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Monday, 18 October 2010

The Thematic Tradition in Black British Literature

Several themes dominate Black British literature. One important concern is Childhood, a theme that points to the overwhelming problems that Black youth face in Britain.Contemporary Black British writers take on the developmental process of growing up by writing Bildungsroman novels that treat the Black British childhood experience through such common environments as the home and school. The concern with this issue is namely concentrated among the female novelists and the pertinence of this theme is highlighted by its appearence in some of the first Black British novels. Books that deal centrally with this issue are Joan Riley's The Unbelonging (1985), Beryl Gilroy's Boy Sandwich (1989) and In Praise of Love and Children (1996) and David Dabydeen's The Intended (1990). Dabydeen's apparent autobiographical novel locates the childhood Black British experience as one many of these writers have personally experienced having grown up in Britain. This is an important point, it shows the deep concern that these writers possess, as they evidently write out of what can be termed "lived experience." It is thus natural for the realms of fiction to intersect with autobiography. Indeed, the genre of autobiography initiated Black British writing through Beryl Gilroy's Black Teacher (1976). In this novel, Gilroy gives an account of her experiences as a West Indian teacher in the London school system. She provides an important record of immigrant childhood experience, bequeathing a solid socio-historical document of the hardships that Black British immigrant children faced. Overall, these childhood novels document the trauma and hardships for the Black British child. Through comparison of the male to the female Black British childhood experience, it is shown that the female child is more traumatized because of the gender oppression which she suffers at the hands of the black male figure in her life.
An additional theme given attention is Old Age. The reality of aging for the West Indian immigrant in London is taken up with sensitivity once again by mainly the female writers. It is a fact that many West Indians intended to return to the West Indies after a few years stint in London. However the longer they remained in London, the more difficult the prospect of returning home became, especially due to economic hardships. Many returned only to face the reality that there is no return, only the reality of displacement and disconnection. Novels that treat this experience include Joan Riley's Waiting in the Twilight (1987) and Gilroy's Boy Sandwich (1989). A relational theme to old age is that of Return to the West Indies. This theme was explored by the prior generation of West Indian writers (two writers being Selvon and Salkey) and picked up by these contemporary Black British writers who document the experiences of their West Indian relatives. Most of these novels record the difficulty, sometimes impossibility, of return for the first generation immigrant. Such novels include Caryl Phillip's A State of Independence (1986), Beryl Gilroy's Boy Sandwich (1989) and Jean Buffong's Snowflakes in the Sun (1995). The complication exists in the exploration of this theme as it concerns the Black British child. However, there is no return to the West Indies, most of these Black British children have never even been to the West Indies. These novelists explore the complicating psychological factors that mistakingly make the Black British child associate the West Indies with their true home. Importantly, this need to find a surrogate home provides a powerful critique of the British society in its marginalization of the Black British child. Novels that treat this experience include Joan Riley's The Unbelonging (1985), and A Kindness to the Children (1992), Amyrl Jonhson's Sequins for a Ragged Hem (1988), Vernella Fuller's Going Back Home (1992) and Andrea Levy's Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994) and Never Far From Nowhere (1996). Andrea Levy is an important voice as one of the few Black British novelists to have been born in Britain. Most of these novelists came to Britain after birth.
Another theme is that of History and there is an overwhelming preponderence of historical fiction set in the eighteenth/nineteenth century. Many of these are set during plantation slavery times. These novelists invoke the slavery narratives of Olaudah Equiano, and Mary Prince. There is a greater point to reentering history as an open discourse. These novelists revisit and rewrite history addressing the ills associated with black historical misrepresentation. Popular is the invocation of myth and stereotyping, key factors responsible for the creation of black cultural identities. In reentering history, these writers attempt to reinscribe the character of the slave who has been effaced, mocked, objectified and marginalized by all of the chief representational discourses. These include history, anthropology, ethnology and travel narratives. Their overall intention is to provide a greater understanding of Black British history as it relates to Britain's contemporary relationship with blacks. In recasting and redesigning British historiography, these novelists lay bare the contradictions, paradoxes, ambivalences of this complex historical time. Novels that treat this theme include Dabydeen's Slave Song (1984), Coolie Odyssey (1988), Turner (1994) and The Counting House (1996), Phillip's Cambridge (1991), Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts, Gilroy's Inkle and Yarico (1996) amd Stedman and Joanna in Love(1992). The agenda for the female Black British writer is more complex as she tries to grapple with gender issues relating to the representation of the black female in British history. This is clearly seen in Gilroy's work which shows her attempt to empower the black slave woman with an identity quite beside a mere sexual object.
A final theme is the negations of post independance West Indies. I have separated this theme from that of return to the West Indies for some important reasons. These Black British writers are writers in the Disapora, having a past West Indian identity which they bring to bear on Britishness. Less of an issue as to whether these writers are really contemporary West Indian writers in exile or Black British writers, is the phenomenon of dialogue between these two cultural spaces. Examination reveals there to be a spectrum of possibilities and positionalities which millitate against defining these writers in absolute, oppositional, binary or dialectal nationalities bound by a singular identity of West Indian or Black British. Beryl Gilroy defines the notion of this diaspora as being "comfortable in the in-between locations." The extent of this engagement that these writers bear to the West Indian homeland is dependant on the length of time that these writers spent in their West Indian homeland before removing to Britain, the extent of their trips back as well as their desire to nurse their attachment to the West Indies or to engage in the new realities that surround them. It is possible to make claims for writers that are more attached to Black British issues and those writers who locate on the spectrum of creative in-betweenness that is closer to being a West Indian writer. Definitely most of these writers inhabit two cultural spaces and zones. This is evidenced through the examination of first works, none of these writers from 1985 write their first work set only in Britain. All of these writers begin by playing between the West Indies and Britain. There are those who write their first work on the West Indies (Jean Buffong, Merle Collins, David Dabydeen, Fred D'Aguiar, Beryl Gilroy, Amyrl Johnson and Janice Shinebourne) and those who record their first work by linking their prior West Indian homeland to Britain through immigration (Caryl Phillips and Joan Riley).
Those that function as contemporary West Indian writers explore social, economic, cultural and politica issues relating to their prior West Indian homeland. We confront their retrospective gaze of remembrance and memory. Janice Shinebourne's two novels Timepiece ( 1986) and The Last English Plantation (1988) explore the political contradictions that abound in the 1950's- 1960's in Guyana. In one of her articles she is quoted as saying: "Those terrible times in Guyana are the times in which I grew up and I am committed of necessity to write about them." Merle Collins writes two novels Angel (1987) and The Color of Forgetting (1995) on the circumstances surrounding the United States invasion of Grenada. Though Joan Riley deals with Black British issues, she writes three of her novels that engage her prior homeland of Jamaica. These books are The Unbelonging (which ends in the main character's return to Jamaica) Waiting in the Twilight (which takes us back to Jamaica through memory recollections) and A Kindness to the Children, which is actually set in Jamaica, (1992), In an interview with Aamir Hussain she explains her connection to Jamaica as being "emotionally attached." Her British identity is therefore decidely different: "I cannot leave the Caribbean. I cannot go back yet I cannot leave, its too much a part of my reality. I carry with me that space and yet I've made connections in another space and so I feel torn all the time." The most extreme case is Caryl Phillips who was brought as a baby in 1958, ( four months old) yet comes to write his first two novels about the West Indies, a process that he puts down to following the "emotional contours of his life." Unable to feel "detached about the Caribbean" he is the one of the first of this new generation to write a novel, The Final Passage (1985) and it is on West Indian post war immigration." His second novel A State Of Independence (1986) is set in the West Indies and exposes the horrors of neocolonialism as it plays itself out in inequalities and political corruption. Beryl Gilroy's first novel Frangipani House, is set in Guyana but she makes no attempt to discuss any direct political issues. Fred A'guiar states that he had to "catch up with my past by writing my way through it," and his first two collections of poetry, Mama Dot ( 1985) and Airy Hall ( 1989, celebrating his Guyanese childhood experiences. He removed to Guyana from 1962 when he was two until the age of 12. His second novel, Dear Future (1996) is also set in Guyana and he connects it to Britain through a missing mother and her three sons who relocate to Britain to carry out political unhandedness by trying to muster Guyanese immigrant votes. It is the bringing of a Guyanese identity to his British identity that leads Dabydeen to strain language to bear the weight of his cultural differences as an Indian. His recall of his past West Indian homeland necesitates the process of memory recollection: "In a winter of England's scorn/ We huddle together memories." In Coolie Odyssey he states:
We mark your memory in songs
Fleshed in the emptiness of folk
Poems that scrape bowl and bone
In English basements far from home.
He writes in Homecoming:
England where it snows and we still born brown
That I come back from to here, home
As hungry as any white man for native gold
To plant flag and to map your mind.

Copyright 2000 Black British Literature
Last Updated May 10, 2000 by Cesar and Sharon Meraz

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