Literature has played an important role in various stages of history, society and the individual. But above all it has served as a key tool in the formation of identities and nations, becoming a necessary point of reference for the culture, history and society. When a country’s literature begins to emerge, the opinions, contrasts and critical and reflective studies emerge along with it that characterize and label the works in such a way that they can be recognized and identified as belonging to a certain era or a particular trend. This is the work of the canon, to dictate the model to be followed. It is the yardstick against which art and culture are measured and in this way it establishes which works should be read.

In literature, the canon is defined as a brief but very selective list of what are generally called classics, or in other words, those that transcend their time and continue to be read even when they are very old. There are no great changes in the canon over time because the works chosen have great social prestige. For a literary work to achieve this level of prestige and become part of the canon is dependent on two important factors: one is aesthetic value and the other is pedagogical need. These are the factors to be considered when a literary canon is established, in addition to the universal value that the representative works should possess. The aesthetic factor takes into account the work’s artistic value while the pedagogical need addresses the educational value of the works, bringing to the top those that are considered worthy of being taught and read in educational institutions. In summary, the canon is a reference list that serves as a guide to the culture over long periods of time and space.

The creation of literary canons has always been a topic of debate and on many occasions the traditional critics, elitist and conservative, have been exclusive when recognizing works. The traditional critics also often take an intransigent position toward revisions or changes, as often discussed in forums dedicated to the literary canons. As a result, many of these canons are paternalistic and hierarchical, as is the case in Puerto Rico, as noted by Juan Gelpí in his book Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico.

Several factors must be considered when analyzing the canons of the Caribbean. First, it must be recognized that the Caribbean is a 20th century creation, as Joaquín Santana Castillo notes in his essay “Repensando el Caribe: valoraciones sobre el gran Caribe hispano.” According to Santana Castillo, the conglomeration called the Caribbean emerged from the existence of a common culture and history with strong links in the framework of a region that is multiracial, multiethnic and linguistically diverse. From a linguistic aspect, there are three Caribbeans: Spanish-speaking, English-speaking and French-speaking.

To discuss nationalism and the formation of literary canons in the Caribbean it is therefore necessary to reflect on the identity and unity of this diversity. As Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez noted, the Caribbean has a cultural identity within its diversity and heterogeneity. This identity was built on shared socio-cultural processes (the colonial experience, popular resistance) in which the plantation economy was the dominant model. This system, which played a leading role, is considered the central unifying element of the factors that make up and characterize what is recognized today as the Greater Caribbean. The plantations introduced African slavery and with it created the circumstances in which race and ethnicity are analyzed, along with questions about the emergence of identity and nationalist cultures.

When referring to nationalism in the context of the construction of literary canons, we talk about the “texts of heritage,” which is also the name of a book by the late Argentine writer Fernando Degiovanni. This literature of heritage builds a national identity, often by describing or simply following a political ideal. To reflect on this canon is to revisit the route of the struggle for power and it is no less than an attempt to understand the identity of a past that has lasted and has become a collective national identity with a stronger foundation.

Many Caribbean literary canons are paternalistic. Juan Gelpí points to three main causal factors for this: (1) the need to establish rules in the face of a threat to identity; (2) the cultural nationalism; (3) the generations theory. On the first point, in his talk titled “Breaking down the pater familiae patterns: The castration of the Latin ‘macho’ in the Nuyorican literature,” Emilio Ceruti quotes Peter Roberts as saying that the mixture of races and their coexistence is the enemy of the idea of national identity. Recognizing this, Ceruti argues that cultural nationalism becomes the display of this paternalistic discourse, and, in self-defense, creates hierarchies dividing that which is superior and that which is subordinate.

Caribbean literature, written in Spanish, English, French and Dutch, and forging identities, covers themes such as slavery, migration both external and internal (from the country to the city), colonialism and decolonization, as well as nature and local aspects of culture and society.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, poetry and autobiography were the most highly developed genres in the Caribbean. The works of this period introduced common themes: exile, migration, displacement and the search for identity. The most significant canonical work among those written in English is The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, a story told by Prince herself. Enriquillo, by Manuel de Jesús Galván (Dominican Republic) tells of an indigenous uprising against the Spanish in the beginning stages of the colonization. Among the first novels in the French-speaking Caribbean was Stella (1859) by Eméric Bergeaud, in Haiti, about colonial liberation.

As confirmed by many historical, theoretical and literary sources, with many of the Caribbean countries yet to achieve independence as they began the 20th century, their national literary traditions had not yet begun to be developed. Jamaica, for example, became independent in 1962, Guyana in 1966, Grenada in 1974, the Bahamas in 1973, Dominica in 1978 and Belize in 1981.

The novel Batouala (1921) by René Maran emerged in the French-speaking Caribbean. This work called for identification with black culture and advanced the term la negritud, a movement of the 1930s that exalted African cultures and values. The negrista movement in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean presented African themes in exotic forms, seeking inspiration in African and black identity, such as the case of Puerto Rican writer Luis Palés Matos and his Tun tun de pasa y grifería or in Cuba with Alejo Carpentier and his novel El reino de este mundo.

Even in the 1960s, many countries had not achieved their political independence when a generation of writers emerged that cried out for freedom in works that portrayed the characteristics of the Caribbean culture. The novel New Day by Vic Reid of Jamaica reflects the great desire of the times to be able to live free. Another Jamaican, Roger Mais, portrayed the displaced and oppressed urban population of the Caribbean in his novel The Hills Were Joyful Together. George Lammingof Barbados, published In the Castle of My Skin in 1953, one of Caribbean literature’s first and most important portraits of childhood and adolescence in a colonial context. This novel tells three boys’ experiences with colonial education, social change, poverty and the search for identity, focusing on their hopes to emigrate. In Panama, we find Joaquín Beleño who told the stories of the situations suffered by the migrant workers in the Canal Zone in his works Luna verde (1951) and Gamboa Road Gang or Los forzados de Gamboa (1960).

Puerto Rico, due to its colonial condition that keeps it far from being an independent nation, stands out from the rest of the national literature of the Caribbean. Many critics and scholars believe that the colonial political situation is a synonym for identity conflict and have even said it is responsible for a national crisis. But with deeper research and reflection, we can argue that the crisis was a creation of the Puerto Rican paternalistic canonical literature of the 1930s. It was controlled by the literate class of the island which, in its effort to preserve its hegemony and position as landowners with the arrival of the new industrial hegemony of the United States, converted literature into propaganda, inventing masks and appropriating patriotic discourses and elements that were not theirs (for example, the appropriation of the image of the country laborer, the jíbaro, and his peaceful dreams in his hammock in his hut). It was nothing more than fiction and nostalgia. It dealt with an identity and nationalism based on something that had ceased to exist for some time, and something that the literate classes never were – jíbaros – as documented by Otero Garabís in an article about Luis Lloréns Torres published in the University of Puerto Rico’s Hispanic Studies Journal.

Far from suffering an identity crisis, what the island suffered was an economic crisis and a transition from a plantation economy to the industrial system. But by the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s, figures such as poet Julia de Burgos began to build and describe a Puerto Rican figure with an identity forged in a distinct way and in constant motion. She addresses the Caribbean identity as one that extends beyond, moves upon and is transformed and transported by this sea that is no longer an impediment, but rather an opportunity and an extension of an identity that transcends it. In this literature, traditional structures are broken and identity mixes as fluidly as water. So the sea becomes the motif, the route that promotes and is responsible for the mixture that makes up the broader Caribbean today. The sea is not the enemy, as can be seen in other canonical texts, but rather the sea is the future.

In the end, when analyzing the Caribbean national literature, it must be recognized that it is not possible to do so from the same perspective with which a political discourse or historical treatise is analyzed, because literature is about art and as such it has elements that must by recognized and valued aesthetically. Also, the importance of literature in reflecting a country’s historical, cultural, social and political reality cannot be ignored. Much less, the role that literature plays in building identities and in the debate over nationalism in the broader Caribbean. It is a key element and is a necessary reference point for national and universal culture.


Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: December 20, 2011.

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