Joy Mahabir & Mariam Pirbhai (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women’s Literature. New York: Routledge, 2015. viii + 274 pp. (Paper US$ 44.95)
As noted in the introduction and several essays of this collection, criticism on literature by Indo-Caribbean women is a latecomer to the Caribbean critical scene, a position that the anthology sets out to rectify. Jumping off from earlier formulations such as kala pani and dougla discourses, the authors attempt new ways of connecting texts while acknowledging that they are building on those earlier formulations. “Kala pani discourse” refers to the displacement suffered by Indo-Caribbean women and “douglarization” to their claiming a place in the productive cultural hybridity that followed—a hybridity between India and African-derived cultures in which they as women were often pawns.
Although Indo-Caribbean women were initially ignored in literary circles, they did have a place in history and historiography very early in the twentieth century as their story played a key role in the ending of indenture. They were written about first as victims in the crossing and early decades of indenture, second as independent women who took advantage of their circumstances, and finally as women who paid for this independence by being brutalized and objectified as a bone of contention between African and Indian men in postindependence politics in Trinidad and Guyana. While these histories have been fleshed out in historical studies, contemporary realities are better grasped through anthologies like this one, which speak through a variety of literary forms.
The book’s chief merit is the wide exposure it offers to the variety in Indo-Caribbean women’s literature. The editors’ introduction traces the history of this literature in the 1980s and after, from the first prominent writers such as Ramabai Espinet, Shani Mootoo, Lakshmi Persaud, and Mahadai Das (including their lesser-known works) to newer writers from previously neglected areas such as Martinique.
The collection is singular in its attempt to tease out other nonverbal registers operating in these works, in relation to which the narratives tell their stories. The stories cover areas familiar to readers of Indo-Caribbean literature—the voyage and the loss of language and culture that accompany it, gendered physical abuse, identity crises in childhood (including Presbyterianist attempts to alienate the newly Christianized communities), lyrical experiences of Hindu cultural community through cooking as well as other rituals of belonging, the ecological sense of place felt by Caribbean writers sadly lost in migration to colder lands, and the role of women as pawns in the ethnic battles dominated by Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean men as they jockey for power. However, these themes are placed in the context of attempts to define an Indo-Caribbean gynocritics and to cover a comprehensive list of lesser-known works, writers, and regions.
The essays explore gynocritics (the attention to literary features that mark women’s writing) through the interaction of literary discourse with other forms of cultural organization and communication. Feminist criticism had emphasized the inability of language and narrative to adequately express the experience of women in what were then known as “phallogocentric” narratives. These essays track different narrative patterns relying on jahajibhain dialect (Pirbhai); the sounds of hymns, calypso, and chutney to track experience (Njelle Hamilton); carnival (J. Vijay Maharaj); the rhythms of nature (Letizia Gramaglia and Joseph Jackson); visual memory and dream visions of the past (Supriya M. Nair); travel and transnational migration (Rodolphe Solbiac); and sensory experiences of food and smell (Donna Mac Cormack).
Tracking the interaction of the nonverbal with narrative, women are represented in contexts other than just home, family, or plantation; ship journeys, the public sphere of performance, music and carnival, sexualities (including queerness), and ecology are also explored. From the essays it was unclear to me whether the critics were arguing that the texts were innovative in techniques of narration, using carnival or music or nature or food as epistemological ways of seeing and knowing, or whether they merely incorporated these discourses at the level of context and content rather than cognition and form. In any case the various interpretations prompt readers to take a new look at these novels and poems.
Some of the essays stood out. “The Broad Breast of the Land: Indo-Caribbean Ecofeminism and Mahadai Das” by Gramaglia and Jackson not only made ecocritical/ecofeminist connections, but also recalled, for me, a profoundly productive creative life cut short too soon.
The essays were bounded by the comprehensive readings they offered of individual texts. While this methodology offered a detailed look at texts, the book would have benefited from more wide-ranging commentary between authors, between disciplines. Bringing in archival historiography, anthropology, or performance studies might have supplied wider frames of reference. While suffering somewhat from this limitation, which made the reading of one plot line after another a little tedious, the book is, as a whole, well edited, informative, and comprehensive.