Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?
As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers. Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.
“I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”
Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul
VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.
“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”
“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”
“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”
A Way in the World
“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank…We were just there, floating.”
“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”
The Sea is History by Derek Walcott
St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and post-colonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.
“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.
“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”
“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”