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Caribbean and Globalisation 1991 onwards

In the first decades of independence the Caribbean discovered that unless the USA felt its interests were threatened, as it did in Guyana, Jamaica and in Grenada, the region was on its own; in VS Naipaul’s words they were ‘islands… ringed as now by a cordon sanitaire, their people not needed anywhere’ (‘Power’ in The Overcrowded Barracoon). In the post-Cold war 1990s, most Caribbean people had to conclude that nothing had changed, that economic imperialism had never gone away; that it had just had a name change. For the agricultural producers of the region, colonial protectionism, with all its built-in inequalities, must have started to look good in the era of globalisation and the unfettered interests of American and European capital. Marginal, wanted for little other than as a playground for European and North American tourists, the social experiments with forms of state capitalism in Jamaica, Grenada and Guyana, which were attempts to develop an economic base not controlled by metropolitan interests, were destroyed from both within and without, by tribal politics, corruption, authoritarianism, fratricide and external meddling, principally by the IMF.

The cultural ferment, associated for example with 1970’s Jamaica in reggae and theatre, with regional institutions such as the early Carifestas, had long burnt out. In the 1980s, right wing politicians who wanted crumbs from the Ronald Reagan table had come to power throughout the region (Seaga in Jamaica, Tom Adams in Barbados, Mrs Charles in Dominica), and if the 1990s brought free elections to Guyana following the end of the cold war and the end of Guyana’s alleged ‘strategic’ importance, (allowing the return of the Marxist Cheddi Jagan), the return of the PNP to government in Jamaica and the ‘left-leaning’ Basdeo Panday’s UNC to power in Trinidad, all these were now much chastened social democratic parties that had capitulated to the IMF and the power of the global market. In the vacuum left either by the lack of demand for, or the shutting out of Caribbean material exports – sugar, bauxite, peasant grown fruits – some of the islands became transit points for the global drug trade. The innocent days of ‘herb’ were gone; cocaine and crack cut into the social fabric; AIDS spread. Levels of murder and violence against the person rose sharply, firstly in Jamaica as the politicians lost control of the gangs they had armed as political enforcers. Levels of killings connected to drugs transhipment followed suite in Trinidad and Guyana. It was evident that some senior politicians were implicated in narco crime. Trinidad also developed its own profitable industry of kidnappings for ransom. State sponsored violence, unaccountable police forces and extra-judicial killings have brought the alarmed outrage of human rights organisations. In Guyana in a four year period after 2002, it seems likely that over 200 mainly young black men were killed (443 between 1993 and 2009) by the police and assassination squads that were believed to be connected to a drug overlord, Roger Khan, now in prison in the USA. The minister of home affairs, whilst acquitted of complicity with Khan by his own political party, had his visa withdrawn as a persona non grata by the USA. Draw your own conclusions.

By the 1990s, the period of worldwide admiration for Caribbean cultural products such as reggae, cricket and literature had largely come to an end. Emigration continued to denude Caribbean societies and there was only the most halting progress towards any kind of overarching regional identity. National governments were reluctant to pay their fees to Caricom. Everywhere there was/ is widespread cynicism about politics and politicians. Trinidad’s and Guyana’s race relations continue to simmer on the point of explosion. And yet, in both Trinidad and Guyana small cracks in the fabric of ethnic voting have appeared, and in Guyana, such was the level of cynicism about government corruption that the PPP, in power for 22 years, was unable to persuade all its erstwhile Indian supporters that an African-led APNU government was existential threat…

So how has Caribbean writing responded to what cannot be considered as other than a generally dispiriting state of affairs? In the 1990s, with major exceptions – the continuing vitality of the work of Earl Lovelace not least (and one must add Erna Brodber, Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh, Kendel Hippolyte, John Robert Lee and Ian McDonald as established writers who have stayed in the region) ­ it was possible to think that the vitality of Caribbean writing depended largely on writing from the Caribbean diasporas and on just a handful of relatively new voices from the region itself. The death of the great Guyanese poet, Martin Carter in 1997, last of the greats to live wholly in the region, seemed symbolic. At one level writing has been another victim of globalisation’s continuing emphasis on labour migration: the exile of Kamau Brathwaite in the USA between 1991 to 2010, worn out, one suspects from decades of cultural struggle and the coincidences of the destruction of his archive in a hurricane and suffering existential threat at the hands of armed robbers, was one symptom of the continuing movement away.

In Guyana, to take one example, there was a drying up of the flow of writers of quality who were actually resident in Guyana in this period, with the exceptions of the continuing presence of Ian McDonald and the inventive fiction and poetry of Ruel Johnson. There is probably the same amount of raw talent about, but there is also a generation under the age of forty that has undoubtedly suffered greatly from the collapse in educational standards in Guyana during the 1980s and 1990s when levels of pay in the state sector drove many teachers into emigration and alternative occupations. As Guyana’s official all-party National Development strategy recognised in 1996:

“A review of the literature suggests that although Guyana’s educational system was considered one of the best in the Caribbean during the 1960s, it is probably the weakest today. Learning in the schools, as measured by national and Caribbean-wide examinations, is extremely low. A large proportion of the teaching force is unqualified and untrained, absenteeism on the part of both teachers and students is all too common in the system, and textbooks and other teaching aids are often unavailable. Guyana’s success in achieving universal access to primary school in the early 1970s appears to be eroding and is accompanied by rising repetition and dropout rates”.

As a publishing house that has in the past received more submissions from Guyana than almost any other Caribbean nation, we are forced as editor to acknowledge that too many submissions that have come in recent years from Guyana (rather than from Guyanese writers in the diaspora) display signs that authors have failed to be readers and in some instances struggle with the basics of literary craft.

However, aggregating Caribbean writing from the region and its diasporas, in the twenty five years since 1990, it is possible to see both new developments in Caribbean writing and a sense of reconnection to the most dynamic elements of what Kamau Brathwaite terms the “CR”, the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Over the past decade, particularly in Trinidad, there has undoubtedly been a significant engagement, from within the region, with the consequences of living in a globalised world.

The two most obviously significant developments in Caribbean writing have been the entry of women into its mainstream (dominating the lists of new books, indeed), and the growth of writing which is not merely from the diasporas, but about the diasporic world, building on the fiction in particular of Sam Selvon in the UK and Austin C. Clarke in Canada. Other significant entries into the body of Caribbean writing include the growth of a range of Indo-Caribbean voices, male/female, regional and diasporic (see India); and of writing that explores gay experiences and sensibilities (see Gay Sexuality). It is also possible to see an increasing, though disputed, tendency to see the output of writing in national rather than in regional terms, and – very much what one might expect as a product of globalisation in mass market publishing – the emergence of writing that is Caribbean-inflected but very evidently marketed towards a cosmopolitan readership.

Within the writing of the past twenty-five years it is possible to see a number of trends. Writers have begun to write back to an established Caribbean tradition, such as in David Dabydeen’s Disappearance and ND Williams’s The Crying of Rainbirds, or of poets acknowledging that they have poetic foreparents to acknowledge and react against, in Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison (see Intertexts with other Caribbean writing). Kwame Dawes’ has a section, “Midland” in his New and Selected Poems that very explicitly explores the personas and the examples of Walcott, Brathwaite and of Harris. In recent years, both in fiction and poetry, there has been a good deal of writing that acknowledges Brathwaite’s work to make visible the neo-African spiritual tradition at the centre of Caribbean culture and writing, to bring the Orisha or Kumina presences into view. There is the fiction of Curdella Forbes in A Permanent Freedom and Ghosts, Mark De Brito’s Heron’s Canoe and his anthology of African diasporic poetry The Trickster’s Tongue, Geoffrey Philp’s Xango Music, Orlando Menes’ Rumba Atop the Stones, some of the stories in Cherie Jones’ The Burning Bush Women and Other Stories, Marcia Douglas’s Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, Myriam Chancy’s Haitian novels The Scorpian’s Claw and The Loneliness of Angels (LOAS), and Opal Palmer Adisa’s Painting Away Regrets. (See Orishas, Kumina, Obeah and Voudun articles for further discussion). There has also been a comfortable moving around in a post-Harrisian world of magical realism in, amongst others, the novels of Denise Harris (Web of Secrets and In Remembrance of Her), Anthony Kellman’s The Coral Rooms, Curdella Forbes’ A Permanent Freedom and Ghosts, in Patricia Powell’s The Fullness of Everything, in Desiree Reynold’s Seduce and in the stories of Hazel Campbell (Singerman) and Cherie Jones. (See Magical Realism)

What has been much rarer until recently is writing that deals with the postglobal realities of the region in the 1990s and millennium onwards written from within the region itself. However, whilst it is probably too soon to make such a confident assertion, I think it is possible to identify developments in Caribbean writing over the past ten years that don’t depend on writing from the diasporas. Why this should have happened one can only speculate, though the emergence of regional publishing initiatives such as the Caribbean Review of Books, the emergence of Caribbean literary festivals such as Calabash in Jamaica and Bocas in Trinidad (both of which have invested in the development of new writers) have undoubtedly functioned as necessary encouragements. No doubt, differing levels of economic development and per capita incomes must have something to do with the matter in influencing whether writers can find occupations “at home” that allow them to continue to write. For instance, noting things from a publisher’s perspective, Trinidad with a per capita income of $14, 400 (2012) compared to Jamaica’s $5140 has been a more lucrative market for selling books. It is no accident, I think, given Trinidad’s relative prosperity, but also its very problematic politics and growth in criminal violence that there has been a stream of sharply observed and imaginative new fiction from Trinidad that plumbs the difficult realities of living in a global world where crime, at least, is borderless. Jennifer Rahim’s Songster and Other Stories, Raymond Ramcharitar’s The Island Quintet, Keith Jardim’s Near Open Water, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s Mrs B., Barbara Jenkins’s Sic Transit Wagon and Other Stories, Rhoda Bharath’s The Ten Days Executive and Other Stories and Sharon Millar’s The Whale House and Other Stories all have insightful things to say about the Republic. It is no surprise, too, to see that Trinidadian writers have been drawn to what can be described as Caribbean Gothic.

Belmont Portfolio John Robert Lee
Archipelagos Geoffrey Philp
Azúcar Nii Ayikwei Parkes
The Dreaming Andre Bagoo
Witness in Stone Esther Phillips
Zion Roses Monica Minott
Modern, Age, &c. Raymond Ramcharitar
Ricantations Loretta Collins Klobah
If I Had the Wings Helen Klonaris
Madwoman Shara McCallum
The Bone Readers Jacob Ross
The Repenters Kevin Jared Hosein
Take My Word for It Ralph Thompson
Hurricane Center Geoffrey Philp
The Houses of Alphonso Anthony Kellman
Hope's Hospice Kwame Dawes
Here Raymond Ramcharitar
Ground Level Jennifer Rahim
God's Spider Cyril Dabydeen
Irki Kadija Sesay
Wife Tiphanie Yanique
The Way Home Millicent Graham
Dog-Heart Diana McCaulay
Ten Days in Jamaica Ifeona Fulani
Difficult Fruit Lauren K. Alleyne
Sounding Ground Vladimir Lucien
Chinese Women Jan Lowe Shinebourne
Sections of an Orange Anton Nimblett
Prash and Ras N.D. Williams
Birthright Kendel Hippolyte
Pepperpot Sharon Millar
Pepper Seed Malika Booker
Approaching Sabbaths Jennifer Rahim
Night Vision Kendel Hippolyte
Navel String Adrian Augier
Mrs. B Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw
Marking Time E.A. Markham
Lady in a Boat Merle Collins
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