©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Women’s Voices from the Caribbean: An Annotated Bibliography

 

Jason O’Brien

The First International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers in 1988 constituted an important milestone for women writers of the Caribbean region.1 Not only did it provide its participants with the opportunity to reflect on their common concerns as writers; the conference provided a first step in helping these women authors gain the respect and recognition that their male counterparts have long since achieved. A second milestone occurred four years later, when Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz won Spain’s Cervantes prize for her poetry.

The literary works of Caribbean women—reflecting different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and languages—offer fertile ground for teachers seeking to increase their students’ knowledge of this region. The diverse experiences of Caribbean women and the unique literature that emerges from them can provide students with broader perspectives on the region, past and present. Colonialism and slavery, the rise of nationalism and emancipation, traditional and modern economic structures, and race and gender patterns in Caribbean societies all are explored in the novels, poems, and diaries produced by these authors.

The experiences of Caribbean women are of growing interest to scholars as well as writers, and are often compared with the experiences of North American women. The various political, economic, racial, and gender inequities that have plagued societies in both regions provide common ground for such comparisons. However, there are aspects of the Caribbean experience that are unique.

One such aspect involves the concept of the “matrifocal family”—a family in which the lack of a significant male figure allows for the mother (matriarch) to become the focus of the family group. Feminist theorists have studied this phenomenon and the contrast it offers to the traditional, patriarchal family characteristic of Western societies.2 The importance of the matrifocal family lies in the power it vests in female household leaders within Caribbean society. Rather than weakening the family unit, the absence of a father figure allows the mother to assume the decision-making function and to form very strong bonds with her children. As the “mode#148; American family undergoes change to include many families headed by a single parent, usually the mother, drawing parallels between traditional Caribbean cultures and contemporary
U.S. culture can be a fruitful topic for students to examine.

The experiences of Caribbean women with regard to race can likewise be compared with situations experienced by women in the United States. As described by one sociologist: “There is a scale of color values [in Caribbean society] in which the ‘white’ European is given positive value, and the ‘black’ or Negro is given negative value, and this serves as the basis for the hierarchical rankings of persons, and groups of persons, according to the ‘color’ characteristics ascribed to them.”3 Of course, men as well as women are subject to the effects of these color values. But Caribbean women of color experience a twofold disadvantage, generally occupying a lower position in society on account of both race and gender. This may help students to understand why resistance is such a dominant theme in the work of these writers.

Another aspect of Caribbean women’s experiences commonly manifested in their literature is the continuing importance of African-based religions. Vadou in Haiti, santería in Cuba, espiritismo in Puerto Rico, and obeah throughout the region all trace their roots to religious practices by enslaved Africans brought to the Caribbean. European colonizers outlawed these practices in the attempt to force slaves to reject their African heritage and to adopt Christianity. The persistence of the African heritage is, however, confirmed in works that portray obeah women as enjoying an elevated status due to their possession of mystical powers.

Although Caribbean women’s literature is diverse in terms of language, subject matter, and literary techniques, many authors share a common and deeply rooted spirit of resistance to the status quo in their respective societies. In some ways, they differ little from their male counterparts. As critic Selwyn Cudjoe notes, resistance in early Caribbean society was “the reaction needed to maintain the equilibrium, preserve human dignity, and lift the human spirit.”4 In a society created out of exploitation and greed by its colonial occupiers, it is not difficult to understand how resistance became such a central theme.

To fully appreciate the importance of Caribbean women’s literature, however, one must understand the special voicelessness from which these authors have emerged. This “voicelessness” has been defined as “the historical absence of the woman writer’s text; the absence of a specifically female position on such topics as slavery, colonialism, women’s rights and more direct social and cultural issues.”5 As Georgiana Colvile points out, “Literary account without the input of female writers is incomplete and therefore unjust.”6 Studying what women authors have to say is an integral part of understanding Caribbean culture.

A good place to start tracing the origins of women’s literature in the Caribbean is with the earliest published work, a slave narrative by a freed female slave titled The History of Mary Prince, West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (1831).7 While female field hands had long used the creole language to create satirical poems and songs in resistance to slavery, Prince was first to relate to the English-speaking world the brutality of her servitude and the methods she adopted to survive it. “Prince’s work may be justifiably read as the literary ancestor of much of Caribbean women’s writing today,” observes Helen Pyne-Timothy. “It begins the process of claiming a voice for the voiceless African-descended Caribbean woman. It asserts the right to be heard.”8

The following annotated bibliography includes literature by, and critical essays about, Caribbean women writers, as well as some books suitable for introducing students at different grade levels to cultures of the region. While this list constitutes only an introduction, hopefully it will interest students in some of the themes of this literature and whet their appetite for me. The list uses asterisks to denote single works by Caribbean women writers.

 

Annotated Bibliography

 

Grades 1-3

García, Richard. My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1987.

This bilingual book describes the belief in spiritual life common to many Caribbean peoples.

 

*Gunning, Monica. Not a Copper Penny in Me House. London: Pan MacMillan, 1994.

This anthology of 15 poems celebrates Jamaican culture. Topics that range from holidays to hurricanes give the elementary reader a sampling of life on the island. Illustrated by Frané Lessac.

 

Isadora, Rachel. Caribbean Dream. New York: Putnam and Grosset, 1988.

Simple prose and colorful illustrations allow young children to experience a typical day in a child’s life in the West Indies.

 

Grades 4-6

Gordon, Ginger. My Two Worlds. New York: Clarion Books, 1993.

U.S. residents Krisy and Wendy Rodriguez travel to see relatives in the Dominican Republic. Complemented by color photographs, this book provides an excellent introduction to cross-cultural awareness.

 

*Hanson, Regina. The Face in the Window. New York: Clarion Books, 1997.

This story illustrates the importance of tolerance and empathy for others who are different and less fortunate.

 

Joseph, Lynn. Coconut Kind of Day: Island Poems. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard Books, 1990.

This collection of poems about a gir#146;s life in Trinidad uses patois, the regional dialect spoken in much of the Caribbean.

 

*Nodar, Carmen Santiago. Abuelita’s Paradise. New York: Albert Whitman & Co., 1992.

This story illustrates the importance of transgenerational relationships between children and older relatives.

 

Williams, Karen Lynn. Tap-Tap. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

Set in Haiti, this story is told from a child’s point of view and allows the reader to experience an important part of Caribbean life: the marketplace.

 

Grades 6-12

*Cobham, Rhonda, and Merle Collins, eds. Watchers and Seekers. New York: Bedricks Books, 1988.

This compilation contains more than 80 poems by black women of the Caribbean, with topics ranging from power issues to gender and race.

 

Donnell, Alison, and Sarah Lawrence Welsh, eds. Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature. NewYork: Routledge, 1996.

This collection provides a comprehensive introduction to Caribbean literature. Of particular note among women’s contributions are:

> *Vera Bel#146;s “Ancestor on the Auction Block,” a poem articulating the feelings of a person of African heritage looking back across time at a relative on the auction block.

 

> *Lorna Goodson’s “My Late Friend,” in which a young woman rejects her African heritage and tries to become more “white” by using whitening cream and avoiding the bright Caribbean sun. The poem can be used to examine the social stigma associated with being “black” in the Caribbean.

> *Jamaica Kincaid’s “Columbus in Chains,” an excerpt from Annie John, one of her best known works. It can be used to discuss the issues of colonialism and slavery.

 

Grades 9-12

*Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1995.

This historical novel tells the story of four sisters (“Las Mariposas” or “The Butterflies”) who lived under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The author was born there and emigrated with her family to the United States in 1960.

 

*Cliff, Michelle. Abeng. New York: Crossing Press, 1984.

In this partly autobiographical work, the author explores her feelings as a white person growing up in Jamaica. The title comes from the Jamaican word for the conch shell, which was used by the Maroons, runaway slaves, to pass messages back and forth as they fought a guerrilla war against their English enslavers.

 

Esteves, Carmen C., and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, eds. Green Cane and Juicy Flotsam: Short Stories by Carribean Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

This anthology draws on works representing many distinct cultures of the Caribbean, including the East Indian culture of Trinidad.

 

*Hodge, Merle. Crick, Crack, Monkey. London: Heinemann, 1981.

The main character, Tee, is torn between embracing her African culture or living an Anglicized existence in Trinidad. The author uses Tee’s situation to explain the conflict between traditional rural and modern urban culture in Trinidad, and to illustrate the critical importance of standardized testing in determining one’s educational opportunities.

*Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990.

Lucy emigrates to the United States to become an au pair. Faced with different societal values, she experiences both anxiety and happiness away from her Caribbean homeland. Due to the mature nature of some scenes in the book, teachers should preview it to determine its appropriateness for students.

 

*Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton Publishing, 1992.

Jean Rhys uses this book to bring life to one of fiction’s most mysterious characters: Antoinette Cosway, Rochester’s wife in Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This novel can be used to explore the themes of colonialism, hegemony, slavery, gender inequalities, and the role of the obeah in Afro-Caribbean culture.

 

Critical Literature

Cudjoe, Selwyn. Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1990.

This anthology was put together from essays delivered at the First International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers held at Wellesley College in April 1988. Its overviews of writings from different language areas of the Caribbean help introduce readers to the complexity and vitality of the literature being produced by women of the region.

 

Davies, Carole Boyce, and Elaine Savory Fido. Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990.

This anthology of critical essays focuses on the concept of developing a voice to replace the former “voicelessness” of Caribbean women. The word kumbla (possibly derived from calabash, a hollowed out gourd) represents a kind of protective enclosure of assumed female roles from which women writers need to free themselves.

 

Ellis, Pat. Women of the Caribbean. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1986.

This compilation of essays deals with a wide variety of women’s experiences in the Caribbean, including changing roles and responsibilities, economic roles (including industry and agriculture), and involvement in politics. It is highly accessible by students as well as teachers.

 

Momsen, Janet, ed. Women & Change in the Caribbean: A Pan-Caribbean Perspective. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

This book provides an excellent discussion of topics pertinent to women’s experiences in the region. Among the issues addressed: marriage and concubinage, changing roles in women’s life cycles, women’s political organizations, migration experiences, and the gender division of labor.

 

Safa, Helen I. The Myth of the Male Breadwinner: Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

As the title implies, this book focuses on the economic aspects of women’s experiences throughout the Caribbean region. The author conducted extensive research in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico in an effort to explain the gender inequalities and other forms of subordination that women face, as well as the effects of industrialization on women’s lives.

 

Springfield, Consuelo Lopez. Daughters of Caliban: Caribbean Women in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997.

The “Caliban” of this book represents the complex essence of the indigenous, African, and European influences that produced cultures of the Caribbean region. This collection of essays covers topics such as female labor, the interplay of race and gender as it affects national cultures of the Caribbean, and the impact of colonial legal practices on women’s lives.

 

Notes

1. The first conference was followed by five more meetings and the enlargement of the original group to include scholars as well as literary writers. The Seventh International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars will take place on the Mayaguez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico during the first week of April 2000. See the website of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars at www.fiu.edu/~africana/caribwomen

2. Raymond Smith, The Matrifocal Family (New York: Routledge Publishing, 1996), 79.

3. Ibid., 15.

4. Selwyn Cudjoe, Resistance and Caribbean Literature (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1980), 79.

5. Carol Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature (Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), 2.

6. Georgiana Colvile, “Contemporary Women Writing in the Caribbean,” in Contemporary Women Writing in the Other Americas (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 1995), 274.

7. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (New York: Pandora Press, 1987).

8. Helen Pyne-Timothy, The Woman, the Writer and Caribbean Society (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies Publications, 1998), 11.

 

Jason O’Brien is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.