Introduction to Caribbean Literature: Dr. Heather Russell

Heather RussellDr. Heather Russell’s research interests examine narrative form and its relationship to configurations of national/racial identities. Her forthcoming book, Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic, will published by the University of of Georgia Press. She has also published in African American Review; Contours; The Massachusetts Review; and American Literature and has essays in a collection on John Edgar Wideman, Jacqueline Bishop’s My Mother Who is Me and Donna Aza Weir-Soley and Opal Palmer Adisa’s Caribbean Erotic.

At the undergraduate level, Andrade regularly teaches C19th and C20th African American Literatures; Major Caribbean Writers; Black Citizenships and Black History and the Fictive Imagination. For the graduate curriculum, she teaches African Diaspora Women Writers and Narratives of Enslavement and Resistance.

Heather Russell grew up in Jamaica and attended St. Andrew High School for girls. Legba’s Crossing is available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble and Amazon

Presentation for the Florida Humanities Council Florida Center for Teachers (K-12)
By Heather Russell, Ph.D.

Geoffrey Philp's Blog Spot
Anglophone: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, Grenada, Belize, Anguilla, Cayman, British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guyana, The Bahamas.
Hispanophone: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico
Francophone: Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana

A Few Definitions

Derek Walcott’s description for Caribbean geo-spatiality in which individual island-states are reconceived as a group – and term is metonymic for Caribbean peoples who are themselves navigating national/regional configurations and identities.

For Antonio Benitez-Rojo the Caribbean is conceived as a “repeating island” – a meta-archipelago which has no center/periphery and hence reconfigures conventional conceptualization of colonial paradigms: center-margin, core-periphery, metropole-outpost. The Caribbean is thus polyrhythmic – or like “a ray of light with a prism.”

The Limbo Gateway

The Middle Passage is the site where New World identities are born: former African identities become disassembled and new world African identities get reassembled. 

Wilson Harris calls this the "limbo gateway." Caribbean literature is thus produced by the "limbo imagination."

Colonial Values
Caribbean Values



Reality v. Fantasy/Myth

Fact v. Fiction

History: linear, causal

Literature: 7 elements:
Meaning,Form, Narration,
Tone, Character,
Use of Language, Structure
Nation Languages: Creoles

Vodoun, Santeria, Obeah

Magical Realism


Historiography: Great Time


Literary Comparison of Elements

Colonial Literature
Caribbean literatures
Meaning: fixed, clear,

Form: genre identifiable

Narrative Voice: principle
narrating subject (epic)

Character: archetypal, fixed

Use of Language: consistent

Structure: parallelism,
Meaning: flexible, indeterminate

Form: mixed genres

Narrative Voice: multiple narrating subjects (jazz)

Character: unstable, fluid

Use of Language: mixed

Structure: hybrid, asymmetrical, disruption of linearity

Caribbean "Quilted Discourse" 

Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido’s concept of the “quilted structure” of Caribbean women’s writing as a reconfiguration of fragmentation (modernist angst) and linearity (phallocentricity).

No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff

We are a fragmented people. My experience as a writer coming from a culture of colonialism, a culture of black people riven from each other, my struggle to get wholeness from fragmentation while working within fragmentation, producing work which may find its strength in its depiction of fragmentation, through form as well as content.
The truck struggled on up through the Cockpits. Its side was painted with the motto…NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN. How these words had come to him [the owner] they did not know…NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN. No Voice to God. A waste to try…the motto suited them…Depression. Downpressions. Oppression. Recession. Intercession. Commission. Omission. Missionaries…all the same t’ing mi dear.
We is in Babylon. Yes mi dear Bredda. NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN. Maybe the line it is engaged and God can’t bodder wid de likes of we. God nuh mus’ be Hinglish…But how could Massa God be their enemy? The seawater which hid their history was not at fault. The moon which lit the sea…the blue mountains. The black widow. The brown widow. The thick stands of Black Mangrove.
None of these were the enemy.
They were tired of praying for those that persecuted them. (17)
*No Telephone repetition like a jazz riff; Blended prose-poetic form; Platform English/Jamaican blended.

Jazz and the West Indian Novel

The jazz novel in the normal course of things, will hardly be an epic. Dealing with a specific, clearly-defined, folk-type community, it will try to express the essence of this community through its form.
History of the Voice by Kamau Brathwaite
It is not language, but people who make revolutions. I think however, that language does really have a role to play here, certainly in the Caribbean. But it is an English [French/Spanish] that is not the standard, imported, educated English, …It is what I call, as I say, nation language. I use the term in contrast to dialect…Dialect is thought of as “bad” English. Dialect is “inferior” English. Dialect is the language when you want to make fun of someone. Caricature speaks in dialect…Nation Language on the other hand, is the submerged area of that dialect that is much more closely allied to the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean. It may be in English, but often it is in an English which is like a howl, or a shout, or a machine-gun, or the wind, or a wave. It is also like the blues.(266).


Watch the landscape of this island…and you know they coulda never hold people here surrendered to unfreedom.’ The sky, the sea, every green leaf and tangle of vines sing freedom.
Four hundred years it take them to find out that you can’t keep people in captivity. Four hundred years! And it didn’t happen just so. People had to revolt. People had to poison people. Port-of-Spain had to burn down. A hurricane had to hit the island. Haiti had to defeat Napoleon. People had to run away up the mountains. People had to fight. And then they agree, yes. We can’t hold people in captivity here.
But now they had another problem: it was not how to keep people in captivity. It was how to set people at liberty (7).
*History v. Historiography. This excerpt provides both alternative/resistant history to conventional narrative of Slavery and Emancipation and alternative/resistant historiography: through its form.

Migration Stories

Adopted Country
Developing nations: post-independence, post-industrial, globalization

Political upheavals: political instability, economic instability

Colonialism’s legacies: class/color stratification

Cultural homogeneity:
creoles/nation languages,
music, dance,food,
customs, sports,
national pride
Developed nation: free market, economic alienation for many immigrants: credit system, legal status issues, underemployment

Political stability: high numbers of non-citizenship, limited representation

Racism, ethnocentrism

Cultural diversity: cultural enclaves, nostalgia, displacement, cultural memory, border crossings

Migration Story 1

The more she bought, the more insatiable she became. -God, can you help me out here? she asked, hoping he’d help her win the lottery she played on Sundays. Within days of her prayers, she found a letter in the mail. Esperanza Colon: You have been preapproved. After working as a home health attendant for five years, Esperanza was eligible for a credit card, her very own five-hundred-dollar credit card…Days later another latter arrived. You have been preapproved for up to 1,000 dollars. Preapproved. Esperanza mouthed the words in front of the mirror…it felt good to get some approval for once…When the bills came, Esperanza put them in a drawer. She planned to pay them when she had extra money…And when she reached the credit card’s limit…she filed the credit card itself in the drawer, expecting to pay it all one day, little by little” (33-4).

Migration Story 2:

My mother came forward...She tried to lift my body into the front seat but she stumbled under my weight…She did not look like the picture Tantie Atie had on her night table…she had dark circles under her eyes…her fingers were scarred and sunburned. It was a though she had never stopped working in the cane fields after all…
…Am I the mother you imagined?” a child, the mother I imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother. She was the healer of all women and the desire of all men…” In the mirror…new eyes seemed to be looking back at me…a new face altogether. Someone who had aged in one day, as though she had been through a time machine, rather than an airplane. Welcome to New York, this face seemed to be saying: Accept your new life. I greeted the challenged as one greets a new day. As my mother’s daughter and Tantie Atie’s child (59; 49).

Two South Florida Caribbean Poets

Florida Bound

For our exile will never end until we free
of those who teach only the whip and rope.
And black man still can’t live in him own
black land without facing the drawn bayonets
of those who exact lives as payment, who disown
with a kiss our martyrs, our prophets.
so we end in the hot and homeless cities
of the South to be free of them.
The last dry months, like bitter molasses.
Tired of dreams, New Jerusalems.

Migratory Patterns

It’s natural for birds to fly south in winter but we fly north in every season
leaving warmth in search of dreams
that sometimes leave us cold.
Like birds of a feather we fly in formation,
vulnerable at hunting season
yet do not stop or break our ranks
when one of us falls victim
to the hunters’ need for feathery trophies…
…It is natural for birds to fly south in winter,
But Caribbean people fly north in every season
Leaving the warmth of familiarity and family
In search of dreams that sometimes leave us freezing in the snow.


History [with a capital H] ends where the histories of those peoples once reputed to be without history come together.
The struggle against a single History for the cross-fertilization of histories means repossessing both a true sense of one’s time and identity: proposing in a new unprecedented way a revaluation of power.


Important Related Post: Toward a Floribbean Literature.  Speculative theory about the creation of a sub-genre of Caribbean-American and Caribbean writing in the diaspora:The work of Caribbean-American authors living in Florida.

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FSJL said…
That's a lot in one piece. One thing that I do want to note is that the "Dutch Caribbean" got left out.
Give thanks, Fragano. You are correct & this is why the blog format of comments is so important for so many voices to join and broaden the conversation.


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