June 7, 2010

What is a Caribbean Classic?: Opal Palmer Adisa

Defining a Caribbean Aesthetic: The Making of a Caribbean Classic

By Opal Palmer Adisa

When we think about Caribbean literature, we must include the oral literature that was shared with us in the tales and folklores and which many contemporary writers revise, update, and incorporate in their poems, stories, and drama. To discount this tremendous body of work is a mindless disregard of our ancestors and we stymie our literary evolution as a people, creating an aborted trajectory.

Similarly, as we look to define and erect a Caribbean classic, we must be mindful that the whole notion of classic in the modern sense is erroneous because the Greeks are cited as the stamp. However, as educated people, we know that the Egyptians are the forerunners; their formidable library at Alexandria was raided and destroyed by the pillage of war--much like what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, of course, there is Timbuktu that also served as a foundation. History aside, or rather, history as cautionary guide, a classic is a work that sets the standard, serves as a archetype and is not restricted to a certain era --in other words, the work can be said to be timeless because regardless of how much time has passed or how things have changed, the work serves as a light allowing us to see,  understand, and make inferences not only about the time period in which the work was set, but how it continuously references and illuminates our understanding of the present moment in which we find ourselves.

Of course, with regards to the Caribbean, a classic would have to speak to the socio-political conditions of the people and be dogged in its revelation of hope and viable alternatives. It must demonstrate, to the nth degree, the Caribbean ethos, delineate our cosmology, excavate a self that is so often hidden from us, and speak with authority to the possibilities of new realities and self-determination.

Most importantly, a Caribbean classic should give us a protagonist that represents and/or identifies with the seemingly ordinary Caribbean person, yet who in someway leads an introspective life and strives to rise above her/his socio-physical surroundings.

While it can be argued and debated that such criteria for a classic, favors a specific agenda, which it does, and which all classics do, I believe as Caribbean people we have to forge an identity and standard that speak to the specifics of who we are, and even more importantly, where we want to go, even if that path is not yet defined – machete in hand, we clear the path as we go along. In addition, to the above, a classic work of literature should have literary merit: assiduous mastery of language, unique and representational characters, descriptive details, multiple layers of meanings, and for me, very personal and, I strongly believe essential for the Caribbean, a sense of hope. 

Given our young history as producers of literature, we hold our own: two Nobel laureates, Neustadt International Prize, Guggenheims, and many Commonwealth prizes. Equally as impressive is the larger number of recognized writers who continue to produce excellent work despite our economic straits, access to higher education in the region, our total population, and median age. Still, we accomplish and compete, and can say with pride we have literary works that are part of the Euro-American canon, and which also set the bench-mark for the Caribbean canon.

Consequently, I offer the following four texts as Caribbean classics, and will go so far as to say they should be included in any survey course on Caribbean literature. The History of Mary Prince serves as the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in England. Its historical merit is unprecedented, but the details and vigor of the telling is also impressive. Then, we have another autobiography, by yet another intrepid woman, Mary Seacole, the Caribbean’s own Florence Nightingale--a herbalist, and shrewd business woman whose financial acumen allowed her to travel to the site of the Crimean War and where she became a beloved caregiver to soldiers on both sides. Her explorations and brave story are chronicled in the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857).

Moving to the 20th century, we have Edgar Mittelholzer, the first professional novelist to come out of the English-speaking Caribbean, and the author of twenty plus novels. My favorite from among his body of work and I think one of his best is, Corentyne Thunder (1941). Who can read that text and not root for Ramgolall, an empathic protagonist, if ever there was one. Lastly and noteworthy, is Sylvia Wynter’s Hills of Hebron (1962), in which Wynter speaks to and for the nation of Jamaica.

These are some of the seminal Caribbean classics that shimmer still today, and which will captivate and send future readers on a quest to learn more about Caribbean writers, culture and its people.


About the author:

Jamaican born, Dr. Adisa is a poet and prose writer who brings extensive editorial experience to the anthology. She has published 14 books, and her writings have appeared in over 200 journals and anthologies. She is also a much sought-after speaker and has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and the Caribbean.

She has been recognized for her work in the form of many awards and honors, among them the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for her poetry collection Tamarind and Mango Women and the Master Folk Artist Award for Storytelling from the California Arts Council. She has also received awards for both poetry and fiction from The Caribbean Writer and has served as an Advisory Board member of The Caribbean Writer since 1998. Her interview with renowned poet Kamau Brathwaite appears in Volume 23 (2009). Dr. Erika J. Waters, founding editor of The Caribbean Writer said she was "delighted the magazine was in such capable hands."

Adisa, who has a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, most recently was a professor at California College of the Arts. She previously taught both graduate and undergraduate courses at several universities including Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University.


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FSJL said...

The Museion -- the Library of Alexandria was a temple dedicated to the Greek Muses -- was created by the Greeks, as was Alexandria, founded by the Macedonian Alexander, and named after himself. How Egyptian a library in a Greek colony was is an interesting and complex exercise. The question of what is a classic is a complex one, certainly. It would, for me, include, for example, works like the Mahabharata, the Analects and the Tripitaka which weren't in my reading in school. But then, neither was The Faber Book of Modern Verse, I had to find that for myself. My own teachers were fed on what was considered great by the standards of the people who set the curriculum right after the War (and who were thus influenced by the norm right before the War, which was very conservative. I had teachers who thought that Arthur Mee's books were the be-all and end-all of literary excellence. More English Home Counties inter-war middlebrow you couldn't get.

I wonder whether Mittelholzer or Hearne would get into the Caribbean Pantheon today. I'm pretty certain Emtage wouldn't (not that I think that a writer as slight as Emtage should). But where would Lauchmonen fall? Or how about the McFarlanes? J.E. Clare is today largely forgotten, but he was a proficient poet. But should his son, Basil, be? Vivian Virtue's work is not much remembered, but A.L. Hendricks is a poet who ought, I think to be.

Is W. Adolphe Roberts a classic figure? Or just another costumbrista novelist of interest today only to the literary historian or to the scholar who needs his or her Ph.D?

I could go on and on asking these questions... But I'll stop. Before somebody wuk obeah on me.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Fragano,

Thank you for your contribution. The notion of a classic is a complex one and writers do fall in and out or favor with the public and critics.

I know I am preaching to the choir here, but it is a question that me must continue to ask because in answering we define ourselves and our age.

Have nor fear of obeah, "so if you all bull bucker, let me tell you this...