My Favorite Caribbean Books

As you probably know if you follow this blog or know me in real life, I’m finishing up my first semester of grad school at Gardner-Webb (and my fourth semester overall) in just a few days. I’ve just completed one of two final papers that are due on Thursday in my class on Caribbean women’s writing; this one is my theory of Caribbean writing. I really enjoyed writing the paper as it’s caused me to review most of the books I’ve read this semester. Early in the semester, I reviewed some of the ones I read, but I haven’t done that as of late, so I decided to just make a post of my favorite books from this semester.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

This was the only Caribbean book I’d ever read before taking this course. The first time I read it, I didn’t appreciate it very much, and I was mostly just frustrated that it seemed to be attacking Jane Eyre, one of my favorite books of all time. After studying it in a world lit class almost two years ago and again this semester, however, I actually really like the book. Jean Rhys wrote this book in thee 1960s, as a re-writing of Jane Eyre from Rochester’s wife Bertha’s perspective. In Rhys’ story, Bertha is really Antoinette, a white Creole living in the Dominican, who is married off to Rochester (who is actually unnamed in this story). This book is a quintessential postcolonial novel and one of the first novels out of the Caribbean to achieve wide critical acclaim. It’s a quick read (just a little over 100 pages) and a great introduction to Caribbean literature.

Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez

This book is one of the most recently published book we read in class–it’s only been out since 2006. This book is another retelling–this time of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I haven’t actually read this play, so some of the connections were lost on me; however, this book is spectacular even without prior literary knowledge. I had a hard time putting it down (though some parts are difficult to read), and I really enjoyed the read (probably because it’s one of the only books in the class that has a truly happy ending). The book is the story of Dr. Gardner (a.k.a. Prospero) who flees his native England to avoid scandal and takes over an estate on the island of Chacachacare off the coast of Trinidad. His daughter Virginia, who was three at the time they leave England, grows up on the island and becomes more Caribbean than English. She also falls in love with a Caribbean boy named Carlos, whom her father highly disapproves of. He attempts to separate them at all cost.

This book isn’t just a romance novel. It’s incredibly well-written, with beautiful descriptions of the land and insightful portrayals of the characters. Nunez is brilliant at showing versus telling, and the book serves as both a novel to be critically acclaimed and to enjoy. Furthermore, I fell in love with the island of Chacachacare (which actually exists) so much so that I added visiting the island to The List.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

This is the book I chose to read for my final project for my class. This is a collection of nine short stories and an epilogue. Danticat is Haitian, and all the stories either take place in Haiti or in the lives of Haitian immigrants to the United States. It’s honestly one of the most moving pieces of literature I’ve ever read, and the one on this list that I recommend most highly. For a full review, see this post.

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Conde

Yet another incredible book that I could hardly put down. This is the story of Francis Sancher, whose body is found in the marsh at the beginning of the novel. Through a series of vignettes told from sixteen different characters’ perspective, we as readers begin to understand the intricacies of life in the village of Riviere au Sel. Each character talks about his or her experiences with Francis (some of the women are in love with him, some of the men loathe him, others are indifferent but have some story to tell, etc.). We end up learning about the characters themselves in their reactions to Francis, and we also learn that Francis was an enigma, and we never could fully understand his story.

From the beginning, Conde’s narrative style reminded me so much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly his story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” In both GGM’s story and Conde’s book, a dead man acts as a catalyst for change in a small Caribbean village. However, Conde’s story, because of its length, is a great example of characterization, and I’m frankly amazed at Conde’s ability to give voice to so many distinct people. It’s brilliant.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

In this memoir, Danticat proves that she is just as adept at nonfiction as short stories. This book, published just three years ago, is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Danticat tells the stories of her father and her uncle. As a child, Danticat’s parents immigrated to New York, leaving her and her younger brother in Haiti to be raised by her father’s brother Joseph. As a result, Danticat essentially has two fathers, which both her father and uncle recognize. As an adult, Danticat watches her father’s decline in health around the same time that her uncle flees Haiti, seeking asylum in the U.S. Because of a ton of political reasons that angered me as I read the book, her uncle is declined the asylum he seeks; he is also treated horribly in a detainment center. Danticat tells this story in a way that celebrates the lives of her two fathers while revealing the injustice of society in both Haiti and America. It’s truly an excellent read.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Note: there are spoilers in this summary; however, if you were to read the back of the book, you’d find out the info anyway, as I did.

Alvarez, like Danticat, is a Caribbean writer who has actually achieved a great deal of popularity in the United States. This book is another excellent work. Alvarez tells the story of the Mirabal sisters, who lived in the Dominican Republic under Generalissimo Trujillo’s dictatorship. She fictionalizes their story, imagining their childhood and the decisions they made to join the revolution against Trujillo. Two of the four sisters were imprisoned themselves, and their husbands, plus their sister Patrice’s husband, were also imprisoned. Trujillo intentionally moved the men to a prison farther away from the sister, knowing they would have to travel down a danger pass to visit their husbands. One night, just a few months before Trujillo is overthrown and killed, he has the Mirabal sisters ambushed and executed.

The Mirabal sisters–known as Las Mariposas, or “the butterflies”–are revolutionaries, but they’re also sisters, and Alvarez very aptly writes to reveal the numerous, sometimes contradictory, roles they play.

The hardest part about reading this book was knowing the ending, knowing that three of the sisters would die. Each sister has one chapter in each of the three sections of the book in which she tells her story, but the story begins and ends with Dede, the surviving Mirabal sister. From the beginning, the reader knows that three of the protagonists are going to die. It’s really difficult to get so attached to a character, knowing that she won’t make it to the end of the book. It’s even harder when you get attached to three characters. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly evocative story, and yet another one that I highly recommend.

Krik? Krak!

“Until we moved to the city, we went to the river every year on the first of November. The women would all dress in white. My mother would hold my hand tightly as we walked toward the water. We were all daughters of that river, which had taken our mothers from us. Our mothers were the ashes and we were the light. Our mothers were the embers and we were the sparks. Our mothers were the flames and we were the blaze. We came from the bottom of that river where the blood never stops flowing, where my mother’s dive toward life–her swim among those bodies slaughtered in flight–gave her those wings of flames. The river was the place where it had all begun.”

-from “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” Edwidge Danticat

* * *

This book is the one I chose for my final, big project for Caribbean Women’s Writing. I finished it today, as we have a proposal due soon in preparation for that final project.

The book is beautiful. It’s a collection of nine short stories that take place in Haiti or in America in the lives of Haitian immigrants. Danticat herself is from Port-au-Prince, and on the back of this book (which was published in 1995), the Washington Globe states, “If the news from Haiti is too painful to read, read this book instead and understand the place more deeply than you ever thought possible.” It seems almost prophetic that this quote is from 15 years ago.

The title, Krik? Krak?, comes from the Haitian oral storytelling tradition. The storyteller asks “Krik?” and the audience responds “Krak!” These stories are about a variety of different characters: Haitian sisters living in America, lovers who have been separated when the man sails to America on a raft, a girl who models for a painter and dreams of leaving a legacy, a woman who desires a baby so bad that she “adopts” a dead baby, and many more.

The above quote is from a story about a woman who flees her native Dominican and watches many other women, her own mother included, be slaughtered by soldiers. She swims across a river full of blood and bodies into Haiti and freedom. The story is told from the woman’s daughter’s perspective. The woman has since been imprisoned, both physically and mentally. Her daughter is the one now who must find her own freedom outside of the constrainsts of her mother’s history.

In another story, “Seeing Things Simply,” the main character Princesse models for a painter. Princesse desperately wants to learn to paint so that she, too, can leave a legacy behind. Something about her dreams and desires is so universal. It’s wonderful that Danticat can write a story about a Haitian girl that I, a white American girl, can relate to.

I’m so excited about having chosen this book. I’ll probably read it several more times before the semester is over, as I work on my final project. Have I mentioned that I’m seriously enjoying Caribbean writing? 🙂

* * *

“It struck Princesse that this is why she wanted to make pictures, to have something to leave behind even after she was gone, something that showed what she had observed in a way that no one else would after her. The sky in all its glory had been there for eons even before she came into the world, and there it would stay with its crashing stars and moody clouds. The sand and its caresses, the conch and its melody would be there forever as well. All that would chagne would be the faces of the people who would see and touch those things, faces like hers, which was already not as it had been a few years before and which would mature and chagne in the years to come.”

-from “Seeing Things Simply”

“Lives are throbbing in those stories.”

“For me, each life is an illustrious story that deserves a patient hearing because its mere evocation cuts the thread of time and builds tomorrows. Lives are throbbing in these stories. Unfortunate lives of the nation’s minor players, returning on their knees from trenches where heroism, its deeds and its medals, lie rotting. Anonymous heroes who have given their entire youth to France and who have been accorded only grudgingly the leaven of glory.”

~on old veterans telling war stories, Exile According to Julia, Gisele Pineau

* * *

“What time is it then? Here time is not a matter of the clock. Time is written in the sky, the early morning darkness, the fickle sunsets. The days lengthen or shrink according to the seasons. Men’s time is borrowed time. And the day unwinds quite naturally if you listen to time trickling within you like grains of sand in an hourglass. Time settles on time, and if you wait for evening, one hand under your jaw, you will not see anything passing.”

* * *

My first class at Gardner-Webb is a class on Caribbean Women’s Writing. I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy this area of fiction. The stories that come out of the Caribbean are haunting and deep and thought-provoking. I love so much that I work hard in grad school by reading and analyzing great books. 🙂

This book, Exile According to Julia, is a translation from the French. Julia is a grandmother whose husband is mean and abusive, but she puts up with it because that’s what women in Guadeloupe, during her time, do. Her son, however, kidnaps her, in a way, when his family moves to France, and Julia lives in France, essentially exiled, away from her homeland, for six years before returning to the island.

For Julia, home is the fruit on the trees in her garden, her old husband who is haunted by his military service to France, the chocolate tea she brews, the French Creole dialect, and the tropical weather on the island. It is not pure French language, or sophistication in Paris, or the “better life” that her son and his family search for. Julia is homesick, illiterate, and lonely. Only when she returns to the island, to her imperfect life there, is she fully herself.

This isn’t even my favorite story that I’ve read so far, but it’s wonderful. Caribbean women have a knack for asking hard questions: what is home? How do people define themselves when they leave the island they were born on to search for education and a better life? What happens when they try to return?

I can’t wait for the rest of the novels we’ll be reading. I love Caribbean literature. 🙂