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In this lesson, we will explore the history of Caribbean literature and discover some of the key themes of the genre while learning about a few of its most prolific authors.

Caribbean Lit

For many, the islands of the Caribbean Sea conjure images of sandy beaches, crystal-clear waters, and maybe even a cold, colorful beverage.

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But the dozens of islands that dot the Caribbean are inhabited by people with significant history and culture.The colonial history of the islands and origins of its people are reflected in Caribbean art and the writing of its authors. In this lesson we’ll briefly discuss the evolution of Caribbean literature as well as detailing some of its most significant authors.

History of Caribbean Lit

Caribbean literature has been classified in its own category for a relatively short time, as it’s only about a century old according to most who study the subject. Many Caribbean people who live on the islands today are the descendants of slave or indentured labor brought to the islands by European colonists. The indigenous people who sparsely populated the islands before the arrival of Europeans left no writing that can be considered literature.

The oral traditions of these tribes have apparently been lost as well.Caribbean literature is largely written in French, English, or Spanish; the languages of the countries who colonized the islands during the 16th-19th centuries. Early Caribbean writing, in the 17th and 18th centuries, is more generally considered colonial literature because of the attitudes reflected in it and the style of writing.What is today considered the era of true Caribbean literature did not really begin until the early 20th century. At this time, Caribbean writers began developing a distinct Caribbean literary tradition that focused on Caribbean values and ideals on their own terms rather than in measurement against those imposed by the colonial societies of the past. Many of these same writers began to reconnect to their African roots, and draw comparisons between Caribbean society and others with similar colonial heritage.

Significant Caribbean Authors

The following list of authors reflects a few–but certainly not all–of the influential Caribbean writers.

Together, they exemplify the important themes of Caribbean literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Nicolas Guillén

The development of a distinctly Caribbean literary style began on the Caribbean’s French-speaking islands first in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Nicolas Guill;n is an example of the N;gritude movement which grew during this period.

A coalition of poets and intellectuals from French colonies such as L;on Damas and Aim; C;saire encouraged Caribbean people to embrace their common identity rooted in African ancestry and a colonial past.The Cuban-born Guill;n embraced this movement wholeheartedly. As with many other poets of this era, his writing was infused with Marxist principles. Guill;n’s poetry highlighted the plight of working poor and the class divides still apparent in post-colonial Caribbean society. Guillén was also one of the first Caribbean writers to weave the traditions of the black Caribbean communities into his writing.

Roger Mais

Roger Mais was one of the earliest important English-speaking Caribbean writers, and he worked as a journalist in Jamaica mainly in the 1940’s and 1950s. During his time as a journalist, he published hundreds of short stories and several plays, many focusing on the daily life and struggles of the poor families who lived in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston.

His most influential work, however, were three novels published in the early and mid-1950s. The first two specifically focused on the theme of social and economic inequality in Jamaica. Mais’ writing proved influential and he was considered so dangerous that he spent some time in prison for his contentious views. Unfortunately, soon after the publication of his third novel, Mais fell ill and died of cancer in 1955.

Edward Kamau Brathwaite

Aside from themes of social inequality and recognizing the shared heritage of black Caribbean people, a major theme of Caribbean writing is a reconnection to its African roots. This theme is exemplified by the poetry and work of Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Born in 1930 in Barbados, Brathwaite was educated in England after he won a scholarship to attend Cambridge University.

Brathwaite has since worked in West Africa, the United States, and across the Caribbean, turning out an immense amount of poetry and short stories in the process. Brathwaite’s work is incredibly diverse, but it often explores Caribbean culture and its connections to Africa and their shared colonial experience. Brathwaite is arguably the most skilled and decorated Caribbean writer of all time.

Lesson Summary

These three authors are just a few of the important writers that have given Caribbean literature its distinct voice. Together, they exemplify the major themes of Caribbean authors: rejection of the values and ideals of the Caribbean’s colonial past, embrace of Caribbean culture and traditions on their own terms, and a reconnection with the African roots of many of today’s Caribbean people. This by no means limits Caribbean literature to these major themes; as exemplified by Brathwaite’s expansive work, Caribbean literature continues to be pushed in exciting directions by today’s innovative authors.

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