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- If the prominent Caribbean writers in English of the first eight decades of the 20th century had been male, those of the last two decades of the century were female. International populist and market forces generated mainly in America were paying attention to women's liberation, civil rights, human rights and gender rights, propelling writers previously marginalized such as Blacks, immigrants and women. From Canada there were Marlene Nourbese Philip (Harriet's Daughter 1988) and Dionne Brand (Another Place, Not Here 1996, At The Full and Change of the Moon 1999); in the United States, there were Michelle Cliff (Abeng, 1984) and Jamaica Kincaid (Annie John 1985, Lucy 1991, and The Autobiography of My Mother 1996); and in the Caribbean there was Erna Brodber (Jane and Louisa 1980, Myal 1988, and Louisiana 1994). This was not to say that the male Caribbean writers had gone underground. Earl Lovelace, Caryl Phillips and Fred D'Aguiar had sustained equal attention and indeed, one of the biggest events in Caribbean writing, was the copping of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 by poet Derek Walcott.
- Since the late 70s, however, the center of Caribbean literature had been shifting from England to the Western Hemisphere, simultaneous with the burgeoning impact of Caribbean women's writing. Canadian and the American universities had introduced Black Studies courses to satisfy their minority and increasing immigrant populations; British-based Caribbean writers, lured by publishing and teaching opportunities and encouraging deals for their archives were crossing the Atlantic to the Americas. A few of the older British-based writers like Michael Anthony and Kamau Brathwaite had returned home; and in the euphoric wake of Independence in the Caribbean, the fledgling University of the West Indies was changing its British-based focus, developing programs with a more Caribbean base. Even Naipaul had turned his laconic eye to the Americas in his A Turn in the South (1989), ostensibly looking for American-Caribbean links among descendants of the once enslaved.
- Since the late 50s, though, submerged hemispheric links between the United States and the Caribbean were being played out in the work of Paule Marshall a second generation Barbadian-American. Her first novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) spoke of a migration other than the West Indian-British -- the West Indian-American kind that had always thrived. Marshall's contribution to the Caribbean narrative in English has been grossly underplayed, but when looked at in sequence, her novels depict an on-going historical and sociological analysis of the English-speaking Caribbean from the 1920s to the 1980s through the eyes of her female protagonists, who indefatigably try to re-establish connections with their West Indian roots and through these West Indian roots to reawaken ancient spiritual connections lying dormant in the black diaspora in the Western hemisphere. About her third novel, Chosen Place, Timeless People, Marshall says in a 1991 interview with Joyce Pettis: " . . . I hoped the novel would not solely be seen as a novel about the West Indies, even though it's set there, but a novel that reflects what is happening to all of us in the Diaspora in our encounter with these metropolitan powers, the power of Europe and the power of America." Her interest in the American-Caribbean reconnection would peak in Daughters, published in the same year.
- Meanwhile, in the 90s Jamaica Kincaid, originally from Antigua, was well established in the United States; and out of the other two centres of Caribbean writing in the Western hemisphere, "the West Indies" and Canada, the most sustained female novelist was Jamaican Erna Brodber with her three novels. By this time, too, Caribbean women writers had been officially launched, as it were, with the 1990 publication of the proceedings of their first Conference held at Wellesley Massachusetts.
- This essay proposes to look at Caribbean literature in English of the last two decades of the century, through its major overlapping shifts- -- the prominence of its women writers and the shift of the center of Caribbean literature to the Americas -- through two works of the period at peak in the 1990s: Paule Marshall's Daughters and Erna Brodber's Louisiana. These two works will be examined for their illumination of what women writers brought to Caribbean literature towards the close of the century. For, it will be observed that these women were shifting emphasis from the traditional pillorying of British colonialism and depictions of its effects, such as defeated maleness and the beleaguered male spirit, towards exploring invigorating themes of female endurance, resilience and familial bonding.
- Ursa Bea MacKenzie, the female protagonist of Paule Marshall's Daughters, is the only child of an African-American mother, Estelle, who was employed in the United States foreign office and a Caribbean father, Primus Mackenzie (ironically called "the PM" from childhood), a member of Parliament on the island of Triunion. Her parents have lived on the island since their marriage and the subsequent birth of Ursa in the 60s in the run-up to Caribbean Independence. After the age of fourteen, however, she was sent to the United States in the care of her maternal grand-parents for formal education. Although Ursa does not spend much of her life in Triunion, she regards the island as her real home. For over twenty years, Ursa has lived like a person with dual citizenship, commuting to the island on holidays and maintaining her contact with her doting father through regular correspondence.
- When the novel begins, Ursa's life has stalled and she is going through an abortion, not having informed her male friend whom she despises of her pregnancy in the first place. It is during the two months following the abortion, a period in which she assesses her life, that the 30 years since Independence on Triunion, which overlap with the meeting of her parents and her birth, are overviewed. Near the end of the second month, however, a surprise package arrives from Estelle, outlining the PM's intention to sell out his country constituents to some businessmen with an eye to turning the beach front of their Morland district into a tourist resort to which they will have no access. Ursa returns to Triunion at the urgent request of her mother, and together, both mother and daughter betray the PM to his rival. After her father's demise Ursa leaves Triunion unlikely to return.
- In Daughters, the compendium role of the black female as savior, nurturer, enduring family stabilizer, and non-abdicating provider overshadows the failures of the well-intentioned black male who becomes corrupt or dispirited in the face of pressures of neo-colonialism and Western patriarchy. Whether American or West Indian, the black female is even given the authority of community conscience when the partnership between the male and his female partner fails. Viney, Ursa's female American friend since schooldays buys a house with ample yard space for a child to play and raises her son Robeson with Ursa's support, when her male friend fails her. Similarly, in Triunion, the PM, the promising West Indian country male child, has been raised by his mother Miss Mack, a shopkeeper and her house help Celestine. As a constellation of daughters, the women support one another in a sisterhood, even if they do not approve of one another's doings.
- Underlying female interactions, however, is Marshall's exemplary maroon, Congo Jane whose monument shared with her partner Will Cudjoe stands in Morelands, the PM's countryside constituency. Although Marshall emphasizes the partnership of the legendary maroon couple, Congo Jane the female is the more revered of the two. Congo Jane holds the key to failed present-day relationships between black men and black women; and an insight into her partnership with Will Cudjoe will bring Ursa's unfinished womanhood to completion. In rejecting Ursa's research proposal on the maroon couple, her university professor has consigned descendants of the enslaved to ignorance about their cultural 'marriage' relationships. Domination and fragmentation of their family life continues, as is obvious when eight-year-old Robeson gets arrested and there is no male figure to stand on his part next to his mother Viney. For some ten years, Ursa has been denied completing this study, which holds relevance for all blacks in the new world diaspora:A neglected area in the study of the social life of New World slave communities has been the general nature of gender roles and relationships. This paper examines the relatively egalitarian, mutually supportive relationships that existed between the bondmen and women and their significance for and contribution to the various forms of resistance in enslavement found in the United States and the Caribbean. (11)
- Congo Jane is a symbol of righteous rebellion for male and female, American and West Indian alike. For it is Estelle the American who asks the PM to repeat the legend of the shawl, although he has told her the story before (137-140). It is the American Estelle who calls Ursa's reverence to the maroon pair, holding her up to touch their feet. The market women of Morlands who trudge with their produce in the foreday morning to the open air market with their shawls reminiscent of Congo Jane's famous shawl that covered her flailed nub-less breast, are Congo Jane's descendants. Not only does Congo Jane hold the key to West Indian self-affirmation; she is the key to gender issues between black male and female and Marshall twins both these concerns in Daughters, making the maroon, mother to all daughters of the enslaved diaspora regardless of their multifarious citizenships in their new worlds.
- In the prominence given to Congo Jane, Marshall plays on female aspects of revived Caribbean maroon theory of the 1970's and 80s. In Postcolonial Representations, for instance, Francoise Lionnet cites Michelle Cliff's Abeng as a novel that historicizes maroon culture and the Jamaican warrior heroine Nanny of the Maroons (10-12). Similarly, in a discussion of Vic Reid's Nanny Town, Louise Bennett's "Jamaica Oman," Erna Brodber's Myal, and Lorna Goodison "Nanny," Carolyn Cooper suggests that female willpower and intuitiveness are part of the West Indian inheritance from the female warrior maroon who is mother to the whole community through her superior knowledge as "roots woman" of the tribe (Maroon Heritage 109-118).
- Gender and female maroon resilience are also prominent in other female-authored texts of the last two decades of the 20th century such as Dionne Brand's novels In Another Place, Not Here and At the Full and Change of the Moon. Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, Lucy, and Zuela are all inheritors of Nanny in their vengefulness against patriarchal systems that threaten to destroy them. Zuela of The Autobiography of My Mother can speak for the lineage of them all:I am of the vanquished, I am of the defeated. The past is a fixed point, the future is open-ended; for me the future must remain capable of casting a light on the past such that in my defeat lies the seed of my great victory, in my defeat lies the beginning of my great revenge. (215-16)
- Ursa's acceptance of her allegiance to the West Indies and to America is not far-fetched. For it reflects real patterns of migration and travel between the United States and the Caribbean for West Indians at the close of the century, when easier hemispheric access puts less distance between families split for varying reasons between the two adjacent areas of the hemisphere. Undoubtedly the issues that surround Ursa's dual allegiance are partly autobiographical. Marshall says of her own New York growing:It was very early on that I had a sense of a very distinct difference between home, which had to do with the West Indies, and this country which had to do with the United States. For a while it was a little confusing because to me home was Brooklyn and by extension America, and yet there always was this very strong sense in the household of this other place that was also home. I think that it began then, an interest in this place that was so important to these women [the poets in the kitchen] and that I began to sense to was important in whomever I was going to discover myself to be. ( Melus 1991 17.4)However, in Daughters, Marshall's concerns go beyond autobiographical and gender issues into political problems of domination that the disempowered descendants of the enslaved share, regardless of nationality and migrations that set them on different territories in the hemisphere. Ursa's powerlessness against her white professor, and the powerlessness of Viney's son as a young black male stereotyped by the American law enforcement system are no different from the PM's powerlessness on the island of Triunion, that cause him to bend to corruption under the pressures of moneyed Americans who influence him to sell-out the beachfront of his constituents. The agencies of power are the same for both African-American and West Indian in their respective locations in the hemispheric diaspora. The American battleship the Woody Wilson lurking in the harbor is but a neo-colonial hemispheric watchdog, unleashed by the new superpower in charge of the Caribbean, under sanction of the Monroe Doctrine.
- Erna Brodber has shown a similar interest in West Indian-American diasporic connections. In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, she speaks of the historical, sociological and anthropological mission that propels her fiction, referring to Louisiana as a text devoted to pursuing "the American Connection" (167), a text in which she would show "what she did not think had as yet been clearly shown or grasped":that 1) the shipmates [of the West Indies and the United States had] made a New World thing of their own; (2) the product in each case has been influenced by happenings in the other's sphere; (3) the process of prior interaction by which each has informed the other, as well as the existence of a newly created product that has meaning for all, [were] bridges on which to build a strong understanding; (4) the grass-roots building of understandings so far [had] been mainly done by the unlettered-the domestic servants, stevedores, cane-cutters, minstrels. (Caribbean Women Writers 168)
- Louisiana attempts to unearth the important influence of Garveyism in unifying the black diaspora in the post World War I era of pan-Africanism. The events of the novel begin in the 1930s. Ella Townsend, a student at Columbia is employed as a researcher in President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration program (WPA) to interview and tape the memories and cultural ways of elderly African-Americans. Her assignment is to record the history of Mammy Grant-King, an African-American matriarch of South West Louisiana. The spirit of Mammy Grant-King recognises in Ella the medium for whom she has been waiting to pass on her story and be released from this life. Both Mammy and her dead Jamaican friend Lowly fused in one identity, the identity of Louisiana cross over into Ella through the tape, which unfolds a gradual accumulation of voices. Ella Townsend realises by degrees that Mammy King's story is not the story of Mammy King alone and thus cannot be told by Mammy King alone. The story of Mammy King is a story of longstanding and interlocking migrations between diasporic peoples with a West Indian connection forming its node.
- Under such heavy spirit possession, Ella's research becomes a psychic exploration and she drops out of sight, taking up residence in South West Louisiana. The story that unfolds over Ella's fifteen years communion with the two spirits and with the community is that Mammy Grant-King was an activist who had to flee the South. She fled to Chicago becoming a domestic, meeting there Lowly Grant, the Jamaican who was twenty years her junior. In Chicago, they both met Silas King a seafarer and "world wise politician" whom Mammy married. As a result of exposure to Silas King's insight and knowledge of world politics, Mammy returned to Louisiana while Lowly, who had become professionally and spiritually a nurse, returned to Jamaica to set up a UNIA unit in the Garvey Black Star pan-African network. Lowly Grant died shortly after returning to Jamaica. At one of her periods of psychic illumination, Ella own submerged memory is resurrected to reveal to her that she herself was born in the West Indies to parents who migrated to America after her birth. She was left with her grandmother at whose death not long after, her parents took her to America. Ella, however, is alienated from her parents who have joined the rat race, pursuing the American Dream.
- Ella Townsend, the messenger and scribe of Brodber's work, dies in the mid 1950s; but only after all the contributors to hidden areas of past West Indian-American collaboration are revealed in Mammy Grant-King's record. The manuscript of Ella Townsend the Jamaican-American reaches the Black World Press in 1974 "nearly forty years after Ella Townsend's descent into the unknown" (3), but the prologue of Brodber's novel establishes the credibility of Ella's research.
- Brodber chooses as her black matriarch and research subject an American state with an entrenched West Indian history. One of the central figures of the novel is the psychic Madam Marie, who, with her powers as seer and healer invokes the historically famed voodoo priestess of Congo Square New Orleans, Madam Marie Laveau whom accounts claim was born in Haiti at the end of the 18th century. Marie Laveau had a daughter, also named Marie who like her mother became a Voodoo priestess.
- Brodber thus positions her fiction on historical, cultural and anthropological parallels. For it is believed that the legendary Madam Marie arrived in New Orleans after the Haitian revolution in 1809. There was voodoo in New Orleans before Madam Laveau's arrival, but attempts had been made to suppress it. In the latter part of the 18th century, for instance, the importation of slaves from Haiti and Martinique to Louisiana had been disallowed, because of the belief of the people of the French Caribbean territories in Voodoo. When the Americans gained control of New Orleans, however, the restriction on slave importation was cancelled and immigration from Haiti into New Orleans was allowed. Voodoo then began to flourish in American New Orleans.
- In Louisiana the novel, Madam Marie operates a refuge for West Indians in Congo Square near to the seaport of New Orleans. Ella reports:The port of New Orleans is a very active one. There are ships and sailors from every conceivable part of the world. Madam was acutely interested in those who looked most like us. The banana boats from the West Indies had a fair share of such sailors. These made up the bulk of Madam's clientele. She took from them their tales and quickly passed them on. (Louisiana 79)Eventually, Madam Marie takes in Ella Townsend, the Jamaican-American writer/researcher, and her lover, the mulatto Reuben Kohl -- who is also a research student at Columbia. Reuben was born in the Belgian Congo. Madam Marie grows old and "leaves her burden[" of providing for her men of the sea to Ella as soon as Ella has attained her full psychic powers. Of these men Ella says: "There are so many Grants on both sides, so many Walkers, Harrises, Forbes and so many towns with the same names that [she is] having a great deal of difficulty in separating [her] West Indians from [her] Americans" (129). In the twinned history of persons and places, there is a St. Mary's parish Louisiana in America as much as there is a St. Mary, Louisiana, in Jamaica.
- Silas King, the pan-Africanist friend of Mammy Grant and Lowly, is suggestive of Dr. John, who figures prominently in the long spiritual history of Congo Square. This legendary Dr. John was said to be originally from Senegal. He became a Cuban slave in the New World and was subsequently freed as a consequence of his loyal service. After his manumission he became a sailor who came to work in the port of New Orleans. In Brodber's novel, Silas is a much-travelled sailor, trader and handyman who has lived in Cuba. He is a thinker and an enlightened political analyst of the world power changes of the early 20th century that are reshaping the place of black people as a working force in the changing world. The wide experience Silas gains as a worker from port to port makes him able to alert the women to the contribution they can make to pan-Africanism in various cells. In these ways Louisiana conflates and mythicizes successive time-waves of American West Indian migration, treating the importance of Garveyism as a unifier of the diaspora between the world Wars long after the movement had failed.
- The climactic revelation of the Mammy King's tape and the climax of the plot in Louisiana remains the impact of Garveyism. Mammy Sue Anne Grant-King, Lowly, and Silas were Garvey organisers. When that important link is revealed, Ella Townsend the spiritual scribe, who now also bears the name Louisiana alongside the "venerable sisters," Mammy King and Lowly, is released into death:You-know-who-would-do-it whispers, "G=Garvey".
So. So There it is. Finally out. I looked at Louisiana. She was smiling. That was Mammy and how she came to be of interest to those looking for the history of the black people of South West Louisiana. Not even fifteen minutes. Louisiana had waited and waited, must be, fifteen years for this. Mammy was a Garvey organiser and a psychic. We had long known about the latter. A Black nationalist. Well, well, well. "The units," Louisiana mumbled. "What units did she set up?" Louisiana had asked herself over and over. Why couldn't the answer have surfaced before? Why couldn't someone in St. Mary have mentioned it? Why couldn't Madam Marie have said it? Cryptic Marie had answered: "He who feels it knows it," meaning I suppose, "it will be revealed to you when you are emotionally there" and our/her seeking had ceased. They didn't want to talk of it. (148)
- Thus "Ah Who Say Sammy Dead," the signature tune of the novel is not only a paradigm for immortalising Garvey and Garveyism; in its denial of the death of Garvey, this subversion of the Jamaican folk song "Sammy Dead-O" represents the dormancy of an undying spiritual and cultural connection still in existence in spite of the tendency to diasporic cleavages. For, one way in which Louisiana maintains its premise of cultural connections between the West Indies and the United States is through the folk and spiritual songs which the West Indian farm workers, sailors, banana boatmen, who move continually between the West Indies and New Orleans, bring, teach, or already have in common. The Jamaicans regulars at Madam Marie's sometimes contribute to the group "[f]olksongs they called [them]. Sometimes it was Irish, English, Scottish melodies" (84). These West Indian undergo a re-education in which their colonialism is parodied. "There is a Balm in Gilead" and "Just Before the Battle Mother" and "I hear the voice/ I hear the gentle voice/ That calls me home" are but three of the songs to which both the American and West Indians lay claim:"But Madam that's our song" or "Fellows where'd you hear that. That's ours" and the battle royal went back and forth with Madam telling how far in her distant past she had heard it and it couldn't possibly be West Indian, "Who carried it to you?", and they could counter in a similar vein. (85)So one sees that both at Lowly's funeral in Jamaica twenty years earlier and at Mammy King's funeral, the song and ritual are the same. In St. Mary, Louisiana, Jamaica and in St. Mary, Louisiana, United States, celebrants lay Lowly and Mammy Grant-King to rest in the same way: an array of armbands, headgear, banners, aproned groups with banners across chest, with gloves and swords (36).
- Thus Louisiana is not just a fiction about West Indian-American relations between the world wars; it uses this period as a paradigm for centuries of unnoticed West Indian and American collaboration, communication and family connections. The Caribbean-Atlantic passage between America and the various islands, in ports like New Orleans (the port from which Marcus Garvey was deported to his Jamaica homeland) activate a sea passage that is but one dimension of the entire Black Atlantic. As an allegorical figure, Ella dies transcending literal understanding and moving knowledge of community connections along a historical and spiritual conduit of ancestors. She represents what Wilson Harris terms with reference to Myal "an intuitive leap or conversion of boundaries" ("The Life of Myth and its Possible Bearing on Erna Brodber's Fictions" 89), fusing West Indians and Americans.
- The importance of Garveyism to the black diaspora is also a concern of Paule Marshall in her early work Brown Girl, Brownstones. Marshall, too, turns recurrently to the inspirational impact of Garveyism on "the poets in the kitchen" in her interviews. In Brown Girl, Garvey's UNIA becomes a model, albeit a false one, for the Barbados Homeowners and Businessmen Association. This pseudo-Garveyism is a model for community building among Barbadian-Americans immigrants in New York which fosters cleavages -- West Indian from West Indian black from American black.
- The novels of Marshall and Brodber, then, are in dialogue over experiences of the black female in the West Indies and the United States between the two World Wars. In an early article "Black Immigrant Women in Brown Girl, Brownstones," Paule Marshall discussed that novel alongside the real experiences of the West Indian female immigrant in America between the two World Wars. She remarked that if it could be said that African-Americans suffered an invisibility in America and the black foreigner a double invisibility, then the West Indian immigrant woman in the United States could be said to have suffered "a triple invisibility" as black, foreigner and woman (3). Marshall's article outlined the "impressive strength, authority and style" of the West Indian immigrant woman, expressing the view that neither the presence, the worth, nor "the full use of the tremendous human resource [these women] represented" had ever been acknowledged, ending with an indirect challenge in her claim that the experience of these West Indian women "as immigrant women ha[d] yet to be regarded as worthwhile historical and sociological data in its own right" (11). Louisiana can be considered a work that fulfils Marshall's specific call for visibility and recognition for the Black West Indian immigrant woman in America from the inception of her dispersal in servitude over the Western hemisphere, and more particularly between the World Wars; and it is significant that both Daughters and Louisiana emphasize the importance of research into cultural, sociological and historical aspects of the similar and in some respects common past that West Indians and African Americans share.
- Male Caribbean authors have also shown an equal interest in migrations and diasporas in their writing of the last decades of the century. Notable works include V.S. Naipaul's A Turn in the South (1989); Caryl Phillip's Higher Ground (1989), The Nature of Blood (1997) and The Atlantic Sound (2000); and Fred D'Aguiar's The Longest Memory (1994). In A Turn in the South, Louisiana is not one of the states Naipaul visits and this is perhaps why his tongue-in-cheek search for "some of the lineaments of the black politicians of the Caribbean" and "someone who might have been created by Caribbean circumstances" (58) peters out.
- The wider diasporic reaches of Louisiana such as that engaged by Ella Townsend's husband Ben Khol of the Belgian Congo and his exploration of "Coon" rhythms, which open up double meanings in the areas of ethnomusicology and anthropological studies of early 20th century America, have not been explored here. In exploring Daughters and Louisiana, two novels of the 1990s, this discussion has merely set out to illuminate that gender and hemispheric concerns colour the writing of Caribbean literature in English of the last quarter of the 20th century, writing in which the Caribbean female writer is predominantly engaged.
- Agorsah, E. Kofi, ed. Maroon Heritage: Archaeological Ethnographic and Historical Perspectives. Jamaica: Canoe Press, 1994.
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- Cliff, Michelle. Abeng: A Novel. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984.
- D'Aguiar, Fred. The Longest Memory: A Novel. New York : Pantheon Books, 1994.
- Harris, Wilson. "The Life of Myth and its Possible Bearing on Erna Brodber's Fictions Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home and Myal." Kunapipi 12.3 (1990): 86-92.
- Kincaid. Jamaica. Annie John. New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985.
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- Naipaul, Vidia. A Turn in the South. London: Penguin, 1989.
- Pettis, Joyce. A MELUS interview: Paule Marshall. MELUS 17 . 4 (Winter 91): 117-30.
- Philip, Marlene Nourbese. Harriet's Daughter. Oxford & USA : Heinemann, 1988.
- Phillips, Caryl. The Atlantic Sound . New York : Alfred Knopf, 2000.
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