Photo: Professor Veronique Maisier - Photo: 2017

A Scholar Looks at Violence in Caribbean Literature

PARIS (IDN | SWAN) – The world is becoming “more violent, and violence is occurring in surprising places,” says a recent report by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Some 3.34 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, have been affected by violence over the past 15 years, according to the report. But many regions have also known violence for decades, if not centuries, and the arts have particularly borne witness to the issue.

In the Caribbean, writers and other artists are known for portraying societal violence in their work, and this depiction is now increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

Véronique Maisier, a professor at Southern Illinois University in the United States, is the author of a compelling book titled Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood*, and she discusses the topic in the following conversation with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie.

A.M.: What was the motivation for researching and writing “Violence in Caribbean Literature”?

V.M.: My interest in Caribbean literature started in 2000 when I first read [Martinican writer] Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco. I found Chamoiseau’s novel to be challenging but also beautifully written, and fascinating.

After reading it, I wanted to know more about Caribbean writers and cultures, and once I started reading novels by Simone Schwarz-Bart, Maryse Condé, Michelle Cliff, Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid, I could not stop.

I realised early on that their narratives all emphasised the daily struggles of their protagonists. Most often, the characters had to contend with extreme poverty, and resorted to violence in order to survive, to express their frustration, or to reject an established order that had cruelly failed them. Other times, violence was triggered by jealousy, madness, prejudices, and resulted in murder, rape or domestic abuse.

Whatever the causes, tensions were rarely absent from people’s interactions in Caribbean novels.

A few years ago, it dawned on me that several of the novels I had read had in common a scene in which a protagonist grabbed a stone, and threw it at someone – a friend, an outsider, a child, a teacher. I decided to work on a comparative study of these scenes in order to look more closely at the violence that I had noticed in many Caribbean texts.

A.M.: Is violence more of a topic, theme or trope in “Caribbean” literature than in other regional writing, and, if so, could you summarise some of the reasons for this, according to your research?

V.M.: I think that violence is especially present in Caribbean literature because of the historical forces put in place since the beginnings of the diverse cultures that constitute the Caribbean region today

Caribbean societies were born out of the extermination of the local populations, followed by the kidnapping, forced relocation and slave labour of millions of Africans, in turn followed by the indentureship of many thousands of East and West Asians brought to the Caribbean region after the abolition of slavery.

Populations with different cultures, religions, languages, ways of life, etc. were brutally forced together to inhabit a foreign land where they would be denied their humanity for several centuries.

As a result, contemporary Caribbean societies have inherited numerous divides from the past – divides based on race, on economic status, education, gender, religion or politics – that express themselves in the numerous examples of violence found in the literature of the region.

A.M.: In the book, you discuss common historical events as well as differences among Caribbean nations. Regarding violence, what were the commonalities you found across the region?

V.M.: While there are many cultural and political differences among Caribbean nations, I found that there were quite a few commonalities in the scenes of violence that I examined.

For instance, the attackers were all young individuals, typically teenagers who were rebelling against the authority of an adult or against a perceived injustice. Except for one case of violence that had clear sexual undertones, the acts of violence were perpetrated against persons of the same gender as the attacker.

The attacks took place abruptly but resulted from tensions that had been building up for months. Blood was drawn in each of the incidents, and the consequences of the attack were grievous for the victims while the attackers remained unscathed and safe from reprisals (with the exception of Merle Hodge’s young boy who was sent to the Orphanage as a result of his actions).

Not surprisingly, the stone was the weapon of choice for the young attackers who did not have any resources to acquire more advanced weaponry, and who reacted swiftly, with whatever was close at hand, to what they perceived as an immediate threat.

A.M.: Do writers from different islands treat violence in different ways?

V.M.: Writers might have different experiences with violence depending on where they live but I do not think that this necessarily translates in a different treatment of violence in their novels. Violence is a universal concept.

While personal experience may vary – and sometimes even for writers from one neighbourhood to the next – a general understanding and empathy tend to level out differences based on geography. It is more likely that writers treat violence in different ways depending on their gender, age, political views, or ideology rather than based on their country affiliation.

In my opinion, a writer’s treatment of violence has less to do with geographical origin than with life experiences, even though I realise that those can be tightly connected.

A.M.: Regarding the historical aspect, how do earlier writers deal with violence in their work?

V.M.: That is a difficult question to answer in a few words. Violence in the works of earlier writers appears under control, contained within the text. There is plenty of violence for instance in Télumée Miracle [by Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart] or La Rue Cases-Nègres [by Martinican writer Joseph Zobel].

The treatment of violence in these beautiful texts, however, seems somewhat conventional, as it follows the classic construction in which the reader is led to feel sorry for the victim(s). Recent writers are more challenging in that regard; they question the positions of victim and attacker, and generally speaking they make things less “cosy” for their readers.

What I find fascinating with many recent writers is that the violence is found at the level of the text itself. It is present in the language – with the “creolisation” of the colonial language, for instance – and in the very structure of the text – with the polyphonic approach, orality, rejection of literary conventions, etc.

With some books, the violence becomes textual, it disturbs the text, and is felt by readers who get closer to being participants than mere observers.

A.M.: Does the theme cut across different genres – poetry, short stories, plays, novels?

V.M.: Yes, the theme of violence cuts across different genres, and can be found in poetry, short stories, plays, novels, and we can add songs, films, paintings.

A.M.: Do you think that there is now a movement towards gratuitous violence in some works?

V.M.: I am not sure, I am not aware of such a movement but that does not mean that it does not exist.

In the Caribbean novels that I have read, violence is never gratuitous. There are violent characters who hit, hurt and abuse other characters for the flimsiest of reasons or for reasons that might appear gratuitous, but I do not think that it was the authors’ intention to write about violence for the sake of violence or as a marketing tool to appeal to a certain type of readers.

In my readings, violent acts that appear unjustified remain a way to express one’s anger, one’s frustration or one’s powerlessness.

I admit that one of the most disturbingly violent scenes I have ever read was in [Jamaican writer] Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, when Christopher massacres Paul’s family. On the one hand, that scene very much pushes the limits of comfort with its horrific details, and raises the question: “Was such a graphic description necessary?” On the other hand, in the context of Cliff’s portrayal of Jamaican society, the scene is an essential precursor of Jamaica falling into extremely violent political turmoil, as exemplified in Christopher’s gruesome descent into madness.

A.M.: What do you hope readers (and writers) will gain from your book?

V.M.: I hope that readers might gain an understanding of the various elements at play in the violence found in the context of contemporary Caribbean societies. In the book, I try to explain why the situation can be so volatile today in these societies, and I hope to show that, given certain circumstances, violence becomes not only unavoidable but also understandable.

Understanding does not mean condoning. While one cannot condone violence, one should understand its components, its mechanisms in order to be able to find ways to remedy it, and to defuse it.

I would like to encourage a compassionate reading of the victims, but also of the attackers, and to recommend an awareness of the injustices faced by members of society who are wronged for reasons of race, gender, age, poverty, sexual orientation, lack of opportunity or representation, as well as an awareness of the dangers inherent in a society where such injustices take place. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 February 2017]

* Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood is published by Lexington Books.

This article is courtesy of Southern World Arts News (SWAN) – an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts of the global South, and is being reproduced by arrangement with the editor.

Follow A. McKenzie on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Photo: Professor Veronique Maisier

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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