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Broadening the Bookshelves: Getting to know Caribbean literature

In this month's column, we're exploring Caribbean literature with Dr. Tanya Shields.

A headshot of Dr. Tanya Shields
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When I was in college, I took a class on French Caribbean literature. For a long time, then, that’s what Caribbean literature was to me: French. I’m a lot older now, though, and a long chat with Professor Tanya Shields at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has set me further straight. Her class, “Rahtid Rebel Women: An Intro to Caribbean Women,” covers everything from literature to cooking and was named as one of Elle Magazine’s “63 College Classes That Give Us Hope for the Next Generation.” We talked about intersectionality, women’s studies, and so much more. 

 

The Writer: Let’s start at the beginning. How do we define Caribbean literature? 

Dr. Tanya Shields: I think this definitional question is one that haunts the field, and I would say it haunts the field of Caribbean studies, not even just Caribbean literature, because we’re always looking at issues of place and who has the right to speak, who gets to speak when. So if we think of most of the Caribbean, these islands were colonized and most of the Indigenous population decimated. And we don’t have a lot of written retentions by these original inhabitants. We have some of their oral stories, we have some of their art, their petroglyphs, that kind of thing. And I think people are doing more and more research about this. The Caribbean [is also] not just the islands in the Caribbean Sea. There is also what we call the greater Caribbean, or the circum-Caribbean. So the coast of Venezuela, the entire countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana are thought to be part of the Caribbean. Parts of Central America, like Belize, are seen as the Caribbean in Caribbean studies. 

So I think that also we have this sort of expansive notion of space and place in the region, and it’s seen by just even defining the territory of what is the Caribbean.

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TW: So what I hear you saying is that the Caribbean is now also being somewhat defined by its diaspora. Would that be somewhat accurate? 

TS: Sometimes those places, like let’s say the coast of Venezuela, [are] very actually near Trinidad and Tobago. So there was movement between those places, where people in Trinidad would go to that coast, people would travel back. So that question of diaspora becomes a really interesting idea to consider because, in some places, I think we think of diaspora as just “a group that moved over and settled here.” But some people [say] you can’t be a diaspora until there’s sort of two movements. So if you move from the Caribbean to Britain and then someplace else, then you become a diaspora. But the move from the Caribbean to Britain is not enough of one. I don’t subscribe to that. But that’s also part of the critical conversation about what constitutes diaspora.

People talk about places like Louisiana, Miami, New York as being extensions of the Caribbean, and I think that can be problematic because those places are in the first world. You know, we can talk about first world and Third World and global south embedded in global north. But all that to say: These questions of definition plague us and are not easily resolved and are part of how we characterize and think through, “what is the Caribbean, period, and then what are Caribbean studies, what is Caribbean literature?”

TW: Does that sense of squishiness damage the study of Caribbean literature in any way? 

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TS: I don’t think it damages it, but I think it definitely challenges us because, you know, we like neat categories. We like to categorize things. We like to be able to put things in a box and know that [they’re] safely in that box. And so I think that the Caribbean sort of ruptures that idea of being neat. But I think Caribbean people have had to adapt to the kind of messiness in their histories and their societies because they are small societies that have been linked to the global because of colonial processes. 

TW: Do you think it’s unique in that regard?

TS: I think it was one of the earliest globally cosmopolitan spaces in the modern world. And if we think about modernity as sort of starting in the 14th, 15th century, then I do think that we have bodies that came from Europe. We have Indigenous bodies. Yes. Many of them were decimated, but they’re still there. We have European bodies. We have enslaved Africans, but we also have indentured bodies that came from places like India and China. And later in the 20th century, we had Arab populations from Syria and Lebanon and places like that that also came to the region. 

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Guyana and Trinidad are two Caribbean sites that have a 40-some-odd percent African-descended population and a 40-some-odd Indian descended population…Then there’s like 10% of mixed-race people, “other others,” quote unquote. But other places like Jamaica – though Jamaica has a Chinese population and an Indian population and a mixed-race population – is an overwhelmingly African-descended space, you know. And then when we look out beyond the English-speaking Caribbean to include territories like Cuba…it becomes a whiter Caribbean if we include the Spanish-speaking territories, like Cuba, Dominican Republic. 

TW: Related to this is the question of what traditions these different populations bring into Caribbean literature. You said that this multi-ethnicity challenges the idea of Caribbean literature and how we can define it and how we can think of it. Specifically speaking, what form do you think those challenges take?

TS: When I’m thinking about the Caribbean, I feel, I don’t want to say pressure, but – I feel like I must represent it in its most holistic sense. So that means I can’t just stay in the Anglophone Caribbean. So [in my syllabus] I have to have text from the Francophone and the Hispanophone and the Dutch-speaking Caribbean as well. I probably have a more cultural studies bent than a purely literary studies bent. But I also feel that reflects Caribbean experiences because even Caribbean writers, they were rarely just writers. They were often teachers, and some of them were engineers, and some of them were painters, and some of them were politicians. So they are these multi-dimensional people who are interested in a wide variety of things, and their writings reflected that. So you’d have people who are poets and playwrights and sometimes painters in addition to writing a novel. And then they taught high school, you know, or elementary school. So these were people who were definitely fashioned and informed by a really broad understanding of what it means to be an educated person. 

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I remember when I was in grad school, I had this old Jewish neighbor, she did everything, too. But she’s like, “Is there such a thing? The Caribbean has a literature?” This is a woman who is very well read, really valued learning about other people in other cultures. But she could not conceive of this sun-and-sand region as being also a place that was a literary powerhouse. 

TW: Are there places to learn more about Caribbean literature? 

TS: One of one of the resources that I have found really useful from my perch out here is the Bocas Lit Fest, a literary festival that’s based in Trinidad and Tobago. They have an archive. You can go back and look at talks with scholars. Before Bocas, there was something called CariFesta, which was about celebrating the Caribbean across linguistic regions. That [is] a mechanism for all types of artists, not just writers, to get together. So many people talked about CariFesta as a way of learning about other people in the Caribbean beyond your linguistic group because I think that that’s also a critical part of the Caribbean is that we tend to be a, quote unquote, fragmented place, fragmented by our colonial experiences that led to linguistic differences that still live with us today.

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[In the 1950s, during] this quest for independence [from colonialism], people started looking [for] “what makes us, us?” And they start looking at things like language, history, recuperating various paths. So there’s a lot of recuperation of African pasts and a lot of these works. Language becomes a huge, huge thing because people are like, we speak in what Edward Kamau Brathwaite calls “nation language,” as he says. To call it a “dialect” or to call it a “patois” diminishes its role as a language. And so he says, “Yeah, people speak Jamaican, or they speak Trinidad or Trinidadian, or they speak Creole or whatever you want to call it. But these are languages, and we need to recognize them as languages.” There was a real tension between: “Are you writing in English, or are you writing in the colonizer’s language, versus the language that you dream in or the language that you use at the market?” And Merle Hodge, who is a Trinidadian, has a great piece where she talks about how critical it is to recuperate Caribbean languages and write in them and valorize them because they have often been seen as incorrect speech or wrong speech. So I think that sort of experimentation with language and how language appears on the page impacted genre and how we tell stories.

TW: In your syllabus, you ask your students to make some recipes from the Caribbean, and you have them watch movies and films from and about the region. Why touch on so many modes of communication? 

TS: I feel like, you know, like the writers who are never just in one box, you can’t just [understand the Caribbean] in a singular way. It is really important to bring in as much lived experience [as possible], especially for an audience. It’s interesting how many of [my Caribbean students] know the Caribbean through food because that’s the one thing that their family retained. Especially if they don’t travel back. I wanted them to have a full Caribbean experience, which to me means it can’t just be the written word, or it can’t just be music. It has to be as much of that [experience] as possible. I also wanted to give students a regional scope, which means I just can’t stay in the Anglophone Caribbean, and we have to, even when I don’t do it well, I do want them to know these other places exist, and they have complicated histories because, again, we have a touristic gaze when we think of the Caribbean. So part of my job is to rupture that on as many fronts as possible. 

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Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path university and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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