Imaginary Caribbeans

Since John Hearne created the island of Cayuna in Voices under the Window (1955), and Lamming invented the island of San Cristobal in Of Age and Innocence (1958), and his other earlier novels, and VS Naipaul followed suite with the island of Isabella in The Mimic Men, Caribbean novelists have been inventing imaginary islands as part of their narrative strategy.  In truth, the probable honour of creating an imagined island predates these better known novels by almost twenty years in Elma Napier’s The Flying Fish Whispered (1938, 2009). In this novel she contrasts the island of St Celia (based on Dominica) and Parham Island. St Celia is an island of peasant cultivation with traditions of sturdy independence, Parham Island (resembling Antigua) is a sugar island where plantation culture has regimented lives as well as the land.

In both Naipaul’s and Lamming’s case, the intention is to create a composite Caribbean whose ethnic and social structure relates to a general condition rather than to a specific country (so Isabella has elements of both Trinidad and Guyana) and Lamming’s San Cristobal combines elements of his known Barbados with the added ethnic element (the Indians) of Trinidad, where he has to invent (not always very plausibly). In each of these imagined islands the common heritage of the region is suggested through the naming, in the references to European exploration and conquest. The vision of a composite Caribbean is perhaps not unconnected to the fact that Lamming, Hearne and Naipaul were all currently living in London at the time of writing these novels, where enthusiasm for the composite of West Indian Federation was almost certainly higher amongst the expatriate writing community than in the islands.

Later inventions have rather different motivations. Lakshmi Persaud in For the Love of My Name (2000) brings an explicitly Indian heritage to the invention of the island of Maya (which shares many characteristics with Guyana), where the naming (illusion) suggests a more metaphoric intention in describing an island that has dreamed itself to destruction. Her invention signals the moral critique of the novel of a country that sinks below the sea under the weight of its folly, and signals that verisimilitude should not be demanded, though the novel references much of the actual political history of Guyana. In other cases, as with Brenda Flanagan’s Santabella in You Alone are Dancing (1990) and Allah in the Islands (2009), Anthony Kellman’s Charouga in The Coral Rooms (1994) and Harischandra Khemraj’s Aritya in Cosmic Dance (1994), the intention is to use a common estranging device of satire to nudge the reader into an active act of recognition, and in Khemraj’s case self-preservation (he was still resident in a then repressive Guyana at the time of writing). It was an unnecessary caution, since by the time the book was published the old regime had gone, and Cosmic Dance in fact won the Guyana prize! Kellman’s Charouga is a thinly disguised Barbados, and since Kellman, like his protagonist, Percival Veer, once worked in Public Relations (for the Central Bank of Barbados) the device is both an addition to the disclaimers of resemblance that preface the novel, and a pointer to the magical realist elements that progressively enter it.

The classic invention of an island (and play with the strategy of the invention of place) comes in EA Markham’s story, ‘A Short History of St. Caesare’ in Taking the Drawing Room Through the Customs (2002). St Caesare features as the island home of many of the characters of the stories, only to be revealed as the invention of Markham’s alter ego, Pewter Stapelton, as an elaborate scam to part a UN conference of some funding. St Caesare is situated near to Montserrat, but is ‘more independent minded’. It has a history, a map and people who claim to have been there. Markham also reminds the reader that in a real sense all Caribbean islands are places invented by someone other than those who live there. In a similar way, David Dabydeen’s Turner (1994, 2002) invents an Africa of origins that draws attention to its complete fictivity by the invention of a flora and fauna that exists only in the poet’s imagination. The invention suggests two important currents in Caribbean writing: it echoes Derek Walcott’s myth of the action of “New World Adams” who reclaim a landscape alienated from the Caribbean person by slavery through the process of renaming, and it acknowledges of the reality of an historical amnesia (an irrecoverable Africa or India) that can only be overcome through the creation of myth. Dabydeen’s fictive Africa perhaps echoes the earlier novel by Denis Williams, Other Leopards (1963), which is set in the mythical country of Jokhara in the Horn of Africa. Jokhara is an uneasy blend between African and Arab cultures, a “mongrel” place like the Caribbean, its mythical character a commentary on the tendency towards myth with regard to Africa in the Caribbean imagination.

In his inventive homage to the vision of Wilson Harris, Andrew Jefferson-Miles’ novel The Timehrian (2002), focuses on the ‘now disappeared’ village of Manchester, on the East coast of Guyana, which is swept away by a high tide. Now under the sea, it shares an identity with the sunken city of Caer-Ys, of Celtic myth. Playing on the real vulnerability of the Guyanese coastline to flood, and the prehistoric fact that the shore was once under a sea that extended fifty miles inland, Jefferson-Miles subverts the conventions of geographical realism as part of his assault on fixed, monolithic ways of seeing.

It is to this tradition that Curdella Forbes’ Jacaranda in Ghosts (2012), and Desiree Reynolds Church Island in Seduce (2013) make distinguished additions. Their novels further complicate the idea by adding time into the process. Ghosts takes place between 2014 and 2059 and Seduce at some time in the past, perhaps, but not specifically, around the 1930s. In making this connection between imaginary time and place, both these novels connect to the fact that they are written from a Caribbean elsewhere. Now plenty of diaspora-based Caribbean novelists continue to write about specific countries of origin, but they are inevitably countries of memory and imaginary in that sense, though they don’t always admit it. What Ghosts and Seduce do is to seize on the container of the imaginary in order to give full scope to the power of their imaginations, in the way that Blake’s prophetic book America is inspired by the revolution that took place in the country so named, but as a container for his revolutionary imagination.

In Ghosts, Jacaranda is an imagined Caribbean future, balanced uncomfortably between the gifts of technological advance, particular in the area of communications, and existential threat as the rising sea levels of global warming threaten destruction.

In Seduce, Desire Reynolds, as the British-born daughter of Jamaicans who settled in the UK, conducts her own dialogue with Caribbeanness. Whilst her Church Island exists in the past, the class, cultural and gender battles being fought out there remain at the heart of Caribbean being. Spirituality is at its centre, but a spirituality fought over in the clash between colonial Europe and Africa, respectability and enthusiasm, or the battles over sexuality, between Protestant suspicions about the body and the embrace of the body’s sensual potentials.