Finding the Modern in Early Caribbean Literature
Modern-day scholars of Caribbean literature tend to view with suspicion literature written in or about the Caribbean before the late nineteenth century, texts mostly published by Europeans and creoles in Europe and for European audiences. The body of literature appears counterproductive—and irrelevant—to modern-day efforts to celebrate the literary contributions of historically marginalized populations in the Caribbean. My proposed essay for a volume on the literary history of early Caribbean literature emphasizes the important relationship between pre-colonial/colonial and postcolonial Caribbean literature. Early Caribbean texts are often not the sole production of European writers but collaborative efforts that register multiple discourses, multiple voices, and multiple cultures within the texts. So, in constructing a literary history of the early Caribbean, I emphasize ways of reading the literature that do not merely confirm European dominance but that also recognize the complex human contacts that formed the literature. I do this through a close-reading of Richard Ligon’s History of Barbados, focusing specifically on that moment when he relates the tragic story of Yarico, an Indian maid sold into slavery by her English lover. I compare his version to Beryl Gilroy’s 1996 novel Inkle and Yarico. As the relationship between Gilroy and Ligon’s interpretations of Inkle and Yarico illustrates, early-modern and modern Caribbean literature are intimately linked, fueled in both cases by cultural encounters among black Africans, Indians, and Europeans that have defined the region in the past and today. Approaching early Caribbean literature in this way, as product of multicultural encounters, complements current postcolonial efforts to recuperate the literary contributions of historically marginalized populations in the Caribbean. More important, this perspective puts in dialogue the literary history of early Caribbean and modern Caribbean literatures.
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