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Imaginary Insurrections: New Criticism on Caribbean Writers
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"The instinctive feelings and readiness of the West Indian populations for adventurous creation in all fields is proved by the literature these territories produce . . . if it is genuine literature, it expresses more than it knows."

—CLR James, Introduction to Tradition and the West Indian Novel (1967)

Broadly speaking, a source of anxiety in much recent Caribbean writing is the future of literary activism, or perhaps literary activity itself, in a time of diminished political expectations. In her recent and only collection of essays, Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat confesses to be at a loss for words in the face of human tragedy. During the catastrophic earthquake that devastated Haiti, as she acknowledges in the opening essay, she was busy writing far away from the scene of the disaster. What she calls "our passive careers as distant witnesses" conveys her guilt-ridden reaction to the work of the writer. While writers are "at work" anywhere in the world, she writes

bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are being buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere. Survivors are living in makeshift tent cities and refugee camps somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military "aid" helicopters.

Writing seems to pale in the face of collective human trauma. Yet she concludes that victims of catastrophe, whether natural or manmade, need the artistic work as one way of resisting annihilation. In such circumstances the artistic work, far from being useless, acquires a special purposefulness, an ethical efficacy. Create Dangerously is ultimately about defiant readers who become connected as a subversive community through texts. The literary text lies dormant waiting for the right time and the ideal reader. During the dark years of the Duvalier dictatorship, Danticat speaks of clandestine performances of Camus' Caligula and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone, by those who "needed art that could convince them that they would not die." The ultimate purpose of her journey back to Haiti, described in Create Dangerously, is to leave a copy of Jean Genet's Les negres at her cousin's grave.

It is precisely this need to justify the literary in terms of the ethical that is at the heart of the Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau's most recent description of himself as a "warrior of the imaginary." In what must now be the definitive introduction to Chamoiseau's work, Wendy Knepper explains the novelist's invention of identities in terms of a crucial but "ambivalent" strategy "to adopt and divest" himself of masks "in order to find new imagined countries without territories or borders." His most recent "mask" as warrior of the imaginary is an attempt to put some distance between his earlier incarnation of the rebel, the militant political activist in the Cesairean mode, and a post-protest shift from the political to the poetic. Chamoiseau's "warrior" is no longer a figure of resistance because of the shifting, elusive forms of domination in the contemporary world. He is alert but not aggressive. As is often the case, this particular formulation seems to have been inspired by Edouard Glissant's call for an "insurrection of the imaginary." Chamoiseau seems to want to combine an older idea of literary militancy with the idea of altering the imaginary. The questions arise whether the imaginary can be transformed in this way, whether it can be "weaponized" or even whether this might be Chamoiseau's way of avoiding the complicated local politics of Martinique.

Kathleen Gyssels and Benedicte Ledent have used Chamoiseau's latest literary mask as a title for their uneven and wide-ranging bilingual collection of essays The Caribbean Writer as Warrior of the Imaginary. Gyssels seems to be aware of the oxymoronic aspect of Chamoiseau's term but it is too tempting a "hook" to be questioned. Its value is apparently its vagueness. In any case her introduction is less a serious reflection of Chamoiseau's concoction than a virtuoso attempt to adorn her prose with almost every expression or title created by Caribbean writers. Benedicte Ledent's afterword "Waging the War from the Outside" refreshingly applies Chamoiseau's idea of militancy to writers in the diaspora...

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