- The Paradoxes of Belonging:The White West Indian Woman in Fiction
In Trinidad the street name for the white Trinidadian woman is "whitey cockroach," an allusion both to her skin color and to her status in society. Not strangely, the term crops up in other English-speaking Caribbean islands. Jean Rhys uses it in Wide Sargasso Sea. In that novel, set both in Jamaica and in an island that most likely is Dominica, the maid Amélie sings derisively to her white creole mistress:
The white cockroach she marryThe white cockroach she marryThe white cockroach she buy young manThe white cockroach she marry.(101)
A people in love with metaphors, the peasant class in the West Indies is quick to understand that the white creole woman shares its status of the underclass and the underprivileged. However, these people also know that, worse than they, the white creole woman is an outcast, a sort of freak rejected by both Europe and England, whose blood she shares, and by the black West Indian people, whose culture and home have been [End Page 281] hers for two generations or more.1
In the English-speaking Caribbean these women must bear the guilt of the horrors of slavery inflicted by their own white ancestors upon the people whose country they now call their own. And they must do so in solitude, for England and Europe, wishing to obliterate from their memories the part they played in the brutal history of the Caribbean, have set them adrift with this guilt. In Wide Sargasso Sea the Englishman Rochester, told that the name of the village that he is visiting is Massacre, asks his white creole wife with impersonal detachment: "And who was massacred here? Slaves?" Shocked, Jean Rhys writes, not indignant, the woman answers, "Oh no. . . . Not slaves: Something must have happened a long time ago . . ." (65). The choice for the-white creole woman then is exile in a foreign land whose people dump the burden of their cruel past on her, or a quest for belonging and identity, a struggle to explain herself in islands where she can hope perhaps for forgiveness and purposefulness.
Two white West Indian women novelists, Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, pursue these themes bf the alienation and rejection endured by the white creole woman in the, West Indies in their novels Wide Sargasso Sea and The Orchid House, respectively. Their novels are set at turning points in the political history of the English-speaking Caribbean when, more than any other time, the white creole could have been rendered homeless. For Shand Allfrey, that time is the 1950s when the Caribbean was on the brink of independence from British colonial rule, for Jean Rhys, it is the period following the Emancipation Act of 1834, when the freed slaves in British colonies of the Caribbean could have unleashed the force of their vengeance on the children of their white exmasters. For both these novelists, the white creole woman can find a sense of belonging, her identity, only in her Caribbean homeland But the price for such a choice is high
A fellow Dominican and a friend of Jean Rhys, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, though younger than Rhys, was nevertheless the first to take the step in 1954 to write boldly about the plight of white creoles. Yet it was perhaps more urgent and immediate for Shand Allfrey to write her novel when she did than it was for Rhys. In the first place Shand Allfrey was politically active in England. In London she had joined the Fabian Society, the British Labour Party, and the Parliamentary Committee for, West Indian Affairs. Returning to the West Indies in the 1950s, she found her homeland embroiled, as were others in the British-controlled islands of the Caribbean, in a struggle for independence and for a federation of the newly enfranchised islands. It was in this period that [End Page 282] she wrote The Orchid House, and upon its completion she reassumed an active political role. By 1955, she had founded the Labour Party of Dominica, and by 1958, she was named Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in...