American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CARIBBEAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA. An island is defined by its surrounding waters, and so the Caribbean Sea has shaped and delimited the Caribbean archipelago, often reflecting the region’s history. The sea brought Christopher Columbus,* whose expedition from Spain ultimately doomed the native Taino Indians; the sea brought centuries of European expansionism and imperialism. Later, the sea brought Africans through their perilous Middle Passage to slavery. Although the sea provided economic opportunity through migration to England in the 1940s and 1950s, the result was the separation of families and isolation for West Indians in London. The terrifying flight of Haitian refugees to Miami has emerged as the most recent defining sea journey.

Not surprisingly, then, the canon of Caribbean literature contains a paucity of purely positive images of the sea. Jean Rhys, in her “prequel” to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), takes the title Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) for her novel, referring to an area of the Atlantic Ocean choked with sea grass, to symbolize human lethargy and entrapment. Indeed, most Caribbean writers, including Derek Walcott,* approach the sea with ambiguity at best. Caribbean literature seems, in fact, to be dominated by the powerful, overarching association of the sea as an instrument of exploitation, most profoundly the nightmare of the Middle Passage.

One of the strongest indictments of the sea occurs in the recent novel by Guyanese writer Fred D’Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts (1997). The novel centers on a ship captain’s brutal decision to throw 132 dead or dying slaves into the sea; D’Aguiar describes how their lives were so easily and thoroughly swallowed up by the sea as if it were complicit in the slavery itself.

Jamaica Kincaid, from Antigua, writes of both rivers and the sea in her works. In A Small Place (1988) she imagines a tourist’s excitement at seeing the beautiful Caribbean Sea, then undercuts that with images of contaminated sewage flowing into the sea, and, finally, reminds the reader of the slaves who died in the very same waters.

Slave imagery appears as well in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1984), where Paule Marshall, of Barbados, imagines the sounds of the ocean as the lament of doomed slaves. Yet the sea facilitates a journey back to Africa in her Praisesong for the Widow (1983), when a proper, middle- class American is driven by self-doubts and the urgings of a strange and ancient man to abandon a luxury cruise and embark on a voyage of an altogether different sort. During this symbolic return to her roots, she is violently ill but recovers, purged and reborn, with newfound enthusiasm for her lost African heritage.

Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, writing about the hardships Haitians endure to reach Miami, connects their sea journey to both the Middle Passage from Africa and a return to Africa in “Children of the Sea” from her collection Krik? Krak! (1995).

George Lamming, in Barbados, follows the migration patterns of an earlier generation in The Emigrants (1954), which tells of several men who voyage from the West Indies to England. He foreshadows their fate by describing the oil-laden, sinister darkness of the sea as it surrounds their ship in port. Nearly twenty years later, Lamming uses an allegorical sea voyage in Natives of My Person (1972). In the section entitled “The Middle Passage,” he records an excursion aboard the ship Reconnaissance, which sails from the corrupted Old World to the New World in an idealistic, but doomed, attempt to found a new society.

A journey from the Old World to the New is also the subject of Trinidadian-born V. S. Naipaul’s travel book The Middle Passage (1962). Here, Naipaul returns home to the Caribbean for a visit after years of absence and offers his acerbic assessment not only of Trinidad but also of other Caribbean islands.

Barbadian poet and editor Frank Collymore concedes the sea’s beauty, but in “Return” from Collected Poems (1959) writes of its “dark embrace” and likens the sea to a “mother vomiting her living and her dead” (47). Also from that volume, in “Hymn to the Sea,” Collymore identifies the sea as the source of love, sustenance, and even philosophical musings but concludes with its integral contradictions of life-giver and destroyer (48). Collymore mentored many poets, fellow Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite among them, and the sea appears frequently in Brathwaite’s work. While images of boys frolicking and playing cricket on the beach are frequent, for Brathwaite, the sea also carries the weight of history, as numerous examples from his canon would indicate. For example, in “The Cracked Mother” from Islands (1969), Brathwaite first imagines “three nuns”—Columbus’ boats—and later refers to slave ships sailing to the New World.

Slavery is also connected to the sea, at least initially, in Return to My Native Land (1938) by Martiniquan Aime Cesaire. Early in this book-length poem, Cesaire compares the sea to an aggressive boxer and a “great dog licking and biting the shins of the beach” (48) and refers to his people as “we, vomit of the slave ships” (67). Eventually, though, he envisions a transformed future.

The sea is more personal for such poets as Marvin E. Williams (St. Croix), Christopher Laird (Trinidad), and Geoffrey Philp (Jamaica), yet it remains more often than not connected with drownings or grief. Philp records his father-fisherman’s death in “Bull Bay” from Exodus and Other Poems (1990).

The enticements of swimming and recreational sailing are generally the province of the nonnative writer. The early poems of Laurence Lieberman,* a midwestern poet who focuses on the Caribbean, for instance, extol undersea life. Twentieth-century novelists such as Graham Greene and Alec Waugh detail the British expatriate life by the Caribbean Sea. An exception is American writer Ernest Hemingway,* who took as his hero a Cuban fisherman and sensitively portrayed his experiences in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea* (1952).

For the most part, indigenous writers have opted to reveal the breadth and depth of Caribbean society, to describe its people, politics, and heritage. Thus, for a great number of native-born Caribbean writers, the waters surrounding the Caribbean, however beautiful and compelling, must bear the curse of history.

FURTHER READING: Brown, Lloyd W. West Indian Poetry. Boston: Twayne, 1980; Burnett, Paula, ed. The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English. New York: Penguin, 1986; Dance, Daryl Cumber: New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers. Leeds: Peepal Tree Books, 1992; King, Bruce, ed. West Indian Literature. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1995; Markham, E. A., ed. Penguin Book of Short Stories. New York: Penguin, 1996; Waters, Erika J., ed. The Caribbean Writer. Vols. 1-12. St. Croix: University of the Virgin Islands, 19871999; Waters, Erika J., ed. New Writing from the Caribbean. London: Macmillan, 1994.

Erika J. Waters