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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

The Caribbean and the Mainland

Is Memory the Amnesia You Like? Some Remarks on Self-Invention and the Presence of Caribbean Literature in North America

Wolfgang Binder

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1Is Memory the Amnesia You Like? Some Remarks on Self-invention and the Presence of Caribbean Literature in North America

2If we look at what is generally termed "Contemporary American Literature" by colleagues in academia and much of the media in the United States, we realize that we are facing a more or less interrelated mosaic of literatures that can be distinguished by race, gender, and class. This view has increasingly been accepted since the 1960s with the advent and establishment of what was then called Black Studies, Chicano Studies or Ethnic Studies. We “Americanists” at German (and generally at European) universities followed this trend; in fact most of us were quite happy to see the mythic, monolithic (Anglo or WASP) concept of culture supplanted by a more varied, more subtle, more just perspective that stressed difference, hybridity and what has been called "imagined communities" (Anderson). Many scholars are tempted to speak of North American literatures in the plural, avoiding the stigma of imperial narrowness. In the meantime, Postcolonial Studies, Multicultural Studies and Cultural Studies have, in the eighties, in the wake of so-called French theory, occupied the center stage in many humanities programs on both sides of the Atlantic.

3The presence of Caribbean writers and writing in the imperial centers of the north is justly felt to be a relevant and vital aspect of an ongoing enrichment process within North American culture and literature. As we all know, both the United States and Canada count among the classic countries of immigration; and we also know that immigration, emigration, as well as migration, may have many motives. The cultural production of immigrants in and for what is, at the initial stage, their host country entails a partial renunciation of the immigrant (or longtime resident) writerˊs former national culture, a questioning of cultural identity. As James Clifford has amply shown, cultural contact zones come into existence. Culture is translated, interpreted as it moves from a more or less colonial position into, or close to, an imperial center. It is interpreted both by the colonial, the ex-colonial, and the so-called First World — and not necessarily in the same fashion and with the same intentions or results. Self-definition becomes an important endeavor. Thus the ever increasing number of memoirs and autobiographies of first generation immigrants. These texts are attempts at self-positioning in a world that is felt to be increasingly puzzling. Many are also attempts at self-justification, vindication and confession; just think of the many exile Cuban writers. Mythicizing often enough becomes part of the game, both as regards a personal life and as regards a nation and its course in history. Many texts are Janus-faced: they look both back to the country, the life, the culture of origin – and ahead to the host country and existence in that new context. What was familiar once, becomes strange, what is familiar now, was strange before, or may partially still be so. The concepts of otherness, of alterity, of what is or was considered oneˊs own become important, may be shifting, may have to be revised. A troubled, not so unequivocal perspective creates hybrid texts with mixed, sometimes tormented loyalties and binary or multifocal cultural referents.

4As we know, Caribbean cultures have grown and flourished outside the Caribbean space proper as a consequence of migration, emigration and/or immigration. And by no means can we say that authors must become less imbibed with their own native cultures or feel less obliged to them when living in another country. Who would dare to charge a José Marti having become less Cuban during the fifteen years he lived in the United States? That he as hardly any Latin American or Caribbean person before understood (and made the southern continent understand) important aspects of the United States does not invalidate the above statement. I would uphold the presence of the same fervent Cubanidad for a writer like Reinaldo Arenas, regardless of his strident anti-Castro stance. Scholarship is still having a hard time to define what a nation, a national culture is. Most scholars agree that a national (and an individualˊs) identity is not naturally given, that there may be a whole series of identities within a nation — religious communities, regions, linguistically and/or ethnically defined communities, etc. There are also identities based on class structure within and across nations. One may perhaps say that grosso modo specific cultural conditions in a specific period in specific geographical and socio-political conditions can forge concepts of a nation, that nationhood can be understood as an imagined community in which fictions, fantasies, myths may play an important role. Scholars like Benedict Anderson and others have gratefully taken up Salmon Rushdieˊs statement of "imaginary homelands". One has to ask oneself in the context of migration literature what the term “home” means. German culture has the term/concept of "Heimat", which carries a whole bundle of emotions and which is by no means identical with the terms "state" or “nation". In fact, it can be used as an oppositional concept. "Heimat"/home is a place one may fall back on, may want to return to. It implies familiarity, intimacy — refers to a small entity like a region or a street or a house. It is at all times an essential part of an individualˊs or a small groupˊs identity. Should one leave that space, chances are that everything else, everything that is new, will at first be measured against what has shaped that cultural, social and emotional space.

5These issues are important in a Caribbean context when you consider that half the population of Jamaica and Puerto Rico lives abroad, when there is a massive ongoing northbound emigration from islands like Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Hardly a Guyanese writer is living in Guyana today, a country which has since the forties been extraordinarily fertile, as literature goes. Examples could, with some variations, be multiplied. It is evident that especially the literatures of the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France have become enormously enriched by a galaxy of writers who at least in part belong to their literary tradition, who in fact are creating a transnational literature. Is Austin Clarke a Barbadian or a Canadian writer? David Dabydeen a Guyanese or a British writer? V. S. Naipaul a Trinidadian? Caryl Phillips a writer from St. Kitts, Britain, and/or the US? Are Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez Dominican or Dominican-American authors, members of the hyphenated Americans? Which criteria must we use to "locate" them, and is that relevant at all? In the US bilingual aesthetics, bilingual literatures are in existence; at Harvard University a conference on bilingual aesthetics in US literature (meaning mainly Spanish/English, but also Chinese or Tugalog/English literature) was held in 1999. So these are phenomena we have an interest in watching closely in the years to come.

6Let me look briefly at three Caribbean writers and show how they dealt with their diasporic situation. What do they write about, where do they look, what do they remember, want to remember, and what do they choose to forget? Which axes do they have to grind? What is mythicized, newly construed? How do these writers deal with the Other, with alterity?

7Jamaica Kincaid, an alias Elaine Potter Richardson, grew up in Antigua (not in Jamaica) and has been living in or close to New York City since she was seventeen. Her prose is characterized by an incisive precision that barely veils an analytic aggressiveness for which she has become famous. In her slim 1988 volume A Small Place she goes back to "her" island, Antigua. The text transcends the genre of the protest pamphlet, which naive readers could limit it to. Instead, it is a highly crafted, poetic, repetitive, incantatory dissection of traditionally held views (both by Antiguans of African descent and by former white masters, as well as by their new masters). It is the deconstruction and to a certain degree the reconstruction of a Caribbean nation, a geography, a cultural, racial and affective space with references to historically based reasons for omnipresent insular corruption and hypocrisy. The voice in A Small Place belongs to a person who has indeed left — and returned with a cold eye only to be horrified and to tell the truth. The islandˊs beauty is unreal, its institutions are foul, its elite corrupt. The tourists are despised. We have a somber anti-idyllic, anti-Columbian discourse that dismantles any idea of a Paradise surrounded by blue and green waters. It is also a text written by a person who does, after years in the US, have quite anti-imperial ideas on how a country should not be run. Kincaid asserted in an interview given for the Mississippi Review in 1991 her conviction that life was and remains disagreeable and hard in any Caribbean country, that no tourist would want to live there for any length of time and that "the main lesson we have learned from colonial rule is all the corruption and none of the good things of it.” And she adds in an attempt at a self-definition, almost obsessively: "So I come from one kind of corruption, the moral corruption of Europe, and now I find myself in a new kind of corruption. My background is that I am a product of corruption"(l1).

8My second example, a kind of double feature, is taken from Cuban-American literature, if I may use that hyphenated label. Gustavo Pérez Firmat, a noted scholar at Duke University, who came to the US at age eleven, wrote in 1995 an autobiography with the ominous title Next Year in Cuba and a much more appropriate subtitle, A Cubano′s Coming-of-Age in America". Both his discussion of who he was as a Cuban boy from retrospect and what or who he has become is interesting in a context of alterity. He does, after several decades, doubt whether he remembers correctly the boy he had been in Cuba. Does he still have anything in common with that person, and how much, and in which areas? He states: "More than three decades later, the distance between the boy on the dock and the man I am today seems incalculable" (21). His life in Cuba has become "a soft blur" (33). Memory has to a considerable degree been reconstructed, invented — lovingly or "morbidly" (33). For a long time, he has excluded that memory from his consciousness. Exile, we should remind ourselves, both remembers and forgets — represses, sometimes quite willingly. Language is a potent vehicle of expression and feeling, of culture; if you come from one language and move into another, loyalty and competence conflicts arise. At present, Pérez Firmat is convinced that the written word for him is essentially English, while the spoken word, the oral delivery is overwhelmingly Spanish (52). Whenever there is parenthood in a country that initially was not your own, generational conflicts also entail cultural conflicts. For Pérez Firmat there seems to have been a division of labor with an outcome that he is quite happy with: "Being American is for me a reverse inheritance, one that flows from the younger to the older generations, from children to parents. I gave Cuba to my kids, and they have reciprocated by giving me America.... we have raised each other." (55) The volume is a single extended attempt at self-positioning and self-definition. Pérez Firmat became a citizen of the United States in 1977. However, in his house, so he tells us, you will find to this day a row of santería objects and a veneration for Eleguá. And he has not yet been able to bring himself to vote for an American president. His life is not a synthesis, as he at the end of his book admits, but rather a "seesaw"(274). The problem of experiencing both the United States and Cuba as elements of both the familiar and the Other remains.

9Roberto G. Fernández, a Cuban-American writer who came to the United States at age ten, one year earlier than Pérez Firmat, has not written an autobiography. He produces fiction and (to a lesser extent) drama, which means that the urgency, the immediacy of Pérez Firmat is lacking. On the other hand, he is much freer with his material, and this all the more since he is a satirist. The target of his pen is mainly bourgeois Cuban society based in Miami: people with pretensions he finds ridiculous, with a mentality that recreates an island past that objectively never existed, and reactionary political attitudes. In his successful 1988 novel Raining Backwards, his heroine, Mirta Vergara, an aging virgin, has become a raging nationalist who defends the beauties of Varadero Beach against all other beaches in the world. It is her preferred geography which she idealizes and mythicizes to no end. Eloy, a neighborˊs boy, scrubs (and tickles) her naked body in a bathroom that she has decorated garishly to fit an imaginary Varadero, while she, as a recompense and in an increasingly (self-)eroticizing fashion, tells him about her adventures back in Cuba. To the rollicking, comic, fairy-tale elements in Mirtaˊs neurosis comes a tragic component, when the reader notices that Mirta has not only the problems of an aging spinster and a desterrada, but that her remembering is tragic because of its lack of substance of a previous vivencia, due to the passing of time and the constantly receding images. Mirta Vergara is reconstructing a Cuba that never existed; her nostalgia turns into self-professed patriotism and ends in a psychotic, shrill nationalism that sublimates (more or less) a whole array of needs, including the vaginal alluded to with in last name.

10If Fernándezˊs characters, especially Mirta, look backwards, the Puerto Rican poet Víctor Hernández Cruz in his 1973 volume Mainland takes life in New York City much more into account. Hernandez Cruz, who was, together with his friend and colleague, the African-American author Ishmael Reed, among the first ones in the US to advocate and practice a "culture of hybridity" and to coin the term "Tropicalization" in 1976, published many poems that could both be claimed by a Puerto Rican national literary tradition and by North American ethnic literature. One culture infuses, suffuses another, none remains the same after life in the contact zones. In his poem, "Los New Yorks", the speaker sees tropical Puerto Rico in Manhattan, a tropicalization takes place.

I present you the tall skyscrapers
as merely huge palm trees with lights...

11by which he reduces their modernist monstrosity to something familiar and natural.

The roaring of the trains is a fast
dance of the ages. (1971, 10)

12In the poem "Thursday", a dream poem, the speaker moves Thursday, a rainy Manhattan and the sea close to each other into an interior landscape of pleasure:

Today I eat guineo
with my hands
Under a palm tree by the beach
Where I am not
Do you see the dance that could begin
Evolve (8.)

13The fusion does not take place, a cautionary, potential "could" is upheld, the two worlds do not dissolve, but something new is about to happen, to evolve. Fernando Ortiz would, I assume, be interested in Hernández Cruzˊs version of "transculturacin" where the desire for doubleness and wholeness is evident and a flexible, fluid transnational concept imminent.


Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict, 1991 (-1981). Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Binder, Wolfgang, and Helmbrecht Breinig, eds., 1995. American Contradictions. Interview With Nine American Writers. Hanover, London: Wesleyan UP, 1-19. (Robert G. Fernández, interv. by Wolfgang Binder.)

Clifford, James, 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Fernandez, Roberto G., 1988. Raining Backwards. Houston: Arte Publico.

Hernandez Cruz, Víctor, 1971. Mainland. New York: Random House.

---------------------, 1976. Tropicalization. New York: Random House.

Kincaid, Jamaica, 1988. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo, 1995. Next Year in Cuba. A Cubanoˊs Coming-of-Age in America. New York: Anchor.

Reed, Ishmael, ed. 2000. The Reed Reader. New York: Basic Books.

Vorda, Allan, 1991. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Mississippi Quarterly, XX, 7-26.

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