Academic journal article ARIEL

Pastiche, Collage, and Bricolage: Caryl Phillips' Hybrid Journal and Letters of a Slave Trader in Crossing the River

Academic journal article ARIEL

Pastiche, Collage, and Bricolage: Caryl Phillips' Hybrid Journal and Letters of a Slave Trader in Crossing the River

Article excerpt

In the third narrative of Crossing the River, which includes Captain Hamilton's edited journal of his voyage to West Africa and correspondence to his wife, Caryl Phillips uses both pastiche--imitating the style of John Newton's authentic logbook, Journal of a Slave Trader (1750-54), and of Newton's letters to his wife--and a montage or collage through the inclusion of barely amended extracts from Newton's original documents. Critics disagree about the proportion of appropriation and creation in this third section; some highlight the novelist's creative transformation and transposition of the historical documents while others insist that Phillips relies excessively on the original text while simultaneously reducing its complexities. I argue that Phillips' faithfulness to the original enables him to preserve the memory of the slave trade in its sheer horror, while his deviations from Newton's journal and letters point to the instability of any text, be it historical or fictional. The insertion of this section within a novel in which other parts are more clearly fictional and involve former slaves draws attention not only to the constructedness of any discourse but also to the different textual means through which the past can be remembered.

Keywords: slavery, pastiche, journal, Caryl Phillips, Crossing the River

Caryl Phillips' fifth novel Crossing the River (1993) is often studied alongside neo-slave narratives, but recent criticism has emphasized the diasporic scope of the novel in which slavery is a major, but not the main, topic (Wallart 261). Slavery is nevertheless at the heart of the third section of the novel, which is titled "Crossing the River" and consists of the logbook of a fictional slave trader, James Hamilton, during his expedition to the west coast of Africa in 1752-53 as well as two letters to his wife. From the sixteen months of extensive research Phillips conducted before he started writing the book (Phillips, "Crossing" 26), he singled out one specific document mentioned in the acknowledgements: Journal of a Slave Trader (1750-54) by John Newton (1725-1807). Through this paratext, the novel, like its predecessor Cambridge (1991), "deliberately calls attention to its intertextuality" (O'Callaghan 34) and thus does not smuggle its major hypotext. According to Gerard Genette, hypertextuality involves a process of grafting a new text onto an earlier text (1) and can include transformation (through parody) and imitation (through pastiche); "Crossing the River" both transforms the hypotext and employs pastiche by imitating the style of Newton's authentic logbook and the letters to his wife (an unacknowledged source in the paratext). This third section is also characterised by a montage or collage through its inclusion of slightly modified extracts from Newton's original documents without quotation marks. (2) This article examines Phillips' ventriloquism of this eighteenth-century English slave captain and reflects on how a contemporary novel may bear witness to the trauma of slavery by borrowing from historical documents (thus preserving the memory of the past) and adding fictional elements, which point to the constructedness of any discourse.

Crossing the River weaves together four narratives of forced displacement, throwing light on emancipated slaves' journeys from America to Africa in the nineteenth century in Part I, "The Pagan Coast"; the ordeal of a former slave turned frontierswoman and defeated pioneer in the American Wild West in Part II, "West"; the slave trade in Africa in the eighteenth century in Part III, "Crossing the River"; and the alienation of an Englishwoman and a black GI in England during the Second World War in Part IV, "Somewhere in England." Spanning three centuries and criss-crossing three continents, Crossing the River raises crucial questions related to identity, belonging, uprootedness, responsibility, and loss. It is an interesting coincidence that Phillips' novel was published in the same year as Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, since both novelist and theoretician draw on the cultural memory of slavery to reflect on the traces it has left in the contemporary world. …

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