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  • “I Believe in the Future of ‘Small Countries’”:Édouard Glissant’s Archipelagic Scale in Dialogue with Other Caribbean Writers
  • Beatriz Llenín-Figueroa (bio)

Living in Puerto Rico, one learns early on that the country is either the best (“Puerto Rico lo hace mejor”; “La isla estrella”; “Look at our neighbors, we are far better off”; “This is a small island with a big heart and a lot of talent”) or the worst (“La isla del espanto”; “Pueblo chico, infierno grande”; “We need the example of a larger country”; “We’re so small, how could we ever be self-sustaining?”).1 Such a polarity is informed by a single conceptual structure, one that Eduardo Galeano in a recent interview with Baltasar Garzón referred to as “the grandote ideology.”2 An equivalent to what Brian Russell Roberts labels “the tyranny of the continent,” gran-dote ideology has justified imperialism for centuries.3 The various forms of colonialism and neocolonialism habitually experienced in the Caribbean are reinforced by the extraneous “tyranny of the continent,” which compels us to believe that we suffer a de facto inadequacy and inferiority as a result of our anti-grandote and anti-continental qualities. The possibility of thinking, imagining, and creating immanently in terms and scales that are our own (the small and the archipelagic) is undermined, if not altogether stunted, on a daily basis. Thus, the struggle for political, social, and economic [End Page 87] freedom and self-determination must be waged on the level of our conceptual imagination if it is to succeed materially.

Perhaps no one today can claim that we do not have enough scholarly and scientific work substantiating the enduring and large-scale massacre of species, landscapes, and seascapes perpetrated in the Caribbean.4 Work proving the equally enduring, large-scale assault of our conceptual imagination is as robust but perhaps less evident, since it necessarily builds on the subtle rippling of a poetics, of art and lived experience. Thus, we owe this work to many of our writers, philosophers, and artists, among whom Édouard Glissant undoubtedly stands out. In what follows, I discuss various instances throughout Glissant’s oeuvre that simultaneously constitute a disclosure of the “tyranny of the continent’s” imaginative and conceptual assault as well as an impassioned defense of the need to think, imagine, and create on a small, archipelagic scale. Glissant achieves this double movement through a method of generous observation and analysis of Caribbean lived experience, which he summarizes in Caribbean Discourse as follows:

It is against this double hegemony of a History with a capital H and a Literature consecrated by the absolute power of the written sign that the peoples who until now inhabited the hidden side of the earth fought, at the same time they were fighting for food and freedom. … [W]e should let the weight of lived experience “slip in.” Literature is not only fragmented, it is henceforth shared. In it lie histories and the voice of peoples. We must reflect on a new relationship between history and literature. We need to live it differently.5

Glissant’s work resists the “tyranny of the continent” by defending smallness and insularity as vehicles for Relation, a concept that emerges from the writer’s close attention to the colonized islanders’ nonutilitarian, nonexploitative experience along the coast and the sea (“it is impossible to use the sea”).6 These are people, we should remember, who live in “a place whose only power / is the exploding spray along its coast.”7 But there is more to Relation. In addition to emerging from the colonized islanders’ lived experience, Glissant’s concept encodes the sea itself in its spiraling movement as well as in its primary role as both the source of life and of the latter’s constant movement and displacement.8 By refusing to conceptualize the sea as an isolating, hostile, and featureless yet nonetheless exploitable expanse,9 Glissant is able to argue for the archipelagic coasts as opening the way for Relation, interconnection, and the transformation of history’s brutal and bloody legacies. Therefore, before embarking on the discussion of Glissant’s work itself, in what follows I first set the minimal historical...


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pp. 87-111
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