Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

The West Indian Child as Subject/object: Interrogating Notions of Power in Annie John

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

The West Indian Child as Subject/object: Interrogating Notions of Power in Annie John

Article excerpt

This paper proposes to examine the literary criticism of Annie John in relation to children's literature theory which argues that the child is always at the mercy of adult power and authority. This, I believe, can bring an interesting perspective to West Indian texts that critics argue have used child characters as a tool for representing the postcolonial condition. These child characters are often seen as rebellious spirits fighting for personal affirmation in the same way that the newly independent islands were struggling toward a West Indian identity. However, because the child characters are subject to or objectified by the authorities around them and by their own adult personas who narrate their "childhood" through memory and from perspectives already indoctrinated into social, cultural and gender codes, these texts may serve to re-emphasize the powerlessness of these islands that struggle against the dominant cultures in relation to which they are always being defined. This paper seeks to examine whether the use of the child character in West Indian Literature is in fact appropriate for representing the postcolonial condition.

Although Annie John is not a novel that one would usually characterize as belonging to the genre of Children's Literature--itself a genre difficult to define but, for the most part, defined in terms of its intended primary readership (1) --there are important convergences between children's literature theory and postcolonial theory that are relevant to reading the operation of power structures in the novel. Annie John is a novel that has been widely critiqued in terms of gender and race which, although they significantly contribute to interpreting the notions of power inherent in the novel, are not the focus of this essay. It is important that Annie is female and black, but it is Annie as child primarily with which this paper is concerned.

My argument is divided into two main sections. The first section involves a discussion of some of the similarities between children's literature theory, which sees the child as subject to adult power, and postcolonial theory that tends (unwittingly) to re-establish the authority against which the islands rebel. The second part of the essay focuses on Annie John to determine whether the construction of the child and her relationship with the adult characters in these texts may require an alternative reading of the power relationships that exist in the West Indian novel.

The Child and the Postcolonial Nation

Both Karin Lesnik-Oberstein and Jacqueline Rose, influential children's literature theorists, argue that there is "the need within Western society to capture, define, control, and release and protect the 'child,'" as shown through children's narratives (8). According to Rose, "Children's fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver)" (1-2). There is therefore an already implicit power relationship in the production of children's literature in which the child becomes subject to the dominance of the adult, and object produced or subject constructed by the adult. Lesnik-Oberstein argues, then, that "the 'child' has no 'voice' within the hierarchies of ... society, because 'adults' ... create that voice" (187). And Rose adds that it is not "an issue ... of what the child wants, but of what the adult desires--desires in the very act of constructing the child as the object of its speech" (2).

This calls into question the very act of narration in the text that is often performed by an implied adult narrator remembering his/her childhood. The very act of re-membering suggests the selection and ordering of the adult perspective of what it was like to be a child. Added to this are problems with the idea of memory as unstable, selective, overstated and subjective. To write the child is therefore to exercise power over the child--it involves defining the child, constructing the child according to the individual's idea of what constitutes childhood even in those texts that adopt a child narrator and claim to write from the perspective of a child--a clearly impossible thing to do. …

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