Reading Women Writers of the Caribbean
There’s more to Caribbean literature than the (wonderful) well-known works like A Simple Habana Melody and In the Time of the Butterflies.
Come with me to discover the texts I teach as part of my college class on women writers of the Caribbean. These titles are not to be missed! I’ll discuss them, not in order of publication, but in the order in which I teach them.
“A Small Place” by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua). This piece is the first text I introduce students to. I start here because Kincaid issues a forceful critique against tourism, and I want to challenge my students to find ways of reading that go beyond literary tourism. This is our starting place for discussions of the connections between reading and ethics. The text often makes readers feel guilty, angry, and uncomfortable. We talk about why.
Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad). This is a fascinating adaptation and retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This is the first novel I teach in the course because Nunez’s critique of colonialism, valorization of the local and (re)appropriation of a master plot by a white writer are features that are pretty plain to students. This is what I call an “apprenticeship” novel that helps sensitize students to themes that they’ll encounter (more subtly) in subsequent novels.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe). Here, Condé puts Tituba, a marginal historical figure from the Salem witch trials, on center stage, tracing her travels from the Caribbean to New England and back again. In addition to her reclamation of and play with the Salem history, Condé incorporates a cameo appearance by Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, changing Hester’s fate in the retelling. Check out this blog for a subtle reading of I, Tituba
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Dominica). This classic of Caribbean literature offers yet another instance of rewriting canonical texts, for it imagines the pre-history of the Bertha character (the madwoman in the attic) from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. (Don’t worry; you don’t have to know Jane Eyre to enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea. The first time I read it, I hadn’t yet read the Brontë classic.) It also provides readers with an opportunity to reflect on madness as a product of heredity—or of manipulated circumstances. The power of men over women’s lives comes to the fore here.
No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff (Jamaica). One of my favorite books of all time, this novel explores identity and fragmentation at a number of levels from the national to the personal. Cliff’s masterful storytelling and stylistic finesse make this novel stand out, not merely in Caribbean literature, but in postmodern fiction in general. This is also a novel that the matizes gender identity and political violence.
The Youngest Doll by Rosario Ferré (Puerto Rico). This collection of short stories challenges readers with sudden (unmarked) shifts of perspective, cutting irony, and surreal elements that break through into otherwise realistic narratives. At her best, Ferré provokes fascination and compulsive re-reading with these feminist parables and experiments.
(Note: these stories are ostensibly translations of the texts collected in Papeles de Pandora, but having read the Spanish first, in teaching I discovered that many of the stories in The Youngest Doll have been substantially modified, their experimental edge toned down. This is apparently an authorial decision since Ferré co-translated most of the stories.)
The Pagoda by Patricia Powell (Jamaica). It’s hard to discuss this novel’s plot without giving things away since it is built around the concealment and revelation of a number of family secrets. In this novel, Powell places Asian experience in Jamaica at the center of her story. I love how Powell shows the damage people can do to one another and the possibility of healing.
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti). I save this novel for last in teaching because I want my students to be maximally prepared to savor every aspect of it. Set in the Dominican Republic, Danticat’s novel dramatizes the massacre of Haitian workers in the D.R. during Trujillo’s dictatorship. Prepare yourself to gasp over Danticat’s exquisite prose.
Thanks for having me as a guest. Happy reading, everybody!
Ashley Hope Pérez is a passionate teacher and student of literature. She is also the author of two YA novels. What Can't Wait was just released by Carolrhoda LAB on March 1; look for The Knife and the Butterfly in 2012. She blogs about books, ideas, and writing. You can check her out online at Ashley Perez and find out the secret behind her tattoo, why she dropped out of high school at 16, and how she finds time to write while chasing her 11-month-old, Liam Miguel, who has an obsession with cat food and cabinets.
I loved Perez's YA novel What Can't Wait. It's one of my favorite debuts of 2011. My review An excerpt