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These are good times for Caribbean literature. Secure on the foundation set by its major writers, George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris, and others, its younger generation has begun to engender a lough, mature, tensile, and diverse literary corps. This renaissance of Caribbean writing is just beginning to produce the criticism it deserves and requires. Therefore, any strong text that affords the reader a sensitive overview of the field warrants serious attention. Daryl Dance's Fifty Caribbean Writers is such a text; it provides a critical introduction to both established and newer talents from the 1700s to the present, and it is well balanced in scope and depth.
Its fifty writers represent eight Anglophone nations of the Caribbean: from the 18th-century Jamaican Francis Williams (1700-1770), who used "conventional Augustan poetics to protest racism," to Trinidadian Dionne Brand (1953-), who offers a new, major voice of "history, compassion and militancy" writing from Canada. All but eight of the writers are alive. Ten of the fifty are women.
Its thirty-five contributors, many of whom are also included as writers, represent the gamut of ethnicities, territories, ideologies, and perspectives. For the most part, they mix rich biographical detail with sound critical insight. The reader's introduction to the authors is a well written, comprehensive essay on Caribbean literature in which Dance underscores the themes, such as the quest for identity and indigenous language and the impact of metropolitan culture on Caribbean life that occupies much of the region's critical and artistic energies.
As with any encyclopedic volume Fifty Caribbean Writers has its limitations. Surely, Dance's first problem must have been the work of selecting representative authors, the impossible task of being "even-handed" in a region of ample diversity. Dance must have struggled with three terrible levels of inclusiveness: 1) the problem of territorial-linguistic representation, that is, which territories to include; 2) the problem of literary representation, that is, what genre and what aesthetic to privilege (what should "Caribbean literature" include?); and 3) the problem of geo-national representation, in other words, should citizenship alone or Caribbean lineage be criterion for selection? [End Page 262]
Dance solved the first problem by covering, thoroughly but not exhaustively, the English speaking Caribbean. She is conservative on the second question and remains well within the range of acceptable Western expectations. For example, there is scant reference to the "dub" or "performance literature" of Linton Kwesi Johnson or Michael Smith. On the third level, Dance stays more or less within the confines of birth and citizenship. But in an odd sort of way she is uneven in her representation of the younger group of "exiled" poets. Better to have a volume entitled Fifty-one Caribbean Writers and include, for example, Michele Cliff or Lorna Goodison or Merle Collins than one called Fifty Caribbean Writers that excludes them. The book could have done more to promote the young Caribbean women currently writing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dance required a rather metropolitan format of her contributors that gave the book its wonderfully functional form. But in the process the book lost some of that intellectual and visceral energy, the quality of excitement so present in contemporary Caribbean circles. However, for most students this bio-bibliographical sourcebook will offer the best listing of critical reviews currently available, if not affordable. For most libraries, it is indispensable.