- Literary Histories of the Early Anglophone Caribbean: Islands in the Stream ed. by Nicole N. Aljoe, Brycchan Carey, Thomas E. Krise
Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 244pp. CAN$79.99. ISBN 978-3-319-71592-6.
During the past two decades, the literary history of the anglophone Caribbean has expanded to include significantly more pre-twentieth-century writing. The archival turn in literary studies more broadly, along with a willingness to question the nationalist versions of Caribbean literary history that formed alongside decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, have created an openness to complicating the Caribbean canon. Literary Histories of the Early Anglophone Caribbean [End Page 357] arrives as part of this broader move to establish new relationships to the literary past.
The volume positions its contribution well with a brief but compelling introduction that quickly and clearly outlines the current state of the field. In emphasizing how “each of the terms in ‘Early Caribbean Literature’ is open to debate” (1), the editors make a case for new ways of thinking about what counts as early, as Caribbean, and as literature. While the dates that define “early” and the literariness of what is being called literature may be interesting academic debates, the biggest sticking point is the Caribbeanness of this “early Caribbean literature.” The introduction mentions that “some literary critics from the region question whether literary texts written by colonizers and slavers in the early period should be included within the definition of ‘Caribbean literature’ at all” (3). The editors acknowledge this as “a reasonable position” (3), and they do not directly refute that position in the introduction. Instead, they make their case by focusing the volume on precisely these problematic texts, with most of the chapters centred on texts by white writers, many born outside of the Caribbean. The editors rightly note that the fields of British and American studies have ignored writing produced in and about the Caribbean, such as the work of James Grainger or Cynric Williams. Caribbean studies may have much to gain from engaging with this body of writing and what it shows us about the Caribbean. But the uneasy question remains of what to do with insider versus outsider representations of the region (raising the equally troubling question of how to define insiders versus outsiders).
The collection begins with a cogent engagement with these vexing questions. Keith Sandiford makes a convincing case for how we might read through texts like Father Ramon Pane’s Relación Acerca de las Antigüedades de los Indios (1498) or William Earle’s Obi, or The History of Three-Fingered Jack (1900) to uncover the Indigenous or African cosmologies within. Sandiford argues that while white authors seek to package and contain Caribbean reality for European audiences, radically different world-views and histories of trauma press against the traditional literary forms these authors attempt to employ. In her chapter, Nicole Aljoe picks up this project to consider how we might read the “slave voice” in early Caribbean writing not as an absence or an imperfect approximation of the fully formed slave narratives that emerged in the nineteenth-century United States, but as dialogical “creole testimonies.” Engaging with these texts as formally and ideologically polyvocal allows them to show us aspects of the enslaved experience as well as the white hopes and anxieties projected onto these voices. Cassander Smith’s chapter makes the case for a similar way of reading, [End Page 358] using Richard Ligon’s version of the story of Inkle and Yarico to show how early narratives are often “the product of a collaboration among multiple cultures” that shape the final text as much as the named (and frequently English) author does (206).
Other chapters are less focused on finding the submerged voices of the Indigenous peoples or enslaved persons within these colonial texts. Reading these texts as “Caribbean” therefore puts pressure on how we understand that term. Easiest to fit into the existing methodologies of Caribbean studies is writing by outsiders that can be shown to articulate a pro- or anti-slavery position...