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Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall
Heather Hathaway. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall. Blacks in the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. 232 pp.
In Caribbean Waves, Heather Hathaway questions why African Caribbean (im)migrant writing in the United States has been read primarily within either African American or Caribbean literary studies rather than interculturally. While there has been considerable historical and sociological study of African Caribbean immigration to the United States, writers such as McKay and Marshall have been largely ignored within studies of American immigrant literature. Conversely, their immigrant backgrounds are diminished in African American studies by their respective reputations within Harlem Renaissance and contemporary women's writing. Foregrounding how African Caribbean writing in the United States problematizes Americanist cultural theories of immigration, Hathaway's valuable comparative study underscores the significance of migration, displacement, and cultural dislocation as represented by McKay and Marshall. She argues that while McKay's narratives of "dislocation" evoke a typical first-generation immigrant estrangement from home and host countries, Marshall's feminist narratives of "dual location" suggest a [End Page 1028] more atypical second-generation critique of assimilationism. Both writers feature "uniquely hybridized, and at times, profoundly homeless, black immigrant identities" whose implications for American cultural studies are as complex as they are underappreciated.
Caribbean Waves consists of two chapters on McKay--one on his Jamaican and early American poetry and another on his novels, Home to Harlem, Banjo, and Banana Bottom--and two chapters on Marshall--one on Brown Girl, Brownstones and the other on Daughters. Preceding these is an introductory overview of the first wave of African Caribbean immigration to Harlem. This chapter delineates a problem of particular importance to McKay: social and political conflict among Caribbean- and American-born blacks, evidenced by the conciliatory 1926 "Special Caribbean Issue" of Opportunity. As Hathaway's incisive readings of McKay's early American poetry suggest, his isolation as a poet in the U.S. can be attributed largely to his experience as an African Caribbean migrant, struggling to reconcile his Jamaican background and expatriation with his experience of American racism. Though Hathaway's account of McKay's "internationalist" worldview is compromised by her minimal attention to his intellectual engagement with Marxism, her focus on migrant marginality leads to compelling cross-cultural readings of his novels, especially Home to Harlem and Banjo. Hathaway persuasively relates their innovative adaptations of the picaresque--in their episodic jazz structure, their black vernacular narration, and their development of a new literary hero, the black urban drifter--to McKay's critique of imperialist nationalism. Her comparative analysis of McKay's notorious representation of women makes this study especially distinctive, as she situates his characterization of women within the specific sociohistorical contexts of each novel.
Marshall's narrative strategies of connection and reconciliation represent a different response to the African Caribbean "migrant condition." Her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), revises the conventional second-generation American immigrant narrative of assimilation. Accentuating the complex interplay of racial and gendered identity formation in the novel, Hathaway elucidates how Marshall's narrative of a Barbadian-American woman's coming of age instead embraces an African Caribbean diasporic identity. This identity emerges from her primary socialization in her mother's female community, "the poets in the [End Page 1029] kitchen" whom Marshall commemorates in a later autobiographical essay. Marshall's subsequent fiction extends the bicultural geography of her first novel into various New World African diasporic contexts, but Hathaway concentrates on Marshall's most complex novel of neocolonial U.S.-Caribbean cross-cultural relations, Daughters. Hathaway's feminist socioaesthetic reading relates its postcolonial, postmodernist narrative strategies to its exploration of relationships rooted in dependency. In contrast with Marshall's first novel, Daughters narrates a process of "un-becoming a daughter," of liberation from patriarchal familial ties that correspond with (neo)colonial sociopolitical relations.
Caribbean Waves makes an important contribution to the study of two writers rarely considered within the field of American immigrant fiction. Hathaway's afterword on her...