Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction by Elena Machado Sáez
Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction examines Caribbean diasporic literature from Britain, Canada, and the United States, primarily works of historical fiction. Elena Machado Sáez frames her analysis by speaking to the interrelated systems of globalization and multiculturalism, and explaining how both have resulted in the erasure of historical context, especially with regards to the Caribbean diaspora. With this background in mind, the book’s five chapters and conclusion go on to illustrate how Caribbean diasporic historical fiction often works to give context to certain histories, even [End Page 227] as these texts circulates within the decontextualizing forces of globalization and multiculturalism. In some texts, as shown in chapters 2 and 3, decontextualization is encoded in the aesthetics of the novel through historical gaps and silences that both the narrator and the readers journey to fill.
Throughout the book, Sáez attentively draws on the critical reception and market success of the works to understand how texts reach certain audiences. Due to this approach, Sáez’s research offers a critical insight into the role of the market in Caribbean diasporic literature, particularly regarding the tension between an author’s ethical commitment to historical revision and the market’s pressure to commodify a certain kind of multiculturalism. Sáez has a keen understanding of the relationship between the market, readerships, and the aesthetics of texts, and in chapter 1 she even looks to the role that academia plays in privileging certain forms of writing over others. The key concept of the work, “market aesthetics,” seems to develop various shades of meaning throughout the book, making it occasionally difficult to follow how Sáez is employing the term. Though the term “market aesthetics” would benefit from being fleshed out more fully, Sáez provides an important perspective into the way in which the form, structure, and content of Caribbean diasporic texts suggests an awareness and understanding of the forces of market demands.
After examining how Caribbean diasporic writers manage their ethical obligations as “representative voice(s) of Caribbean culture,” Sáez offers a fascinating analysis of the role of author- and reader-doubles in chapters 2 and 3 (34). In chapter 3, “Writing the Reader: Literary and Contradictory Pedagogies in Julia Alvarez, Michelle Cliff, and Marlon James,” Sáez explores how the author-double in the literary texts can both voice the author’s ethical concerns and reveal the author’s own pedagogical approach to teaching history. Sáez then considers how the pedagogical approach in the depicted student-teacher relationship compares to the author’s own pedagogical approach as evidenced by the structure of the novel.
In this chapter, as well as throughout the work, Sáez widens the scope of analysis by looking at the context of the work and the writers themselves. By referring to these contexts, Sáez presents important background for how the author-doubles in the work experience and voice similar concerns as the authors themselves. To understand the varying pedagogical approaches depicted by the author-doubles and the authors themselves, Sáez draws on Gilberto Freyre’s dichotomy between a banking approach to knowledge vs. a “problem-posing” model. For instance, Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salomé shows contradictory pedagogical approaches: while the characters are depicted teaching through a “problem-posing” method of teaching, the novel’s structure reveals a “banking” approach, whereby the reader is not encouraged to process or question what the text puts forth. In the Name of Salomé’s approach to teaching, Sáez argues, suggests that the imagined readers are not familiar with the historical context of the text, and are thus envisioned as “empty vessels that must be filled with comparative analyses of history” (91).
While the first half of the book centers on how the various pedagogical imperatives of authors are reflected in the structure and content of the text, the second half of the book looks at the way Caribbean diasporic writers consider the legacies of anticolonialism, specifically, the “Great Men” narrative. Chapter 4, “Messy Intimacies: Postcolonial Romance in Ana Menéndez, Dionne Brand, and Monique Roffey,” engages more directly with gender by illustrating how three novels insert women’s writing into the Great Men narrative. These [End Page 228] historical novels also include an investigative journey in which characters discover their own heritage and come to understand the legacy of the past. Through engaging with the historiography of the Great Men narrative, Sáez shows how historical discourses becomes gendered in particular ways, and how, in response, authors use literature to reimagine figures like Che Guevara and Eric Williams. Novels like Loving Che, In Another Place, and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle foster a feminist revision of this narrative in three key ways: by writing within the genre of romance, including private forms of writing like diary entries and letters, and valuing nostalgia as a productive way of processing and engaging with historical legacies. Sáez’s final chapter continues the discussion on gendered narratives of history by examining the impact of dictatorship as a context for diasporic identity in the works of Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat. The book’s conclusion looks to an exciting new area of research by exploring the role of the digital in the relationship between text, archive, and readerships.
Sáez’s work offers an innovative contribution to the study of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Caribbean diasporic literature. Her study presents both a fresh perspective on canonical texts and an analysis of texts not widely discussed. For example, her reading of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is fascinating in the way in which it sheds light on the importance of Yunior’s role in narrating the story, and the intersections of power that are at play in the mediation of stories. One potential criticism of the book might lie in its breadth. While such a wide approach to Caribbean diasporic literature might lead to facile generalizations concerning the texts and their cultural/historical contexts, Sáez avoids a homogenized categorization of Caribbean diasporic literature and makes quite clear in her introduction the value in broadening her scope to Caribbean diasporic literature from the United States, Canada, and Britain. By explaining the significance of the shared contexts of Caribbean diasporic literature, Sáez provides the framework to make her comparative approach a valuable contribution to the field.
SOFIA TIRADO is an English Teaching Fellow at Phillips Academy Andover. She is interested in Latina/o literature and media studies. She completed her MA in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University, and her BA in English and Spanish at the University of Notre Dame.