Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature

By Simon Gikandi | Go to book overview

Introduction: Modernism and the Origins of Caribbean Literature

Even if every date that permits us to separate any two periods is arbitrary, none is more suitable, in order to mark the beginning of the modern era, than the year 1492, the year Columbus crosses the Atlantic Ocean.

-- Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America

My mother said I'd be alone
and when I cried (she said)
I'd be Columbus of my ships
and sail the gardens round
the tears that fell into my hand.

-- Edward Kamau Brathwaite, "Limbo"

Caribbean literature and culture are haunted by the presence of the "discoverer" and the historical moment he inaugurates. For if Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas and his initial encounter with the peoples of the New World have paradigmatic value in the European episteme because they usher in a brave new world, a world of modernity and modernist forms, as Tzvetan Todorov assumes in my first epigraph, these events also trigger a contrary effect on the people who are "discovered" and conquered. And while Eurocentric scholars have been eager to claim the conquest of the Americas as a radical and exemplary event that opens up the Old World's reconceptualization of its cultural traditions and temporality, and the constitution of the colonial other, Caribbean writers and scholars exhibit extreme anxiety and ambivalence toward the beginnings of modernity and modern-

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