The Caribbean Sea has turned into an ocean. Not because of global warming but because a flood of cariben~os from at least three language groups has inundated the literary scene: Kamau Brathwaite and Jamaica Kincaid (English); Edwidge Danticat and Maryse Conde (French); and Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez and Cristina Garcia (Spanish). These writers join an already powerful heritage that includes Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Claude McKay, Aime Cesaire, Alejo Carpentier, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Luis Rafael Sanchez, Jean Rhys, Wilson Harris and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Traditionally, language has divided the various Caribbean cultures. We can see the problems this creates in the publication last year of "Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century," edited by Edward J. Sullivan. This valuable volume covers Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other Spanish-speaking nations but says nothing about Haiti, the rest of the French Caribbean or the English-speaking islands. The fact is, language is not the only factor that determines cultural unity. In the case of the Caribbean, there are other shared or parallel historical experiences--slavery, politics and economic dependency--that shape the region's artistic production despite the enormous differences among its ethnic and linguistic groups.
Miscegenation is the key, a fusion of races: the fusion of Africa with Spain, France, England, India and China; the fusion of Europe with the tropics; and the fusion of Christianity with African religions. Starting in the 17th century, the islands of the Caribbean and the mainland territories bordering it became factories for sugar, tobacco, coffee and bananas, rendering them elements in a global economy, defining the economic and political relationship between purveyors of agricultural products and consuming nations. The social effects of this agribusiness--slavery and a caste system--generate the themes that dominate Caribbean literature: race, class and ethnic resentment, violence, degradation, the consolations of sex, religion and music.
Many Caribbeans write in Spanish or in French, but more and more writers with roots in the region are writing in English. The Caribbean diaspora--Puerto Ricans were scattered as far as Hawaii by the hurricane of agricultural capitalism--has seen vast numbers of cariben~os in Great Britain and the United States. Ironically, their writing, an important chapter in 20th century exile literature, will enrich the English-language heritage. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia, but he belongs to the tradition of Milton and Whitman.
The anthologies "The Archipelago" and "Growing Up Puerto Rican," and the novels "Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada" and "The Aguero Sisters" show the region's diversity.
"The Archipelago" is an anthology of 31 authors, whose editors "are pleased to be the first to bring together three generations of [Caribbean] writers." Their reach unfortunately exceeds their grasp. It wasn't really necessary to include non-Caribbean writers, even as fine a one as Madison Smartt Bell, for instance, simply because they set works in the region. However, placing Garcia Marquez's wistful note on airline stopovers in Paramaribo in northern South America at the head of this parade is an appropriate introduction because his vignette documents the sense of roots and rootlessness characteristic of Caribbean life, where economic need precipitates voluntary exile and, with it, nostalgia and melancholy.
Politics inevitably interferes with the best editorial intentions. The Cubans included here (Antonio Benitez Rojo, Severo Sarduy, Cristina Garcia, Mayra Montero) are almost all exiles (voluntary or not); only Senel Paz, whose story "The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man" is the origin of his screenplay for Tomas Gutierrez Alea's film about gays in Cuba, "Strawberry and Chocolate," lives on the island.
The anthology also creates its own peculiar distortions. Severo Sarduy is described in the "Notes on Contributors" as a novelist, poet and essayist who worked at Editions du Seuil in France. This is rather scanty documentation for one of the most innovative and difficult writers in Spanish, who introduced structuralist and post-structuralist literary analysis to the Spanish-speaking world. Sarduy's literary writings, including the pieces here, demand an introduction, but the editors don't even mention that Sarduy was Cuban, that his juxtaposition of AIDS and the Gulf War is relevant to his "Journal of the Plague" pieces, that "Lady S.S." is a kind of autobiography in drag or that he died of AIDS in 1993.