Discretely Antiguan and Distinctly Caribbean / hazra medica

Antiguan and Barbudan books
Image supplied by Hazra Medica from her collection of books by Antiguan and Barbudan writers

Near twenty years ago and entirely by chance, I discovered my first Antiguan novel.  I was delighted with this novel because it was the same but different from V.S. Reid’s The Young Warriors, C. Everard Palmer’s A Cow Called Boy, and Samuel Selvon’s A Brighter Sun—all of which populated our secondary school’s reading list.  The scenes and dilemmas presented within the pages of these texts were not unfamiliar.  Like the mango-thieving mongoose, the group of siblings named after different countries, and the trip to a drive-in volcano featured in my earlier readers, I apprehended them as belonging to a region of which I was taught to be proud; a region from The Bahamas to Antigua to Belize whose national flags, capitals, national mottoes, names of national birds, and so on, I enjoyed committing to memory.  However, my newly discovered novel featured something I least expected to find in a written fictional text: Antigua and an exploration of an Antiguan experience.

Near twenty years ago, my delight upon recognizing an intimate self in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John was equal to my delight a few years prior when I re-discovered the Antiguan kaisonian, after years of a staple diet of Trinidadian kaisos.  These two moments have plotted my trajectory to this current moment in which I am fresh from defending a doctoral thesis that intervened into the traditional obscuration of Antiguan and other ‘small-island’ narratives.   My thesis accounted for readings of ‘[Anglophone] Caribbean literature’, particularly by ‘outsiders’, that tend to neglect offerings from the smaller territories.  It examined Jamaica Kincaid’s typical positioning as the beginning and end of Antiguan literature.  It insisted that critical engagement with the literary traditions of the smaller Caribbean territories and discrete national traditions on the whole is likely to unearth a plethora of significant but currently sidelined experiences and issues.

Near twenty years after my re-discovery of Antiguan calypsos and my first encounter with Annie John, I am torn between despair, joy, and disbelief/astonishment.  I despair that Antiguan eyes, when/should they alight upon my thesis, might disagree with certain elements; perhaps my selection of calypsos or my elaboration of Antiguan concerns, or even my overarching Antiguan-Caribbean-influenced theoretical framework.  I am joyful that my DPhil/PhD journey has come to an end and that the outcome far surpasses my initial expectations.  I am still in disbelief that I am fresh from defending a thesis that focused upon Antiguan literature—written and oral.  I suspect that I will always be slightly astonished that a study of writings and calypsos from my native island, reliant upon concepts such as ‘bad-mindedness’ and ‘skin-teeth’, is considered as scholarly as projects on John Milton or studies on bone regeneration.

My study focused mainly on the works of four Antiguan writers—Frieda Cassin, Jamaica Kincaid, Joanne C. Hillhouse, and Marie-Elena John—and select calypsonians, including Antigua’s leading female and male calypsonians—Queen Ivena and King Short Shirt.  I treated these works as united by a marked preoccupation with the influence of ‘small-islandness’ on personal and national claims to personhood and nationhood within the global community of men, women, and nations. The novels and calypsos chosen explore the ways in which modest physical size and economy function to delimit and check the ambitions of Antiguan and Caribbean denizens.  They also re-present these denizens as aware of being further delimited by the island’s/region’s entanglement in its colonial past and neo-colonial present.  At their core, the novels and calypsos are deconstructive and recuperative projects that protest the bad-mindedness levied against Antiguan and Caribbean bodies by colonial, neo-colonial, and even post-colonial nationalist discourses.

Over the last three and a half years, each novel and transcribed calypso has endeared itself to me for its peculiar features and I am yet to tire poring over each.  I have spent many evenings enthralled by Cassin’s 19th century novel With Silent Tread’s quite accurate re-presentation of Antiguan English on page. I remain fascinated by the text’s seeming endorsement of the contemporary racist mentality of the era on one hand and its indictment of  Antiguan Creoles/ ‘whites’ for their role in the brutality marking the foundations of Antiguan and West Indian societies on the other. In the latter regard, the text argues against suppositions that ‘“the” imperial account was homogenous and smugly certain of the righteousness of its project’ (O’Callaghan, ‘Early Colonial Narratives of the West Indies’ 151).  Equally as fascinating is the novel’s insistence upon Creole women as hybrid bodies that are at odds with the model ‘white’ English femininity and trouble the dominant ‘black’-‘white’ and West Indian-English ethno-racial and cultural paradigms.

The novel itself has had an interesting history. Published in 1890, it was long neglected until its reprint as part of the Macmillan’s Caribbean Classics series.  In the Introduction to the 2002 reprint of the text, Evelyn O’Callaghan reveals that she was first made aware of the text via an article written by Antiguan and Barbudan scholar Bernadette Farquhar who had found a copy of the text in a waste bin at Antigua’s public library.  John Gilmore in the preface to the novel identifies it as “an early example of a Caribbean novel by a woman writer . . . and probably the earliest novel of Antigua and Barbuda”.

For their parts, Jamaica Kincaid’s 1996 The Autobiography of My Mother and Marie-Elena John’s 2006 Unburnable have kept me captivated with their interrogation of European and Caribbean mistreatment of the figure of the Carib/Garifuna, in particular, and indigenous experience, in general.  They query the bad-mindedness inherent in the construction of the Carib/Garifuna identity in colonial and post-colonial discourses.  These texts underscore the region’s engagement with anti-colonialism and the national question as a Carib-Afro-Caribbean feminist undertaking that predates the anti-colonialism of the 1950s. Kincaid’s and John’s peculiar revisions of the Carib figure from tragic, defeated, and despised body to a body characterized by self-autonomy, recuperates the indigenous group’s deserved position in Caribbean traditions and narratives of anti-colonial resistance.

Likewise, Joanne C. Hillhouse’s 2003 Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Jamaica Kincaid’s 1997 My Brother leave me awestruck on every re-read by evidence of the crucial role postcolonial literary producers play in setting the agenda for the still fledgling fields of Caribbean gender and sexuality theory.  Hillhouse’s and Kincaid’s deconstruction of Antiguan patriarchy not only destabilizes past bad-minded scholarship on family and gender relations in the region. They also offer caution to future scholarship on Caribbean gender and sexuality.  The texts assert the necessity of grounding Afro-Antiguan/Caribbean masculinities within the appropriate historical and social sites/matrices. This, they suggest, will produce non-bad-minded accounts of Antiguan and Caribbean expressions of masculinity.  Moreover, Kincaid’s My Brother conducts an important probing of the compulsory heterosexuality underpinning Antiguan patriarchy. It also intervenes into the silence around HIV-AIDS and the experiences of men/those living with the disease in the region.

Kincaid’s female-centred texts—“Girl”, Annie John, and Lucy—alongside Queen Singing Althea’s feminist calypsos similarly charmed me with their elaboration of an established indigenous feminist critique of nations and anti/post-colonial nationalisms.  Both literary producers enunciate Afro-Antiguan working-class women’s enabling negotiations and subversions of the bad-minded delimitations inscribed in the scripted hierarchy of Antiguan/Caribbean womanhood.  They protest, to adapt Deniz Kandiyoti, ‘women’s differential and often tentative integration into national projects’ (‘Identity and Its Discontents’ 430). They reinsert Afro-Antiguan proletarian women into the nation and revise the tendency to exclude them from powerful roles and positions alongside their male counterparts.

For their parts, the selected calypsos from the 1970s to present impressed me with the tone of hopefulness and spirit of defiance that existed alongside their mourning of the nation and Afro-Antiguan natives as endangered and beleaguered.  I discovered within my carefully transcribed calypso texts a preoccupation with combatting the subhuman and subjugated body imposed upon Afro-Antiguans/Caribbeans during the colonial and postcolonial periods.

I was buoyed by Antiguan calypsonians’ portrayal of the masses as makers of their own destiny rather than as helpless victims of processes of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and globalisation. I felt truly motivated to demonstrate the import of the Antiguan calypso tradition as a living repository/storehouse of Afro-Antiguan resistance and perspectives on power in the region.  I remain convinced that Caribbean calypsos are an indispensable base for future ‘academic eavesdropping’, analyzing, and theorizing of the many nuances of regional pre and post-independence experiences.

Near two decades after my first encounter with Kincaid’s Annie John, I remain a ‘newbie’, fully enthused about engaging with and discovering Antiguan texts, new and old, written and oral.  I enjoy investigating the context in which Antiguan literatures have been produced and utilized.  I remember, for example, the joy of recognition I experienced upon hearing King Short Shirt’s ‘Power and Authority’ play over the credits of the 1983 documentary Anarchism in America.  I also enjoy learning, along with the rest of the world, to resist confining Antiguan writers and songsters to pre-labeled boxes—‘literary fiction’, ‘political commentators’, and the like. An Antiguan writer herself has protested, we write sci-fi and romance and romantic histories and comedies and dramas and thrillers…readers in these genres might find us interesting, if they knew we existed” (Joanne C. Hillhouse, ‘Writing, off the Map’).

Time and space restraints, along with the difficulty accessing material, played a major role in my decision to draw largely upon Antiguan novels and calypsos for my thesis. I harbour regrets about the neglect of Antiguan dramas, short stories, films, and poetry that is reflected in my thesis.  Antigua’s theatre scene, though no longer vibrant as yesteryear, has a tradition that stretches back to the 1780s.  John Luffman’s 1789 account of the island reports the establishment of a theatre by “gentlemen of the island” in 1788 with an opening performance of Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d .  For its part, the Cambridge Guide to African & Caribbean Theatre traces a tradition, inclusive of locally produced plays, existing from at least the 1830s to the 1990s. It identifies such 20th-century players as Dorbrene O’Marde (Harambee Open-Air Theatre), Leon Symester (The Third World Theatre) and Eleston Adams (the Rio Revelers Theatre). According to the Guide, Antiguan theatre groups were very much a part of the regional tradition with theatre houses engaging in Caribbean and international tours.

Likewise, the island’s poetic tradition has also been credited with pre-20th -century roots.  The 2012 summer issue of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, with its focus on Antiguan and Barbudan women’s poetry, posits 1734 as the starting point of “the earliest glimpse of poetics” as present in the ‘mulatto’ activist and evangelist Rebecca Freundlich’s letters.   It traces a tradition from Freundlich to present-day female poets such as Linisa George, Althea Romeo-Mark, and Dr. Elaine H. Olaoye.  The 2013 summer issue of the Review lists John Hewlett, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Edgar Lake among the contemporary voices of Antigua and Barbudan male poetry. Then there is Antiguan-born, Canadian-resident Clifton Joseph whose work I do mention briefly in the third chapter of my thesis and who has been credited with being one of the early poets who popularized dub poetry in Canada.

With regards to Antiguan films, the island’s industry is still a fledgling with most recent entries coming from the production company HAMAFilms which has thus far offered: The Sweetest Mango (2001); No Seed (2002); Diablesse (2005) and The Skin (2011).  In contrast, the Antiguan and Barbudan short story represents a more vibrant and longstanding tradition.  Frieda Cassin herself has been identified as the editor of one of Antigua’s first literary journals—The Carib. Kincaid’s first book was in fact a collection of short stories, and short stories by Antigua authors, both male and female, have appeared in regional and international anthologies and journals. One of the texts which I had originally pegged for analysis in my thesis was a collection of short stories by Althea Prince—Ladies of the Night.  Indeed, as recently as 2013, a collection of short stories by Antiguan and Barbudan writers—So the Nailhead Bend, So the Story End: an Anthology of Antiguan and Barbudan Writing—was published.

The last three and a half years have been quite the journey as far as gaining a more intimate knowledge of Antiguan literatures is concerned.  I must admit that as my knowledge of Antiguan literary producers  grew so too did the feeling of being unable to do justice to the entire corpus of Antiguan literatures in but one doctoral thesis. Indeed, I was worried about the place of the sister-island Barbuda in all of this!  My anxiety has since diminished and I am truly enthusiastic about the promise of dedicating many more research years to an engagement with a literary tradition that maps as simultaneously discretely Antiguan and Barbudan and distinctly Caribbean.

•••

Antiguan native Hazra C. Medica is a former journalist who has recently completed a DPhil/PhD in English at the University of Oxford. Her thesis interrogated the singular cohesive Caribbean canon typically suggested by critical readings, which obscure the narratives/ literary traditions of smaller territories such as Antigua and Barbuda. It also examined the peculiar deconstructions of gender, ‘racial’, ethnic, and class identities undertaken by Antiguan literary producers from 1890 to the present. This article is lifted from the introduction to her thesis.

4 comments

  1. Reply

    The baneful and dismissive silence of what Toni Morrison calls the “white gaze” was always immaterial and inconsequential to the making of we tings. We always knew what the elders in Nevis told us: ya you ya me!
    Medica holds up our mirror to show and to reflect our world, neither for acceptance nor recognition but as a simply statement of fact like the law of gravity. Dis we tings.

  2. Reply

    This very informative and enlightening introduction shows that Antigua holds its own in its contribution to Caribbean Literature and cannot be ignored.

  3. Reply

    […] “Near twenty years ago, my delight upon recognizing an intimate self in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John was equal to my delight a few years prior when I re-discovered the Antiguan kaisonian, after years of a staple diet of Trinidadian kaisos. These two moments have plotted my trajectory to this current moment in which I am fresh from defending a doctoral thesis that intervened into the traditional obscuration of Antiguan and other ‘small-island’ narratives.” – Dr. Hazra Medica in the new Tongues of the Ocean Antigua and Barbuda issue […]

  4. Reply

    So grateful to Tongues of the Ocean & Joanne Hillhouse for editing this issue. It’s great to know that there’s some fresh scholarly work focused on Antiguan literature and music. Looking forward to reading this thesis when it becomes a book…

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