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  • Constructing Vernacular Culture in the Trans-Caribbean
  • Catherine M. Douillet
Holger HenkeKarl-Heinz Magister (eds.), Constructing Vernacular Culture in the Trans-Caribbean. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2008. 407 pp.

The 15 essays of Constructing Vernacular Culture in the Trans-Caribbean investigate how globalization and transnationalism construct and shape the making of “vernacular” cultures in the transnational Caribbean communities in the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe. Rather than the narrowly defined “Caribbean,” the book interests itself in the broader, more complex notion of the “ trans-Caribbean,” which, as Anton Allahar mentions in the preface, “ invite[s] a host of other social, political, and intellectual entanglements that speak to diasporas within diasporas” (x). Some of the significant questions that the contributors pose include: What happens to local cultures when individuals who carry various ethnic, political, and class backgrounds as well as different premigration histories get transplanted physically or virtually in different diasporic places? How are cultural and gender identities affected by the increasing movements of populations and ideas across borders? How are transnational practices reflected in literary writing?

In the introduction, Henke and Magister define “the vernacular” as diverse cultural expressions that are entrenched in the popular and indigenous spheres, rather than in the official “high” culture. The book offers a [End Page 741] broad range of case studies and analyses of vernacular culture in the realms of music, religion, oral productions such as gossip and oral poetry, gender relations, and cyberculture, with focuses on various transnational spaces such as Puerto Rico, Guyana, New York, Surinam, and the Netherlands.

One of the chief assets of Constructing Vernacular Culture in the Trans- Caribbean probably lies in its pluri-disciplinary dimension, with essays in anthropology, sociology, political science, literature, cultural studies, and sexual and gender studies. This plurality of voices is also evidenced by the volume’s international team of authors—scholars active in the Caribbean, Europe, and North America. This book is most obviously valuable for Caribbeanists, as it provides fine ethnographies of various trans- Caribbean communities and socio-cultural trends in the 20th and 21th centuries, as well as useful analyses of literary texts that pertain to Caribbean transnationalism. Yet, its authors foster discussions grounded in theories of globalization, transnationalism, creolization, and feminism that could be very beneficial to non-Caribbeanists as well.

Part 1 focuses on the transnational re-creation of “home” and family relations, with essays by Nierkerk, Sutton, and Schmidt. Nierkerk’s and Sutton’s are ethnographic contributions based on research conducted in the late 1990s. While Nierkerk investigates the ways in which Afro- Surinamese and Indo-Surinamese adapt differently to the Netherlands based on each ethnic group’s migration histories and socio-economic place both in Surinam and the Netherlands, Sutton focuses on family reunion rituals held in Trinidad, Grenada, and Barbados by second-generation migrants living in the United States and England.

Schmidt’s contribution offers a more theoretical approach: Building upon concepts of creolization and mestizaje, as well as Levi-Strauss’s concept of “bricolage,” she introduces the useful notion of “polyphonic bricolage” which stresses the multivocal quality of cultural construction where different, equivalent discourses get continually exchanged in a permanent process of mixture and interpretations. While the concept is interesting, as it stresses the complexity of Caribbean transnational identifications and the necessity to move away from simplistic national boundaries to understand what cultural performance and identities mean for specific individuals based on their personal histories and interactions with their surroundings, it probably does not advance the established concepts of creolization and mestizaje to the degree that Schmidt contends since both creolization and mestizaje already encapsulate notions of dialogical change. [End Page 742]

Part 2 examines “Performing Identities” in areas that include religion, oral productions such as gossip, and music. Butler explores the ways in which Haitian and Jamaican Pentecostals negotiate their religious and national identities through their use or rejection of various local and global popular musical forms, such as dancehall reggae, “Konpa,” or African-American musical styles, according to their perceived degree of appropriateness. In the same vein, Forde’s essay offers an interesting overview of the various historical and contemporary spiritual and physical cross-influences between Spiritual Baptism in the...


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