- Thiefing Sugar from the Island Beneath the Sea:New Literatures on/from the Caribbean
What preserves the voices of the great authors from one century to the next is not the recording device (the clay tablet, the scroll, the codex, the book, the computer, the iPad) but the force of imagination and the power of expression. It is the strength of the words themselves, not their product placement, that invites the play of mind and induces a change of heart.—Lewis Lapham
The three works on which this review is focused—two prose, the third a critical study—exemplify the spirit of the above-referenced "Notebook" entry, written this past fall by Lewis Lapham for the monthly literary magazine Harper's. Rarely does a reader simultaneously find in three works [End Page 141] the literary and historically critical "force of imagination" and "power of expression" to which Lapham refers in the above citation. In the first decade of the second millennium, the narrative aplomb of the seasoned novelist Isabel Allende, the passion and literary genius of the young Jamaican author Marlon James, and the scholarly clarity and astuteness of academic Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley, converge to open the world of the Caribbean as a multifaceted and multicultural melting pot engendered from colonialism, slavery, and some of the most abject brutality known in the history of civilization. Written in our contemporary times, these texts dwell on the Caribbean's past as they strive to explain the complexity of the region's present. They reveal certain secrets and stories never before told, explore racial tensions rooted in the past (but that still persist), and allude to sociopolitical and cultural phenomena that have inf luenced our own "American" experience. These authors remind us just how close "the Americas" are to our America. The slave trade and the plantation, the rape and the pillage, are not only the historical horrors that have shaped the Caribbean's past; they are also the ugly contributors to the contours of our American history. The narratives of Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, are all woven into the one Master Narrative of the Western Hemisphere. The exotic, the wretched, the maimed, the whipped, the enslaved, the ravaged places and spaces of people and land, constitute a singular lieu de mémoire (memory site) that is uncovered, exposed, and told to the "Global North" by these three authors. Their pens do not let us forget the blood on our hands and the role we, the Americas, played in creating and sustaining the Caribbean realm of the Middle Passage (Tinsley, 10-15). Most signif icantly, Allende, James, and Tinsley note that women are the heart and soul of the narratives of the Caribbean. Its history is theirs, born from their rape and blood; their bodies transported from Africa, bought and sold. Lest we not forget, Afro-Caribbean women were "a product of constant, violent migration" (Tinsley, 39) across the waters between Africa and the Americas.
Island Beneath the Sea
Reading these three works in tandem is an interesting exercise. Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea, perhaps less academically imposing than Tinsley's critical study or James's tale of raw brutality recounted in the vernacular language of eighteenth-century Jamaica (often off-putting for the unseasoned literary aficionado), is no less nuanced in the intricate history it imparts. Allende, known for her popular literature drawing on Hispanic themes, ventures into new territory with this latest novel. Her incredibly well researched book focuses on the late-eighteenth-century history of an [End Page 142] island that would, in 1804, become the first black republic. Haiti, "la perle des Antilles," the term often employed by the French to refer to "their" island during the early colonial period of "les vieilles colonies" (c. 1640...