Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature

Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature

Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature

Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature


In this far-reaching literary history, John Wharton Lowe remakes the map of American culture by revealing the deep, persistent connections between the ideas and works produced by writers of the American South and the Caribbean. Lowe demonstrates that a tendency to separate literary canons by national and regional boundaries has led critics to ignore deep ties across highly permeable borders. Focusing on writers and literatures from the Deep South and Gulf states in relation to places including Mexico, Haiti, and Cuba, Lowe reconfigures the geography of southern literature as encompassing the “circumCaribbean,” a dynamic framework within which to reconsider literary history, genre, and aesthetics. Considering thematic concerns such as race, migration, forced exile, and colonial and postcolonial identity, Lowe contends that southern literature and culture have always transcended the physical and political boundaries of the American South. Lowe uses cross-cultural readings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, including William Faulkner, Martin Delany, Zora Neale Hurston, George Lamming, Cristina García, Édouard Glissant, and Madison Smartt Bell, among many others, to make his argument. These literary figures, Lowe argues, help us uncover new ways of thinking about the shared culture of the South and Caribbean while demonstrating that southern literature has roots even farther south than we realize.


When I began thinking about the issues that became Calypso Magnolia, I was reminded of resources in my own history. I grew up in Atlanta but my mother was from Miami, and we went to Florida almost every summer, usually to Miami, but also to Daytona, Tampa, Clearwater, and Eau Gallie, where my Aunt Mary and Uncle Willie had a tropical nursery, hard on the banks of a black-water river that threaded through a lush jungle. Until Castro took over Cuba, my parents would deposit their children with my Aunt Nita in Hialeah while they flew the short hop over to Havana to party at the Tropicana and other night spots. I still have a banner from the club’s restaurant. My Daddy spoke fluent Spanish and had many Cuban friends, who visited us in Atlanta, bringing painted Cuban ties and cigars. I used to go deep-sea fishing with Daddy, and he would point over the water to where Cuba was. After the revolution, my relatives in Hialeah became surrounded by Cuban neighbors, whose spicy food wafted enticing aromas across the hibiscus-festooned yards.

Living in Louisiana for many years placed the Caribbean squarely in front of me, as its great approach, the Mississippi River, abutted the campus I went to almost daily. New Orleans has long been said to be more Caribbean than Southern—although surely it is both—and its vibrant, diverse neighborhoods (and not just the ornate French Quarter) are right now being rebuilt and painted in bright, pastel colors that are also common to the Caribbean. the city’s Haitian, Guadeloupean, Jamaican, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Puerto Rican citizens enliven the ethnic neighborhoods and markets. Much of the recovery work after Hurricane Katrina was done by Mexicans, who are an increasing presence in the Crescent City.

Louisiana’s tropical flora, fauna, and climate are all replicated in the other areas of the Caribbean, and its swamps and jungles once resonated with the cries of Maroons, black runaways from plantations, who often forged alliances (including marriages) with Native Americans. Maroons played similar roles across the Caribbean, particularly during the Haitian Revolution.

The tropical flora and fauna of the circum Caribbean cross artificial boundaries too. in 1944, the naturalist Thomas Barbour wrote of the way . . .

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