- Michelle Cliff’s Into the Interior and the Trope of the Solitary Female Immigrant
This is London—hundreds and thousands of white people white people rushing along and the dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together—streets like smooth shut-in ravines and the dark housing frowning down—oh I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place—Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
She slipped a membrane and slid into the interior. She was on a street that stretched gray alongside the River Thames. It seemed to her the past had no color. But then she’d been used to looking at paintings struck with red and blue and gold. And she’d spent a lot of time at the movies where the past was writ fifty feet high and garish in the extreme . . . This was something else . . .—Michelle Cliff, Into the Interior
When I saw England for the first time, I was a child in school sitting at a desk. The England I was looking at was laid out on a map gently, beautifully, delicately, a very special jewel.—Jamaica Kincaid, “On Seeing England for the First Time”
A recurring theme since the Anglophone Caribbean’s 1950s “boom” generation, the subject of the displaced West Indian immigrant in metropolitan spaces is perhaps one of the most important tropes of contemporary Caribbean literary tradition. It constitutes the central theme of many now canonical texts and is reflective of the experience of a generation of self-imposed West Indian exiles residing in London, where the combination of a burgeoning market for commonwealth literature, a publishing industry eager to discover new authors, and an adequate distance from the homeland provided a key source of literary productivity, recognition, and legitimacy (Low). Anxious, as George Lamming put it in The Pleasures of Exile, to get out of the Caribbean and away from a stifling middle class environment of colonial identified philistines, many aspiring West Indian writers considered residence in the metropolis a crucial experience, as it provided not only the material means to becoming a writer but also a privileged positioning from which to write about the West Indies. As Edward Kamau Brathwaite affirmed, “The West Indies could [End Page 811] be written about and explored. But only from the vantage point from outside the West Indies” (qtd. in Donnell and Walsh 207). Ironically then, immigration to England is inextricably linked to the idea of writing about the West Indies, as well as to the development of a critical nationalistic discourse. Within this framework, the West Indies is represented as a community, both in terms of a larger West Indian identity that transcends the limits of each individual island, as well as in terms of expressing the communal voice of the people—what Lamming called the collective character and consciousness of the Village.1 It is in this context that we can situate male-authored Caribbean works which foreground collective experiences of exile and immigration: Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile and The Emigrants—texts in which the difficulties inherent in immigrating to a cold, distant, and oftentimes hostile “mother country” are somewhat assuaged by the presence of a supportive West Indian immigrant or self-exiled intellectual community.2
For many Caribbean women writers, however, the exile or immigrant experience is expressed in drastically different terms, being articulated not around the trope of community but rather around the figure of a solitary female whose decision to emigrate alone marks a break with colonial patriarchy.3 Consider, for example, Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (1934), which follows Anna Morgan’s solitary existence as a young West Indian woman in a harsh, cold London, or Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (1990), whose protagonist moves to New York as an au pair in an attempt to break from her mother’s complicity with colonial patriarchy. It is significant that the figure of the West Indian immigrant community—so central to male authored texts—is virtually absent from...