Montpelier Summer 1999
Long before -- and ever since -- Christopher Columbus bumped into the Bahamas, bopped around Cuba, Hispaniola and a few other islands, and kept a journal of his travels, people have been telling the story of the Caribbean. Its tropic shores, reefs, bays, coves, jungles and mountains, its people, history and circumstances have been celebrated and lamented in song and story by colonizers, slaves, natives, pirates, sailors, smugglers, priests, writers, shamans and musicians -- from Bob Marley to Jimmy Buffet.
Located in the historical cross currents of Old World and New and in the center of the Americas, the culture and literature of the region's islands and mainland coasts have been fed by the strains and influences of Africans, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans and mixes of those ethnicities.
But, for all these diverse voices, JMU professor Jacqueline Brice-Finch and other Caribbean scholars began noticing and bemoaning a troubling conformity. Nearly all the genre's published writing -- and songs -- have been created by men.
Only in recent decades have women had their say. In this regard, the Caribbean is again like a new world, being rediscovered and re-explored, through the voice, vision and scholarship of its women.
Brice-Finch is one of the scholars bringing the voices of Caribbean women into the mainstream of academia. Recently she helped to found MaComére, an annual journal for globally scattered Caribbean women scholars and writers.
Headquartered at JMU and edited by Brice-Finch, the refereed journal devotes its pages to fiction, poetry, criticism, book reviews and essays by members of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars. Contributors may write about the Caribbean from any vantage or academic field, says Brice-Finch. It is a rich and diverse field. The 1999 issue, for instance, features an essay by an ethnomusicologist on zouk music.
By focusing scholarly attention on Caribbean women, Brice-Finch brings to JMU classrooms voices like Meryl Hodge, Paule Marshall, Beryl Gilroy, Esmeralda Santiago, Edwidge Danticat, Cristina Garcia, Julia Alvarez and Jamaica Kincaid.
Their autobiographical works, coming-of-age novels and memoirs convey some of the striking aspects of women's writing from the Caribbean. Brice-Finch says it is a genre that depicts self-sufficient, strong women, who are rooted in their culture, quite aware of the sexist and racial barriers that confront them and often includes a magic realism, imbued with a spiritual dimension -- such as the power one may derive from ancestors.
And it stretches the boundaries of what academia used to regard as American literature.
"When I teach American literature," Brice-Finch says, "I tell students there are five literatures that make up the language of this nation." They are European-American ("the one that dominates"), African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Native American.
Consequently, when she introduces her students to a diverse, often unfamiliar, itinerary of writers, Brice-Finch tells them, "these writers -- writers you've never heard of -- are not marginal. They are only marginal in that the academy has not adjusted to accommodate the wealth of good writing, serious writing that this country has produced.
"I love to teach survey courses," Brice-Finch says, precisely because she loves connecting her students with a diverse literary heritage.
"I try to introduce students to as many writers as possible so that they will read for fun," she says.
Brice-Finch first encountered the culture and literature of the Caribbean when she moved to St. Croix in 1971, taught high school and college literature courses and raised a daughter. She lived in a place most North Americans associate with beachside cafes, palm trees, sea breezes, turquoise surf and soft sand. The stuff of travel posters and vacation get-aways. And, Brice-Finch admits, a great place to write her dissertation.
"I would sit there and write," says Professor Jacqueline Brice-Finch, "and when I got tired I would run to the beach, take a swim and come back and write. I'd spend some days literally at the beach," she recalls with some relish.
During her 19 years on the island, the Washington, D.C., native found the region's literature to be just as lush as the tropical paradise she inhabited. Home to people of African, European, Asian and Native American lineage for centuries, the Caribbean has one of the world's richest samplings of languages -- with complex, subtle and distinct flavors of English, French, Dutch and Spanish, including many dialects and creoles blended from those stock languages, flavored with West African words and phrases. In the Dutch West Indies, for example, Papiamento, a Dutch-based Creole, is the official language. In other places, the Native American language of the Arawak is still spoken, Brice-Finch says.
Not surprisingly, Caribbean literature reflects the region's linguistic and cultural complexity, Brice-Finch explains. Prevalent literary themes center on rootlessness and migration, questions of identity, and the issues of language and gender. It is "pretty much a literature of the 20th century," Brice-Finch says.
Caribbean literature had been an island -- stranded outside scholarly study -- until it began to gain the world's notice during the 1940s and '50s, Brice-Finch says. During the early 1980s, when she attended the University of Maryland to earn a doctorate, Caribbean literature was an unusual academic concentration. Yet Caribbean literature found its way into mainstream American scholarship, and Brice-Finch rode the crest of the wave sweeping it into the academy during the 1980s. Within a few years of her graduation from Maryland, the university had hired two Caribbeanists, she says.
Meanwhile JMU had hired her -- a good example of how Caribbean studies has been "accepted into the academy," she says. But it took 1989's Hurricane Hugo, which ripped off the roof of her island home, to drive her back to the United States for good (except for annual pilgrimages to regain her tropical bearings).
Caribbean literature has matured and progressed quickly, driven by steadily increasing international tourism, advancing technology and the Caribbean people themselves, who, through waves of emigrations since the 1950s, are carrying their literature into the rest of the world. Today enclaves of emigrants from Caribbean countries contribute to the sights, sounds, food, art, music, movies and daily flow of life in cities throughout Europe and North America. This migration has dispersed and enlarged the voice, vision and concerns of writers and artists from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, and numerous other islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles.
When Brice-Finch teaches courses in Caribbean literature, she hopes her students come away with an understanding of the region, its culture and its connection to the United States. She tries to make her students aware that "we citizens of the U.S. are not America -- that America consists of two continents," and that we need to pay attention to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Brazil, and the other countries of South America.
"I consider myself a professor of Africana literature," says Brice-Finch. "In other words, I bridge African-American, Caribbean and African [literature]. Also having gone through the standard American education, I'm grounded in American and English literature."
With the surge of popular and academic interest in Caribbean literature, it became apparent to Brice-Finch and some of her colleagues that women Caribbean scholars and writers needed to gather together and focus scholarly attention on themselves. That's the mission behind Brice-Finch's journal, MaComére, which published its first issue in 1998.
The journal's name reveals much about the thinking behind it. "We wanted a name that was an indication of the strong bond of friendship existing among Caribbean women," Brice-Finch explains. "MaComére is a French Creole term. We wanted the readership to know that we're not only dealing with English, French, Dutch, Spanish, the languages of the academy. We're also dealing with [such languages as] Papamiento and Jamaican."
MaComére, according to a prefatory note in the journal's 200-page premier issue, is a term "widely used by women in the Caribbean to mean 'my best friend and close female confidante,' 'my bridesmaid or another female member of a wedding party of which I was bridesmaid,' 'the godmother of the child to whom I am also godmother,' 'the woman who, by virtue of the depth of her friendship, has rights and privileges over my child and whom I see as surrogate mother.'"
The challenges Brice-Finch has encountered as MaComére's editor -- mainly communicating with contributors who reside on different continents and dealing with language concerns -- reflects in its own way the multicultural character of Caribbean studies, she says. For instance, a Caribbeanist in Belgium may submit an essay in French; one in Canada, a story in Spanish; while another in Brazil, a piece laced with Portuguese. The current issue features an interview with Edwidge Danitcat and a book review about the Arawaks of Guyana.
"I have to be very careful," Brice-Finch says. "That's why the editorial board is so important," she adds. "I [understand] some French, a little Spanish. Every submission is reviewed by a scholar who is particularly well-grounded in that language."
Thus far, out of respect for the journal's multicultural subject matter, there is no plan to translate MaComére into one broad-based language, she says. The general attitude among Caribbeanists regarding those people fluent in only one language is that "it is their problem. The [editorial] board is very interested in showcasing writing in whatever language," she adds.
As to the journal's concentration on women's writing, Brice-Finch explains, until recently, male writers -- such as V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming and her friend and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott -- have dominated Caribbean literature. But the time is right to celebrate the contribution women have made and are making to the culture and literature of the Caribbean. "The men have been celebrating all along," she says, with a laugh. "Move over," she adds, "there is space for us too."