Medusas del Nuevo Mundo / Lulú Giménez Saldivia

New World Medusas

For us, having always confronted the sea’s vastness, the Caribbean is the horizon we look at with half-closed eyes, seeking to understand what it means and how we can measure that immense blue border that joins and separates at the same time. Then the aquatic mirage returns to us an image of our own insularity, of this place which is “the darker, the older America” (From the poem “The Star-Apple Kingdom,” by Derek Walcott), drawn by the fragmented gaze of the colonizers. We remember that we are “The Spanish Main,” the Terra Firma that was finally seen by the Spanish, after so much jumping from island to island, and we also remember that the Antilles accompany us in this historical voyage. We have distinct references about some of these islands, which come to us from historical narratives and also, mainly, by means of the anecdotes that climb onto the fishing boats; but others remain submerged in the darkness of our imaginary. Where is Dominica, that I can’t see it? On this tiny map, where did St. Vincent and the Grenadines go? Literature comes to our rescue, to tell us that the Anglophone Caribbean lies very near our anguish, right there we witness “the confrontation of history, that Medusa of the New World.” (“The Muse of History”)

The other Medusa is ethnicity. A clearly outlined body of literature has emerged in this Caribbean, which tells us that, despite maps, these islands are “more than pebbles in the sea” (“The Muse of History”); really, it’s about peoples fighting to find shelter in seemingly inhospitable territories, conditioned by historical and ethnic determinisms. In the origins of the ideas of nation and nationality in the Anglophone Caribbean, at the beginning of the 20th century, is the contact of Caribbean people with the Black Power movement of the United States. That is where Claude McKay is formed, a writer of Jamaican origin who by means of his books Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929) has become more famous as a black American than as a Caribbean author. However, the West Indies (a denomination that the English language has traditionally adopted to designate the territories of the Anglophone Caribbean. Today, its inhabitants called themselves, indistinctly, Caribbeans and West Indians) are always present in his verses, where one can find a nostalgia for the Jamaican sun, for the warmth of the sea and the exasperating beauty of its beaches, as well as an interest in certain themes of Caribbean society and culture.

The Jamaican Marcus Garvey is also shaped by his relationship with the black movements of the United States. He was more famous as a politician than as a writer, and in the 1920s he organized a movement for the vindication of the black race, the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), which had a continental reach and whose central aim was “to serve as an instrument to join a dispersed race, that before many centuries would found an empire where the sun will shine ceaselessly, as it shines today for the empire of the north.” The influence of both authors is evident in the literary creation of subsequent decades, where the Black Antilles are forged as an identifying, and at the same time differentiating, channel.

From this very channel emerges Rastafari, with its poets such as Bongo Jerry and its musicians such as Bob Marley, which, more than a cultural movement, has been a religion that evokes as its final goal the return to Africa, where a beatific paradise is to be found. Africa and Europe are the divide reference points, since the inhabitants of the Caribbean are inheritors of both. An imaginary is constructed where the splendor is beyond and far away from the islands, as Edward Kamau Barthwaite reveals in his trilogy The Arrivants (1967-1969), which is founded on the right to nomadism – physical and spiritual, in many cases – of the Caribbean people, but also in the confirmation that, after so many centuries of slavery and exile, the Africa house has ceased to belong to them. One has to look once again to the islands, within those territories on which peoples within a storm must create a history.

And there are many contradictions, deliriums, colonial bad habits within, East Indians who practice their millenialisms beneath almond trees, ethnic factors that make the Caribbean a scene of simulation, a theater where the most sublime and perverse aspects of Western civilization are gesticulated. Amidst this entire process, overrun and complex with tensions and definitions, with inclusions and exclusions, six new Caribbean republics are born into independence in the 1960s: Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana and Belize. They serve as American emblems of the decolonization movements taken up on a planetary scale. In this way a “New Caribbean” is constituted, whose urgencies move towards the imperative of appropriating the reality of the Antilles for themselves, which up until then had been denied to their own inhabitants by the arbitrariness of history and the vicissitudes of geography.

In the absence of the original indigenous populations, the peoples of the West Indies impose upon themselves the aspiration to become founders of a civilization, in what Sylvia Winter called “the indigenization of Caribbean experience,” for which the efforts of several generations of Antillean writers have been crucial. Today, the literature of the Anglophone Caribbean displays a corpus rich in expressions and in the variety of genres, mature and diversified, to which new generations of writers are added every day; a corpus that, moreover, already boasts classic works, of universal reference and translated into various languages: The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; In the Castle of my Skin and The Pleasures of Exile by George lamming; The Hills Were Joyful Together by Roger Mais; The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace; The Palace of the Peacock and Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness by Wilson Harris; Rites of Passage, Masks and Islands, which integrate the trilogy The Arrivants, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite; A House for Mr. Biswas, The Mystic Masseur and The Mimic Men by V.S. Naipaul; In a Green Night, Sea Grapes, The Castaway, Another Life, The Star-Apple Kingdom, The Arkansas Testament and Omeros by Derek Walcott, these are some of the many texts that could be mentioned in this random perusal of the literary paths of various territories and a single people. However, the New World Medusas must be conjured away at each step: what does one do to stop feeling the weight of history; to have a healthy imaginary, one not subject to the horrendous images of the Middle Passage (in allusion to how many died in the sea and those who managed to reach the Antilles having no possibility of return) and of slavery; so that Caribbean literature will not only be Afro-Antillean but also universal? These are questions that reach a level of foundational gesture in these territories. In that regard, Walcott says:

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. (…) The great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda, reject this sense of history. Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. (“The Muse of History”)

Yes, the aquatic mirage returns to us a transfigured image of ourselves, to begin anew each day, knowing that we no longer want to be inheritors of masters or slaves and we no longer want the academies to turn our land into a reservation. Standing in front of the sea, in this part of the Atlantic Insula (thus named in a 1535 map) called Venezuela, Thäel comes to mind, as a symbol of the Caribbean person who wanders between all the Caribbeans, seeing each island as a microcosm: “The entire Earth…is here within my eyes.” (La Lézarde, Edouard Glissant)

{ Lulú Giménez Saldivia, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 5 May 2007 }

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