- Twentieth-Century Women Writers from the English-Speaking Caribbean
"Alienation Within Alienation"—political and social—this, in Kenneth Ramchand's phrase (Novel 231), is the inchoate pain of the women writers from the English-speaking Caribbean. That they are writing fine poetry and fiction is a simple statement but one we do not hear often. Until the late Seventies little was written about these authors while the critics' attention focused on the male writers Wilson Harris, George Lamming, Edgard Mittelholzer, V. S. Naipaul, and Edward Brathwaite. As late as 1979, the popular critical text West Indian Literature, edited by Bruce King, mentions only Jean Rhys among the many women writers from this area. As Judith Fetterley has taught us, we must resist rather than assent to this reading of West Indian literature because the story that is missing here is the woman's story, and the omission is so acceptable that it is not even noticed (Davidson 43).
Twentieth-century women writers from the English-speaking Caribbean—those who were born or grew up in the former British colonies in the West Indies—live in societies of extreme diversity and grave fragmentation of both European and African cultures. The insecurity in human relationships within tense social and political climates—particularly between woman and woman, man and woman, or mother and daughter—as [End Page 85] well as the uneasiness about personal identity are the most common concerns of the prominent women writers: Phyllis Shand Allfrey (Dominica), Zee Edgell (Belize), Merle Hodge (Trinidad), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Paule Marshall (Barbados), Jean Rhys (Dominica), and Sylvia Wynter (Jamaica). Despite significant differences, these women writers have two things in common: the imbalance of power between men and women in their societies and the problems of identity and inequality in relation to male dominance (Brown 12). And, in many of these novels, the women characters best able to survive form a bond, a type of "mirroring" relationship with other women.
The critics Leota Lawrence, Merle Hodge, and Hermione McKenzie have all pointed to several features of women's lives in the West Indies that have become part of literary discussion. The preponderance of the matriarchal family is, according to Lawrence, "the result of a synthesis of an African cultural survival with the realities of slavery in the area" (4). In many cases, the women live in a society in which sexual and emotional relationships have been destroyed by demoralizing and alienating economic manipulations in colonial and neocolonial societies (McKenzie ix). The single female head of household can be "among the most powerless of the society, the absence of a spouse often implying the absence of a stable family income" (Mathurin 5-6). Lucille Mathurin points out that this economically depressed condition makes the woman as "sexually vulnerable as she was in the darker days of her history" (6).
Countering the myth of the self-sufficient black matriarchal figures, Hodge points out in a special edition of Savacou that the ultimate vocation of all women in the West Indies is to marry and/or become mothers (41). Lawrence goes further:
It is a fact that many a young woman in the Caribbean has deliberately stifled any pretensions to a career, lest in doing so she outshine her male counterpart and thereby end up an "old maid." Thus, with very few exceptions there are no women writers; with very few exceptions there are no women calypsonians. The portrait of women that is revealed to the world in the written and oral literature is that given them by men.(4-5)
Despite Lawrence's assertion that there are no women writers, there are many Caribbean women writing, although, as she admits, sometimes with great anxiety because their models are usually male writers and their societies emphasize the vocation of all women as nurturing their relationships with men and as bearing and raising children.
Overcoming these obstacles, women writers have created characters who are self-supporting and who have great strength and endurance. They struggle and survive because of their basic respect for life; they depend on a strong bonding between and among women in their communities in the fight for basic survival...