Academic journal article African American Review

Sugarcane as History in Paule Marshall's "To Da-Duh, in Memoriam"

Academic journal article African American Review

Sugarcane as History in Paule Marshall's "To Da-Duh, in Memoriam"

Article excerpt

There might not be a region of the world that reflects the history of colonialism in its various phases in a more direct way than does the Caribbean. Its very population is a direct result of the African slave trade, European migration, and later immigration from various parts of mostly the British empire, while little is left of the indigenous Arawaks or Caribs. The Caribbean ecology has been forever changed by the plants, animals, and agricultural methods imposed by Europe; in addition, the soil depletion characteristic of a number of West Indian islands directly results from the monocultural economy of the plantation system. The multi-lingualism of the West Indies mirrors the various participants in and stages of European colonialism--Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, French, British--while the fractured nature of West Indian politics grows out of European and North American rivalries over the fate of the Caribbean. In her 1967 short story "To Da-Duh, in Memoriam," Paule Marshall shows the inescapability of this history by inscribing it into the very landscape. In Marshall's story, in her later work, and in works by a number of Caribbean authors, even "nature" does not offer a retreat from the political realities of the West Indies.

By focusing on the role of "nature" in Marshall's story, I wish not so much to offer an analysis concerned with representations or ideologies of "nature" in and of itself but rather an interpretation from the point of view of environmental history; that is, to quote Peter Coats, "looking at the impact of economic and political systems, ideologies and technologies on the non-human world" (1). Much attention has been paid to the importance of landscape in Caribbean literature. One might think here of Wilfred Cartey's study Whispers from the Caribbean, of Eduard Glissant's Caribbean Discourse, or of Moira Ferguson's work on Jamaica Kincaid, as well as of the importance of geography--both as metaphor and "site"--in postcolonial literary criticism. Michael Dash, in his preface to Caribbean Discourse, has commented that

the relationship with the land ... becomes so fundamental in [Caribbean discourse] that landscape ... stops being merely decorative or supportive and emerges as a full character. Describing the lanscape is not enough. The individual, the community, the land are inextricable in the process of creating history. Landscape is a character in this process. (xxxvii)

I wish to "literalize" that attention and focus on the actual flora as flora in Marshall's story--and, later in the essay, in the work of other Caribbean authors--in order to unlock the history found in Caribbean plant life, approaching its symbolic import in the wake of migrating plants.

Wilfred Cartey's wonderful term landscaped history (4) may best describe what I am after here: the intertwining of the forces of nature with the forces of human-shaped time. How does this process play itself out in Marshall's short story, the story of a little girl's first visit to Barbados and her encounter with her grandmother and with island culture? As is characteristic of her fiction in general, Paule Marshall works here with a set of oppositions which interplay with one another in complex ways. "In this case, the asphalt jungle of New York City is fixed against the dense vegetation of a Caribbean isle" (Denniston 91). The story juxtaposes a Barbados representing nature with a West representing technology in a sort of competition. After introducing the child protagonist to some of the Barbadian plant life, her grandmother Da-Duh triumphs," 'I know you don't have anything this nice where you come from,' "repeating the statement after not receiving an answer, to which the protagonist replies, " 'No,'" and observes, "and my world did seem suddenly lacking" (278). Barbados wins this contest through its rich, fertile, natural world. New York, as representative of the West, appears sterile and barren. When Da-Duh claims to have heard that New York is " 'a place where you can walk till you near drop and never see a tree,' "all the protagonist has to offer in reply is" 'a chestnut tree in front of our house. …

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