The Caribbean Short Story

Jeremy Poynting, Managing Editor, 21 March 2003


Perhaps of all literary forms, anglophone Caribbean writing has excelled in the short story. In this it connects to North America more than to the UK where the absence of prestigious magazines devoted to the short story and the reluctance of mainstream publishers to invest in short story collections has made the form, according to an article in the feminist literary journal Mslexia, an ‘endangered species’ (Jan-Feb. 2003). Peepal Tree, however, has always been strongly committed to the form; almost one third of our fiction titles have been collections of short stories.

There are both institutional and sociocultural reasons for the quality and rootedness of the form in Caribbean writing. From the beginnings, a sequence of important ‘little’ magazines, from Trinidad (1929-30), The Beacon (1931-33), Bim (1942-1990?), Kyk-over-Al (1945-1961 and 1981-), Focus (1943, 1948, 1956, 1960, 1983), Jamaica Journal, The New Voices (1973-1993) provided regular outlets for short stories. Indeed, they were virtually the only Caribbean-based outlets for fiction – and for reasons of space that inevitably meant short stories. The other important stimulus was, of course, the BBC Caribbean Voices programme, which between 1946 and 1954 broadcast several hundred short stories. Many of the region’s pioneering writers – CLR James, AH Mendes, Frank Collymore, Edgar Mittelholzer, Roger Mais, Sam Selvon, Wilson Harris – published short stories in these magazines or were broadcast by Caribbean Voices. However, it was not until more recently that this wealth of tradition become more widely visible. Few collections of stories by individual writers were published before the 1960s, and not until Andrew Salkey’s 1960 West Indian Stories, published by Faber, was there a mainstream, widely available anthology. Important (or interesting) early individual collections include Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death (1926), Seepersad Naipaul’s Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales (1943), Roger Mais’ And Most of All Man and Face and Other Stories (both nd. but circa 1940), RLC Aaron’s The Cow that Laughed and Other Stories (1944) and Archie Lindo’s Bronze (1944), but that is about the sum of what was published. It was not until Reinhard Sander’s From Trinidad (1978), Ken Ramchand’s editions of Roger Mais’ stories Listen, the Wind (1986) and Samuel Selvon’s earlier work in Foreday Morning (1989), or Michele Levy’s even more recent collection of Mendes’ stories in Pablo’s Fandango and other Stories (1997) that the wealth of earlier Caribbean short story writing began to gain exposure. Peepal Tree’s collection of stories by Ismith Khan (originally written between c1960-c1970) A Day in the Country serves the same restorative function. The equally significant short story writing of authors such as Mittelholzer and John Hearne has still to be collected.

By the 1960s, though, there were both important individual collections and influential anthologies. Samuel Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight (1957) and VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959) and A Flag on the Island (1967), (and Penguin’s reissue of Jean Rhys’ Tigers are Better Looking (1968)) signalled the centrality of the short story to the second generation of anglophone Caribbean writing. Since the 1970s, some of the most important Caribbean fiction, particularly by women, has appeared in short story form. Olive Senior’s collections, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Arrival of the Snake-woman and Other Stories (1986), Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories (1996), Pauline Melville’s Shapeshifter and The Migration of Ghosts, Opal Palmer Adisa’s Bake-Face and Other Stories, Merle Collins Rain Darling, Michelle Cliff’s The Store of a Million Items, Christine Craig’s Mint Tea and Other Stories, Velma Pollard’s Considering Women and Lorna Goodison’s Baby Mother and the King of Swords are amongst some of the significant titles.

There are collections by men published in the same period, but far fewer. These include Earl Lovelace’s A Brief Conversation and Other Stories, Austin Clarke’s Nine Men Who Laughed and When Women Rule, Wilson Harris’ The Age of the Rainmakers and more recently Sasenarine Persaud’s Canada Geese and Apple Chatney and Robert Antoni’s My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales.

What continues to attract so many contemporary Caribbean writers to the form? There is, in the first place, an urge to tell stories that remains closer to an oral tradition of storytelling (whether African or Indian in origin) than is the case in Western cultures. The form of the Anancy story or the Indo-Caribbean folktale (A does something to B, B turns the tables; A is set a puzzle or task by B, B finds an ingenious solution) is one that is at the core, for instance, of Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People, where though each story has an individual origin (Monar spent hours listening to the stories of old people in the village) these stories of sugar estate life also have an archetypal quality. A Guyanese reader wrote to Peepal Tree praising them for their originality and authenticity, but also as the stories of his (different) sugar estate too. This did not simply reflect the fact that sugar estate communities shared similar life experiences, or that this experience encouraged particular character archetypes (the trickster, the janus-figure of the driver between workers and overseers, the badjohns and outcast ‘old hige’ women), but that the telling of stories about individuals and communities was a common feature of ‘gaffing’ sessions in these communities and these stories tended to emphasise certain themes: for instance, of the gaining of ‘advantage’, preferably over the management, but sometimes over other workers.

The aliveness of the oral tradition of storytelling is also manifest in the prevalence of work that foregrounds the storyteller’s/writer’s voice, in ways that are much easier to sustain in the short story than in more extended works of fiction. This is very evident both in Monar’s work, and also in the sophisticated post-modern stories of ND Williams in The Crying of Rainbirds, where a whole variety of narrating voices are heard. In stories such as ‘Cats in the Eyes of the Pig’, Williams deliberately undermines the reader’s take on the story by shifting the ground on who is actually telling it, and why. A more consistent vocalised dialogue with the reader takes place in E.A. Markham’s recent collection, Taking the Drawing Room Through Customs, where the narrative voice (gossipy, confidential, ingeniously divergent) in a good many of the stories is that of Markham’s fictive alter ego, Pewter Stapleton.

But though this connection with orality might favour the desire to compress, to work in miniatures, what seems more pertinent, particularly in some more recent collections, is the potentiality of the individual short story to become an element in a structured whole. Here, the short story collection can do a number of things. It can bring a manifestly discontinuous social reality together within a formal whole. It can bring together quite different modes of representation (naturalism and magical realism, for example) within the same frame as a way of creating resonances between the metonymic and the metaphoric. It can create dialogue between stories that offer contrasting ways of seeing the world. None of these are specifically Caribbean innovations, but it is undoubtedly the case that it is in the short story form that Caribbean writers have shown most awareness of formal innovations existing elsewhere in the world, and perhaps the greatest willingness to experiment. In using the architecture of the short story collection as a means of representing the complex and discontinuous realities of Caribbean existence, VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street has been a significant model (a model Naipaul could, of course, have found in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio) in which the relationship between the individual focus of each story and the associative coherence of the collection as a whole mirrors Naipaul’s vision that ‘Everyone was an individual, fighting for his place in the community… we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island’.

Naipaul’s model of stories linked by unity of place is one that is found in Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People and High House and Radio, and Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Writer and His Wife. Monar’s stories focus on, respectively, the Lusignan sugar estate in the 1930s and 40s and Annandale village, the extra-nuclear settlement of the 1950s and 60s where the sugar workers left their communal logies for individual housing lots away from the estate. As a collection of short stories, Backdam People covers a range of individual experiences that would be difficult to present in a novel, and read as a collection, we can see the way each individual’s story fits within the structural relations of the estate system. In a looser way, Maharaj’s The Writer and His Wife offers a rich and humane panorama of the Indo-Trinidadian inhabitants of the Tableland district of South Trinidad.
A closer, more thematic linkage between stories set in the same place is a feature of June Henfrey’s collection Coming Home and Other Stories. These are linked by their Barbadian setting (the landscape enters intimately into the meanings of most of the stories), by their focus on women’s lives and on a transhistorical focus from slavery to the later twentieth century.

Other collections have a wider geographic range but a common thread that links individual stories into a collective whole. For example, Angela Barry’s Endangered Species has, in George Lamming’s words, ‘an astonishing virtuosity in bringing together the multiple narratives that define the Atlantic adventure’. Each of the stories has a distinct location: Bermuda, the Ivory Coast, London, the Gambia and back to Bermuda. In each story there is an absent presence: in Bermuda it is Africa, in the Ivory Coast it is both France and village Africa, in London it is Gambia, in Gambia, London. Barry’s diasporic characters suffer the pains of rootlessness and cultural separation (though they vary immensely in their consciousness of their situation) but there are threads that run through each of the stories (the multiple crossings of music between Africa and the New World) that keep suggesting an Atlantic flow, connections that are real, if submarine.

The diasporic frame is also a feature of Meiling Jin’s Song of the Boatwoman where the focus is on women, their relationships with other women and their experience as people of the Chinese diaspora (Guyana, the UK, Malaysia and the USA). There are stories set in China that have a mythic, fabulous quality and these create undercurrents that ripple through the socially realistic diasporic stories. Cyril Dabydeen’s Berbice Crossing has a looser kind of structure in terms of the range of tone and characters in individual stories, but the split between stories set in Guyana and Canada makes the point (as do the ways that characters are shown to think) that there is no longer a Guyana that is unpenetrated by a dominant awareness of North America and there is a Canada that is now full of Caribbean echoes. The connections are made in the title story with its metaphors of crossings (a mythical swimming race in the Berbice river). That metaphor of journeyings also links the division between stories set in Bangladesh and London in Manzural Islam’s The Mapmakers of Spitalfields. Here the stories set in Bangladesh contrast with those set in the UK in what they say both about the poverty of opportunities that drives to migration and the loss of cultural richness this entails, and this underscores the conflicts experienced by the Bangladeshis in Brick Lane between the temptation to live in a state of exile, constantly looking backwards, and the drive of the community’s pioneers to remap the streets of London in their own image.

These kinds of architectures grow organically from the focus on particular social themes. Other collections have a more consciously postmodern, writerly concern with the reflexiveness and fictionality of both the individual story and the arrangement of the whole. EA Markham in Taking the Drawing Room through Customs is perhaps the most experimental Caribbean user of the short story, constantly playing with the reader’s expectations, but in the most genial and engaging ways. His range is wide, from the more conventional narratives of stories such as ‘A Short History of Employment in Britain’, to the metafictions of ‘A Place for Simon’ or the absurdist magical realism of ‘Digging’. Putting such stories in juxtaposition in the collection constantly reminds that the apparently realistic are no less works of fictional artifice. Many of the stories relate to the island of St Caesare (somewhere near Monserrat), but Markham uses the relation between individual story and the collection to take this invention far beyond the usual conventions of the composite place in Caribbean fiction (Naipaul’s Isabella, or Lamming’s San Christobal). Markham’s ‘A Short History of St Caesare’, which tells how the island was invented as part of an elaborate scam, both reinforces the awareness of the fictionality of all the stories and points to the fact that it is the Caribbean experience to inherit other people’s imposed fictions.

In the work of Geoffrey Philp, Hazel Campbell and Kwame Dawes there is a more conscious attempt to locate the architecture of the collection within a specifically Caribbean aesthetic. Philp’s Uncle Obadiah and the Alien very consciously takes a wide variety of short story forms (sci-fi, the tall-tale and the social realist story, all with ragamuffin flavours) and moods (comic, protesting, erotic, tragic) and mixes the whole like a track-list on a reggae album by Peter Tosh (e.g. Legalise It) where the mixture of religious dread, prophecy, folk wisdom and slackness come from a popular sensibility without divisions between high and low or the sacred and the profane. Campbell’s Singerman also relates to musical forms in several of the stories (to calypso, curiously for a Jamaican) and she very effectively mixes different kinds of realism (the magic realism of ‘Singerman’, ‘Carnival’ and ‘Jacob Bubbles’; the social realism of ‘Don’t Colour Me’) where the metaphoric structures of the former give resonance to the acutely metonymic observations of the latter. This kind of variety is also a feature of ND Williams’ The Crying of Rainbirds, though in this case the variety derives from playing with a whole range of framing devices for different stories. There are first person speaking-voice narratives, third person narratives with quite different levels of authorial voice, mock documentary, stories within stories, narratives where who exactly is telling the story is unclear.

It is, though, in Kwame Dawes’ A Place to Hide that the architecture of dialogue is most developed. Dawes’ structural device is a series of five (dub) vershans that intercut the stories. Each dramatises a moment of reggae creation and their themes interlink and comment on the other stories. The ‘vershans’ link to each other as reggae archetypes: the youth singer (a Hugh Mundell figure), lovers rock, the roots reggae of Burning Spear, the inspired lunacy of Scratch Perry, and as such they touch the parameters/perimeters of Dawes’ preoccupations: the prophetic, the socio-political, the erotic and the spiritual. They comment on the stories in a way that sets up a constant tension between the desired and the actual. The vershans dramatise the actuality of creating moments of beauty and art out of the chaos of a society that the stories show is threatened by the most nihilistic impulses. The vershans also set up a dynamic relationship between the ‘hidden’ author and the ‘autonomous’ characters of the stories. The narratives of the ‘vershans’ are very clearly fictional, but any reader of Dawes’ poetry will recognise ‘versions’ of more personal stories and themes. One of the vershans, ‘Burnt Offering’ is pivotal in this respect. It is the only narrative set outside Jamaica, and readers of Natural Mysticism will recognise it as a dramatisation of an episode from Dawes’ own experience as the leader of a Canadian-based reggae group. The vershan is about the possibility of finding the ‘language of home’; it is Dawes’ commentary on the nature of memory and the very processes of writing about Jamaica by the writer who no longer lives there.


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