Memory and Identity

Article excerpt

At a conference last year at Florida International University, noted Chilean author and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin discussed the concept of memory in the works of Latin American women writers. Agosin pointed out that in the fiction of many of the region's female authors, the ability to remember the past creates a sense of engagement and continuity. Their works are characterized by a sense that past experience--no matter how traumatic--should be preserved with the same veneration awarded the present. As examples of this contemporary trend, she cited Claribel Alegria (El Salvador) and Elena Poniatowska (Mexico).

In the case of Caribbean women writers, the concept of "memory" is invigorated, to a certain extent, by the issue of race. In all four major language areas of the region-English, Spanish, French and Dutch--women use memory, whether collective or individual, to trace and return to the past in search of their true identity. They go back to the era of slavery, the legacy of an African homeland, and the invisible scars of displacement, captivity and exile to tell their story. Race is a powerful ingredient that is frequently reflected in the use of Creole as the language of choice. Indeed, race and language have become dose allies in the quest for cultural identity in the Caribbean.

THE SEARCH FOR ROOTS

In the first half of the twentieth century, a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris developed the theory of Negritude. At the core of this theory was the exaltation of an African cultural identity long repressed and despised in the West Indies, where the assumption of white superiority over black was a basic tenet of the institution of slavery. A key proponent of Negritude was Aime Cesaire, a French Caribbean author from Martinique. His seminal 1939 text, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Return to My Native Land), gave poetic form to the yearning for reconciliation with ancestral Africa. This searing text became the cornerstone of modern Francophone West Indian literature, and Cesaire's theme of black cultural exile was embraced by writers from all parts of the Caribbean.

Within just a few decades, however, critics challenged the privileged position which Cesaire accorded to Africa in his works--a step intended as a corrective to Europe's dismissal of African civilization--on the grounds that it encouraged West Indians to bypass their own countries in their quest for spiritual roots. In 1958, another French Caribbean academic, Edouard Glissant, proposed the concept of Antillanite instead. This theory offered another interpretation of cultural identity, one more attuned to geographical reality and historical truth. Viewing the recovery of African identity as a practical impossibility due to the intervening, alienating centuries of slavery, Glissant preferred to focus his attention not on a distant, imagined continent but on the real country of his birth, Martinique. Instead of an emotional affiliation with Africa, Antillanite sought to incorporate the history of the despised institution of slavery and all its accompanying evils.

Antillanite did not repudiate Negritude; instead, it adapted and adjusted it to conform to Caribbean reality. For Glissant, the real issue became one of authentication rather than denial. In founding the journal Acoma in the early 1970s, he initiated a forum for lively psychological and socioeconomic debate about the new doctrine and its implications for the French Caribbean.

CARIBBEAN COMPLEXITIES

The cultural transition from Negritude to Antillanite can perhaps be traced most clearly in the works of Maryse Conde, an author from Guadeloupe who is one of the Caribbean's most prolific and complex writers. As a black Caribbean woman novelist, Conde not only highlights the tensions in Caribbean culture between traditional and modern values, but also those existing among ethnic groups and between the sexes. She combines a representative view of a Caribbean writer's specific concerns with a postmodern view of literature as multicultural, polymorphous intersection. …