian novel as Arthur Koestler, which he was not.
(And how someone could write a book on the Spanish Civil War without
knowing a single word of Spanish quite beats me.) Or I remember
Alfred Kazin when he visited this university in 1961, giving some
lectures including one entitled "Why The New Yorker Magazine is the
Enemy of Creative Literature."
All of those episodes indicate to me that the literary person
is a curious animal, and it is difficult for me to understand what
makes him work or not work. And it is because of that that I,
despite the fact that I come out of the European Socialist tradition,
do not stand in moral judgment on the protagonists of Caribbean
literature as we see them and read them. I'm not asking for a
revolutionary literature, because a lot of what passes for that is
more revolution that literature. After all, I remember that the
favorite authors of Marx were Dickens and Balzac: Dickens an
English Benthamite reformer and Balzac a Tory legitimatist in
politics of the Second Empire.
I take the poet-novelist-creative writer for what he shows
you about society. Whether it is Henry James telling us something
about the traditional escape route of the American intellectual,
from America to Europe; whether it is Proust with his anti-Semitism;
or whether it is George Eliot in Middlemarch, which for me is the
greatest novel of the nineteenth century in the English language,
trying to resolve the Victorian problem of the conflict between
faith and doubt. I read them all, including the West Indian
writers of a later period, because of their power to understand
and to transcribe the deep psychological roots of human nature and
human behavior. So I'm not asking Vidia Naipaul to come back to
the Caribbean and start writing in favor of the Third World.
Those I think are all the thoughts that I jotted down as I
thought might be relevant to the character, the nature, and the
inquiry of this conference. There are other themes, there are
other influences for which there is no time to discuss in this
brief period. But these basically are the thoughts that I put
down on paper and I hope they contribute something to the topic of
HOW MANY CARIBBEAN S? (Continued)
University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix
What questions would I expect a conference like this to
address? Very broadly put, I would expect a conference on West
Indian literature and its political context to analyze what
relationship might exist or what is the relationship in our region
between the activity of creative writing, on the one hand, and on
the other hand, the realities of power or powerlessness,
development or underdevelopment, political consciousness or
complacency. How does the political landscape affect the content
and the quality of Caribbean literature? What does the political
context have to do with the genesis of Caribbean literature? And
how is it likely to affect its further development? Conversely,
what impact does Caribbean literature have on the shaping of the
societies from which it springs?
Now there is more than one map of the Caribbean. There is
the map which shows us to be separate pieces of land with miles
of water in between; there is the map of the Caribbean which
indicates what the language of officialdom is in our respective
territories--English, Spanish, French, Dutch. Then there is the
map that classifies our people into Black, White, Amerindian,
Hispanic (a category I've never been able to understand), and
Other. There is the map of the Caribbean which carves us up into
MDCs and LDCs--more developed territories and less developed
territories--and there could be a map of the Caribbean which places
our societies along a scale of political development, the criteria
being sovereignty or the will to be sovereign and what arrangements
are made internally to insure a cohesive and egalitarian society.
All of these considerations, from the first to the last, have
political implications in the broad and the narrow sense, and they
are all related to the question of the degree of political
development or political direction. All therefore have a bearing
on the theme of the conference.
Now the physical fragmentation of the Caribbean is compounded
by the linguistic fragmentation, and the linguistic fragmentation,
of course, merely reflects the political divisions of the colonial
era. This extreme fragmentation seriously retards our political
development. It makes for an almost feudalistic political landscape.
It makes for a region in which you have a collection of little
fiefdoms, each with its own top-heavy power structure, each with
obviously limited scope for development. And in some places,
apparently unlimited scope for the abuse of power. To what
extent does this picture, to what extent does this landscape,colour
the Caribbean writer's universe?
The language factor has other implications worthy of our
attention, other implications apart from the way it contributes
to fragmentation. Because the different languages which Caribbean
writers use reflect centuries--or in same cases generations-of
domination by one or another European power, we are, therefore,
the inheritors of different traditions of European literature. How
have these traditions shaped the literature of the Caribbean?
Language may also assume increasing importance in the direction of
political and cultural development of the Caribbean over the next
decade of so in that North America's cultural penetration of the
region is likely to be more efficient in the English-speaking
Caribbean; cultural penetration being, of course, only the
ambassador of political control.
The racial composition is another important aspect of the
political context. There is a whole cluster of issues which hover
around race, race consciousness, and racism. And the extent to
which these issues are resolved or not resolved has much to do
with political development, and these issues also inform a great
deal of Caribbean writing.
The goals of socio-economic development tend to shift as
societies change their political arrangements in the direction of
egalitarianism. So we begin to measure ourselves as more
developed or less developed not in terms of how many businesses,
factories, hotel complexes, and what have you that we have managed
to attract, but in terms of how well are the needs of all our
people served. Development then also tends to include a greater
emphasis on human resource development, which includes educational
and cultural development, and again this has much to do with the
theme of our conference because it has to do with the questions:
What is the attitude of the power structure to the arts and to the
writer in particular? What is the attitude of the power structure
to the indigenous culture? Does the government see the indigenous
culture as something to be exploited to attract tourists or does
officialdom see the culture of the people as a valid way of life
that has to be given official recognition? Then, what is the
intellectual climate in which the creative writer works? What is
the correlation between the availability and quality of education
and the emergence of significant writers in the different
territories of the Caribbean?
The political map of the Caribbean shows a spectrum of
political status ranging from colonies through disguised colonies
through independent territories which have made no significant
changes in terms of the distribution of power and resources and
those who have attempted to make such changes to the one Caribbean
territory which has got away with changing its internal arrangements
in the direction of egalitarian development. And exploring trends
in the development of literature over that spectrum would be
interesting enough. But weaving in and out of that picture is the
factor of political struggle. You have in the territories whose
status is colonial, that is bare-faced or disguised colonialism,
the existence and the relative dynamism of independence movements,
the existence or non-existence of such movements. Then in the
territories which have achieved flag independence, you have movements
toward small radical change.
Now Caribbean literature was born out of political ferment.
modern Caribbean literature was born in the era in which Caribbean
people were developing the kind of consciousness which fueled the
movements toward autonomy and a greater share of political power
within the various societies. How does political struggle today
influence Caribbean literature? For example, can we conclude that
the dynamism of political struggle or simply political awareness
creates a stimulus for creativity and that its absence at a
collective level stunts a people's collective development? Why is
it, for example, that Puerto Rico has a vibrant literary tradition,
and so does the French Caribbean, whereas the United States'
Virgin Islands, a territory with a political status very similar to
that of Puerto Rico and the French Caribbean and with education
more available than it was in the rest of the English-speaking
Caribbean when our first great writers emerged, is yet to throw up
any writer of the stature of Caribbean writers?
In Puerto Rico and the French Caribbean you have independence
movements; in the Virgin Islands, next week they celebrate Transfer
Day, a public holiday to give thanks for the most important event
in their history--the day the Americans bought them from the Danish.
There is also the phenomenon that emerged in Africa and the
Caribbean in the first half of this century with the independence
movements in all the colonial territories, in the colonial empires:
the writer-politician, the poet, novelist, or playwright who also
took an active part in the political life of his country. Figures
like Aim6 Cesaire and Jacques Roumain. What has happened to the
politician-writer on this leg of Caribbean history? Have our writers
recoiled in horror from the political process, and apart from the
direct involvement of the writer in politics, what is the level of
activism in Caribbean literature today?
In this period too we have the question of how the distribution
of power within our societies extends to the issue of sexual equality.
Caribbean society has now witnessed the emergence of women writers
--still a relatively minor strain of Caribbean writing in terms of
volume but one that will not fail to expand. We therefore can
expect that added to the politics of physical fragmentation,
language, race, economic development, and national sovereignty,
Caribbean literature will increasingly reflect the developing
consciousness of Caribbean women and their political struggle.
Then to point,very briefly, the complementary question of
the impact of Caribbean literature upon the political context,
the reverse action. It is normal for the literature of a society
to be part of its education process--the literature of any self-
respecting society becomes part of its education process. Now
Caribbean literature has only recently begun to be channeled into
the formal education system in the independent English-speaking
Caribbean. It is now an official part of the curriculum in
secondary school. I have no knowledge of what is the status of
Puerto Rican literature in Puerto Rican education or the status
of French Caribbean literature in French Caribbean schools. I do
know that in the United States' Virgin Islands this depends
entirely on the consciousness and the enterprise of individual
teachers. There is not, nor is there likely to be, any official
adoption of Caribbean literature there as a necessary part of the
curriculum. And this is for the same reason that the entry of
Caribbean literature into the schools of the English-speaking
Caribbean was and is a delayed process, a process in slow motion.
Because literature has a great deal of potential for affecting
the political context.
When societies use literature as part of their education
process-if you think of old established societies such as
European societies--they generally use it as a conservative force,
hence the notion of classics. Classroom literature generally
means literature of an earlier era, literature whose political
implications are no longer threatening to the society. Literature
hot off the press cannot be trusted to reinforce the prevailing
values of the society but rather to undermine them. Caribbean
literature was and is a challenge to the status quo in the colonial
context, and this is true even of those works which have no overt
political message. Merely to portray Caribbean experience with the
power of art is threatening enough. In the English-speaking
Caribbean, for example, the delay of the entry of Caribbean
literature into the curriculum has partly to do with the issue of
language. These were mainly decisions made in education, officials
in ministries of education and teachers, et cetera, who balked at
the idea that students who spoke Creole would now read Creole in
The potential of Caribbean literature in positively affecting
the development of the Caribbean is enormous. It can help to
strengthen the self-image of Caribbean people, what Cliff [Lashley]
called "calling our Proper name," taking Caribbean culture out of
limbo and giving it status. It can strengthen our resistance to
foreign domination, our sense of the oneness of the Caribbean, and
our willingness to put our energies into the building of the
Caribbean nation. The problem is how to deliver Caribbean literature
to the Caribbean people--how to fight American soap opera. But that
is another conference.
HOW MANY CARIBBEAN S? (Continued)
Jos milio Gonzalez
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
[These poems were read in Spanish with English translations
made available for non-Spanish-speaking listeners. Those
translations by Puerto Rican writer-translator Myrsa Landr6n
are reproduced here.]
SIX POEMS ON HAITI BY JOSEMILIO GONZALEZ
Children of Haiti
Poor children forage
through the alleyways in Haiti
like black lizards
among dry-rotted boards.
Their emaciated feet
run through dried dung
and trace symbols of misery
on dusty slates.
Here, a mother stretches out
as if extending a rush mat
so that her child may enjoy
headboard, pillow and spread.
There, another one takes out her
gaunt gourd of a breast
so that her baby may suck
her meager lifeblood.
A sleeping child stares,
darkness in his eyes.
Another looks vacant
as if already dead.
That one washes his face
with water from the gutter.
This one jumps like a deer
over the broken sidewalk.
They look like gray ghosts
garbed in gowns of dust
under the hammer sun
beating down on their heads.
Children who sell candy
and buy indifference.
My poor Haitian children,
Who rnemebers you?
To Sylvie and Jean-Claude
In Haiti the night rings
like a clear bell and
sleep comes with a shudder
at the drums of dawn.
On the hills of Jacael
a child spins his top.
The whole world beckons
from that humming point.
Heights of P6tionville!
Roads that climb up'and down,
a steady stream of wamen
between markets and plazas.
This is the rich poverty
of those whose only property
and solitary hope
is their own effort.
The Palace* rears up
over the empty Champ de Mars
like a white elephant
in solitary confinement.
Haiti's heart is
a frozen tear,
and freedom quivers and sings
in its bloody center.
*Reference to the Presidential Palace.
Third Song of Haiti
to Maud Wadestrand
People say that Haiti's soul
glints like a splintered star.
Its wound is an open light,
a shimmering message.
There is a school in Leogane
where only the wind learns
the laws of movements
that offer no comfort.
Jacmel lines with blue
the contours of its gaze.
City of shuttered houses,
loyal Haitian spirit.
Beyond the mountain,
the undulating slopes
echo with the true voice
cast from the mountain.
A man digs in the earth.
I can't tell if a furrow or a grave.
His burning skin twitches.
I can't tell if out of love or rage.
There is a child of agony
in the center of the wind.
His arms outstretched, like a cross,
questioning his silence.
Over the gentle bay
Port-au-Prince is a bird
soaring high and white
on wide enccrapassing wings.
I lost my way in Rond-Point,
I leave Champ de Mars behind,
I speak with Haiti while
strolling through the Iron Market.
(11 February 1987)
Song of the Boulevard*
to Maud Wadestrand
The shadows in the boulevard
cut through sheets of fire
between spires of light
and cedar sentinels.
In the corners, naked walls
spread out their veils
and show off new words
in silent conclaves.
A blue pyramid
revolves over the pavement.
the sky with red moons.
on metal cylinders.
Under the floating boulevard
the street is a black river.
The pearl of the Antilles
leaves its violent velvet nest
and bedecks its neck
with transient jet beads.
Behold the flat silhouette
of a heart struck in mid-flight,
a plastic blind
through which a dream peers out.
Green circles circle
and true triangles.
A strict geometry
rules over the echoes.
Life in the boulevard
is a reflection of silence.
The scissors of space
snip the designs of time.
(11 February 1987)
*Boulevard Dessalines, Port-au-Prince.
Street Peddler of Port-au-Prince
Along the Rond-Point,
With his mahogany sword
and mammee apple,
M'sieu peddles his brooms.
His forehead shines
a polished ball.
His shins as thin
as rock splinters.
His skeletal figure
rattles down the sidewalk,
the bones so loose and
tied with streamers.
The day darkens
between the burlap eyebrows,
although air is food
for each and every one.
Up and down the street
a shadow ghost goes by.
No coins tinkle
along his torn veins.
He is a mirror mannequin.
An oasis of shining halos.
An old chest full of agonies
tolling its victories.
High up on the mountain
he roofs his hut with defeat.
For death lying in wait,
his hand is a dove.
to Lydia Milagros Gonzalez
Standing at his doorstep
and in the heart of the canefield
the Haitian is a slave
bathed in blood and fire.
When the green furrow burns
and sweat cuts the stalk,
the sun of fatigue climbs up
on the edge of the machete.
The williwaw swoops through the ravine
scouring both mud and grief.
The Haitian's lament
is his only comfort.
He bends his spine
like a wasted reed
and his eyes flood
like a dark fog.
He dreams of the humble hut
where his wife wastes away,
lost in the reverie
of all things impermanent.
And his heavenly children
wounded in their very lives,
of earthly worms.
The endless canefield
dogs him, dogs him,
and the white--world-owner--
follows him everywhere.
He's the negro, free and brave,
who knows how to fell the chain,
who wasn't born to pain
in an academy of slaves.
He sinks his machete in the dirt
and looks at the smoldering sky.
He is no longer a slave. He is
the mountain shouting war.
(24 February 1987)
Feminist Consciousness: European/American Theory, Jamaican Stories
Evelyn O'Callaghan ..........
Sexual, Racial, and National Politics: Jaoqueline Manicom's
Mon examen de blanc
Betty Wilson .................
The Politics of Colours and the
Fiction of Jean Rhys
Politics of Writing in the
Elaine Savory Fido ...........
Sexual Politics in Contemporary Female Writing in the Caribbean
Annette Insanally ............ 79
Politics and the Female Experience: An Examination of
Beka Lamb and Heremakhonon
Sheila Coulson ...............
European/American Theory, Jamaican Stories
University of the West Indies
Cave Hill, Barbados
The impetus for this paper was a desire to explore the
political orientation of contemporary West Indian women's fiction.
Four recently published collections of short stories by Jamaican
women seemed a manageable starting point for a preliminary
Olive Senior's Summer Lightning
Hazel Campbell's Woman's Tongue2 3
The Sistren Collective's Lionheart Gal
Opal Palmer Adisa's Bake Face and other Guava Stories
Inevitably, a theoretical "clearing the decks" has made comprehensive
textual analysis impossible given the restrictions of such an essay,
so I'd like to start by briefly generalizing about the scope and
contents of each book.
Summer Lightning's ten stories of rural Jamaican community
life are, in my opinion, the finest of the collections. The
majority of tales feature a female character, but the dominant
perspective is that of the child, and it is evocation of the child's
world, an often mysterious jumble of magic and horror, that is
Senior's main achievement. The stories deal with threats from the
external world, whether physical or emotional, and the half-understood
and painful conflicts within.
Narrative language is usually the speaker's language and spans
the Jamaican creole continuum, stretching its resources to the full.
The first two pages alone utilize Biblical pronouncement, modern
technological jargon, Rastafarian apocalyptic imagery and the
proverbial style of folk wisdom, in the utterance of Bro. Justice.
In addition, the sociolinguistic patterning of speech events is
accurately observed--the "double conversation" (8) is one example.
No concessions are made to the foreign reader in the way of
parenthesized explanations or glosses.
Senior subtly exposes the repressiveness and self-sacrifice at
the core of conventional morality as it has been applied to women,
and the spiritual and emotional deformities which result. Only
Bekkah, in "Do Angels Wear Brassieres," has the inner resources to
challenge the stultifying restrictions imposed by authority on the
girl-child; Ma Bell, in "Country of the One Eye God," representing
the final phase of life, emerges as a victim whose complicity in her
oppression is largely the result of a false value system inculcated
by traditional religion.
fbst of the stories then, at once portray an almost idyllic
community organically connected to the Jamaican landscape and
reveal the frightening inadequacies of the society for the nurturance
of the maturing individual.
Woman's Tongue contains eight stories, two of which aren't
up to the overall standard: the attempt to invoke a mysterious
extra-physical force at work in the love affair of "The Painting"
seems to me rather strained, and the final political
allegory/fairy tale works on the didactic level at the expense of
the literary--although this may well be the author's intention.
The other well-written stories work together to form a medley of
women's voices, telling their stories of artistic creation,
spiritual renewal or disillusionment, the breakup of marriage and
the pain of exploitative relationships.
Like Senior, Hazel Campbell has an unfaltering ear for Jamaican
speech and since her scope is wider (urban and rural; middle
class and poor; the suburb, the slum and the seaside resort are all
depicted), she has ample scope for capturing its rich variety,
unimpeded by irritating translations or embedded information. By
and large, the narrative employs West Indian English reportage,
but even her "best 'pop-style' language" (1) is uniquely Jamaican
and in the excellent "Miss Girlie," creole and standard are woven
into a seamless medium.
As in Lionheart Gal, wamen's reality in the contemporary
Jamaica of supermarket shortages, the "parallel economy" and
constant financial hardship, isn't a pleasant one. Without
hectoring, Campbell reiterates the point that a social philosophy
which stresses only material advancement has a negative effect on
personal relationships. A quiet irony at Ivan's expense ("Miss
Girlie") indicts his warped values and the insensitive logic by
which he proposes to make Girlie "proud so till!", by using the
money he gains from prostituting her to "set her up" in a
A straitlaced Christianity--one in which the merit of salvation
"had probably less to do with a concern for her soul and more for
the protection of her virginity" (23)--is partly responsible for the
submissiveness of these women, all "dutiful wives." But the
unhealthy relationship between the sexes more often comes down to
a failure of communication and an inability to question stereotypical
roles. A hint, however, that this is not an unalterable state of
affairs occurs at the end of "The Thursday Wife" where "patient
Mary" thinks that perhaps she will no longer be able to
"accoarrodate"her husband's behaviour (42).
Opal Palmer Adisa's collection of "Guava Stories" (so-called,
I presume, because they are intended to resemble the black peasant
women that form their subject matter-"smooth outside and sweeter
inside,")consists of four stories set in rural and village Jamaica.
They are narrated in matter-of-fact standard English interspersed
with occasional lyrical flourishes and some intrusive explanation
for the foreign reader (the constitution of Solomon Gundy, 98),
but the dialogue is for the most part a credible representation of
At times, the author attempts to make a story carry more
weight than it's able to: "Widows Walk," for example, where the
motif of rivalry between human woman and West African sea-goddess
is the ground for several incidences of supernatural vision and
premonition which aren't fully integrated into the protagonist's
emotional dilemma, and which anticipate a resolution very different
from the rather flat ending we get.
However stories like "Bake Face" skillfully expose the social
and emotional perplexities faced by these women and their strategies
for coping (or not) with their men, children and earning a livelihood.
As Barbara Christian asserts in her salutory introduction, the web
of female relationships is a vital force in this coping process,
and the stories are all from the woman's viewpoint.
Lionheart Gal is, as Honor Ford Smith introduces it, a
collection of fifteen accounts of ways in which the women of the
Sistren Theatre Collective have "come to terms with difficulties
in their personal lives" as they move "from girlhood to adulthood,
country to city, isolated individual experiences to a more
politicised collective awareness" (xiii). The "plot" then isn't so
different from the other books: what is striking, however, is the
way the raw (and I use this adjective deliberately) material comes
across in the women's own testimonies, in the nearest scribal
equivalent to orature I've read for a while. Of course, the
uncompromising use of Jamaican Creole as the reader's only access
to these characters and their self-perceptions, is a major factor
in this immediacy.
There are more stories here, rounded out by a wealth of
incidental detail which cumulatively reflects Jamaica, now and in
the recent past, and what it means to working-class women, in this
case brought together by the emergency employment (crash) programme
of the 1970s. Barbara Christian's observation about Adisa's female
characters being neither overt rebels nor content earth mothers (x)
applies here too, despite Ford Smith's initial attempt to fit the
testimonies into a neat double-legacy paradigm of Nanny/nanny role
The dominant impression is of the "toughness" of these women's
lives, and like Defoe's Moll Flanders, there's little energy left-
over from "hustling" for the basics in an exploitative system, to
devote to romantic illusions. Indeed, as Ford Smith puts it,
"sexual relationships between men and women are often characterized
by the tedious playing out of a power struggle ritualised by
trade-offs of money and sex" (xvii).
Yet these testimonies are so animated, so dramatic, so filled
with humour and "spunks" that it is pure condescension to react with
pity; over and over, one senses the aptness of the title,
I've used the Sistren stories largely as a control, to test
the applicability of political ideology as it informs the more
"crafted" fictions. However, a brief disgression is necessary
here to rebut the anticipated complaints that Lionheart Gal is
Conventionally, it is almost a "given" that women's writing
(cross-culturally) contains autobiographical/confessional elements,
and criticism has paid close attention to these--often with
unpleasant consequences for the writer.5 Lorna Goodison, another
Jamaican writer, has acknowledged the autobiographical charge:
"I have had people telling me that they [her poems] were too
private. Somebody actually said that reading my work is like
looking through a keyhole . ." However, she claims, the truth
of a particular feeling in a poem is more than an individual
response, but speaks to (and for) the readers' experience also.
Since the experiences of the Sistren women do likewise, and have
been shaped and transformed in the text--by the editor, by the
Collective and by individual story-tellers (a process clearly
delineated in the Introduction, (xxvi-xxx)-I felt justified in
writing about Lionheart Gal as I read it: a collection of
In any case, critical resistance to autobiography as literature
is minimal in studies of black and 'third-world' writing.
According to Selwyn Cudjoe, the genre has a long history in
Afro-American writing; since the "objective" accounts of much
diasporic narrative were patently untrue, it was left to "personal"
accounts of convey the reality.7 However, he distinguishes
between the personal in the sense of egotistic subjectivity, and
the "collective" personal: autobiography
is presumed generally to be of service to the group.
It is never meant to glorify the exploits of the
individual, and the concerns of the collective pre-
dominate. One's personal experiences are assumed to
be an authentic expression of the society. .. .(10)
Finally, Mark McWatt convincingly argues that the tradition
of the autobiographical novel is well-established in West Indian
literature, and that the critic must come to terms with the
"ultrafictional" experience (the truth behind the fiction) as part
of the reading experience.8 In addition, he suggests, "reality,
the truth of actual experience, aspires to the shape and condition
of fiction in order to be rescued from irrelevance and to
participate in the power and permanence of art" (10). In that
the long unheard wamen of the Sistren Collective have chosen to
articulate their (selected, edited, re-written, "fictionalized")
realities in a relatively permanent published form, they are
making a political statement of intent to be heard in the public
forum, and the collection of stories is thus extremely relevant to
the topic under discussion.
Now, one feature common to the collections is the sounding of
the personal note, the attention to emotional response particularly
in close relationships. Perhaps this is a specifically female
concern; certainly, several of the contributors to Black Women
Writers at Work are of this opinion. Not that black male writers
to not treat of relationships as complex and significant, but
these tend to be confrontational ones outside the male-female/
damestic/carnunity context in which women writers set their fiction.
Feminist theory, however, maintains the integral and
necessary relation of the private and the public, the personal
and the economic. According to Terry Eagleton, feminism doesn't
recognize a distinction between questions of the human subject and
questions of political struggle.10 The clarification of this vital
issue is one of the achievements of the Sistren Collective, as we
hear in "Foxy and di Macca Palace War":
After we done talk ah get to feel dat di little day-to-
day tings dat happen to we as women, is politics too.
For instance, if yuh tek yuh pickney to hospital and it
die in yuh hand--dat is politics. . If yuh man box
yuh down, dat is politics. But plenty politicians don't
tink dose tings have anything to do wid politics.
(Lionheart Gal, 253)
Indeed Cornelia Butler Flora makes the case for female participation
in the political process necessitating bringing "the female world
S. into public view--[and] that the public arena be expanded to
include 'private' issues."ll The achievement of this she feels,
is in fact a radical move since "the role of the state changes,
male privilege within and outside the home is challenged, and the
contradictions of patriarchy and capitalism are heightened" (557).
So, if one accepts the above, these stories in bringing the
personal (private, emotional issues) into the public arena
(literature) are making a contribution to feminist politics and
are thus best analyzed by feminist literary criticism.
Which feminist literary theory, though? Well, a preliminary
survey of recent American and European approaches seems to me to
reveal five general orientations, although I am greatly
simplifying here and obviously, several approaches may be used in
The first focuses on images of women as they appear in
literature, usually by men, and tries to ascertain whether such
images take women's social and individual reality into account.
I would include here aesthetic representations of women by female
writers in what Showalter calls the "feminine state":12 that is,
the phase in literary production where women internalize standards
of the dominant (male) tradition in their work, including
traditional views on social roles.
Generally, this approach seeks to explain the ideological
bases which inform the (largely negative) images of women, and to
illuminate the power conflict, largely resolved in favour of male
dominance, that has led to the promotion of such stereotypes.
Its methodology subordinates "literary" to political concerns and
as such, relates to Elaine Fido's definition of feminist (as
opposed to womanist) criticism which deals with the writer's
"understanding of the power relations in their experiential
world. "13 Of course, it also explains their lack of understanding
of such power relations where they uncritically adopt male
Since these Caribbean writers are not in the "feminine stage,"
such an orientation doesn't apply, although one can find
stereotypical or limited presentations of women in West Indian
literature by men.14 But since sociological studies15 have
indicated that cross-cultural self-conceptions of men and women
appear to be more dramatic than contrasts between those who share
the same socio-cultural system, is it, in fact, possible to
decide which stereotypes of women are negative?
For example, the "clinging mother" in Adisa's story, "Me Man
Angel," who "after nine children. .still felt hollow, unfulfilled"
(61) and who channels all her devouring and possessive love into
an almost sexual relationship with her sickly nephew, could indeed
be perceived as a negative stereotype. But this would ignore the
equally extraordinary responses of her husband, children and
community to the angel-child, because of his vulnerability and
singular (androgynous?) ability to demonstrate affection towards
all sexes and age groups.
Full motherhood, in the Jamaican context, is almost sacred.16
And since Perry, in Adisa's story, is clearly portrayed as the
community's child, drawing out "motherly" virtues of tenderness,
generosity and unselfishness in everyone,then Denise's "excessive"
devotion is no more than he deserves.
Another approach, which focuses on the woman writer, attempts
to recuperate a female tradition, to prove, as in Showalter's
title, that female authors have "a literature of their own."
Usually, an exhaustive historical survey of women writers is used
to demonstrate the existence of a hidden literary tradition. This
is seen as a preferable alternative to the assimilation of women's
art, like other minority art, into the canon--which, as Joanna
Russ points out, "will thereby be more complete, but fundamentally
Instead, it attempts to define the consequences of the
patriarchal order for female literary production (or to explain
the lack of it) in the specific contexts (social, legal and so on)
of woman's status in her society, and involves analysis of the
psychological and imaginative strategies of female creativity.
This means re-examining existing critical evaluation of women
writers which ignore such factors since, as Cheri Register has
shown, critics have tended to take the normative viewpoint as
masculine and so judge female authors in terms of their conformity
to sub-category status--hence generalizations about "the lady
novelist" and the narrow/peripheral range of her experience.18
Feminist critics question the supposed "objectivity" of such a
tradition, and elaborate the contexts in which women actually
Attempts to "rediscover" early West Indian women writers are
still in progress, so it is difficult to identify a female literary
tradition into which these stories can be fitted--indeed, they can
be seen as part of the ongoing development of such a tradition.
Perhaps this critical approach may help to illuminate why a female
literary tradition has only recently emerged. However, since
British and white American women writers, at least up to the 1950s,
were primarily middle-class and university-educated, it may not be
feasible to take generalizations about their conditions and their
strategies as bases for analyzing the emergence of a Caribbean
"literature of their own."
Further, in the West Indian situation, admission of women
writers into such a "canon" as exists has not been problematic
since this canon is not an attempt to shore up the status quo,
eschewing any deviant or subversive minority art. In fact, a
large proportion of Caribbean fiction actively critiques the
exclusivist "establishment" of Western literary tradition.
Indeed, it might be asked whether Caribbean or women writers
desire assimilation into the traditional canon.
A third direction in feminist literary theory, which concen-
trates on "female characteristics" in language and form, is that
of the New French Feminists. As far as I can make out, these
critics build on existing psychoanalytic theory, especially
Jacques Lacan's model of the symbolic order as that of "the Law,"
the male order of culture and civilization and, of course,
Since this symbolic order is in fact the patriarchal sexual
and social order of society, feminist criticism views assimilation
into it as induction into oppression. However, for the girl-child
the entry is only partial, and she retains easier access to the
pre-Oedipal patterns which are repressed in the symbolic order.
These patterns (what Julia Kristeva calls the "semiotic," the
other side of language; and what I take to mean the "underpinnings"
of language which correspond to the "unruly" unhindered flow of
bodily drives in the infant) are bound up with the child's
contact with the mother's body and thus closely connected with
The French Feminists develop from this "semiotic" a theory of
woman' s language--ecriture feminine--which is vitally linked to
female sexuality. As a force within normal discourse concerned
with the bodily and material qualities of language, with creative
excess rather than precise meaning, with fluidity, plurality,
diffusion, sensuousness and open-endedness, such impulses serve as
a means of undermining normal discourse, and thus, the symbolic
So feminist writers are seen to be protesting their marginaliza-
tion by phallocentric culture and language, by finding their own
language, that which articulates their sexuality or in Hel6ne
Cixous's phrase, "writes the body." Such an approach relates to
Fido's categorization of "womanist" criticism which concentrates
on how writers "reflect the richness and complexity of woman's
particular relation to sensuous experience" (9) as seen "in the
very structures of language" (12) and literary form they utilize.
Well, the trouble with the semiotic, given its fluid,
open-ended, anarchic characteristics, is that it is impossible to
codify and thus to comment on! However, I have a few initial
reservations about this approach. Firstly, it can be taken to
imply that women's use of language, at its most feminine, is
anti-rational, anti-phallocentric, anti-system. To an extent,
this suggests smae kind of female essence, one that values
difference from the male norm as a criterion; I feel this logic
to be limited.
Again, one might question whether there is a specifically
female way of using language, something of which I'm not yet
convinced. There are certain linguistic and stylistic similarities
in the short stories examined here--but are they specifically
Finally, if entrance into the symbolic order involves language
acquisition, does this apply to all languages? Are West Indian
creoles also vehicles of the symbolic order; or is it possible
to say that they originated partly outside the confines of rigid
civilization and culture as it was imposed by colonialism? Some
of Harris' criticism suggests that the West Indian writer's
(authentic) use of his/her language has subversive potential equal
to that of ecriture feninine.
However, close attention to the specifics of the woman writer's
use of language and to the encoded revelations of the unconscious
in this language, perhaps implicitly suggesting subtle subversion
of the "natural" order of an authority, is an approach that
proves useful for some of the stories-for example, Senior's
Barely contained within chronology, this short piece is a timid
foray into the "dark tunnel of my childhood" (15), a mind-realm
where, perhaps, the boundaries between unconscious drives and "the
real" are less clearly delineated.
Two symbols predominate: the orange (round, complete, organic,
native, enclosed potential, positive) and the mutilated doll
(unsymmetrical-"half a face and a finger missing"--man-made,
stridently female in "billowing dress and petticoats," imported, and
associated with nausea, fear and death).
For the child, the world which waits outside (adult sexuality?)
is a threat to be warded off by rituals and talismans, although it
intrudes in dream and vision, and it is to these we might look for
elucidation. If the major symbols "write the body" and encode
unconscious desires, the story might be read as an ambivalent
desire for wholeness through giving love ("commitment") while
dreading the vulnerability such giving entails for a woman (love
is imaged as finite and exhaustible, like the orange). Giving
(love/sexual "submission") promises a new birth out of the "dark,
silent house" (15), the "dark tunnel" (13); but it also involves
dissection (of the orange/self), mutilation (the doll) and a kind
of death: a violation, glimpsed as the nauseating "doll crawling
into my hand and nestling there and I would run into the garden
and be sick" (12).
To avoid the issue, the child buries the doll and resolves to
trust her "orange" only to "one who could return no more" (14) and
thus be unable to change and reject her. Incipient womanhood,
sexuality, the ability to give fully, are tied to morbidity, and
when the child makes the (misunderstood) giving gesture, her last
protective stronghold crumbles, as do the bones of her hand smashed
in the car door (15), to which she responds with numbness.
Movement between real and imaginary is imperceptible, as fluid
as the story's structure, and certainly the externalization of
body/self in sensuous objects is part of the linguistic strategy
which, along with the incompleteness of the narrative (and persona)
may place the piece within the realm that the French Feminists
outline. However, I want to stress that this is a rather forced
reading. I've totally ignored the significance of the doll's
European-ness, its China-blue eyes (linked with the sky/an all-seeing,
revengeful God), and its (presumably) white, deformed plaster limbs:
these details might be central to a West Indian critic's
Black Feminist Criticism is another fairly recent direction in
feminist theory, and focuses the preceding concerns onto black
women. Criticism following this directive points out black
experience as it shapes literary expression, and addresses the
warping of literary images of black women by racism. It traces
the strategies women writers have used to counter these obstacles,
by celeating positive images or by subverting stereotyped
This is Barbara Christian's methodology in Black Women
Novelists,21 where she traces the development of a black female
tradition of writers and critically examines the portrayal of
various images of women in the light of contemporary thinking
about race and gender. Significantly, she draws attention to
ultimately destructive myths of "strong black women" such as the
matriarch of the 1950s and 60s who is in fact a variation of the
nineteenth century "mammy" figure.
What is innovative about this critical approach is a
concentration on the black perspective; but I feel this has been
part of most West Indian literary criticism, including that of
women's fiction, for some time now. One reservation, however,
is that black feminist criticism, in published form anyway, is
overwhelmingly Afro-American and certain generalizations about the
context may not apply in the Caribbean.
Occasionally, this criticism may contain inaccuracies about
the very different cultural orientations of black people worldwide.
An example in Barbara Christian's otherwise excellent study, is a
reference to West Indian immigrants to the United States being
"different from other European immigrants, however, in that their
land had never been truly theirs. ."(81). It's difficult to see
how German Jews had more claim to their land than black Jamaicans
to theirs. Perhaps the claim results from her view of the West
Indian's "hybrid culture, based on their African origins but very
much affected by the British system that held them in bondage" (81),
which seems a rather negative view of the creative processes involved
Finally, I've utilized the umbrella term "prescriptive feminist
criticism" for the approach which outlines, and evaluates according
to, criteria for "good" or "authentic" women's literature. This
approach includes all types of criticism which lay down a norm of
what feminist writing should say/do. Marxist-feminist writers
like Adrienne Rich might serve as an example, since they appear to
feel that women's literature should dedicate itself to the forging
of a new consciousness of oppression by developing cultural myths
of women in struggle and women in revolution. Such an agenda
postulates a female audience and the writer's implicit aim of
challenging sexism in language and culture with an ultimate utopian
end--a transformed society.
Literature, then, is seen as serving the cause of liberation
by, for example, promoting sisterhood, raising consciousness and
so on. Josephine Donovan, in her "Afterward" to Feminist Literary
Criticism concludes that "[t]he feminist critic maintains in
short, that there are truths and probabilities about the female
experience that form a criterion against which to judge the
authenticity of a literary statement about women" (77). She herself
doesn't say what these are but rather calls for a refining of what's
meant by women's reality/perspective (a kind of feminist epistemology)
in order to specify this criterion.
The problem with any prescriptive approach is who determines
the criteria for "good"; here, its the cause of feminist
liberation--but which feminists? The notion of "authenticity" is
also problematic. If this is taken to mean the realistic portrayal
of female experience and consciousness, it still presupposes a
qualified judge of what is realitistic. It doesn't seem possible
to me to make universal statements about the truth of "woman's
experience" or "waman's perspective" outside of the cultural
contexts of that experience or perspective. Even within the short
stories mentioned, so many different experiences are conveyed.
Doreen's life (in "The Emancipation of a Household Slave,"
Lionheart Gal) is a "hustle. Di main focus was weh and weh fi do
fi get money" (103); so is that of "Miss Girlie" (Woman's Tongue).
But Doreen's growth of self-assertion is for her own approbation
(107-8), while Girlie's assumption of strength goes hand-in-hand
with acquiescence in her own exploitation: "She would have to be
strong. No more weeping. She would do the things her man wanted
her to do. Help him to get the things he wanted even though it
meant heartache for her. .'A56). Clearly, Girlie's choice can't
be seen as serving the cause of liberation, but is it thus less
"authentic" than Doreen's?
And, of course, prescriptive criticism sidetracks the issue
of prioritizing affiliations, for instance racial solidarity over
feminist, as illustrated in a comment by Gwendolyn Brooks in
Black Women Writers at Work:
Yes, black women have got some problems with black men
and vice versa, but these are family matters. They
must be worked out within the family. At no time must
we allow whites, males or females, to convince us that
we should split.. It's another divisive tactic. . .
The main difficulty I have with European and American feminist
theory is the rather limited conception of "difference" which
underpins much of their ideology. It's based on a gender-linked
dichotomy pointed out by Simone de Beauvoir in the early days of
feminist thinking: the normative sex is masculine and "neutral"
truth has in fact been equated with the masculine perspective, so
that when we read "x is true of all of us" what's really meant is
that "x is true of all men." Men are the first, authentic sex and
women the second, deviant sex.
Now, since the symbolic order is patriarchal and the only
means of articulation is through the symbolic order, then women's
consciousness is shaped by and expressed in a language embodying
a masculine perception of the world. The second sex sees the
world, including herself, through male spectacles and can only
"speak from within patriarchal discourse rather than from a source
exterior to phallocentric symbolic forms."22 Clearly, within the
normative and perceptual order of this culture of which women
writers are both a part and from which they are excluded,23
literary self-expression will be problematic, since "feminine" is
a kind of sub-category, conjuring up simply the opposite of what
language allocates to the masculine/normative-so concepts such as
subjective, irrational, physical and so on are feminine determinants.
To pretend that these differences don't exist, that women aren't
really different from men and art is "universal," is clearly absurd,
no matter how well-intentioned such a view in promoting equality.
Some feminist aesthetic theory has moved on to make a positive
of difference: rather than viewing it as a matter of deficiency,
inferiority, loss, the feminine can be considered as a negation of
the phallic and thus the privileged carrier of alternative vision.
Thus, qualities antithetical to dominant male characteristics are
stressed (receptivity versus productivity, sensitivity versus
rationality) as a way of subverting the patriarchal order and its
traditional masculinistt) criteria of art.
But in such a line of thinking, differentiation becomes '"mere
inversion,"24 continuing what Showalter (13) calls the "dependency
of opposition,"25 and discourse about "women's art" leads to
grouping all artists together on the basis of being women and to
prescriptive views on what they are/should be, in opposition to the
male norm. And despite condemnation of the assumption of one
female reality based on fixed ideas about the "nature of women,"
some feminists do try to replace one set of "objective" standards
with another programmatic set (focusing on opposition) in literary
The danger of such prescription (based on difference from the
male) is that it can obscure difference within the feminist
community, indeed, as Bronwyn Levy reminds us, matters like class-
and race-based oppression are not little differences easily overcome
if women unite.27 In fact, the very notion of "otherness" that
forms the matrix for this approach takes on new significance in
cultures that have experienced colonialism. The connection has
been observed between women's writing as a political act in the
anti-patriarchal struggle, and "third-world" writing as a political
act in the anti-colonial struggle. But for the female third-world
writer, the situation is unique, for if she is other (inferior) to
men, and third-world literature is also other (inferior) to that
of "the Great Tradition," then she is the other other!
My point is, that certain rigid presuppositions in feminist
aesthetics which do not take into sufficient account other
differences (cultural and racial, say) within the community of
women, make wholesale acceptance of feminist literary analyses
rather difficult in the Caribbean context where varying priorities
in women's writing can't be trimmed to fit any neat paradigm of
committed "women's art."
I would like to end by suggesting that there is no one
political orientation in the work of West Indian women writers,
but several, and by illustrating three of these which predominate
in the short story collections.
The Feminist Orientation
In that all the writers represent female experience from the
woman's perspective and create complex and credible images of
women involved in same kind of power struggle, they are fulfilling
a feminist agenda.
Lionheart Gal is clearly motivated by a feminist orientation--
indeed, the book's conceptual framework was an attempt to answer
questions dealing with women's awareness of their oppression as
women (xxvii). Certainly, they are also oppressed by race/class
hierarchical assumptions, but their stories are expressions of
the female perspective on this experience.
The first story, "Rebel Pickney," begins with the statement,
"All my life me live in fear" (3), and the accounts that follow
outline the reasons for such a condition. In childhood, adult
socialization is often synonymous with brutality: Betty, the
"rebel pickney" tells us, "My faada no believe inna no discipline
at all, but murderation. Just pure beating" (5). Senior's stories
bear out this elevation of cruelty into a philosophy:
All the same right is right and there is only one right
way to bring up a child and that is by bus' ass pardon
my french Miss Mary but hard things call for hard words.
That child should be getting blows from the day she
born. (Summer Lightning, 69)
Adolescence is accompanied by sexual initiation, but ignorant
of the workings of their own bodies ("Me no know what pregnant
mean. Dem always a tell yuh seh baby drop out a sky, and come
inna plane and all dem something deh" .) and with men always
ready to use "sweet-talk" or force, motherhood is premature,
often unwelcome and the cause of familial and social sanctions.
It also puts a stop to education:
dem boy pickney. .dem go round and breed off woman
an is not dem a feel it. Dem can go a school same way,
but di gal dem haffi stop from school. (23)
Without skill-training, young mothers must either face underpayment
and exploitation in the labour market, or the insecurity of
dependence on a man who then has the right to control her life and
Significantly, however, these stories chart the women's tactics
for dealing with such situations, their processes of asserting
independence and attempting autonomy. An early disadvantage is
seen to be the discouragement in girls of enquiry: "I grew up
thinking it was wrong to ask questions" (115). Clearly, through
Sistren, these wamen have come to question the inevitability of
the patterning of their lives as a first step in liberation, although
it's important to remember that this is by no means true of others
outside the Collective. Further, these wamen feel a responsibility,
as Doreen puts it, to help other women to learn from her "grass
roots reality on stage" that "black people are not born to be poor
and exploited" (108). They attempt then, to paraphrase Ntozake
Shange, to shatter the silence of foremothers, to expose the lies
and the myths about what it's like to be a grown waman.29
Campbell's stories also seem to have a feminist perspective,
not so much in the lauding of women's strength under duress, but
in pointing up the toll taken by their adoption of the submissive
role in male/female interaction. Jamaican men appear fairly
negatively here. Peter ("The Painting") is a weak individual who
overextends himself climbing the social ladder and then runs off,
leaving his dependent wife to shoulder the consequences. Bertie
("The Thursday Wife") feels safe in his philandering because at
home his well-trained "Mary, patient Mary, . .through all the
years have never even questioned him when many other women would
have made a stink" (42). Ivan actively terrorizes Girlie into
selling herself for his American dollars, and Mrs. Telfer in
"Supermarket Blues" isn't much better off:
She would ask Ralph for more money and he would shout
at her, yelling that she was asking for more and more
money and bringing less and less into the house. (64)
These women's complicity (despite potential or actual
financial self-sufficiency) in the assumption that they are their
men's possessions and servants, fulfilled in sacrificing for them
and catering to every whim (Bertie "had even threatened to box
her because she hadn't ironed his merinos" ), and the failure
of communication between the sexes (also featured in Adisa's
title story) makes for an indictment of gender relations that
gathers force as the stories progress. The only hope for
improvement lies in the anger and the querying of the situation
that Woman's Tongue surely provokes in the reader.
In accurately rendering the "Jamaicanness" of women's lives,
the writers make a contribution to West Indian Literature by
furthering the claim that the region has a dynamic and complex
cultural life of its own. Lorna Goodison, in praising West
Indian writers like Earl Lovelace for stressing the positives of
Caribbean cultural achievement, repudiates the literary stance of
bewailing our lack: "It seems to me pointless to spend so much
time washing down the corpse and dressing it, when officially you
don't dead yet."30
Certainly, Hazel Campbell conveys a sense of a living culture,
"a mixing of old customs and new ways" (71), for example in "Easter
Sunday Morning," where African-derived obeah rituals and the
arcane mysteries of herbal healing came into exciting contact with
the orthodox Anglican church and its parson with "a modern scientific
mind" (75). In Adisa's Bake Face, the emphasis is on the continuity
of African heritage in the lives of Jamaican peasants. Old
goddesses, Oshun and Yemoja, retain power and must be pacified
(114); old rituals to counteract obeah and spirit possession are
utilized regularly (for example, by "Miss Maud, the community
myalist," 51-52); and signs, omens and portents are acknowledged
Adisa's collection, it seems to me, deliberately sets out to
establish the existence of an alternative Jamaican culture to that
imposed by imperial Britain. This is a political orientation
followed by other Jamaican women writers such as Erna Brodber, who
has stressed the need for recording oral history,31 an account of
the past handed down via ancestors rather than text-books, and
indeed has followed her own advice in Jane and Louisa Will Soon
Come Home (1980).
Similarly, Michelle Cliff (like Adisa, Jamaican-born, now
living in the United States) holds the view that "to write as a
complete Caribbean woman" necessitates a reclamation of the
"African part of ourselves" as well as utilizing ancestral
artforms and language (Jamaican Creole or, as she calls it,
patois.)32 For Cliff, this deliberate counterbalancing is crucial
for "a writer coming from a culture of colonialism" (13) and has
politically influenced the direction her writing has taken.
Olive Senior's Sumner Lightning can also be seen as partially
motivated by cultural nationalism in that the stories not only
value the way of life of rural communities, emphasizing the role
of older women as the memory of the tribe (16) but actively condemn
the logic that teaches contempt for one's origins as an inevitable
part of progress and modernity--this is the point of "Ascot." But
typically, she ensures that no easy moral is drawn: in "Real Old
Time T'ing," townie Patricia's search "for her roots" is translated
into greedy acquisition of antiques and junk alike merely for the
sake of having, while the narrator/cmmunity voice unknowingly
reflects an equal lack of connection to (symbols of) the past when
she explains that "people glad to get rid of all the ol' bruck
furniture they have around. They want to go and trust plastic
living room chair and aluminium dinette set down at Mr. V. Store"
Comprehension of Jamaica's colonial trauma (Prudence, in
Lionheart Gal, is able to connect the lack of father/daughter
relationship with the devaluation of family life during slavery, 111),
and an acknowledgement of the creole culture which has emerged through
time's transformation, suggests an implicit orientation towards
advocating cultural sovereignty in these texts. Cliff has noted
the role of creole languages in this task (13), and Lionheart Gal
refers to the sterility of the creative imagination when offered
only foreign channels of expression (184). In consolidating the
literary potential of the Jamaican Creole continuum, these writers
are challenging the hegemony not only of the "Queen's English,"
but of any outward-looking value system.
Critique of Race/Class Hierarchy
Finally, any concern with origins (and indeed, with the nature
of womanhood) in the Caribbean will be inextricably bound up with
race/class concerns as is evident in "Grandma's Estate" (Lionheart
Gal) for instance.
Campbell's racial observations are matter-of-fact and
unobtrusive; without being told, we fit her characters into their
race/class bracket, and there's little stridency in the casual
references to white people as parsimonious employers or gullible
tourists to be milked. Different attitudes to people, depending
on their position in the hierarchy (to Miss Maud and Mrs. Telfer
by supermarket staff, for example) are wryly observed but never
questioned. Campbell presents the facts and leaves the reader
Adisa, by contrast, is quick to call attention to race and
stresses "blackness" as the norm of physical beauty: Richard
("Duppy Get Her") is ashamed of his "red nega" colouring and
"wanted to be purple-dark like the rest of them" (46). This
contradicts the criteria internalized by Doreen, who notices that
teachers favour "di tall hair fair skin pickney dem.. ..Me did waan
be like dem. Di whole heape cussing bout how me black and ugly,
only boots me now to say me a no notten" (Lionheart Gal, 99).
In that these women writers tell of, and address themselves
to Jamaicans, the vast majority of whom are non-white, they are
fulfilling Gwendolyn Brooks' directive: "I know that the Black
emphasis must be not against white but FOR Black."33 But Olive
Senior's stories, which frequently undermine the positive portrayal
of the Jamaican peasantry by implicit criticism of the debilitating
internalization of race/class prejudices, seem to me more informed
by a race/class critique than the others.
Throughout Summer Lightning, the niceties of this hierarchy
are adhered to by the decent, strict elite among the community:
your race/class determines how and from which entrance you're
admitted to a house (1); a black labourer who turns Rasta is seen
as losing the respectfulness which his middle-class employers
consider their due (6); self-worth is imaged in terms of possession
of a certain life style, that is:
a big house with heavy mahogany furniture and many roams,
fixed mealtimes, a mother and father who were married to
each other and lived together in the same house. .who
would send you to school with the proper clothes. . .
("Bright Thursdays," 36)
Inevitably, social standing is linked with race: "brown skin
with straight hair" is superior to "dark skin but almost straight
hair," which is superior to black, and so on. One can rise
socially, through education or money, but this involves adopting
the values of the "clear" middle-class who fear the encroachment
of the black masses into their territory and who, like Miss Christie,
have nothing but contempt for the likes of the "uppity black gal"
who "seduced" her son to "raise her colour" (40).
Social mobility then, involves repudiating all previous
connections for a life of imitation and conformity. In this,
all classes are in agreement and here is the nub of Senior's
indictment. That Myrtle, in "Bright Thursdays," should be seduced
by "a young man of high estate. . [who] had come visiting the
Wheelers where Myrtle was a young servant" (38), and that the
resultant child is neither acknowledged nor supported by him or his
family, is explainable in the social context. But that Myrtle
should raise her daughter to admire, imitate and aspire to the ways
of those "of high estate," at the cost of alienation from her own
class and colour, is untenable.
The stories, then, vitiate the values informing the rural
peasantry's desire to keep up appearances (16), to associate only
with "good" families (18) and their tendency to denigrate their
own people and their own race:
everybody know this country going to the dog these days
for is pure black people children they pushing to send
high school. Anybody ever hear you can educate monkey?
Further, by depicting the confusion, self-doubt and fragmentation
which such contradictions wreak on the child's psyche--Lenora,
Laura, the narrator of "Confirmation Day"--such attitudes assume
evil proportions and lessen the stature of the older women in the
community who instil racism and snobbery along with manners and
Perhaps this brief survey of political directions in the work
of Caribbean women writers indicates the complex social visions
which inform their stories, and the inapplicability to them of
literary criticism linked to a particular political programme.
In writing about responses to her own work, Audre Lord notes that:
Black writers. .who step outside the pale of what
black writers are supposed to write about, or who
black writers are supposed to be, are condemned to
silences in black literary circles that are as total
and destructive as any imposed by racism.34
Her point is that any insistence on a unilateral definition of
"blackness," however motivated, inhibits creativity: "In the
mistaken belief that unity must mean sameness, differences within
the black carmunity. .were sometimes mislabeled, oversimplified,
and repressed" (102).
I have attempted to point out similar problems for Caribbean
nwmen's writing when an over-rigid concept of feminist theory is
applied. I hold, with Lord, "that difference is a reason for
celebration and growth" (103) and therefore, instead of pursuing
a linear analysis of political orientation in the works of these
writers, it might b-more apt to use the crossroads model elaborated
by Fido35 and Tate, and to situate each work at a point where her
place on the continuums of political direction intersect. I've
chosen to illustrate three such scales: more or less concern with
feminist politics; more or less concern with protesting negative
assumptions about race; and more or less concern with the promotion
of creole cultural forms unique to the region.
As Fido points out in "Crossroads," "[w]amen writers in the
third world have a complex series of possibilities to realise in
their work, if they choose to effect full consciousness of their
situation." It is their skill that they do so, and ours as
critics to draw attention also to the differences of orientation
within and between their works.
1. (Kingston and Port-of-Spain: Longman Caribbean, 1986). All
page reference to this edition.
2. (Kingston, Jamaica: Savacou, 1985). All page reference to this
3. (London: The Women's Press, 1986). All page reference to this
4. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1986). All page reference to this
5. See Sigrid Weigel, "Double Focus: On the History of Women's
Writing," Feminist Aesthetics, ed. Gisela Ecker (London: The
Women's Press, 1985), 66: "As far as women are concerned, no
distinction is made between the writer and the person." Elaine
Showalter, in A Literature of their Own: British Women
Novelists from Brinte to Lessing (London: Virago, 1978), 303,
demonstrates this in her account of the distress of Sylvia
Plath's mother at the publication of The Bell Jar.
6. Lorna Goodison, interviewed by Nadi Edwards, November 18, 1984,
part one, Pathways: A Journal of Creative Writing, 2, 4
(December 1984): 9.
7. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, essay on Maya Angelou, Black Women Writers
(1950-1980) : A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans (Garden
City, New York: Anchor Books, 1984). Toni Morrison, Black
Wm*en Writers (1950-1980), 339, seems to agree with Cudjoe
that the "autobiographical form is classic in Black American
or Afro-American literature because it provided an instance
in which a writer could be representative. . ."
8. Mark McWatt, "Beyond the Novel: Prolegomena to Any Future
Theory of West Indian Fiction," paper to Sixth Annual Conference
on West Indian Literature, University of the West Indies,
St. Augustine (May 1986), 7-9.
9. Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate (New York:
Continuum, 1983). See, for example, comments by Ntozake
Shange (151-52), Kristin Hunter (85) and Sonia Sanchez (143).
10. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1983), 215.
11. Cornelia Butler Flora, "From Sex Roles to Patriarchy: Recent
Developments in the Sociology of Women--A Review Essay,"
The Sociological Quarterly, 23 (Autumn 1982): 557.
12. Showalter (1978, 13) has defined three stages through which
most literary subcultures pass in relation to the dominant one:
imitation and internalization of the dominant tradition's modes
and standards; protests against these standards and values, and
advocacy of minority rights and values; self-discovery, a
turning inward freed from some of the "dependency of opposition"
in the search for identity. Applied to women's writing, these
three stages are the Feminine, Feminist and Female phases.
13. Elaine Fido, "Feminist and Womanist Discourses: West Indian/
American Lesbian Writers," paper to Sixth Annual Conference on
West Indian Literature, Univ. of the West Indies, St. Augustine
(May 1986), 9.
14. Random examples are deLisser's manipulative, materialistic
black middle-class women, and sane of Lamming's mother figures
--not to mention Naipaul's "sluts"! Women may also figure as
simply catalysts or symbols in a plot featuring the hero's
development-Lovelace's Sylvia (The Dragon Can't Dance, 1979)
and Harris' Catalena (The Secret Ladder, 1963). And women may
be minimized to the point of near invisibility, as Rhonda Cobham
claims of Jamaican nationalist literature and the "typical West
Indian novel," in "Women in Jamaican Literature 1900-1950,"
Out of the Kumbla: Wcmanist Perspectives on Caribbean Literature,
ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido (Trenton,
New Jersey: African World Press, in press).
15. Eduardo Almeida Acosta and Maria Eugenia Sanchez de Almeida
"Psychological Factors Affecting Change in Women's Roles and
Status: A Cross-Cultural Study," International Journal of
Psychology, 18 (1983): 27.
16. See, for example, Olive Senior's "Ballad": "God ordain all women
to have children and if woman don't have children she no better
than mule because God curse is on her. ." (113).
17. Joanna Russ, How to Supress Women's Writing (London: The
Women's Press, 1984), 110.
18. Cheri Register, "American Feminist Literary Criticism:
A Bibliographical Introduction," Feminist Literary Criticism:
Explorations in Theory, ed. Josephine Donovan (Lexington:
Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1975), 8-11.
19. As Terry Eagleton explains it (Literary Theory, 163-171,
187-191) Lacan holds that the child in the pre-Oedipal stage
is involved in a close, libidinal relationship with another
body, usually the mother's. Enter the father, who signifies
the "wider familial and social network" into which the child
must be assimilated. However, this socialization involves
division from the mother's body, and desire (love for her body
that, in this wider network, is incestuous) is driven under-
ground into the unconscious.
Thus, entrance into the symbolic order is accompanied by
the dawn of gender awareness and the repression of pre-Oedipal
20. However, consider the angry reaction within the black community
that greeted Ntozake Shange's for colored girls due to its
treatment of black women's emotional vulnerability at a period
when only positive images were encouraged by the black media.
The film version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple has elicited
similar responses regarding its portrayal of black men.
21. Barbara Christian, Black Wanen Novelists: The Development of
a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood
22. Gisela Ecker, "Introduction," Feminist Aesthetics, 21.
23. See Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, 190 and Sigrid Weigel,
"Double Focus," 61.
24. See Silvia Bovenschen, "Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?",
Feminist Aesthetics, 35. Consider also Sigrid Weigel's
conmnent in the same collection:
The Utopia of woman as an "authentic" sex does not mean
--to reverse patriarchal relations--claiming to be the
only or the superior sex, rather it demands that woman
is no longer defined in relation to man. Instead, she
sees and experiences herself as autonomous and considers
her relations with herself and with others as her own
and not as deviant. (79)
25. In a slightly different context, Barbara Christian shows the
dangers that arise in literature frcm this dependency of
opposition. In Black Women Novelists she contends that black
women writing in the 1920s and attempting to refute earlier,
negative images of women, fell into the trap of reacting to
white society's view of blacks.
26. For example, Heide Gottner-Abendroth, "Nine Principles of a
Matriarchal Aesthetic," Feminist Aesthetics, 81-94.
27. Bronwyn Levy, "Wcmen Experiment Down Under: Reading the
Difference," A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial
Women's Writing, ed. Kirsten Hoist Peterson and Anna Rutherford
(Aarhus: Dangaroo Press, 1986), 169-186.
28. Lorna Goodison, interviewed by Nadi Edwards, part two, Pathways,
3, 5 (Dec. 1985): 10.
29. Ntozake Shange, Black Women Writers at Work, 162.
30. Lorna Goodison, interviewed by Nadi Edwards, part two, 6.
31. Erna Brodber, interviewed by Evelyn O'Callaghan, April 7, 1982.
32. Michelle Cliff, The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry
(New York: Firebrand, 1985) 14.
33. Gwendolyn Brooks, Black Women Writers at Work, 78.
34. Audre Lord, Black Women Writers at Work, 101.
35. Elaine Fido, "Crossroads: Textures of Reality in the Poetry
of Lorna Goodison, Christine Craig, Olive Senior and Esther
Phillips," Out of the Kumbla (in press).
36. Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work, xvi.
Sexual, Racial, and National Politics:
Jacqueline Manicom's Mon examen de blanc
University of the West Indies
"Ce que je n'ai pas encore saisi, c'est le sens
de cet amour disinteress6 que nous porte la France."
(fbn examen de blanc, 37)
Jacqueline Maniccm is one of the rare French Caribbean women
writers whose works are explicitly, militantly, "feminist" and
politically engag6s.1 In her work Manicom carefully documents the
process of assimilation, humiliation, betrayal, political awakening,
commitment and the incapacity of many Antillais to transform
commitment into unequivocal social reform or political action.
The heroine of her novel Mon examen de blanc, a title very difficult
to translate into English because of its polyvalency, is a young
Guadaloupean femme de couleur, Dr. Madevie Ramimoutou. Madevie has
returned from France with her medical diploma, and a broken heart.
Her experiences in France, in the world of the white man, the
'mother country," however, have left her with a heightened awareness
and social conscience ("conscience" in French translates both
"conscience" and "consciousness"). Mad6vie, as a privileged
professional, knows what she must do, knows how it could be done,
and yet is unable to act. Her journey to the m6tropole has
destroyed her self-confidence and left her crippled. Madevie's
story is a clear and militant expression of the hopes, frustrations
and anxieties that continue to haunt the French West Indies,
rlpartwmnti of France since 1946. To break loose from subservience
to cultural and political autonomy to overcome centuries of
conditioning, a deliberate act of will is required. But to assert
herself, Guadeloupe, like Madevie, must first be healed of the
destructive negative influences of the past. The pro-independence
stance expressed in Manicom's novel, then, is explored in terms of
the complex social and political realities of Guadeloupe. Mad6vie's
story is Guadeloupe's story ("histoire" in French is both "story"
and "history") and the process of Madevie's liberation becomes the
sketch of a possible blueprint for the political evolution of the
French West Indies.
The title of the novel is an ambiguous one. The book-jacket
explains that the phrase comes from a French West Indian expression
"passer son examen de blanc" which means "imiter le blanc pour
s'assimiler a lui et partager ses privileges," suggesting the
Antillais has successfully completed the process of assimilating
and/or being assimilated into, the system of white values of the
European Colonizer. But the closest English equivalent which
comes to mind--"to pass for white"--is adequate only to one of
several possible significations. As Clarisse Zimra points out,
the word Blancc" is at once both a noun, the colour white or a
white man, and an adjective; while the noun examenn" denotes
"examination" in the sense of "study," "scrutinity" as well as
"test" or "exam."2 Moreover, the preposition "de" translates
variously as: of/in/as/for, etc. as well as expressing an
adjectival relationship as in "mon examen de franCais," "my French
exam." The title, therefore, as Zimra shows, carries with it a
"wealth of semantic ramifications" suggested by the ambiguity and
"equivocal polysemy" (Zimra's term) it incorporates. Hence, to
choose to treat the text as "an examination of what it means to
be white" (that is assimilated) as well as "a study of the white
man" on the part of the Caribbean femme de couleur, is as valid
as to see it primarily as "a colored (sic) woman's identity quest
brought to the test by the white man."3 The novel operates at
three levels and is concerned not only with sex and race/class
domination but also with "politics" in the primary sense of the
status and government of the island Guadeloupe and her relations
with France. Sexual, racial and national "politics" are interwoven
by the author in such a way that each complements and comments on
This paper proposes to deal with all three aspects, taking as
a point of departure Zimra's analysis of the relationship between
the white male and the "woman of colour," but to focus in particular
on the political dimension, that is to look at text as an
examination of France/DOM relations as represented by the "problematic
condition" in which Guadeloupean society continues to find itself
and for which the novel seems to indicate a possible solution.4
On the first level the novel is an examination of the complex
relationships between the different racial groups which make up
Guadeloupean society including the bekes ("blancs creoles," creole
whites, descendants of the first colons), the blancs-France,
European whites, recently arrived in the island, the wealthy
mulattoes and educated gens de couleur and the urban and rural poor,
mainly black but also including peasants of Indian and mixed origin.
The society is characterized by fine distinctions and mutual
mistrust. The issue of race and colour, a thorny one in Caribbean
contexts, is allied to that of the male/female relationship. In
addition to Mdadvie's relationships, other couples in the novel
become vehicles for an examination of race/class as well as gender
The central relationship in the novel is that of a white
co-oprant (French civil servant) and Madevie, an educated femme de
couleur of Indian origin. They are professional colleagues, both
doctors, she an anaesthetist, he a surgeon, forced to work together
for the health and safety of their patients, mainly poor black
women. Through this main relationship in the novel, Manicom
examines a network of relationships, and a variety of complex
social and political issues. Madevie does not always agree with
Cyril's decisions or procedures. Yet she never protests. In the
persons of Madevie and Cyril Dsmian woman acquiesces to man, the
educated coloured West Indian defers to the white European and the
narrator comments on the relationship of Guadeloupe and France,
particularly the question of independence. Is there to be revolt
or silent, grudging, complicity: acceptance of the status quo?
The choice of professional roles is significant--it is the coloured
woman who anaesthetizes the patient (Guadeloupe/herself?) while
the metropolitan Frenchman decides, directs. It is ultimately the
white/European/male who is dominant and in control in the relation-
ship while the black/Antillais/female submits and collaborates.
But the relationship is complex: It is Cyril who forces Madevie
to came to terms with her unhappy love affair in France, to face
herself, as she was--"the other Madevie," the one she no longer
resembles or wants to acknowledge. This other self is the
Guadeloupe of the colonial and post-colonial era, the Guadeloupe
dominated by the desire to be "assimilated" at all costs. At the
level of the politics of race and class, then, Mad6vie's personal
history is first the history of the Guadeloupean assimil6 and of
his ambivalent feelings to his island and the mire patrie. Her
problems of identity, her self-deprecation and inability to act,
are all correlated by the collective dilemmas of her society.
On the symbolic level Madevie becomes Guadeloupe. The changing
and complex formal, constitutional, historical and emotional relation-
ship with France is played out in the figures of the two white
males, Xavier and Cyril, with whom the "woman of colour" has
relationships. Her final "liberation" is achieved through Gilbert,
a black Guadeloupean, a political activist, who regenerates
Mad6vie's self-respect and self-confidence.6
Zimra considers the main theme of the novel to be that of
"a female identity quest."7 This "female identity quest" is
closely linked to class, race, colour and to national autonomy.
At the symbolic level of France/Guadeloupe relations it translates
a national identity quest to which the form, metaphors, structures
and relationships within the novel correspond precisely. Zimra
sets out Manicom's depiction of the various stages of the female
self on the way to liberation. These stages in the liberation of
the woman parallel and represent precisely the classic historical
paradigm for the political evolution of Caribbean territories,
formerly European possessions. Thus "Woman as slave; Woman as
pupil; Woman as equal"8 (Madevie's relationships with Xavier,
Cyril and Gilbert respectively) at the symbolic level become
"Guadeloupe as colony; Guadeloupe as self-governing; Guadeloupe as
independent," a political evolutionary process already accomplished
in the anglophone Caribbean islands, formerly British colonies, but
yet to be realized in the French West Indies. Guadeloupe in effect
as far as some of her citizens are concerned remains "enslaved" by
her continued "department" status.9 "Woman as slave" has yet to
became "Woman as equal" but the process has begun. The apprentice-
ship is being served. In the novel a docile Mad6vie accepts
Cyril's gifts of "culture" and instruction but undermines the
process by her use of irony and narrative distancing. The
liberation process in the novel is described by Zimra as "a personal
liberation mediated by a public liberation: political action."10
The converse is also true: in the narrative the political
liberation of the country, Guadeloupe, is mediated symbolically
through the liberation of the woman, with which it coincides and
is synonymous. Each of Mad6vie's three relationships: a
tempestuous, tragic, love affair with an irresponsible French
medical student, the platonic, professional master/pupil relation-
ship with her white colleague and finally the mutually fulfilling
relationship with Gilbert, with whom she falls in love, marks a
stage in her awakening consciousness and parallels a phase in
Guadeloupe's social and political evolution. The novel becomes a
commentary on the island's past history and a beacon for French
One of the main metaphors of the novel is Mad6vie's
incarceration, physical and psychological, and her struggle to free
herself from a feeling of impotence and lack of direction. She is
docile, passive and cynical in the wake of her disillusioning
journey to France. As the novel opens she is shown patiently
waiting, anxiously watching the jets from Paris which may one day
reunite her with Xavier. Guadeloupe still looks to France to
satisfy her needs, to fulfill her dreams. Yet in the course of
the narrative her connection with the m6tropole, the psychological
lifeline which keeps her dependent, is gradually severed as
Maddvie becomes whole and autonomous. France, where her "white
examination" begins, is the scene of the black Antillaise's first
epreuve ("ordeal," "proof" or "exam").
Xavier, her white lover, for whom she was willing to give up
everything to "become white," sees her simply as an exotic,
intriguing plaything. He takes her virginity "goutant sa part de
magie, de vaudou, avant le marriage bourgeois" (40) ("enjoying his
share of magic, of voudou before a middle-class marriage"). She
is more "cultured" than he is: "Xavier se pretendait cultiv6, mais
Mad6vie connaissait mieux la musique de Bach" (39) ("Xavier
claimed to be cultured, but Mad6vie was more familiar with Bach"),
yet, he is "superior," simply because he is white and a rich
bourgeois. He uses her with no qualms and then abandons her in a
cowardly fashion when she becomes pregnant, because his socialite
mother could not survive a black daughter-in-law. Manicom exploits
their mutually stereotyped expectations and prejudices. The use
of racial terms is telling. When Mad6vie speaks of their
relationship she is the mulatto stereotype, an exotic, sexual
being, "une mulatresse" who could not possibly be a virgin for
"une mulatresse vierge, va n'existe pas" (40). However, when
Xavier rejects her or when she speaks of her superior erudition,
which he contemptuously dismisses, she becomes in her own words/
view "une negresse": "Et les negresses gr6co-latines, on ne les
prend pas au serieux" (41-42) ("Greco-latin negresses are not to
be taken seriously"). The use of the term "n1gresse" in this
context serves to heighten the contrast, to underline the paradox.
Mad6vie's own self-image is assimilee; she describes her former
self as "une mulatresse qui se voulait ("wanted to be" or "saw
herself as") a tout prix civilisee" (41), who thinks West Indians
are "French" but Africans are "savage." Xavier is the colon, the
ignorant, materialistic European of the colonial period. Madevie
(Guadeloupe) is humiliated, used, abused. It is a nakedly
"Vaccinated" by her past disillusionment, her next relationship
with Cyril, is self-protective. In the narrator's interior
monologues Mad@vie from the first assumes a superior attitude to
her colleague. The first-person narrative is characterized by
ironic distance. Irony is the vulnerable narrator's defense
against another threat to her independence and fragile sense of
self. Madevie's attitude is suggestive of the personal crisis of
many educated Antillais: "assimil6s," yet disgusted by their
"assimilation" and aware of the inherent contradictions in this
position. She is mocking and contemptuous of Cyril in private,
yet face to face she cannot bring herself to challenge him openly.
She is submissive, docile, even genuinely admiring. But the
relationship is a complex one because the new Frenchman, a co-operant
rather than a colon, is sensitive as well as brutal, competent,
even politically liberal to a point. Like Prospero in Cesaire's
Une Temp&te he has appropriated her island, which he now reveals
to her, willing to share its treasures and beauties, provided she
is willing to remain compliant and subordinate. Madevie knows
she has the power to destroy Cyril but she cannot assert herself
for she fears his irony and his scorn. The ward cannot throw off
the yoke of tutelage. Cyril considers Madevie's ind6pendantiste
tendencies politically "subversive." He is for a measure of
autonomy for Guadeloupe but this autonomy must be in the context
of continued union with France.11 The West Indian, he says, is not
yet ready for independence, he is "like a child" who needs to be
led and besides he is "indolent" and actually prefers to be guided
and directed by whites. Madevie's acquiescence seems to confirm
his views. "Woman as pupil" has equalled, even surpassed, her
tutor in culture, in awareness, in sophistication, but she
continues to play the game. Significantly, her revolt remains a
silent one and does not translate itself into action. The island,
although aware of the path to liberation,is unwilling or unable to
act. Music becomes a metaphor for culture, a way of life.
European culture is Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, mandolins, not
guitars. Guadeloupean culture is the beguine, chansonss croles,"
the cassette offered to Mad6vie by Gilbert, her black lover. Each
encounter between Madevie and Xavier and Cyril is accompanied by
music. Mad6vie pretends to be ignorant to please her companions:
"Apparently I am unhappy and I need Cyril," the narrator remarks
ironically. Cyril, the symbol of "reason," "la litterature
incarn6e" has stifled Vivaldi's guitars and Madevie fears he will
crush her too.
Yet Manicom is unequivocal in her condemnation of "privileged"
Guadeloupeans, men and women like her protagonist. They, too,
must accept their part in the responsibility for their humiliation:
S'il arrive a une mulatresse d'avoir envie de se
suicide, que personnel ne lui manifesto la moindre
piti6. Surtout s'il s'agit d'une de ces mulatresses
privil6giees qui peuvent aller en France non pour laver
le sol des hopitaux de Paris, mais pour faire des etudes
de m&decine et 6couter ainsi de distingues chirurgiens
parler de la grandeur d'ame de la mire patrie. (Mon
(Should a mulatto happen to want to commit suicide, let
no one show her the slightest pity. Especially if it is
one of those privileged mulattos who can go to France,
not to scrub hospital floors in Paris but to study
medicine and to listen to distinguished surgeons speak
about the mother country's grandeur of soul.)
If the narrator is harsh in her criticism of "privileged mulattos"
representatives of the middle class, she nevertheless recognizes
that they are at the same time plagued by guilt and self-doubt,
evidenced in the novel by Mad6vie's vague, recurrent desire for
suicide. Why does the privileged, educated Guadeloupeenne flirt
with suicide? It is, I would suggest, because whereas the European
civil servant remains indifferent in the face of suffering which
he cannot alleviate and feels no responsibility for (a young
cycle-champion dying of cancer becomes no more than an item of news),
the educated Antillais carries the burden of his less fortunate
country men. He is aware, Manicom suggests, that continued
complicity with the existing political and social structure is what
is keeping it in place. Hence feelings of hypocrisy and guilt.
Madevie in her insulated, sterile world, her "cube,"feels protected.
France is the Guadeloupe "hexagon," Guadeloupe, the "cube." They
are connected by the Umbilical cord. The educated professional
enjoys a standard of living, with "made in France" comforts, which
is in general far above that of neighboring Caribbean territories.
Yet they are conscious that these territories despite economic
dependence are politically independent and consider them "free"
to determine their own future--an illusion the Antillais has never
had the pleasure of experiencing.12 The situation is further
complicated by the deep emotional, cultural and affective ties that
many Antillais feel towards France. The narrator remarks that for
the average Guadeloupean France is the "land of their ancestors,"
the "pays de cocagne," the dream of a better, more comfortable life.
It is only through her relationship with Gilbert that Mad6vie is
finally liberated. Manicom suggests that it is only through effort
and dedication on the part of her own people that Guadeloupe will
be empowered to effect political self-determination. Mad6vie's
relationship with Gilbert is the vehicle for her own liberation.
Through him she attains maturity, independence, integration of self.
Gilbert is black, educated, politically conscious. He is
married to a chabine dor6e, a light-skinned m6tisse whom he
married because of her beauty and her colour. Gilbert confesses
C'1tait pour moi une promotion d'epouser une telle
fille, une chabine a la peau tres blanche. Je pra-
tiquais la politique du blanchiment de la race. J'1tais
complex par la couleur sombre de ma peau (175).
(It was a step up for me to marry a girl like her, a
chabin with a very white skin. I was practising the
policy of the whitening of the race. My dark skin
gave me a complex.)
He has now outgrown the beautiful but frivolous Dany who does not
share his political aspirations. Gilbert's evolution paves the
way for Madevie's own liberation and provides an occasion for her
increasing disquiet to become political commitment. In her mind he
is the incarnation of the revolution. Gilbert gives Mad6vie hope.
Through him she is healed of her negative self-image, she can
forget Xavier. Gilbert loves her for herself, as she is; she is
"belle, brune, douce" (beautiful, brown, sweet). The colour of
her skin is no longer a drawback or an obstacle but a source of
celebration. Gilbert promises the prospect of a new Guadeloupe,
happy and free; "I1 re-fera une nouvelle Guadeloupe heureuse et
libre" (189). But he knows that to achieve this it will take a
long time: "Il faut une longue education (188). The hope he
holds out is a "difficult one." Guadeloupe will be free but only
at great cost. The novel ends with the death of Gilbert. As a
result of a demonstration in a canefield, he is gunned down by
French soldiers and the "revolution blessee." But Gilbert's death,
Manicom suggests, does not signal the defeat of the liberation
process for the "revolution" cannot, will not, die. The French
cooperant goes back to France; he is replaced by a young mulatto,
in the narrator's condescending terminology: "un beau gargon,"
preoccupied with his Porsche. At the national level the revolution
is apparently temporarily halted. But Mad6vie's confession has been
cathartic and now she ceases to speak. She becomes actively
involved in working with the peasants in Gilbert's stead. Her
commitment becomes action. The personal liberation process is
complete. In the fictional world of the novel Madevie's journey
to independent maturity signals metaphorically Manicom's hope for
the future autonomy of Guadeloupe.
1. Maniccm was active in the women's movement in France and a
co-founder of the French organisation "CHOISIR," a "pro-choice"
group involved in the abortion debate in France. Mon examen
de blanc was published in Paris by Editions Sarrazin, 1972.
2. See Clarisse Zimra's article "Society's mirror: A Sociological
Study of Guadeloupe's Jaoqueline Manicom." Pr6sence Francophone,
No. 19 (Fall, 1979), 150.
3. Zimra, 151. Zimra's discussion of course acknowledges and
points out all these possibilities..
4. DOM:-- "D6partments d'outre-mer,"overseas "departments" or
political divisions, an integral part of France. "Problematic
condition": Lucien Goldmann's term, quoted by Zimra, 147.
5. For example, Marie Dominique, a white French nurse, is delighted
by her good fortune: she is engaged to a rich beke. The
narrator remarks cynically that even the bekes "se democratisent"
(are becoming democratic). In the highly stratified Antillean
Society b6kes normally married only other b6kes.
6. Zimra, 152.
7. Zimra, 152.
8. Zimra, 152.
9. On a recent visit to Martinique (January 1987) a Martinican
educator remarked that "La Martinique, c'est 1'ambiguit.."
A recent bill introducing "regionalization" gives Martinique,
Guadeloupe and Guyana more control over their internal affairs.
10. Zimra, 152.
11. Cyril's actual words are: "autonomie en union" (177) a contra-
diction in terms. The choice of "liaison," the way Madevie
repeats Cyril's words, is also significant: "L'autonomie en
liaison avec la France c'est la persistence du bluff" (177).
12. These Caribbean territories unlike the Dppartments d'outre-mer
have attained titular political independence, what Merle Hodge
calls "Flag independence." (Paper read at Seventh Annual
Conference on West Indian Literature, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico,
The Politics of Colours and the Politics of Writing
in the Fiction of Jean Rhys
Elaine Savory Fido
University of the West Indies
Cave Hill, Barbados
I had always imagined that my aunt didn't like me much,
but the colour she had chosen was exactly right, a blue-
green which reminded you of the sea, and my eyes were no
longer pale but reflected the.colour.1
Although same critics have noticed particular colours have an
importance in Jean Rhys' work,2 there has been no sustained attempt
to interpret her palette. Colour is a developed code in her
fiction, including not only the primaries (red, blue, green, yellow),
but also purple, pink, silver, brown, ochre, black, white, bronze,
beige, gold, grey, orange and combinations of various colours which
are extremely significant.3 In addition, Rhys is acutely aware of
race and of the colour of people (black, white, red, yellow, pale,
dark, blue-eyed, brown-eyed).
She wrote with clarity and economy, following Ford Madox Ford's
advice, "when in doubt cut" but just as a poet uses the compression
of poetic form to advantage by layering meaning in words, by
illuminating the substance of the poem through line order and
imagery, so that the words carry immense meaning though they may
be few, so Rhys utilised colour as a poetic language in the
fiction. I say "poetic language" with a deliberate meaning, for
just as poetry almost always canes from a semi-conscious level of
the intelligence, so it seems to me that Rhys did not always
understand how she was using colours, but only that they unlocked
.certain associations, created particular insights, set her along
certain paths of feeling and recall.
Our subject here is politics. I define politics as the
relation of power to submission, of control to chaos, of strong
to weak. We recognize the idea of "strong colours" and speak of
them as being associated with the passionate (or, I shall say here,
the passional, those who are swept along by their emotions).4
It is important that those who seek control of their emotional
intensities (anger, sexual passion, jealousy) such as the devout,
often wear white (which is a reflection of all colours) or black
(which absorbs all colours) and where, as in Catholic vestments,
strong colours like red or purple are worn, they are reserved for
those whose spiritual development should mean that they are able to
wear them without any danger to their inner balance. The Puritans
in America chose grey and white as major colours for their clothes,
because these colours seem to mute the passions. Their desire for
balance in their society started from a fear of passional behaviour.
Similarly, monks, nuns, pundits, seers, prophets and spiritual
teachers tend to dress in colours which turn the mind to
contemplation of spiritual matters, rather than jolting it into
distracting thoughts of earthly pleasures or experiences.
Thus our sense of the meaning of colour is very subjective
and/or culturally or religiously defined. So it is not much use
simply bringing one's own understanding/prejudices to a writer's
work without trying to understand first the writer's own colour
system. Let us take two different cultural/ individual intrepretations
of the colour purple made so recently noticeable by the celebrated
novel5 of the same name by Alice Walker, a writer who says she was
merely the medium for spirits of her characters, and who made a
colourful quilt whilst she was working on the novel. Colour in
Walker, as in Rhys and in religious contexts, has a spiritual
significance. In the Luscher Colour Test,6 (written by a
Professor of Psychology at Basle University and therefore
emanating from a Western intellectual/scientific context) violet is
defined as a colour of immaturity:
The mentally mature will normally prefer one of the basic
colours other than violet; the mentally and emotionally
immature on the other hand, may prefer violet. In the
case of 1,600 pre-adolescent schoolchildren, 75% of them
preferred violet. Statistics embracing Iranians,
Africans, and Brazilian Indians showed a marked preference
for this colour as compared with Euro-Caucasions.
(my italics; 71-72)
On the other hand, What Colour Are You,7 by Annie Wilson and Lilla
Bek deals with the spiritual meaning of colours as related to the
chakras, or the centres in the body taught in the system of
knowledge called yoga, and thus deriving from Eastern mysticism,
two colours are described in the purple range: violet and indigo.
Violet is associated with artistic ability,appreciation of beauty,
spiritual qualities of introspection. Indigo is indicative of a
power to heal.
We have to be very careful in dealing with a writer like
Jean Rhys, who was born of a marriage of a creole mother (European
acculturated to the Caribbean, and to the spiritual context of the
majority African culture in Dominica) and a Welsh father (coming
out of the suppressed but still remaining spiritual context of
Celtic culture and belief, a minority within the Anglo-Saxon
majority of Britain). She was born (to say colour) white in an
oppressive minority which made her long to be black and to cross
over into a world she perceived as warm and joyous and rich in
feeling, i. e. the world of African culture, or (colour-wise) the
black world. We are familiar with this in Rhys and also with her
realisation of ambivalence towards black culture when it manifested
hostility towards whites and therefore ceased to be the safe haven
she hoped for, where her feelings could be indulged (Plante, 14).
We also know from Smile Please that her nurse Meta told her
terrifying stories and caused her to be afraid and distrustful,
and that this was her experience of a black mother-figure, and a
formative one. Rhys left Dcminica as a young woman and never went
back except for a short visit (which was not a success) in
middle-life. Her writing was all done in the context of an England
she disliked and did not feel she belonged in, where the climate
and the people were hostile and contributed to her feelings of
self-pity, self-contempt and isolation. She became dangerously
cross cultural, an uneasy spirit adrift in the world where only she
could determine what was right and what was wrong. Black and white
had subjective meanings for her, for example.
The writings came into being as a result of a morally dangerous
encounter with the Ford Madox Fords. Out of this came not only a
major emotional wound for Rhys, but her first well-formed work,8
which Madox Ford admired for its clarity of style, which was, he
felt, different from that of other women writers in Britain (he
measured her against British culture which he knew). As a European
man, Madox Ford saw good writing as being control of material,
cutting out anything which gave the writer doubt. This is the
prevailing environment of European writing still, where many
publishers and readers prefer writing which engages their intellect
and their aesthetic eye, but not their feeling, and which does not
disturb their preconceptions. Naipaul has not resisted this
context and thus has flourished in that environment as a writer
much admired by European lovers of form and control. Rhys, then,
I am suggesting, became a controller, partly through Madox Ford's
influence and partly because control is one way (perhaps not the
best) to deal with great pain which is the stimulus to the writing.
For writing, at its most developed is a spiritual activity
(Harris, Shakespeare, the religious poetry of John Donne, the work
of Dante, Blake, Christopher Okigbo, T. S. Eliot). The writer has
as the controlling factor in the work the style or language which
he/she uses and the organising principles within the work (although
these are often subconscious to a greater or lesser extent). When
the content of the work is balanced naturally with the style, the
two flow organically, and the work "seems to write itself."
Writers who are unbalanced in some way have a struggle with form
(in a particular work or generally). For me, the politics of
writing is the way in which the writer handles the controlling
effect of form and style on content. This can be in balance, and
allow the characters free play without distorting the organic
ordering of the work (Harris), or the style can be overly
authoritarian (as we say, mandarin), and prevent any truth from
emerging except that which the writer imposes through the conscious
intellect (Naipaul). If the content is so unruly that the form
cannot contain it, the work would not usually became publishable,
so that option remains a very limited one. Writing which either
falls short of the level at which spiritual understanding informs
the work, or fails to work through to the spiritual truth which
the writer is aware of seeking, will have some demonstrable problem
with the relation of form to content (whilst being perfectly
acceptable as achieved literature but clearly less significant than
the canon of writers I have mentioned above).
We have here then the politics of writing and the politics of
colour(s). In this paper I have set out to discover how these
manifest in the fiction of Jean Rhys; for they are at the deepest
level intertwined. Not only do I detect the use of colours as a
subversion of the tight control which Rhys keeps on her work
through style, but I see her use of colours as political signs as
indication that she knew more, or could have explored more than
she did, and as a demonstration of her failure to grow past the
limitations of her self-indulgences and her passional self of which
we have evidence in her autobiographical work. Her colours are
symptomatic of a self which defied the possibility for spiritual
growth through writing and chose instead to erupt within the
resented confining boundaries of a "male, European" syntax and
economy, in which what could not be faced was omitted or indicated
through colours contained and buried.
We must take some examples of this now. In this short paper
I cannot include the wealth of evidence which I have acquired
through analysis of her complete oeuvre, so I have chosen to
indicate some of the most important clusters of colours and
interpret them, and in the longer version of this paper to follow,
will have the space to explore the implications of the theoretical
section above at greater length.
I wish to take first of all the most visible clusters of
colours in Rhys, the ones which are first noticed by readers
sensitive to colour. The four colours red, green, blue and
purple occur a number of times, in slightly different order, in
her work. I have noticed that these combinations do not seem to
be character-related. The clearest sign of this is in the fact
that Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea9rejects the colours of the
tropics as too intense by saying "Everything is too much. . .
Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too
red" (59). One can easily see what Rhys is about here, giving
the male European mind a sense of rejection towards the female, or
African sense of colour as life-giving. This is Rhys'"white" side
speaking, and it is Rhys I speak of here, because purple is not as
present in the strong colours of landscape in the tropics as red,
yellow, blue and green, but Rhys hardly ever favours yellow. In
the counterpane which Aunt Cora is making in the same novel, the
colours are "red, blue, purple, green, yellow, all one shimmering
colour" (47). Yellow comes last. The window which is broken by
Selina in the story "Let Them Call It Jazz" is "green and purple
and yellow." Again yellow comes last. For Rochester it is not
there at all. In Good Morning Midnightl0 the black dress with
embroidered sleeves which is described by Sasha as "my dress"
(a strong identification of self with the dress), has the colours
"red, green, blue, purple" (no yellow). Sasha, like the other
Jean Rhys heroines, is clearly a Rhys creation of herself,
manifesting her own self-rejection and her own evasions of central
moral questions about her life and meaning, her inability to help
others, to cease to be a victim and became a centre of strength.
So it is that we see Rhys' voice also in the Voyage in the Darkll
which clarifies the opposition between the tropics and Europe,
between brightness and drabness, between life and death:
Not just the difference between heat, cold, light,
darkness, purple, grey. . (7)
The colours are red, purple, blue, gold, all shades of
green. The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green,
pale-blue,the white of people's faces--like woodlice. (47)
These colours, red, purple, blue, green with yellow coming somewhere
at the end of the list if at all, are the characteristic Rhys
combination which unlocks the door of memory into the garden of
childhood, the past, to which she returned increasingly through
her writing as she grew old, in her eyes ugly, and increasingly
full of bitterness and hatred of everyone, including her real and
worldly self. When she struggled against her passional nature,
that which manifests itself in her portrayal of her heroines in
situations where self-indulgent spending, drinking, sex, self-pity,
laziness, depressive inertia are pursued, she tightened the
control of the form, gave male characters who had self-control,
which was clearly not moral and good (like Heidler in Quartet)',
pale-blue eyes or some pallor which indicates authority without
feeling, contained the colours as a tiny detail (red lights
reflected on a wet, dark street, a lampshade striped in yellow
and green, etc.), or allowed characters to reject colour, like
Rochester. It seems to me that Rochester thus becomes her alter
ego, her European and male self which fostered order and
containment, and which allowed her to escape in fiction the
utterly disordered and distressing passional nature of her actual
Clearly, we must next consider Rhys' idea of the feminine and
the colours associated with that. She accepted and reinforced the
idea that men controlled; women felt men were associated with
pallor and authority, women with colour and impulsiveness. It is
noteworthy that there are very few black men in Rhys' cast of
characters and few important ones. White men, white women and
black women largely populate her world. Not only that but she
presented paleness as being undesirable in women, a fact which
reveals her own self-rejection:
Catching sight of myself in the long looking glass, I felt
despair. I had grown into a thin girl, tall for my age.
My straight hair was pulled severely back from my face
and tied with a black ribbon. I was fair with a pale
skin and huge staring eyes of no particular colour.
My brothers and sisters all had brown eyes and hair;
why was I singled out to be the only fair one, to be
called Gwendolen, which means white in Welsh I was
told. .I hated myself. (Smile Please, 4)
Actually blue eyes and fair hair were the ancient medieval Celtic
ideal of female beauty. But Rhys has ingested a simplicity of
colour-as-race, within which she is doomed to fail to understand
what lies beyond the obvious, the superficial, the illusory.
(In old age she greeted David Plante wearing a pink hat and
ill-applied make-up.) In her fiction, significance is often
attached to how much make-up a female character wears, and how
expertly and within what colours it is applied. Make-up is
painting, is adding colour, and whether this is a disguise, a
play, a need to be confident before the world, it certainly masks
the face. In Quartet,12 the model girl Cri-Cri is remarkably like
Jean Rhys herself, physically, as remembered by Leslie Tilden
Smith's daughter Anne (Staley 1979, 13), green eyes, white skin,
but Cri-Cri has sleek black hair and Rhys' was reddish-brown
when Anne saw her. Cri-Cri's makeup is astonishingly accurate,
and she wears red (the colour of desire in Rhys):
Her round cheeks were painted orange-red, her lips
vermilion, her green eyes shadowed with kohl, her
pointed nose dead white. (33)
In the same novel, the make-up of the patron (male) in a bar is
said to have "crimson where crimson should be and rose-colour
where rose-colour" (9). Make-up well applied is a sign of
attractiveness, of being in control of desire, able to intensify
and focus one's appeal to others. It is also colours, ways of
making the pale more vivid, and compensating for a natural lack of
strong colour. This strong colour becomes interwoven with
sexuality and thus with libido, with life itself, for Rhys.
African culture is strongly coloured for her, and this association
leads her to same simplistic assumptions which cause her to deny
the validity of delicate shades and subtle colours, and to assume
that black people favour powerful, passional shades (or are them-
selves like her portrait of the Sidi, who is ivory, ebony,
red-lipped, copper-coloured, eyes full of vivid images and the
"hot light of bMrocco" (Left Bank). Her portrait of the carnival
in Voyage in the Dark makes this association clear:
I was watching them from between the slats of the
jalousies dancing along dressed in red and blue and yellow
the wamen with their dark necks and arms covered with
white powder--dancing along to concertina-music dressed in
all the colours of the rainbow and the sky so blue. . .
So if strong colours are life, sexuality, attractiveness, energy,
then pallor is associated with repression. Europe in its
oppressive mood, decay, death and inertia,14 it is not surprising
that we see in Rhys an equation of the female and black (which
explains her inattention to black maleness) as twin representations
of subversive resistance to cold, ordered, powerful European men.
In this the representation of the colour red is crucial. Red
(and the more muted version of it, pink, which is the colour of
seduction in Rhys, of lingerie, beds, evening dresses meant to
attract men), is desire, as I said before, but it is powerfully
linked to the tropical landscape. It is privileged in those
groupings of red with purple, blue, green and sometimes yellow.
It is the central colour of Antoinette's world in the end of
Wide Sargasso Sea, the colour there of the flamboyant tree flowers,
of her favourite dress of fire and sunset: even the other colours
here are related to the red spectrum.
S. this cardboard world where everything is coloured
brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. (148)
Antoinette's leap out into the fire in her dream (and presumably
after the dream as well), could be interpreted as escape from
confinement, but it is in fact the soul escaping even the bounds
of the body as well as the house, to be consumed in agonising
desire, insatiable, immediate, like Harris' image of hell, "the
hound of fire."15 This obsessional desire in Antoinette is partly
the result of her allowing herself to be a victim, partly the
result of her identification with passivity and femininity (her
mother's role image) which is abused by stronger powers. Antoinette
settles for immature and chaotic will, instead or reorganising
her existence into some better shape. Similarly, Marya, the
heroine in Quartet reflects that Heidler's dreams would not be
"many-coloured, or dark shot with flame like her own." Instead
they would be almost "certainly gross with those pale blue,
secretive eyes" (76). The relation between Marya and Heidler is
one where he has control and she suffers.
But if red promises pleasure which is not sustained and which
is outweighted by pain, yellow is fresh sunshine and clear hope
and promise when tropical, dangerously threatening or depressing
when associated with white people or grey weather ("Overture and
Beginners Please," Ramchand, 69).16 Towards the end of Quartet,
Marya remembers a yellow dress which Stephen bought her in a
happier time. Interestingly, when yellow is rejected, Luscher
says, it means that hopes have been disappointed, and the person
rejecting yellow may manifest discouragement, irritability,
mistrust of people, all of which seem to have characterized Rhys
herself in her adult life in England, especially after her several
emotional blows as a young woman. But remembering the tropics or
youth sometimes brings yellow into a good prominence in her
writing, usually just for a moment. It never has the centrality
however of red and blue .
Blue7 is important in Rhys, for it ranges from strong blue
(the sea, the sky) to pale blue (eyes, muslin cloth). Usually
the paler shades are not positive, although associated with white,
blue sometimes becomes in Rhys the colour of a childhood
innocence. Combined with green, which is a powerful colour in the
Dominican landscape, blue is indicative of the tropical world, of
strong feeling and of living things. Grey for Rhys is the worst
end of the blue spectrum, and Rhys has many references to grey as
a negative colour. In "Till September Petronella," Petronella
Anyway, however old I get, I'11 nevet let my hair go
grey. r'll dye it black, red, any colour you like, but
I'll never let it go grey. I hate grey too much.
In old age, as David Plante reports,18 Rhys herself had a pink wig.
It was the direct opposite of everything grey hair would suggest,
i.e. age, authority, responsibility, maturity, loss of sexual power.
These colour symbolisms then enter the controlled prose of
Rhys' work to provide the feminine code which challenges the
masculine ambience of the style. Both of these qualities should
be balanced in the free, autonomous person who works towards
making unity out of the male and female principles in themselves,
which Rhys never consciously attempted. Thus she is by no stretch
of the imagination a feminist.19 Rather this collision in her
world meant that she could not understand anything other than
extremes. She describes the overgrown garden at Coulibri, in
Wide Sargasso Sea, where the passional plants have grown to the
point of dying in their confusion and disorder, as something
Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not
to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an
octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves
hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus
orchid flowered--then not an inch of tentacle showed.
It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples,
wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong.
I never went near it. (17)
This tension between passional existence and reason also makes
Rochester an interesting portrait, for she does not show him a
villain but as a man lost and confused in a world too lushly
emotional for him, and then worried and repelled by Antoinette's
intensities. But in the end, the passional side wins out at the 20
end of Wide Sargasso Sea. Again, in After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie,
the confrontation between the good and responsible sister (Norah)
and the impulsive and fey sister (Julia) is partly done through
colour. Here the major indicative colour is green,21 which is
the colour of the curtains in the mother's bedroom and Norah's
dress which has on it a small red rose (sign of a passional nature
kept in check, just as we understand when Norah is described
looking at herself in the mirror and bitterly resenting her life,
deprived of sensation and enjoyment.) Green is the colour of
jealousy in popular parlance, and it is sibling jealousy which is
the real subject of this encounter.22 Indeed envy was something
which Rhys herself admitted to feeling (and which was remarkable
because most people do not willingly acknowledge that they are
envious) although she did not take the next step to rid herself
Writing for Rhys was almost a spiritual possession (she said
once she thought of herself as a pen in someone's hand), and when
she first began to write, the trigger was buying four pens, red,
green, blue and yellow, to which she was attracted, and an
exercise book, after which she felt her palms tingle and she knew
what she was going to do. The colours of the pens are primary
colours again, and they triggered her to write about a painful
time in her life. But her ability to reach to her feelings (often
this had to be stimulated by quantities of alcohol and when she
drank, friends said, she became full of vitriol and unpleasant)
was held in check by the form, the style, which imposed an order
and a limitation on the passional experience and analysed it.
This we have praised her for, and for her honest appraisal of her
weaknesses, her admission that the only truth she knew was herself,
and that telling the truth was her first concern. All this is
indeed her achievement, and yet in that first experience of
writing, and in her statement about being the pen in someone else's
hand, we sense that kind of creativity which Harris envisages as
a real openness to vision and ancient tradition.23 This is what
might have brought her through the negativity of her perception
of possibilities for women to another kind of artistic conception
and realisation which did not rest on fragmentation. She respected
obeah. She loved to use silver in her work. Often the sexual
accessoryto pink24 or "moonlight" blue, it is also the mystical
colour of Christophine's bangle before which Antoinette kneels
and conveys Christophine's special powers.25 Yet the positive
associations of magic and religious experience with the opening
of horizons, with happiness and with resolution of guilt, confusion
and self-disgust seem to have escaped her. Perhaps this is
because so much of her imaginative expression of happiness (or
misery) is based on the presence or absence of superficialities,
like clothes, make-up,drink, sex, the colours of things:
But I knew the exact day when I lost belief in myself
and cold caution took control. It was when she bought
me the ugly dress instead of the pretty wine-coloured
one. ("Overture and Beginners Please," Ramchand, 70)
In Quartet, Marya describes a wallpaper in a bedroom which might
be "in hell":
yellow green and dullish mauve flowers crawling over
black walls. (93)
At the end of Good Morning Midnight, where the heroine has an
encounter almost of the horrific force of a sexual act with the
devil ("another poor devil of a human being"), her concern is
whether his dressing gown is blue or white.
For Rhys, colours are often opposed. She often dresses
characters in black and white outfits, reflecting her manichean
world of divided shades, races, genders, classes, cultures.
Black and white appear often, but the most prevalent word in her
pallete is "dark" and it is frequently associated with safety,
desired suffocation in despair, with evasion of the world, of
reality. In Quartet, Mayra feels "numb and grey like a soul in
limbo" (114) and this risking of self, of integrity and of
spiritual health appears in every one of Rhys' fictions. What
drives Rhy's heroines to this self-destructiveness is a failure to
connect with any system of values, to rise above a hedonistic
level of appraisal of the world. She spoke of having to earn your
death, and for her this clearly meant finishing her best work,
Wide Sargasso Sea which she completed in her seventies. But after
it was done, she was restless and unhappy, and spoke to David
Plante of her work as "Mediocre, that's what my work is" (19).
There was for her, as for her most defiant heroine, Antoinette,
an almost Satanic love of the negative and the destructive whim,
act, idea. If Rhys wrote as if possessed, if one finds it hard
to understand how an old and frail lady with many years of heavy
drinking could recall the land of her birth and childhood so
clearly for Wide Sargasso Sea, if one suspects, as her neighbours
sometimes did, that she was a witch, it seems clear that Rhys'
prevailing spirits were not beneficent.
But perhaps the most important story in her early work is
"Illusion,"26 and this provides us with a powerful antithesis to
Antoinette's spiritual suicide. "Illusion" deals with a woman
called Miss Bruce, a British woman of "character and training."
She seemed, even after seven years in Paris, "utterly untouched,
utterly unaffected, by anything hectic, slightly exotic or
unwholesome" (140). She wears brown, sensible shoes, tweeds,
a plain well-cut black gown for evening and she is "exceedingly
nice." But when the narrator of the story has to go through
Miss Bruce's things to take her some clothes to hospital after
she has been rushed there, she finds "a glow of colour, a riot of
In the middle, hanging in the place of honour, was an
evening dress of a very beautiful shade of old gold;
near it another of flame colour, of two black dresses
the one was touched with silver, the other with a
jaunty embroidery of emerald and blue. There were a
black and white check with a jaunty belt, a flowered
crepe de chine-positively flowered!--then a carnival
costume complete with mask, then a huddle, a positive
huddle of all colours, of all stuffs. (Tigers Are
Better Looking, 142)
Miss Bruce has a "gentlemanly manner" (it is almost as if she is
buying dresses for a female lover she has not the courage to
approach). But the dresses themselves appear sulky (the yellow
one is malevolent) because they are condemned to hang in the dark.
Here we have all the features I have been discussing. Rhys writes
briefly, clearly, precisely, leaving out just enough, hinting just
enough. The coloured dresses bring a strong counter to the
emotional control of the prose, suggesting a magical world of
excess, sensuality, passion, which lurks behind Miss Bruce's
exterior. But the sensible, nice woman indulges this world in
private. At the other end of Rhy's writing career, Antoinette,
wild with emotions and fascinated by her powerful desire, dreams
of conflagration. Control remains in the writing, on the surface
of the form, but the content is so strongly passional that the
form alters to allow Antoinette's mad mind to find expression.
Rochester has seen Antoinette as a "ghost in the grey daylight"
and she has a grey wrap which she puts on after taking off the
red dress in which she attacked Richard Mason: But the grey
cannot contain the red for long: passion, or love of colours, is
going to win over sanity and the possibility of balance or order.
In conclusion, then, I would say that whereas Rhys' acclaimed
style permits her to reveal the most severe excesses in her
heroines (and the most self-destructive experience without
becoming excessively emotional and losing control), I find the
style floats on the surface of her world, linguistically the
equivalent of the stern emotional armour which the male culture
has often taught as a protection against vulnerability. The inner
world of Rhys' heroines can be entered through the colour symbolism
which puts the feeling into the prose and offers us meaning and
insight behind action, dialogue and setting which are very spare,
but that chasm between inner and outer I suspect also fragmented
Rhys herself. In her crazy periods, her depression, her rages
at her friends and husband Leslie, she showed she had little
ability to integrate her passional personality with the ordering
of life which means sanity for most people. The colours in her
writing are the insurrections of feeling against authoritarian
arrangements of language through which she conveys her world.
But the colours became gradually more and more powerful up to
Wide Sargasso Sea. After this novel, the stories have less
obvious color, but are also more and more bleak .(especially..the
title story in Sleep If Off Lady).27 It is as if the writing
tails off into a quiet competence after the triumph of Wide
Sargasso Sea. But the question I am asking here is whether, in
a moral sense, Wide Sargasso Sea is a triumph or a kind of
devilish celebration of passional feelings made comfortable for us
in the reading of Rhys' disciplined style. Wilson Harris has said
that "Value of spirit is the illumination of dark energies"28 and
no distinctive movement in the arts has arisen to
cope with the divided heritage of the world since one
may only point to the symbol of an over-whelming ordeal
without release. (9-10)
Rhys conveys to us finally only division, tormented alienation
and the stasis of despair. For those of us who want to seek
true and creative possibilities for integration or acceptance of
difference or balance she cannot speak. In the end, though she had
pleasure in some things, her ambivalence about love prevented her
from crossing over the gulfs which separated her from both black
and white creativities beyond her own. Like the tulips in the
hall at Mr. James' house in After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie, her
fiction is a cluster of conflicting elements, held together in a
striking arrangement. The study of her use of colours reveals
the central dilemma of her work.29
1. Smile Please (Berkeley, California: Creative Arts Books,
2. Amongst the critics I have examined, a few deserve mention
for their interest in this topic. Peter Wolfe, Jean Rhys
(Boston: Twayne, 1980), notices, e.g., the "dusty pink dress"
which Selina buys at the end of "Let Them Call It Jazz";
picks up the colour yellow-gray as the colour of despair in
Rhys' work. But he states simply that yellow symbolizes fear
in Rhys. He notes the colour blue dominates Quartet and
Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.
Carole Angier, Jean Rhys (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985),
notices Rhys' associations with colours to a certain extent,
e.g., mentioning Aunt Clarice taking Rhys to buy clothes,
that the yellow-grey sky of Cambridge where Rhys went to
school was the colour of no hope, and interprets a number of
incidents in Rhys' life as having to do with colour.
Louis James, Jean Rhys (London: Longman, 1978), notes
how very green Dominica is and quotes Alex Waugh saying he
never thought of green "as a colour that could dazzle you"
(1). James is sensitive to the contrast of the English
climate with the tropical one, in terms of colour, and sees
Rhys' sensibility as formed in the Antilles, thus making her
aware of brightness.
Helen Nebeker, Jean Rhys, Woman In Passage (Mobntreal: Eden
Press, 1981), tries a spiritual approach to Rhys based in
feminist theology, and so is sensitive to some uses of colour
which are associated with religion--the colours blue and
white particularly--and with priestly function. But none of
these writers search her work for colour itself as a sustained
system and code.
An examination of Elgin Mellown, Jean Rhys: A Descriptive
and Annotated Bibliography of Works and Criticism (New York:
Garland, 1984), will prove the point.
3. There is no space for a detailed examination of all those
colours here, but I have the.data to produce a longer paper
which will be inclusive of every colour and shade she uses
and relate these to their context.
4. I am grateful to Earl Augustus de Tavernier for help in
establishing this aspect of the argument of this paper.
He also discussed with me the ending of Wide Sargasso Sea
as I began to realize the implications of the colour red
5. The Color Purple (New York: Pocket Book, 1982).
6. Trans. and ed. Ian Scott (London: Pan Books, 1971).
7. (Wellingborough Mohants: Turningstone Press, 1981).
8. The Left Bank, preface by Ford Madox Ford (London: Jonathan
9. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).
10. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).
11. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).
12. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).
13. Thomas Staley, Jean Rhys: A Critical Study (London:
14. Yet she enjoyed this aspect of experience, wanted to turn as
it were to oppression and death, to be a victim living in
shadows. She wrote in a letter to Peggy Kirkaldy, 21 April
1950, "I could understand Max getting deadly sick of me for
I'm not his type (or anybody's) but I cannot understand his
casting me into. .London and not realising that I feel like
a homeless cat with a tin can tied to it too. He just doesn't
realise why I'm so unhappy tho' he knows I'm unhappy. He
doesn't know how I like trees, shadows, a shaded light"--Jean
Rhys' Letters, 1931-1966, selected and edited by Francis
Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: Andre Deutsch, 1984), 80.
15. "Heracles," Eternity to Season (London: New Beacon Books),
16. Jean Rhys, Tales of the Wide Caribbean (London/Jamaica:
17. I have no space to examine all the different shades and
associations of blue here, but I should say that blue varies
in importance from book to book but is frequently associated
with eyes, or the sea, or used as a colour to denote same
spiritual trouble for a Rhys heroine.
18. Difficult Wcren, a Memoir of Three: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell,
Germaine Greer (London/Sydney: Futura, 1984).
19. I use this much abused and debated word personally here to
mean a political response to imbalance between male and
female (sexist or patriarchal) cultures, with the intention
of healing division and providing space for male and female
to develop strengths and become cooperative and autonomous.
20. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1931).
21. Again, I confine much material due to space. I have many
references to green.
22. I discovered this aspect of Rhys not only through her own
admission of envy but also through a fascinating study of
jealousy and envy by Nancy Friday, Jealousy (London: Fontana
Collins, 1986). Friday made me understand how unusual
understanding of envy in the self is, and therefore I under-
stood how Rhys evaded acting to eradicate something in her
character she knew was negative. Instead she chose to reject
herself, which made her needful of reassurance, which in turn
could never-make her satisfied. I intend to explore this
aspect of Rhys' character in the longer version of this paper.
23. Tradition, the Writer and Society (London: New Beacon Books,
24. See, for example, Voyage in the Dark, 106.
25. Wide Sargasso Sea, 89.
26. See Tigers Are Better Looking (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972),
27. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).
28. Tradition, the Writer and Society, 9. Also important is
Harris' remark about John Hearne imposing a 'moral
directive" on his fiction, which Harris sees as "a
considerable creative shortcoming; especially in a context
such as the Caribbean and the Americas where the life of
situation and person has such inarticulacy one must genuinely
suffer with and experience if one is to acquire the capacity
for a new relationship and understanding" (41). Rhys
suffered, but she did not pass through this into a profound
relationship with the Caribbean culture she asserted she
belonged to-so her sojourn in England became more and more a
retreat from history and reality, whereas Harris has become
ever more deeply attached to Caribbean reality whilst living
29. I am grateful to my colleague Jeffrey Robinson for conversations
on this topic which enabled me to test ideas and develop the
Sexual Politics in Contemporary Female Writing in the Caribbean
University of the West Indies
Every evening, when Ralston came from work he would come
to the bar. If he saw a customer come in and smile with
me, he would knit his brow and I knew I had to watch it.
One night, a man came in and said, "Hi Miss Pru, how yuh
do?" Ralston gave me one piece of beating on the road.
"Yuh have yuh man dem. Das why yuh did waan tek di bar
work. Yuh turn whore now." (Lionheart Gal, 123)
Having to bring up a child alone with no maintenance was
a big responsibility, but I became a stronger woman
because of having to rely on myself and I learned how
important it is to plan my life and to try to think
clearly about the future. (Lionheart Gal, 125)
Lionheart Gal is a collection of life stories of Jamaican
women compiled by SISTREN, "an independent women's cultural
organisation, which works at advancing the awareness of its
audiences on questions affecting Caribbean women" (Editor's note).
These stories are testimonies of the condition of the woman,
focusing on an exploration of the assumptions about maleness and
femaleness in Jamaica.
In her foreword to this collection, Honor Ford Smith challenges
what she sees as the misconceived, yet dominant ideology of the
male as breadwinner in the Jamaican society and goes on to show
how in reality, this is not the case. Her perception of this
phenomenon is instructive as her debate continues:
Against this background, women' s fight for material
survival means that sexual relationships between men
and women are often characterized by the tedious
playing out of a power struggle ritualized by trade-offs
of money and sex. The first word in male power is
violence and the last word in female leverage is
she concludes that
Nevertheless, the effect of the ideology of male
dominance is to mystify the relationship between the
accumulation of wealth for the few and the impoverish-
ment of many. It reinforces the interests of men across
class lines and divides the interests of men and women
of the working class by justifying male privilege and
giving poor black men a stake in the system of domination.
and warns that
Overcoming the limitations of such a situation is not
something which can be approached in a voluntaristic
way by individuals for it is held in place by the
economic, social and political factors described in
immediate terms in the stories. (xvii)
The stories in this collection are in effect variations on the
theme of women as objects in processes they do not control. From
story to story, many of the same determining forces impact on the
lives of the women and in terms of the male-female relationship
what particularly obtains is the manipulation of sexuality in
order to dominate, and violence as the ultimate expression of
This relationship of dominance and subordinance between the
sexes is an important aspect of the study of the sexual politics
at play in Caribbean literature. The relationship between men and
women is a recurrent feature in all literatures and has been the
central interest of several Caribbean writers, particularly the
women. Selections from Jamaican Hazel Campbell's collection of
short stories Woman's Tongue (1985),2 and Puerto Ricans Carmen
Lugo Filippi and Ana Lydia Vega's Virgenes y martires,3 make
interesting case studies of sexual politics at play in the
relationship between man and wcman.
Kate Millett in her book Sexual Politics4 observes that
a disinterested examination of our system of sexual
relationship must point out that the situation between
the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of
.. a relationship of dominance and subordinance.
What goes largely unexamined, often even unacknowledged
(yet is institutionalized nonetheless) in our social
order, is the birthright priority whereby males rule
females. . This is so because our society, like
all other historical civilizations, is a patriarchy.
The protagonist of Campbell's stories is always female and
they are written in third person narrative sometimes omniscient,
sometimes from the point of view of the character. The dominance
of the male figure is constant whether it be at an emotional,
physical or psychological level. However, Campbell' s female
characters do not always consider themselves victims.
In "The Painting," the relationship is based on love and
material security concretized in an idyllic matrimonial situation.
So they got married and bought a house at the foot of a
hill, not too ostentatious, just right for a young man
climbing the ladder, for Peter was very ambitious. And
they settled into a pretty routine sort of existence.
Peter worked hard and played the horses as a pastime,
Karen continued working as a secretary and doing the
things most middle-class women did. She had no great
ambition to do anything but take care of her husband
and family. She bore him two sons one after the other
very quickly and then, after a few years, a daughter
arrived and Karen felt fulfilled. And through all the
wear and tear of marriage, Peter continued to surround
her with love so that at nights settling in his arms
and resting her head on his shoulder Karen was at peace
with the world. (Woman's Tongue, 14-15)
Two pages further on, this dream is shattered. Peter, who had
been embezzling the company's money to cover his losses at the
track, incurring great debt otherwise, has run away. Prior to
this, there had been a remarkable deterioration in the relation-
ship both at the physical and emotional level.
There are two main emphases in this presentation. One, the
power of love, because when Peter comes back, Karen's bitterness
and hurt at having been deserted and not confided in disappear.
When Peter returns, the five years of pinching and scraping and
stretching were forgotten. His dishonourable action, prompted by
his ambition and magnified by his abandonment of wife, children
and domestic responsibilities, immediately becomes insignificant.
Secondly, he does it the right way. He arrives on his daughter's
He brought in his suitcases, opened one and took out a
"I'm sorry Karen", he said. "I couldn't do it any other
way. I didn't know what else to do". "Here", he said,
offering her the parcel. "I brought this for you".
"Aren't you going to open it?" he asked. She was still
trembling hard, unable to speak, unable to move, so he
unwrapped it and held it our for her to see.
"My God", she whispered. It was her painting! No! It
wasn't! But one very much like it except that instead
of a girl, there was a man kneeling at the sun-drenched
altar, hands outstretched offering his sacrifice. And
his eyes, instead of showing fear, expressed confidence
that he could face the heat. "It's not half as good
as yours", he said. "I can't paint so I got an artist
to do it for me. I hope you understand. I figured that
if you could paint that picture, you had enough strength
to pull through without me. Now it's my turn to find out
whether I too can successfully face the fire. Can you
She held out her hands to him and their energy fields
met and melted into one, just as if he had never gone
away. (Woman's Tongue, 21-22)
An examination of the two passages quoted reveals some
interesting responses of the author to the sexual politics at play
in this situation. In the first, there is the ironic tone of the
description of accepted formulas of male and female fantasies,
i.e. Peter's ambitious nature, the acquisition of the house at the
bottom of the hill, Karen's contentment with her childbearing/
rearing role in life. It is as if the author is playing devil's
advocate and rocks this boat of marital bliss to test the fabric
of her two characters. The execution of the description of
Peter's homecoming is a cunning one. It illustrates the convincing
power of the male argument, in this case more effective than
violence and which certainly regains him his place as head of the
In "Miss Girlie", male dominance is expressed as male
exploitation and female acquiescence. Ivan sees a way to fulfill
his ambition of owning a fishing boat when he hears that his
woman Girlie, a huckster on a Negril beach, has been spending time
talking with a white tourist, therefore sleeping with him. He
demands the money she has earned. The truth is that Girlie had
only chatted briefly with the "white man artist" and we learn
that this was the nature of the interest of either party in each
other. Again, the author is playing devil's advocate and confuses
the issue. Ivan used to be the only man on the beach who
wouldn't let his girl prostitute herself like how all the other
men were doing. He was the first and only man she had known in
her twenty-four years. He had always treated her special.
"I-Queen he called her" (48). Even though she is very hurt that
he would want her to whore, she realizes he needs the money badly
for whatever reason so she will sacrifice her reputation, not her
body, to comply with her man's needs and wishes. Meanwhile, he
arranges his domestic situation by having Pam, Girlie's sister,
come in to deputize for Girlie in the kitchen and in bed because
"he wasn't getting into any white man muck" (51).
The situation is again one wherein the male comes out
alright and the woman, through no fault of her own, other than
that of being woman, pays the price. There is the suggestion that
perhaps in another situation where the woman were more aggressive
or less sentimental or sensitive the reaction might have been
different. In this community, prostitution was a way of life and
contributed to the increase of "brown hair, brown eye children"
(48) in the population. Girlie had never wanted this. It is
this difference, this naivete which attracts the white man artist
and get her into trouble.
There is no mention of love in this story--at least the
sentiment in the relationship is not described in this way--which
is perhaps congruent with the social level of this couple. We
see that in this community, Girlie's sensibility makes her suffer:
she is a girl out there in the world of hustlers. Her companion
huckster, Miss Winsome, accuses her to being too "fenky fenky"
and encourages her to become whore, even advising her "you don't
even have fi gi Ivan all the money you make" (47). The security
of her childhood sweetheart's good treatment has been shaken.
She has to grow up and this is how she would:
. she wouldn't cry, never again as easily as she
Her name was wanan.
She would have to be strong. No more weeping. She
would do the things her man wanted her to do. Help
him to get the things he wanted even though it meant
heartache for her. Girlie didn't actually put these
thoughts into words but she felt them, instinctively
knowing what her new role was. This was her birth-
right. Her time had come. (56)
The almost melodramatic tone of the expression of these
honourable sentiments is icily cut in the narration by Ivan's
unabashed: "You bring anything fi me?" (56), implying an
authorial comment on Girlie's response to this situation. Girlie's
strength is in effect her weakness. Male authority is not
questioned, not even when the circumstances are irrational. When
Ivan becomes obsessed with the money collection and threatens
"Jus mek sure you get the right amount. Jus don't gi
she assures him,
"Is all right," she said coaxingly as if talking to a
And he answered, "Yes, is all right Miss Girlie," as he
fingered his dollars--American. Then he smiled, and
standing tall, patted her head. "Cool, Miss Girlie.
Irie! Cho!" (56)
With the fulfilment of his ambition in sight, he is even proud of
It is significant that in both stories, the power struggle
Honor Ford Smith talks about-"ritualized by trade-offs between
money and sex"-constitutes the basis for the writer's
examination of sexual politics in these relationships.
"The Thursday Wife" is another illustration of how a happy,
love-filled and mutually satisfactory relationship deteriorates
into one where the woman is disrespected and chastised and her
freedom violated. The desire to control surfaces early in the
male's character. His wife, Mary, is too pretty to go out to work,
"the men would want to touch her, and that would cause him to
kill" (33). This restriction is contrasted with the male's
licence to free action as seen in his sexual promiscuity. He has
two children with another woman who is getting too demanding, and
recently he had started up with a customer at the restaurant, "a
superior, polished lady but lately the things she wanted him to do
in bed made him feel rebellious" (42). In any event, he canes and
goes as he pretty much pleases but Mary is not allowed to go to
Now that he was home, he said, she didn't have to worry
with all them church foolishness any more. (38)
This unjust imbalance in the rights of the couple is heightened
when he does not tolerate visits from the sisters in the church
but expects her to entertain his raucous friends. The fact is
that Mary has grown not to depend on the man, neither financially
nor emotionally. On the contrary, his presence at the home
encroaches on her space, violates her rights to free expression
and activity. Meanwhile, Bertie continues to rule her existence,
violently protest her deficiencies in housekeeping and worse,
he claims his right to her body, on which occasions, Mary
The feeble final lines of the story suggest impotence of the
threat in the last line, especially since Bertie is having second
thoughts about his situation:
The best thing to do, perhaps, was to cane back to his
wife Mary. He was getting tired of those other
"Cho! Mary," he said. . "turn off the light no, and
come to bed." Mary, dutiful as ever, sighed. She
hoped he had no amorous thoughts. That night more than
ever she would not be able to accommodate him.
Perhaps she wouldn't ever be able to accommodate him
The fact is that even though Mary would rather be free altogether
of Bertie (she realizes she doesn't love him anymore), she does
not conceive the possibility of leaving him. He would have to
leave her. The reader, as I said before, is not totally convinced
that she will not bend to the will of the man, not because she is
persuaded but because she allows the laws of male authority to
rule her life. The introduction of the details of the "polished
customer" who threatens Bertie's autonomy, the demands of the
baby mother, illustrating other female responses to male sexuality,
and Bertie's decision to stay with "patient" Mary suggest that
Mary's way of coping with this situation is certainly lame.
'Princess Carla and the Southern Prince" illustrates the
validity of the myth of male dominance in the relationship between
man and wcman. The Jamaican geography belies the fairy tale
dimensions of the tale and the allegory of the lost paradise due
to woman's selfish greed explains her forfeiture of power thereby
justifying male dominance. The magnaminous and wise male who had
willingly shared his knowledge and power with the woman now denies
her it, since it is thought that she desires to possess it all.
In heeding the serpent in the words of the obeahmen, she has
disobeyed her mate who had shown her how to live, and like Eve,
causes great suffering for her country. The moral of this fairy
tale could well be that woman should not disobey man, for in so
doing she incurs his eternal wrath and damnation. The woman is
chastised because she loves and desires the company of her man.
The male views this as the intent to possess and limit his freedom.
The fact is that the male's concept of how a relationship should
be, is the one that obtains.
The condition of the woman as portrayed by the female
protagonists in Campbell's work coincides with the Freudian
diagnostic of the traits inherent in the female personality, viz..
passivity, masochism and narcissism. In the stories, there is no
suggestion of a change or modification in the woman's response,
there is no "raised consciousness." Nevertheless, the ironic
tone of the narration and the choice of the medium of the fairy
tale suggest a tongue-in-cheek author, an omniscient narrator.
In the Jamaican context, there are other female expressions,
for example the poetry of Lorna Goodison and Louise Bennett, who
at times celebrate the authority of the woman .in the relationship.
Jamaica womann cunny, sah!
Is how dem ginnal so?
Look how long dem liberated
An de man dem never know! 5
There is the suggestion here that the woman consciously chooses
not to openly challenge the accepted male dominant role in the
society, but asserts her authority in a cunning way.
Another example is Goodison's celebration of female
sexuality and authority in "Poui."
She don't put out for just anyone.
She waits for HIM4
and in his high august heat
he takes her
and their celestial mating6
is so intense. . . .
Nevertheless, it may be argued that there is the underlying
admission of male dominance in both these instances since, in
the first case, there is the ambiguity of why the men do not
recognize that the wamen are liberated, and secondly, it is the
male element which dominates the sexual act as suggested in "he
The female child protagonist of Antiguan born, Jamaica
Kincaid's At the Bottom of the River,8 plays a different game
of sexual politics. She is brought up. in a matriarchal society
as imaged in the mother giving a "red, red smile-and like a fly
he dropped dead" (14). This "he," the father, is the one who
He would like to wear pink shirts and pink pants but
knows that this colour isn't very becoming to a man,
so instead he wears navy blue and brown, colours he
does not like at all. (12)
However, on becoming an adolescent, the child chooses not to
exert the power invested in her by the society and dominate the
male but will rest in the "silent voice" of the male.
Living in the silent voice, I am at last at peace.
Living in the silent voice, I am at last erased. (51)
Two stories from Puerto Ricans Lugo Filippi and Vega's
Virgenes y mirtires, "Letra para salsa y tres soneos por encargo"
and "Cuatro selecciones por una peseta," make for an interesting
comparison with those of their English-speaking counterparts.
In the first, male dominance is shown to be a myth but nevertheless
it is what obtains in this society. The representative nature of
the characters is clear in the denomination "el tipo" (guy, man)
and "la tipa" (girl, woman), as is the episode described. After
two days of cat-calls and sexual overtures from "el tipo,"
"la tipa" confronts him. She whisks him off to a motel of her
choice in her car and she pays for the roam since he does not
have a car, is unemployed, has nowhere to go and has no money.
He is progressively stripped of his macho mask despite his
efforts to save face and finds himself entirely at her mercy.
We realize just how much this has affected his ego when he
contemplates how he will tell his friends:
yo no hice mAs que mirarla y se me volvi6 merengue alli
mismo. Me la llev6 pa un motel, men, ahora le tumban a
uno siete cocos por un polvillo. (85)
I only had to look at her and she became easy pickings
right there. I took her to a motel. Man, you know
they now charge you seven dollars for a quick f.....
It turns out that the wnman is not a prostitute, as he had
thought, which is in itself a statement on how female sexuality
is perceived by the male. She is a dentist's assistant who has
chosen this day to sexually liberate herself after seven years of
catering to the dominance of the male. It takes the form of a
feminist attack, culminating in the traditional burning of the
brassiere, while insisting on equal sexual power. This ritualistic
chastisement of the male is effected in burlesque form emphasizing
the improbability of such an occurrence.
El Tipo, who repents on behalf of all males, fervently
promises to reform and begs communion. The celebration of the
elimination of all restrictive power-based prejudices is so
rendered that the fantasising of the female becomes irrational
Emocionados, juntan cabezas y se funden en un largo beso
igualitario, introduciendo la misma cantidad de lengua
en las respectivas cavidades bucales. (88)
Ioved, they put their heads together and melt into a
prolonged egalitarian kiss, introducing equal length of
tongue into the respective mouth space. (my translation)
The next day, the Tipo resumes his obscene harassment of
the female passers-by. In these two Puerto Rican examples, the
women rebel against their domestic serfdan and the insensitivity
of the male partner to their emotional needs. However, it is
recognized that this in no way changes the way in which the
relationship between men and women is structured.
The protagonists this time are three males who are in a bar,
woefully sharing the misfortune of having been abandoned by their
wives, each for a different reason. Eddie is shocked that his
wife, who has been most dutiful and had cared diligently for his
sickly mother but who had to be severely boxed when she
disobeyed orders and went out on one occasion, would leave him.
MbnchTn's wife, who had gone to work in a factory to increase
the family's income, had become active in the union and now had
too many "strange" friends. He resents this since he considers
the woman's place to be in the kitchen, not to be dabbling in
men's affairs and in any event, she had enough doing with looking
after him and the house. He proceeds to box her up to ensure
obedience. This is a typical situation of male dominance which,
in this case, meets with the decisive rebellion of the woman who
sues for divorce, changes all the locks on the door, gets a good
lawyer, wins the case and is awarded the house with furniture and
Perrico claims that his wife is ungrateful because despite
his fidelity and generosity she refused him his only request--
that she treat his friends well when they come over. Naturally,
he did not see it as her way of preventing him from wasting his
In these three cases, the women are considered to be
intolerant of male values and downright irresponsible in their
action. In drunken irate language, the men blasphenize all
women and the reader is encouraged to defend the women who have
been smart enough to remove themselves from these unhealthy
relationships. The nature of the male dominance is much more
explicitly illustrated here than in Campbell's work and the
female characters are, on the surface, much more aggressive.
Nevertheless, it is clear that both writers coincide in their
acknowledgment of the trend of male dominance in the society
and its repercussions on his relationship with the woman.
The nature of the politics of dominance in each situation
vary according to the class to which the couple belongs. This
is seen in the behaviour of middle-class Peter in "The Painting"
and Prince Ralph of the fairy tale, who do not take the women
for granted nor wish to exploit them but whose behavioral
pattern albeit unconsciously acknowledges certain accepted male
codes of conduct. For example, Peter never thinks of consulting
Karen of his problem and essentially leaves her to face the
music. Even Karen's painting is exploited for its enotive
possibilities. In other words, he could not humble himself with
words; the male ego had to be preserved. His manipulation of
Karen is more subtle than that of Ivan's or Bertie's. It is
significant that his painting of atonement represents the
offering of his male sexuality, as he himself jokingly suggests.
Ivan and Bertie are blatantly concerned only with their own
comfort and well-being, with little regard for their companion's.
The Prince makes no attempt to understand the needs of the
Princess and dismisses her pleas as being purely selfish with
the intent of containing his freedom.
In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the macho myth is
satirized in both stories. The bar and motel room are the two
places where the male perhaps can be most macho, yet we see that
the drunken tales are not about their conquests but rather their
defeats. In the motel, for example, the Tipo is sick in the
bathroom. When the Tipa discovers him there, he moans:
Estoy malo del est6mago, dice con mirada de perrito
sarnoso a encargado de la perrera. (Virgenes y
My stomach is giving me trouble, he says, with the look
of a rabied dog, to the kennel keeper. (my translation)
Vega's and Lugo Filippi's treatment of the male-female syndrome
is more decidedly feminist in perspective. Where Campbell is
subtle, their sarcasm burns. However, the concern about the
sexual politics at work in the societies in which they live is
mutual: Campbell highlights the sensibility of the woman which
moves her to accept male dominance in the relationship to her
detriment, while her Spanish counterparts rebel against the will
of the man to control their lives. We think nostalgically of
Miss Rilla and Miss Myrtella in "Summer Lightning"8 who have
found the way to make the men in their relationships feel like
men and the men to treat them as true partners in theirs lives.
1. Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women (London:
The Wmaen's Press, 1986).
2. Hazel Campbell, Woman's Tongue (Kingston: Savacou, 1985).
3. Ana Lydia Vega and Carmen Lugo Filippi, Virgenes y m&rtires
(Puerto Rico: Antillana, 1983).
4. Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (New York: Ballantine, 1978).
5. Louise Bennett, Selected Poems, ed. Mervyn Morris (Kingston:
6. Lorna Goodison, I am Beccming My Mother (London: New Beacon
Books, 1968), 15.
7. Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River (New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1983).
8. Olive Senior, Summer Lightning (London: Longman, 1986).
Politics and the Female Experience:
An Examination of Beka Lamb and Heremakhonon
University of the West Indies
A characteristic of much of Third World female writing is
the concern with national political issues as well as what could
be defined as feminist issues, and the nature of the relationship
between the two. This places these writers within that branch of
feminism which argues that patriarchy cannot be separated from
the wider network of power relations, and that sexual inequality
is intrinsically linked with other forms of inequality in any
society. What is particularly interesting in these writings is the
way the waman's experience is used to mirror the wider political
experience; how her developing consciousness as a woman comes to
reflect a developing national consciousness. There is, moreover,
an implicit and sometimes explicit challenge to women to became
actively involved in national issues, and an affirmation of the
woman's ability to influence and even determine the direction of
political and social change in her society.
It is in this context that this paper seeks to examine Zee
Edgell's Beka Lambl and Maryse Condg's Heremakhonon. The former
is set in pre-independent Belize which is characterized by much
political and social tension: conflicting interests within and
threats from without. There is much uncertainty about the future,
and consequently much anxiety. Amidst this uncertainty, a local
political movement is emerging, confused and uncertain too, but
emerging nevertheless. This is the nature of the society within
which the fourteen-year-old Beka is seen-the heroine of a kind of
"bildungsroman"--trying to deal with her own adolescent conflicts,
fears and uncertainties, as well as those of her society. Beka's
personal situation is not only set up as an analogue to the
national situation, but is integrally related to it, as her
family dramatizes many of the national political conflicts and
The novel is structured around a journey of self-discovery
which takes the form of a personal wake for her childhood
companion Toycie, through whom the effects of sexual, social and
racial inequality are demonstrated. The wake takes Beka on a
review of the preceding seven months of her life which had
culminated in the crisis of Toycie's death. This seven-month
recall, however, gives Beka the opportunity to review other
significant events of her childhood, to assess her past and
establish same direction for the future.
From the very beginning Beka's personal experiences are
linked with the national political situation. The novel opens
with the news that Beka has won an essay contest, and in placing
her school "not far from the front gate of His Majesty's Prison"
(1), Edgell immediately brings the political issue to the
reader's attention. Beka's success is clearly linked with
important changes in the social and political situation. Her
grandmother reminds her that "befo' time" she would never have
won the contest, and "long befo' time" she would not even be at
convent school. The narrator explains further:
It was not a subject openly debated amongst the
politicians at Battlefield Park. .at home, however,
Beka had been cautioned over and over that the prizes
would go to bakras, panias or expatriates. (1)
One soon realizes that it is the grandmother who is the most
politically active member of this family; and it is through her
and the arguments she has with her son that much is revealed
about the national political situation. She was one of the
earliest members of the "People's Independence Party," and:
she felt she deserved same credit for the shift Beka
was making from the washing bowl underneath the house
bottom to books in a classroom overlooking the
Caribbean Sea. (2)
Granny Ivy notes that "things change fi true"; and she is in the
vanguard of this change. Though even she is not always
comfortable with the change, she is committed to changing her
society, committed to a different future for her grandchildren.
It is through Granny Ivy that the principles and struggles
of the young political party are revealed. Through a conversation
between her and Lilla, Beka's mother, the reader learns that the
party opposes federation with the West Indies. This is reiterated
by the politicians at the political meetings. It is also
revealed that the party is advocating sane kind of alliance with