restricted access Historical Thought and Literary Representation in West Indian Literature
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Reviewed by
Nana Wilson-Tagoe. Historical Thought and Literary Representation in West Indian Literature. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1998. 275 pp.

“In the West Indian literary context a book on the relationship between historical thought and literary perception hardly needs to justify itself”. Surely a given, but, much more important, a book this thoughtful and vigorous on the relationship between historical thought and literary perception absolutely does not need to justify itself. In a style at times reminiscent of her lively collaboration with David Dabydeen in A Reader’s Guide to Westindian and Black British Literature, newly revised and reprinted, Nana Wilson-Tagoe traces in the work of several key anglophone West Indian artists imaginative and intellectual processes emerging from literary representations of history, which processes she occasionally refers to as “dialectic.” But since, as she points out in respect to history, “no society occupies the uniquely ironic position that the West Indies occupies,” these processes as aesthetically realized even outstrip in their complexity the ideas inherent in the term “dialectic” by reconfiguring and reconceptualizing opposites simultaneously, presenting history, as she puts it, as both “a nightmare and a challenge.” Her felicitous expression, “the uniquely ironic position that the West Indies occupies,” provides the thrust of her text [End Page 493] consistently in her exploration of the competing states of consciousness, even ideologies, which shape the works she examines. The irony, or perhaps better, the ironies, conditioning historic thought in West Indian English language literature have everything to do with the recognition that the majority populations of African, then subsequently Asian and South Asian origins, lived throughout—in the case of African—three centuries largely without a record, but not without a past. It is in the shadow of someone else’s record, in this case, an Anglo-imperialist one, that these ironies proliferate. In sum, how does one speak of history or historiography in the English language and not think of Macauley or Gibbon?

This is true certainly for the English-speaking Caribbean, constituted overwhelmingly by these populations, educated willy-nilly under the British system. West Indian fiction and memoir for the past century deal painfully with the realities of education under the empire: schoolbooks filled with snowy battlegrounds and blowing fields of daffodils, providing, presumably, a sense of “home” and the “Mother Country.” In respect to the question of history in the West Indies, or a history of the West Indies, History, as a (largely) triumphant Anglo record, is inextricably a part of consciousness from early education in the islands. This is the nightmare from which no colonial, starting with Joyce, can awaken.

Especially for the writers of the West Indies, beginning with the independence movements of the twentieth century, however, that bad dream could be reread and rewritten. The term “rewritten,” of course, needs immediately to be defined, since the “rewriting” or “revision” of history carries with it in the metropolitan world a heavy, essentially political baggage, suggesting everything nefarious from the doctrinaire to the secret agendum. The rewriting of history in the West Indian context is largely a process of restoration, often the work of memory, sometimes the excavation of those bloodless statistics of bloody activities, the location of a record of the past where conventionally one has never thought to look. The task Wilson-Tagoe has undertaken is to trace that rereading and rewriting, that restoring, as realized and rerealized through the twentieth-century artistic consciousness.

Her opening chapter, “The Scope and Limits of West Indian Historiography,” adumbrates this point: if “West Indian historiography was shaped both by a European historical consciousness and by economic [End Page 494] systems and ideologies in Europe,” it is, therefore, now “within the context of colonial relations and anti-colonial perspectives that the twentieth century historiography of the region can be located.” The issue immediately is not whether this has been remarked before—a curiously metropolitan concern with who is first—which it has, but whether this large idea has been examined to the fullest, which it certainly has not, or quite in this way, which, again, it has not.

Wilson-Tagoe fills a great need in her elegant reading of that rereading and rewriting...