- Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel by J. Dillon Brown
J. Dillon Brown’s Migrant Modernism calls for a re-reading of four West Indian writers of the Windrush generation whose complex relationships to both Caribbean and British literary culture are often overlooked or misread. As part of the first wave of Caribbean migrants sailing on the S.S. Empire Windrush, to fill post-WWII labor shortages in the mother country, Guyanese Edgar Mittelholzer, Barbadian George Lamming, Trinidadian Samuel Selvon, and Jamaican Richard Mais are among those considered to be the founding fathers of a distinct West Indian canon, who published during a time when the Anglophone Caribbean was still made up of British colonies, [End Page 377] and whose arrival “intensified the perceived crisis of postwar Englishness” (22). Though London offered opportunities for publication, critics voiced their disapproval when Caribbean literature failed to meet British expectations for tropical tales of cultural transparency or Caribbean expectations of freeing themselves from the yoke of colonialism. Brown’s book illustrates “that for these early West Indian authors, modernism was not, as postcolonial criticism sometimes assumes, merely an alien literary force to be rejected, but a potentially liberatory aesthetic with strategically useful cultural connotations” (7). In a time when England was trying to reestablish a stability of national identity and the superiority of its literary forms, these migrant writers employed modernism to challenge British assumptions and commercial demands for tropical flavor, transparency, and apolitical, anthropological vignettes of life in the third world. Migrant Modernism argues that the experimental, diverse, often dense, and thereby challenging literature of Selvon, Mittelholzer, Lamming, and Mais demonstrates both the writers’ literary inheritance and distinct appropriation of modernism, from mimicking a dying British tradition to expressing a living West Indian experience.
The book is divided into five chapters, the first laying the historical foundation to understand the literary environment at the time and the modes of reading that have elided the view of the migrant writers’ repurposing of modernism. Thereafter, each chapter focuses on one writer and his criticism, analyzing the pressures each faced and specifically what complaints and misconceptions his work suffered: Mittelholzer’s experimentalism was regarded as a lack of authentic voice, Lamming was considered too difficult and thus failed in a perceived intention to perform British high culture, Selvon was mistaken to be a simple and exotic storyteller, and while Mais’s aesthetic complexity was appreciated in Britain, his political gestures were read as Eurocentric by Caribbean critics who preferred an African diasporic core to cultural independence. Brown’s alternative analyses of the novels evidence his claim for migrant modernism. Mais’s novel, The Hills Were Joyful Together (1953), is understood to “enchant the reader into a similar state of attentive, sympathetic consciousness” (144), demonstrating how art can bring about a self-fashioning and inclusive recognition of new nationhood, and ultimately suggesting that a “community is ultimately responsible for its own narration” (154). Selvon uses modernist techniques to insist on the transnational particularity of Caribbean people, “in light of the enforced cosmopolitanism of the region—examples of a world citizenry” (133). Lamming’s work is revealed to challenge British assumptions of superiority with the difficulty of his prose, to demand not only the recognition of Caribbean people as unique and creative, but also obliging the reader to “enact a specific ethic of reading” (102) to “decipher the rich network of impressions, desires, and historical experience bound within even one person” (93). Likewise, Mittelholzer’s variety of styles and genres is understood through migrant modernism to complicate and express the agency of the individual’s active choices in combination with inheritance and tradition to create an interconnected network of identity, proof “that the very pronounced cultural mixture of the Caribbean cannot be ignored” (63). Brown includes support from the writers’ interviews and essays on what they hoped to achieve with their work and commentary on both their British literary forefathers and Caribbean contemporaries.
Migrant Modernism successfully illustrates that former approaches to the Anglophone Caribbean’s engagement...