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  • Rise Up?New Directions in the Caribbean Women's Bildungsroman
  • Kevin Meehan (bio)

In Lin-Manuel Miranda's phenomenally successful Broadway hip hop musical Hamilton!, the anthemic phrase "rise up!" returns several times as a lyrical and musical refrain. The Puerto Rican identity of Hamilton!'s author and the Nevisian origins of its title character suggest that the idea of "uplift"—the quest for social ascension often associated with African American and American culture more broadly—is something that can also be seen as a core theme in Caribbean cultural expression. In fact, this same leitmotif of rising up has been central in the Caribbean coming-of-age novel, from Jane's Career by H.G. DeLisser to canonical mid-century novels by George Lamming, Sam Selvon, V.S. Naipaul, and Jacques-Stephen Alexis to more-recent-but-nowclassic offerings from women writers such as Merle Hodge, Jamaica Kincaid, Merle Collins, Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat, and others. Caribbean writers have repeatedly turned to the bildungsroman to explore the promises and pitfalls of regional decolonization, the uneven participation of women in currents of social change, and the contemporary struggle to survive and thrive in the latest dispensations of globalization. Two new books—Madinah Girl, by Trinidadian-Grenadian author Anna Levi, and Moun Lakou, by Guadeloupean novelist Marie Léticée—carve out new spaces in the generic niche established by previous generations. Both are debut publications and together they point to how the Caribbean coming-of-age novel continues to function and be transformed in the way critic Maria Helena Lima describes as "one of the ways individuals find to create themselves as subject within new social and political contexts."1 Both novels also suggest that the future of Caribbean literature is in good hands.

Madinah Girl offers an unflinching depiction of life in the margins of contemporary Trinidad that is guaranteed to shock any reader unprepared for [End Page 11] its torrential display of drug and alcohol excess, child brides and domestic violence, sexual abuse, and maximum "muddercunt"-style profanity. Set along the Eastern Main Road corridor between Port-of-Spain and Arima, Madinah Girl follows the displacements, misadventures, and small triumphs of a mostly firstperson protagonist, Maria, as she struggles to survive an at-risk childhood and avoid slipping into an adulthood of domestic servitude experienced by many of the women—and young men—around her. Levi is not the first writer to work at exposing social problems in the poor neighborhoods of Trinidad, but it is safe to say no one has gone quite so far down into the muck, nor done so as convincingly, as what we see in Madinah Girl. Levi's story of a displaced Caribbean woman has been compared by herself and others to Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, but the vision here often seems more harsh, like a Caribbean counterpart to Hubert Selby or William Burroughs as well as a modern-day extension of the Trinidadian Beacon Group and its ground-breaking experiments in yard fiction, and even, in a longer perspective, as something emanating from the same creative wellspring as picaresque writing like Moll Flanders, Lazarillo de Tormes, The Canterbury Tales, and the Decameron.

Levi's novel won special mention in last year's OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature awards in Trinidad, which, since being founded in 2011, have become one of the premier showcases for top-tier writing across the Caribbean. At the time of the awards, Madinah Girl was hailed by no less an icon than Earl Lovelace for taking readers into the "bruising, multi-religious, multi-ethnic churnings in the underbelly of Trinidad."2 Among the kaleidoscopic range of spiritual practices experienced by Maria, she traverses home and church life in a Shango Baptist family, capitalizes on a weekly alms day outside a masjid, and marries—at age fifteen—a Syrian Muslim named Moses.

While the novel does not delve deeply into Hindu spirituality, Maria is surrounded by East Indians, both native Trinidadians and Guyanese migrants. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the sense of self that emerges from this setting is deeply complex. Asked by one of Moses's associates, "What kind woman you...


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pp. 11-18
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