History, (Re)memory and Cultural Self-Presencing: The Politics of Postcolonial Becoming in the Caribbean Novel

Article excerpt

... it is not true that the Caribbean people have no history, it is true that they are alienated from their history ... what is needed is not a unitary History, but instead a reconciliation to and with the multiple fragments and histories of Caribbean experience. (Oscherwitz 145)

Introduction

For reasons deeply rooted in history, it is imperative to constitute the Caribbean novel, and, indeed, the entire Caribbean literary tradition as an elemental and relentless engagement with the immense forces of History. This is history with an uppercase "H" referring to its colonial legacies and imperial hegemony as well as its violence and predatory disposition to the peoples of the Caribbean. It is the History of European empire-building in the marginal spaces of the peripheral world outside the circumference of the West. In the European imagination, it is the only History that validly exists. This History of violence and violence of History was manifest in the conquest and near annihilation of the aboriginal Amerindian population, the Arawaks and Caribs. Its repeated births also witnessed the brutal uprooting, dislocation and displacement of whole populations across the Atlantic to a life of slavery on the vast plantations of the New World. The Caribbean Islands have, through the conspiracies of History, become postcolonial outposts or satellites of dominant metropolitan political, economic and socio-cultural formations of diverse European nations which they look to as centers of cultural life and standards.

The very idea of history in the Caribbean constitutes a contested and contestable site. To some informed writers like the St. Lucian Nobelist, Derek Walcott, history does not exist in the Islands. It ended with the sea which brought the agglomerations of peoples to the Islands. Walcott's perspective is strengthened by his argument that there is nothing celebratory, noble or ennobling about the violence, agonies, humiliations and dehumanization that characterized and defined this history. In the rigid distinction of history as culture and as myth--as if the two are monadic and mutually exclusive--Walcott settles for the mythical axis of history. To him, history in the Caribbean is myth rather than a cultural construction. As he further argues, "History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake" ("The Muse of History" 1). In one of his poems, "The Sea is History," Walcott again foregrounds the absence of a history in the Caribbean as he problematizes this history employing rhetorical strategies thus: "Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, / In that grey vault. The sea. The sea is History" (364).

The negation of this History by Walcott because of its discomfiting character contrasts radically with the perspective of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, another prominent Caribbean writer. To Brathwaite, this history can be characterized as fragmentary and dispersed and the imperative is "how to study the fragments/whole" (199) of the Caribbean historical reality whose substrata are plantation slavery, colonial domination and cultural pluralism. Thus, to him, to deny the area the heritage of history will be tantamount to willful violence to facts. He, therefore, refracts the Caribbean as possessing a valid and legitimate history even as the European imperial History remains the preferred category. And even though the sea was partial and prejudiced in its disposition to the histories of the captain and the cargo, Braithwaite contends that that is not synonymous with the absence of history.

Edouard Glissant enters the argument on a note of affirmation of Caribbean history. In his validation of Caribbean history, he postulates that the history exists except that it is fractured and dispersed, constituting itself as "the site of history characterized by ruptures and that began with a brutal dislocation, the slave trade" (61). This means that both the histories of the captain and of the cargo were admitted except that the latter has been accorded subordinate or subaltern status while the former has been elevated and assigned a transcendental place. …