Cultural Tensions and Hybrid Identities in Derek Walcott's Poetry

By Nidhi Mahajan
2015, Vol. 7 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

In his Nobel Lecture, Derek Walcott described the experience of watching a Ramleela performance in a village in Trinidad, remarking: "... Two different religions, two different continents, both filling the heart with the pain that is joy.” The pain that fills Walcott’s heart is the pain of a fragmented identity. This pain is also joy, the joy of a hybrid existence. Derek Walcott (b. 1930), a Caribbean poet and playwright who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, published his first collection of poetry at the age of fourteen, in which he described the beautiful and rich landscapes of the Caribbean Islands. As Walcott understood his surroundings, he realised that his identity was fraught with racial and colonial tensions. In his early poems, Walcott confronts the conflicts of his European and African ancestry.

However, in these poems, the paradoxes of his identity remain largely unresolved. In Walcott’s later poems, one observes a heightened historical and political awareness. This analysis discusses an early poem, “A Far Cry of Africa” (In a Green Nigh: Poems, 1948-60, 1962), and two later poems, “Names” (Sea Grapes, 1976) and “The Sea is History” (The Star-Apple Kingdom, 1979), in order to highlight the ways in which the poems present a search for a Caribbean history while exploring the racial, colonial, and cultural tensions inherent in Caribbean identity. Moreover, this analysis reveals Walcott’s celebration of the hybridity and cosmopolitanism of Caribbean culture.

Walcott attempts to rewrite the history of the Caribbean people from a subaltern perspective. He celebrates the hybridity and cosmopolitanism of Caribbean culture, but he never loses sight of its colonial past and remains critical of the forces shaping its future.

The Poetry of Derek Walcott

It is first important to understand the historical and political context in which Walcott wrote these poems. The Caribbean Islands, which served as Walcott’s subject and inspiration, are a group of scattered islands between the North and South America that were occupied by the Caribs or the American-Indian tribe before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

The different islands were colonised by the British, the French and the Dutch. The colonisers brought-in slaves from parts of Africa to work on the land. When slavery was abolished by the Emancipation Act of 1863, the colonisers began “importing” labour-force from India and China.

An imaginative reconstruction of the situation of the first generation of people who were brought to the Islands is attempted by a number of Caribbean writers and poets. When Columbus “discovered” the Islands, he assumed that the native population did not exist. While the natives were denied human existence, the position of the slaves and the indentured labourers was hardly any better.

They were displaced from their homeland, brought to an entirely unfamiliar environment, and forced to work. They could hardly communicate with one another. Over the years, the different Diasporas developed a language of communication (Pidgin and Creole), and the intermixing of cultures (Native American, African, Indian, French, British and Dutch) resulted in a hybrid culture.

The later generations inherited this hybrid culture. Though the later generations did not experience displacement or colonisation first-hand, the inheritance of an identity informed by such complexities resulted in a form of cultural schizophrenia. Walcott’s poem, “A Far Cry from Africa” explores this psychological condition. The central question asked in the poem is, “I who am poisoned with the blood of both / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” (26-27). Walcott evokes the Mau Mau rebellion of Kenya and holds both the Europeans and the Kenyans responsible for the bloodshed. He is critical of the colonial discourses based on statistics and laws that justify the killing of the Kenyan people.

However, he can neither turn away from his English identity, nor from his African ancestry. Frantz Fanon theorises this psychological conflict as Negrophobia in Black Skin, White Masks. According to Fanon, the black man “lives an ambiguity that is extraordinarily neurotic” (169). In the black man’s “collective unconscious,” being black means being “wicked, spineless, evil, and instinctual,” the opposite of being white (169). In “A Far Cry from Africa,” therefore, Walcott confronts this psychological conflict but the paradoxes in his identity remain unresolved because the central question is never answered.

In his later poems, such as “Names” and “The Sea is History,” there is a more mature and historical understanding of the racial, colonial, and cultural tensions in the collective Caribbean identity. Both “Names” and “The Sea is History” trace the beginnings of the Caribbean “race” (referring to the social concept but also meaning journey). In the first part of “Names,” Walcott describes how his race began with no nouns, no horizon, no memory, and no future. The shift from “my race” and “I began” to “our souls” and “our names” is significant as it marks the growth from an individual to a collective sensibility. Walcott writes that his race began as the sea began. The reference is to how African slaves were brought to the Caribbean Islands via the sea. They had to leave behind their homeland and the memory of their native culture was lost. Walcott uses the image of an osprey’s cry to describe the condition of these people- “and my race began like the osprey / with that cry, / that terrible vowel, / that I!” (I. 24-27). This cry is the agonizing cry of the displaced people in an effort to define an identity (the “I”).

While tracing the beginnings of the Caribbean race, Walcott is searching for a particular moment in history when “the mind was halved by a horizon” (“Names,” I. 11). By this phrase, Walcott means the introduction and the internalisation of the binary opposition between the black and the white. Walcott is unable to find the moment when this opposition was placed into the mind because the history of the Caribbean Islands remains, largely, the history documented by the European colonisers. This history is governed by the discourse of orientalism. In Orientalism, Edward Said discusses the various institutional apparatuses that promoted certain statements about the ‘orient’: about its homogeneity, mystical appeal, and barbarity. These statements validated the “truth” about the ‘orient’ and formed the discourse of orientalism. The ‘occident’ had the agency to “gaze at” the ‘orient’; the ‘occident’ assumed the knowledge of and power over the ‘orient’. Through this discourse, a binary opposition was created between the ‘occident’ and the ‘orient’ where the former was empowered and the latter was increasingly disempowered and primitivised. Walcott’s attempt to locate the historical moment when the world was halved fails because the history of the Caribbean people is informed by these European discourses.

The challenge for Walcott is to rewrite this history from a subaltern perspective. In this regard, a significant question to be addressed is- In which language is this history to be written? The debate surrounding language has been an important one in many postcolonial countries. In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes, “Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (13). For Ngugi, language carries the values of a community which are passed on from one generation to another (hence, the importance of memory). These values accumulate over time to form the culture of the community, and culture forms the basis of people’s identities. However, the question of language for the Caribbean people is again a complex one.

The African slaves and the Indian indentured labourers who were brought to the Caribbean Islands spoke different languages and dialects. They were forced to learn the colonisers’ language (what may be called the adopt phase). As they attempted to learn the language, they altered it with pronunciations and mispronunciations (the adapt phase). Over time, they mastered the coloniser’s language and began using it in a manner to write back to the empire (the adept phase).

Walcott explores these three phases in “Names.” The second part of the poem describes how the colonisers named everything on the Caribbean Islands after places and structures in Europe. This naming process was important to the colonisers for both nomination and domination. The poem describes how the Africans first agreed to the names (adopt), repeated them (adapt) and then changed them (adept). Repetition of the names also suggests mimicry- repeating the words or actions of the coloniser in a comic manner in order to subvert them. However, as Walcott writes in “What the Twilight Says: An Overture,” “What would deliver [the New World Negro] from servitude was the forging of a language that went beyond mimicry… the writer’s making creative use of his schizophrenia, an electric fusion of the old and the new” (17).

Therefore, in “Names,” mimicry of the French words spoken by the teacher is not enough, the words must be spoken in “fresh green voices” (II. 66) to forge a new language. The creation of a new lexicon is represented by the description of the stars in the last line of the poem- the student sees the stars as “fireflies caught in molasses” (II. 82) as opposed to the constellations of Orion or Betelgeuse. The metaphor stands for the condition of the African slaves who are like fireflies capable of emanating light but caught in the coloniser’s physical and ideological trap.

Walcott’s task, as a poet, is to aid the forging of this new language. Historically, in the Caribbean Islands the fusion of the different languages produced Pidgin and Creole. However, Walcott writes mostly in English and sometimes in French. There remains a debate between the relative importance of Creole and English in encapsulating the diversity of Caribbean culture. What is important to note, in this regard, is that Walcott appropriates the coloniser’s language to challenge the coloniser’s discourse and to rewrite the history of the Caribbean people. “The Sea is History” is a suitable example. The poem, in an odyssey-like fashion, traces the events in the history of the African slaves and compares them to the mythical events in the Bible.

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