Sam Vásquez, Humor in the Caribbean Literary Canon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. x + 212 pp. (Cloth US$85.00)

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Humor in the Caribbean Literary Canon elucidates the function and importance of humor, as both a strategy and a discursive mode of resistance, in the Caribbean literary tradition. It is a compelling contribution to the remapping of Caribbean Studies from the perspective of literary crossings and genre innovations, which Sam Vásquez sees as tools to reflect the complexity of Caribbean diasporic identities.

The book examines the pioneering creativity of major Caribbean writers whose interest in humor has been partly ignored by modern scholarship: a novel by Zora Neale Hurston (Moses, Man of the Mountain), two poems by Louise Bennett (“House O’Law” and “South Parade Peddler”), a play by Aimé Césaire (A Tempest), and one by Derek Walcott (Pantomine). Vásquez analyzes each writer’s specific skills at exploiting the creative potential of humor to connect Caribbean motifs with the Western canon. She convincingly argues that these writers reinvented elements of African oral culture, not only to contest European literary canons but also to offer an alternative narrative to the heteropatriarchal and masculinist norms that prevailed in the Caribbean identity movements of their times, such as the Harlem Renaissance in the United States, négritude in the Afro-Caribbean region, and Black nationalism in Jamaica and Trinidad. Using a wide range of theoretical approaches, from Sigmund Freud, Luigi Pirandello, and Constance Rourke to Simon Critchley and Glenda Carpio, Vásquez aptly demonstrates that Caribbean humorous expressions “animate African diasporic bodies and discourses rather than engage in dualistic parodying and simplistic subversions” (p. 19).

The first chapter examines the female character Miriam in Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a female griot whose oral authority gives new meaning to matriarchal wit in the Caribbean literary tradition. The story of Moses’s birth, told repeatedly by Miriam, is a lie whereby she provides the community with an alternative creation myth. Hurston’s tour de force consists of granting Moses’s sister the power to re-imagine the biblical tale into a female master narrative, at a time when Hurston herself was an isolated female voice within the Harlem Renaissance. The novel merges African oral traditions with scribal traditions from multiple geographic spaces, by associating, for instance, Moses and his wife Zipporah, lighter and younger than Miriam, to the Haitian gods Damballah and Erzulie. Not only does this reflect Hurston’s critique of the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, it also enables her to reconsider the differences between Caribbean and U.S.-born individuals within the African Diaspora. Vásquez shows that through humor, Hurston triggers reflection on class, race, and generational issues within the Afro-Caribbean collective imagination.

The second chapter deals with Bennett’s trickster poetics and the representation of Jamaican female sexuality. As Vásquez notes, beyond Bennett’s apparent folksy and docile image as an “asexual mammy wearing madras,” she is “far from tamed” (p. 58). By merging folklore and Jamaican patois, she in fact gives voice to the working-class Jamaican woman and reimagines her sexuality as active rather than passive and degrading, using it as a tool for self-representation rather than as a symptom of alienation. In the poem “House O’Law,” the accused Milly embodies the trickster’s talent, using her sexuality to manipulate the institutions of justice. The poem “South Parade Peddler” empowers the female voice as a socially, economically, and sexually active subject in 1940s Kingston, while beckoning the pedestrians to purchase her wares using double-entendre and rhythmic creativity to “croon her request.”

Vásquez then turns to two understudied plays by canonical male writers. Chapter 3 analyzes Césaire’s A Tempest from the perspective of Eshu, the semi deity and performer at the heart of the play. She convincingly argues that, as a trickster with transgendered attributes, Eshu not only stands for various defenders of Black causes such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the leaders of the Mau Mau rebellion, and “the black maroons”; he is also the Master of Ceremony and the performer of sexually cunning songs, whereby he triggers the reader’s participation and challenges the norms of heterosexual masculinity. Césaire therefore uses sex and race to invent different ways of accounting for African diasporic cultural productions, thus adding new layers to the Shakespearean primary text. Vásquez convincingly links A Tempest with Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Chapter 4 examines Walcott’s Pantomine as a carnivalesque inversion of Robinson Crusoe’s paradigms: black calypsonian Jackson plays master Crusoe, while white playwright Harry plays Friday. After analyzing Walcott’s appropriation of call and response and Calypso, Vásquez explores how the play projects a sociopolitical critique of 1970s Trinidad, gives prominence to Friday as a first-person protagonist, and dramatizes tensions between blacks and East Indians. Humorous strategies include the use of English and Creole accents and transgendered performance. As a master of language, Jackson the trickster demonstrates his talent to go beyond racial and class stereotypes, triggering “both ambiguity and parity between master and marginalized” (p. 149). As Vásquez compellingly argues, the absence of women in both plays (Sycorax’s mother and Harry’s wife), performed by male tricksters, unveils the limitations of hypermasculinist norms within Caribbean societies.

The conclusion examines the resonances between Hurston, Bennett, Césaire, and Walcott and highlights the legacy of their pioneering works in recent Caribbean diasporic cultural productions, from dancehall (Lady Saw) to fiction (Junot Díaz, Anthony Winkler).

The book offers a new contribution to the field by showing that humor is a fundamental discursive strategy at play in Caribbean literature. It is to be hoped that scholars will from now on explore less studied authors from this perspective as well.

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