Writing a general overview of Caribbean literature is a broad and ambitious project because of the region’s linguistic and cultural diversity. Contemporary critics have questioned the meaning of the very concept of “Caribbean,” even going so far as to consider the possibility of including the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands in the Caribbean because of their historical and socio-linguistic links to the area. A consensus has been reached, however, that a full study of the Caribbean zone must consider not only the archipelago that extends from Cuba to Trinidad, but also the continental fringes of South America (Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, and the coastal areas of Venezuela and Colombia) and Central America (Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua) that border the Caribbean Sea.

At the same time, at least five European languages are spoken in the Caribbean (Spanish, English, French, Dutch and Portuguese), inherited from the empires that fought for control of the region, as well as other local languages ­– among them Haitian Creole and Papiamento in the Dutch Antilles – that arose in the region through processes of syncretism or transculturation among the European languages and African, Asian and indigenous voices. This process of “Creolization” is linked to the diverse histories of the islands, although it has not always been recognized as part of the formation of the cultural traditions or canons in the respective territories. It is therefore important to recognize from the beginning the linguistic plurality behind the term “Caribbean literature.” Literary critics, who endeavor to study the subject in a more systematic form, have established a necessary division into four major linguistic blocs: the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the French-speaking Caribbean, the English-speaking Caribbean and the Dutch-speaking Caribbean.

Under current critical thinking, the linguistic plurality of the Caribbean region is tied to the cultural plurality caused by the various colonial and post-colonial relationships the various countries or territories have with the European colonial powers or toward U.S. expansionism. Despite the cultural differences that have developed, it has been established that the countries in the Caribbean share certain historical and socio-cultural features that unite them: the plantation system and slavery; a state of dependence and institutional underdevelopment in relation to the colonial powers; and the displacement of various groups of people since the voyage of exploration of 1492, among others.

This constant traffic of human capital, rooted in the exploitation of natural resources and the plantation economy, have made the Caribbean from the beginning, in the words of Cuban critic Antonio Benítez Rojo, “a true soup of signs.” As a result, a deep and critical reading of its literature requires deciphering the multiplicity of linguistic and cultural codes linked to its geographic locations and its historical temporalities.

To avoid becoming shipwrecked on this soup of signs, it is essential to identify certain “ports” or common places that can be used to create a general map of the literary zones of the Caribbean. Some specialists think that the mere idea of proposing that there is a “Caribbean literature” is impossible, given the chaotic proliferation of languages and cultures in the region, and that it is only possible to discuss it as distinct literatures in linguistic blocs that are part of the countries that colonized these territories. However, under the surface of these linguistic differences it is possible to synthesize the literary output of the Caribbean in relation to cultural contexts that bring together the various islands and the continental coasts: colonialism, slavery, the plantation economy, the development of a local bourgeoisie and its yearning for literary representation, the recognition of the African culture and its oral nature in 20th century literature and the diaspora or migratory movements of its inhabitants, including the intellectuals who produced literature and the readers who consumed it, thus expanding the geographic limits of the Caribbean. As a result, the purpose of this essay is to present, in introductory fashion, ruptures and continuities in Caribbean literature.

As an integral part of the process of conquest and colonization, Columbus, the conquistadors and the monks, nuns and priests were required to document their experiences in writing to the Spanish crown, which paid for their undertakings. For that reason, critics have considered this body of texts to be the foundation effort in Latin American literature in general, and Spanish Caribbean literature in particular, because it was in the Caribbean that this process began.

Taking this into account, it can be asserted that Caribbean literature began in Spanish and that the literature of the Spanish Antilles is best known, not only because it is the oldest but also because it had established a tradition of criticism before the others in the Antilles. Among its first authors were Columbus (Darío, his stories of sailing), Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas and Brother Ramón Pané, whose work Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios has been considered a written recovery of the pre-colonial history of the Caribbean. The same did not occur in the literary canons in English, French, Dutch or Papiamento, however, because it was not until the 17th century that English, French and Dutch colonial enclaves were established and consolidated in the Caribbean, and indigenous literature was essentially a phenomenon of the 20th century.

Critics of the various literatures agree on the fact that the unifying factor that most contributes to cultural similarities among the different nations of the region is the prolongation of colonial dependence. The Spanish Antilles (Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic or Santo Domingo – as it was referred to in the colonial era and is still referred to commonly today) has had a long colonial dependence, first with Spain – until 1898, in the cases of Cuba and Puerto Rico – and, since the end of the 19th century, with the United States.

In the case of Santo Domingo, the first Spanish colony established in the hemisphere and the one with the most active literary sector during the first two centuries of colonial rule, dependence on Spain initially ended in 1821. Haiti, however, which had become independent from France in 1804 – and is an unusual case in the Caribbean – immediately occupied Santo Domingo for two decades in an attempt to dominate the island of Hispaniola. As soon as it recovered its independence from Haiti, Santo Domingo again became a colony of Spain. Shortly thereafter, Santo Domingo fell under U.S. influence. Although in constant confrontation with the United States, Cuba has been able to maintain its political independence since the Revolution of 1959, while Puerto Rico continues to be a territory of the United States.

Meanwhile, in the French-speaking area, the islands of Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Barts, St. Martin and the territory of French Guiana did not become departments of France until 1946. Meanwhile, the islands historically ruled by the British Empire (Antigua, Barbados, Guyana, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, Saint Vincent, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands) still remain under the title of the British Commonwealth, despite being independent since the 1970s. The Dutch-speaking or Papiamento-speaking region, the Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, St. Maarten and St. Eustatius) and Suriname were not officially accepted as part of the Dutch kingdom until 1954. Then, once they were recognized as legitimate political entities, Suriname proceeded to obtain its independence in 1975 and Aruba in 1986 negotiated with the Dutch kingdom a status apart from the rest of the Dutch Antilles, although the relationship remains politically ambiguous.

This brief historical sketch of the prolonged colonial dependence and influence in the Caribbean helps to understand how the concept of self-determination, with its political, economic, linguistic, social and cultural manifestations, is intertwined with the themes of Caribbean literature, both in explicit ways and also in the mechanisms of its voice and representations.

After the eradication of the indigenous populations and the acceptance by the monarchy that the Caribbean was not going to provide great wealth in precious metals, as the American continents had, and that its main treasure was instead its climate and the fertility of its soil, the plantation economy was established, along with the slave trade in the region, which served as another link between the different linguistic zones in the Caribbean. The system of slavery, meanwhile, introduced the notion of racial difference – in other words, the conception of the “black race” as inferior to the “white,” a race lacking cultural and intellectual capital and only useful as an object of merchandise for the benefit of the elite, an idea that affected the foundations of Caribbean society and, in turn, its literary forms and institutional apparatuses.

On one hand, an insistence on ensuring continuity of the European heritage has existed in the traditions of Caribbean literary criticism, to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the region, and thus ignoring the cultural contributions of the African slaves and their Afro-American descendants, which make up the majority of the Caribbean populations. This is the case particularly in the Dominican Republic, where literary criticism, as an apparatus most accessible to the Europeanized and most light-skinned local elite, has, until recently, preserved a nostalgic view of the Spanish past.

On the other hand, over a long period of time, and particularly in the French-speaking area, thanks mainly to the independence of Haiti, a branch arose that denied the idea of cultural inferiority promoted by the culture of the colonial power (the European cultures) and insists on the rights of blacks to participate in modern society and the national project, of which the formation of a literary canon is an intrinsic part.

With the abolition of slavery at various times in the 19th century in different countries in the Caribbean – earlier in the British colonies than in the Spanish ones – laborers from Asian countries, many from India, were hired and brought to the region, especially to the English (later, British) colonies, to continue working in the plantation economy. As a result, particularly in the English-speaking Caribbean, other subordinate people, such as Indians (from India) and Chinese, were added to the “almost-native” black population. The English-language Caribbean literature, and its literary criticism, thus recreated throughout its history the racial difference, imposed from the beginning by the system of slavery, not only on the majority black population and the whiter elite, but also between the black population and the immigrant communities from colonial territories on the other side of the Atlantic. From these contacts and relationships arose what has been called, since the decades of the 1930s and 1940s, “West Indian Literature.”

As for the literature of the Dutch-speaking region, the interactions between communities with different languages have multiplied, making the literature even more difficult to study. Various writers from Curacao, however, such as Cola Debrot, Tip Marugg and Boeli van Leeuwen, have recreated in their novels an antagonism between the island and the continent, particularly Venezuela, whose origins were based on the Dutch colonization of the Antilles in the 16th century. Therefore, despite the more liberal or “enlightened” attitude toward slavery by the Dutch Antilleans during the 18th century (compared to the Spanish colonists, for example), racial difference was still reproduced – which, as mentioned, was brought to the scene by the system of slavery – in literary acts of self-determination by the Dutch Antillean culture, which tried to establish its own particular special characteristics in the Caribbean framework.

This search for particularity incited the incipient island bourgeoisie in the 19th century to fashion themselves as a reflection of the colonizing country. This occurred more in the Spanish-speaking and French-speaking Caribbean because the British, unlike the French and the Spanish, did little to develop economic and educational infrastructure in their colonies, which was necessary for promoting the development of a local bourgeoisie during this time period. According to J. Michael Dash, even within the hierarchy of the plantation system, the process of cultural assimilation created an elite that differentiated itself from the masses through its cultural achievements, based on the parameters imposed by the home country.

Thus this social segment, despite lacking both local literary institutions, such as libraries and publishing houses, as well as a local audience and market, began its process of representation by imitating the cultural norms of the colonizing country but later began taking the pulse of its own identity, particularly through the genre of the essay, though also in prose fiction, and initially with romantic features but later with more social and realistic features.

This trend can be said to culminate in the 19th century with the essays by the Cuban writer José Martí and the Puerto Rican Eugenio María de Hostos, who sought to establish a Caribbean identity within a Pan-American framework, and not with the European powers. In addition to the literary genre of the essay, it is important to recognize the importance of the appearance of the printing press and the creation of a local press in this era, as it not only allowed dissemination of texts, but also the creation of a literate society capable of responding to – or defending themselves against – the prejudices of the home countries toward their subordinate colonies.

In the 20th century, the Caribbean in general took part in a revaluation of the black or African culture as a fundamental artistic expression in the region that differentiated it from European artistic production. Among its major proponents were Emilio Ballagas and Nicolás Guillén of Cuba, Luis Palés Matos of Puerto Rico, Manuel del Cabral of the Dominican Republic, Edward Brathwaite of Jamaica, Aimé Césaire and édouard Glissant of Martinique, Léon Damas of French Guiana, Derek Walcott of Trinidad and Wilson Harris of Guyana. This movement, variously known as poesía negranegrista or Afro-Antillean linked not only the three Spanish Caribbean countries, but also created links between these countries and the négritude movement in the French-speaking territories. This reconsideration of black culture, which is the major influence in Caribbean popular culture, represents a fundamental point of convergence among Caribbean literatures: the first consistent literary ideology that extends throughout the Antilles.

In other words, the revaluation of the black or African element represents the affirmation of the racial mixing or mestizaje that has occurred in the Caribbean from the beginning. This mixing or “Creolization,” has been seen as a syncretic process that continually recombines and transforms the cultural patterns from diverse identities and socio-historical experiences that come from the interactions of peoples from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas in the Caribbean. In the face of the European positivist perspective of seeing history as an evolution of the species, the dynamic aesthetic of “Creolization” appears as an alternative, a form of resistance by Caribbean writers from the periphery in response to the colonialist narrative of the colonizing countries with their ideological emphasis on political and social stability.

The Creolization of Caribbean literature is, at the same time, both an ideological strategy by the writer and a new artistic sensibility that opens writing to oral modalities or vernacular voices among the codified imperial languages and to the popular culture of the various Caribbean societies. This opening represents the literary incorporation of oral aspects of the culture such as songs, music and the popular idiom that affect the artistic expression of the social scene. Additionally, the erasure of the limits between the oral and the written puts into relief the ideologies of the writing of the hegemonic discourse in Western culture. In this way, it is difficult to separate the political from the artistic when analyzing this literature, as this sensibility flatly points to the fact that any linguistic work, oral or written, leads to an ideological point of view. In other words, language ceases to be seen as a closed and value-neutral system and is instead seen as an instrument of self-identification that culminates in the Spanish Caribbean with the narratives of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Luis Rafael Sánchez and their use of the popular urban idiom.

In the end, this democratization of the relationship between the oral and the written opens the literary space, which was once closed off, to the use of regional languages such as Papiamento in the Dutch Antilles or Haitian Creole, in multilingual societies where there is an official language restricted to governmental use and relations with the original colonial power and another daily language used for ordinary and personal communication. Writers in these societies have produced limited amounts of writing in these languages, however, for fear of linguistic isolation that could reduce the size of their audience, which is already limited by low literacy rates, poverty and a scarcity of literary institutions to support their work.

As indicated above, the literary acceptance and promotion of this Creole sensibility that restored the African legacy and that of other minorities in the social fabric of Caribbean nations was not uniform in the Caribbean until approximately the final third of the 20th century. Previously, as Julia Cuervo Hewitt noted in her recent study Voices Out of Africa (2009), unlike the French-speaking and English-speaking Caribbean islands, the 19th century colonial governments in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba implemented a systematic program of “whitening” their societies, especially after the triumph of the Haitian Revolution in 1804.

Aside from the different historical paths traveled by Spain, England and France in the 18th and 19th centuries, the latter as the birth site of the Enlightenment and the promotion of equality and human rights, which affected its relationship with the Caribbean colonies, it is easy to see the basis of Spain’s reaction to the Haitian Revolution and its implementation of a program of “whitening” in its colonies in its campaign of “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula, which began in the 8th century and culminated with the surrender of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews the same year that Columbus set sail from Cadiz on his voyage of discovery. In other words, the machinery of racial distillation had been put in motion by the Spanish monarchy centuries earlier, so it was easy to transfer it to its new Caribbean colonies and convince its incipient bourgeoisie of its Spanish identity.

In the 19th century, with the arrival of the printing press, the creation of a local press and of economic and cultural associations, a local intellectual class developed that began to question its colonial relationships and create a national consciousness through its literary output. Among the most important works of this era in the Spanish Caribbean are El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso of Puerto Rico, Enriquillo by Manuel de Jesús Galván of the Dominican Republic and Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde of Cuba.

In Trinidad, Warner Arundell by Anglo-Jewish writer E. L. Joseph and Emmanuel Appadocca by Michel Maxwell Philip appeared, Bildungsroman novels written for the purpose of legitimizing ethnic, racial or social groups that up to then had been oppressed by the elite white landowners and to claim superiority over the colonizing civilization. In other words, a nationalistic awareness was created by local island intellectual groups but within an adversarial relationship with the colonizing country and other minority groups, such as people from India in Trinidad, who did not belong to the incipient native bourgeoisie.

In his study Postslavery Literatures in the Americas (2000), George Handley asserts that within Caribbean literature there is an ideologically “post-slavery” canon that uses structures from abolitionist and slave narratives, as the black voice, not to criticize the colonial regime, but rather to investigate the past and locate this voice within the social and cultural context of the plantation economy.

According to Handley, this self-awareness literature uses family histories to point out that the amnesia caused by slavery had not been resolved by the emerging national cultures. On the contrary, this incipient nationalism, with its purpose of maintaining and consolidating the social power of the ruling classes, many times avoided the syncretism and genetic chaos typical of the plantation cultures. Therefore, this writing about genealogy tried to reconstruct family ties that were broken by the system of slavery while also drawing attention to the legacies of slavery that still persist in the Caribbean’s economies and the discourses about race and nationalism.

Among the writers Handley highlights are Jean Rhys from the island of Dominica (Wide Sargasso Sea), Alejo Carpentier of Cuba (El siglo de las luces) and Rosario Ferré of Puerto Rico (Maldito amor), in addition to United States writers such as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, who have written about the plantation culture in the U.S. South and in whom the critics have seen an ideological extension to the Caribbean.

The post-colonial conception of the “unfolding” of the Caribbean beyond its geographic borders has emphasized the elements of exile or diaspora in its literature. For historical reasons, what is known as Caribbean culture has repeatedly been based on displacements of various ethnic or racial groups: from the Arawaks and Caribs, who came from the Orinoco and were dispersed among the islands; the Spanish who left behind the Iberian peninsula to conquer the islands; the other Europeans who followed the Spanish in colonization; the Africans who were captured and extracted from their home continent to work on the plantations the Europeans established.

There were also the people from India, China, Portugal and Ireland who were brought to work on the same plantations after the abolition of slavery; the people who arrived from the United States in the late 19th century in that country’s process of imperial expansion to take the former Spanish colonies and intervene in the new republics; the mass migrations of Afro-Caribbeans between 1880 and 1920 to Latin America because of the high rate of unemployment combined with the imperialist domination by the United States and its fruit companies; the travels by island intellectuals to the great cities of their respective colonial powers; the migratory waves of poor Puerto Ricans to the United States in the 1920s and the 1950s during modernization processes; the political and economic exile of Cubans to Puerto Rico, New York and Miami in various waves after the Revolution and its hemisphere-wide ramifications; the economic exile of Dominicans to Puerto Rico after the collapse of the Trujillo dictatorship; the diaspora of Haitian intellectuals during the dictatorships of the Duvaliers… In the end, because of these events, in the second half of the 20th century the literary historiography has considered exile or diaspora to be the foundational nexus between the Caribbean forms of nationalism and its literature. Critics have reconfigured the Caribbean as a “cultural idea” more than an actual region. As Alison Donnell indicates in her Caribbean literary history of the 20th century, it is “a dislocated, mobile, hybrid space attractive to the demands of postcolonial theory and its alliances to migratory subjectivities and writing.”


Author: Hugo M. Viera Colón
Published: March 06, 2012.

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