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Documents of West Indian History: Telling a West Indian Story

From: Callaloo
Volume 20, Number 4, Fall 1997
pp. 764-776 | 10.1353/cal.1997.0082

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Callaloo 20.4 (1997) 764-776

Documents of West Indian History (1963) is one of the more fascinating texts of the postcolonial Caribbean, especially if it is read as a precursorial text that anticipates distinctive features of recent historical fiction from the Caribbean. I have in mind George Lamming's Natives of My Person (1972), Antonio Benitez-Rojo's Sea of Lentils (1989), and V.S. Naipaul's A Way in the World (1992). If we take our cue from Kwame Anthony Appiah, these second-wave novels are not only postcolonial; they are postrealist and postnationalist as well. Not only do they reject the legitimating narratives of imperial history, they also reject the neocolonialist nationalist project. This is not to deny the ability of these texts to function as signifiers of national identity, but the texts themselves reflect a transnational affiliation rather than a national solidarity. They tell a "West Indian" story.

These texts are all deeply implicated in the postcolonial process of challenging any particular claim imperial history might have to unity, truth, and justice beyond the rationalizations of personal and national ambitions. They are multi-voiced, non-linear, and dialogic in design and engage directly with documents of metropolitan history that illuminate West Indian "beginnings." In these respects, Documents of West Indian History might be characterized as a prototype of recent historical fiction from the region. In its design, it could hardly be more different to the hierarchizing and exclusive strategies of Capitalism and Slavery (1944), for example. It is uncentered and dialogic, and makes no attempt to reconcile the contradictory ideologies that emerge from a plurality of voices. The systematization offered through the table of contents, chapter headings and subheadings, and the index, is inadequate to the range of experience evidenced in the selection of documents, letters, reports, journals, diaries, etc. This is historical discourse that unmasks the limitations of historical discourse as a unified, coherent, monologic fable. It is designed to reveal the impossibility of such a task, and demonstrates the many different angles of vision that vie for consideration, the manipulation of data that determines the product, the process of selection and exclusion that makes every statement a partial truth.

Documents of West Indian History, in the manner of recent historical fiction by Lamming, Benitez-Rojo, and Naipaul, challenges the legitimating narratives of colonial history and the discourse of history. One might argue as Benitez-Rojo does for Fernando Ortiz's Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (1947), that, as a text, Documents of West Indian History "does not seek its legitimation within the discourse of the social sciences, but rather within those of literature, of fiction." The literary project is quite distinct. It is a collage of documents selected from those used in the author's personal research: " . . . the documents are divided up according to subject matter into distinct chapters. Each document, in addition, has been given a title which, it is hoped, will assist in the telling of the West Indian story -- in pointing a moral as well as adorning the tale." Like the novelist, this historian stages events, weaving them together as "the West Indian story," and his point of departure is distinctly transnational in its scope and goal.

Its scope is the entire West Indian area, including the Guianas -- whether their connections have been or are British or French, Spanish or American, Dutch or Danish, or whether they have discarded or are about to discard the alien rule of previous centuries.
Its goal is the cultural integration of the entire area, a synthesis of existing knowledge, as the essential foundation of the great need of our time, closer collaboration among the various countries of the Caribbean with their common heritage of subordination to and dictation by outside interests. (xxv)

If this sounds like the rebirth of the self-justificatory, controlling master-narrative, it is not. "The West Indian story" is realized as a multi-voiced, heterogeneous, contradictory narrative of the modern Caribbean. Under the controlling hand of the author, different voices compete with each other in and out of sequence in any given chapter; each chapter restarts the narrative around a different subject: "The Discovery of the West Indies," "The Economic Organization...

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