Caribbean literature

Caribbean literature is the term generally accepted for the literature of the various territories of the Caribbean region. Literature in English specifically from the former British West Indies may be referred to as Anglo-Caribbean or, in historical contexts, West Indian literature, although in modern contexts the latter term is rare.

Most of these territories have become independent nations since the 1960s, though some retain colonial ties to the United Kingdom. They all share, apart from the English language, a number of political, cultural, and social ties which make it useful to consider their literary output in a single category. The more wide-ranging term "Caribbean literature" generally refers to the literature of all Caribbean territories regardless of language—whether written in English, Spanish, French, Hindustani, or Dutch, or one of numerous creoles.[1]

Territories included in the category "West Indian"

The literature of Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Curaçao, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Martin, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos and the U.S. Virgin Islands would normally be considered to belong to the wider category of West Indian literature. Some literary scholars might also include Bermuda, though geographically Bermuda is not part of the Caribbean and cultural ties with the region are not very strong.

Development of the idea of West Indian literature

The term "West Indies" first began to achieve wide currency in the 1950s, when writers such as Samuel Selvon, John Hearne, Edgar Mittelholzer, V. S. Naipaul, and George Lamming began to be published in the United Kingdom.[2] A sense of a single literature developing across the islands was also encouraged in the 1940s by the BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices, which featured stories and poems written by West Indian authors, recorded in London under the direction of producer Henry Swanzy, and broadcast back to the islands.[3] Magazines such as Kyk-Over-Al in Guyana, Bim in Barbados, and Focus in Jamaica, which published work by writers from across the region, also encouraged links and helped build an audience.[4]

Many—perhaps most—West Indian writers have found it necessary to leave their home territories and base themselves in the United Kingdom, the United States, or Canada in order to make a living from their work—in some cases spending the greater parts of their careers away from the territories of their birth. Critics in their adopted territories might argue that, for instance, V. S. Naipaul ought to be considered a British writer instead of a Trinidadian writer, or Jamaica Kincaid and Paule Marshall American writers, but most West Indian readers and critics still consider these writers "West Indian".

West Indian literature ranges over subjects and themes as wide as those of any other "national" literature, but in general many West Indian writers share a special concern with questions of identity, ethnicity, and language that rise out of the Caribbean historical experience.

Marlon James at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival

One unique and pervasive characteristic of Caribbean literature is the use of "dialect" forms of the national language, often termed creole. The various local variations in the language adopted from the colonial powers such as Britain, Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands, have been modified over the years within each country and each has developed a blend that is unique to their country. Many Caribbean authors in their writing switch liberally between the local variation - now commonly termed nation language - and the standard form of the language.[5] Two West Indian writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Derek Walcott (1992), born in St. Lucia, resident mostly in Trinidad during the 1960s and '70s, and partly in the United States since then; and V. S. Naipaul, born in Trinidad and resident in the United Kingdom since the 1950. (Saint-John Perse, who won the Nobel Prize in 1960, was born in the French territory of Guadeloupe.)

Other notable names in (anglophone) Caribbean literature have included Earl Lovelace, Austin Clarke, Claude McKay, Orlando Patterson, Andrew Salkey, Edward Kamau Brathwaite (who was born in Barbados and has lived in Ghana and Jamaica), Linton Kwesi Johnson, Velma Pollard and Michelle Cliff, to name only a few. In more recent times, a number of literary voices have emerged from the Caribbean as well as the Caribbean diaspora, including Kittitian Caryl Phillips (who has lived in the UK since one month of age); Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian immigrant to the United States; Anthony Kellman from Barbados, who divides his time between Barbados and the United States; Andrea Levy of the United Kingdom; Jamaicans Alecia McKenzie, who has lived in Belgium, Singapore and France, and Colin Channer and Marlon James, the author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) (as well as John Crow's Devil, The Book of Night Women, the unpublished screenplay "Dead Men", and the short story "Under Cover of Darkness"), Antiguan Marie-Elena John, and Lasana M. Sekou from St. Maarten/St. Martin.

Influences on West Indian literature

Indentureship and migration were key factors in shaping Caribbean literature. The migration of Caribbean workers towards the Panama Canal is often used as a foundation by many authors. For example, Maryse Condé’s novel Tree of Life (1992) discusses the involvement of family ties and working life within the Panama Canal. The idea of influence is further exemplified in Ramabai Espinet’s novel The Swinging Bridge, which explores the idea of Indian indentureship and the direct silencing of women.

The number of influences are not limited to those stated above, rather, the works within this canon often stem from independence, gender roles, and literary movements.

Literary festivals

Many parts of the Caribbean have begun in recent years to host literary festivals, including in Trinidad and Tobago the NGC Bocas Lit Fest,[6] in Jamaica the Calabash International Literary Festival,[7] in Saint Martin/Sint Maarten the St. Martin Book Fair,[8] in Barbados Bim Literary Festival,[9] in Dominica the Nature Island Literary Festival and Book Fair,[10] Alliouagana Festival of the word[11] in Montserrat, and the Antigua and Barbuda Literary Festival.[12]


Notable West Indian writers

(Grouped by territory of birth or upbringing)


The Bahamas






Dominican Republic








Puerto Rico

St Kitts and Nevis

St Lucia

Saint Martin

St Vincent and The Grenadines


Trinidad and Tobago

Virgin Islands

West Indian literary periodicals

See also


  1. Dash, J. Michael. The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.
  2. Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and Its Background. London: Faber, 1970.
  3. Griffith, Glyne. "Deconstructing Nationalisms: Henry Swanzy, Caribbean Voices and the Development of West Indian Literature", Small Axe, Number 10 (Volume 5, Number 2), September 2001, pp. 1–20.
  4. Dalleo, Raphael. Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
  5. Waters, Erika J. (2009). "Paradise Revealed: Readings in Caribbean Literature". Maine Humanities Council. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  6. "The Trinidad and Tobago Bocas Literary Festival - Bocas Lit Fest". Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  7. "Calabash 2014". Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  8. "The St. Martin Book Fair.". Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  9. "Home | BIM Bim Litfest.". Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  10. "Nature Island Literary Festival and Book Fair | Dominica, West Indies". Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  11. "Alliouagana Festival of the Word". Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  12. "Antigua and Barbuda Literary Festival". Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  13. The OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, NGC Bocas Lit Fest.
  14. "Literary Prize", Association of Caribbean Writers.
  15. Ross, Jacob (5 March 2009). Pynter Bender. United Kingdom: Harper Perennial. p. 288. ISBN 000722298X. Retrieved 30 November 2015.

External links

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