Occasions for Reading: Literary Encounters and the Making of the West Indies
Esprit, Schuyler Kirshten
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"Occasions for Reading" argues for a new methodology of postcolonial reading that traces the origins of Anglophone Caribbean literary history and redirects the routes of West Indian literary production and canon formation. Historically, West Indian writers have sought an "ideal" reader of their work, though the definition and depiction of that ideal reader have varied. Anglophone Caribbean authors' own relationships to the act of reading and to the influence of reading on their own and on their characters' identity formation also direct or re-direct nation and canon formation. By engaging postcolonial theory, reader-response theory, post-structuralism, and reception studies, the dissertation investigates the production of the reader in and of Caribbean literary texts and of the social spaces in which they circulate. This dissertation situates the act of reading at the core of colonial and postcolonial representations of the Anglophone Caribbean and offers the culture of reception as a mode through which the geography of the West Indies is implicated in connecting West Indian people and identities across the diaspora. Acts and scenes of reading in West Indian novels produce a critique of Imperial knowledge production and illustrate how Caribbean subjects transform the intellectual, psychological or political meanings derived from reading colonial texts into a postcolonial epistemology. Such transformations provoke a range of consequences for these character-readers who must either leave the Caribbean region or continue to stake out their legitimacy and rootedness. Reading prompts characters' transgressions or resistance against persistent political, aesthetic or cultural narratives of colonialism historically informing Caribbean identity. By extension, characters' engagements with reading reveal twentieth-century West Indian authors' preoccupations with and resistance to colonial ontology. Issues of race, class, and gender influence the acts and scenes of reading in canonical West Indian novels analyzed in this study, including C.L.R. James's Minty Alley, V.S. Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur, Phyllis Shand Allfrey's The Orchid House, Michelle Cliff's Abeng and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John. Following the historiography of the function of the reader in West Indian novels, the dissertation contends with contemporary concerns, in the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century, about where and how novels on the Caribbean experience are read, particularly by non-academic reading publics. Significant moments of literary reception in the U.K. and reception culture of Caribbean literature in the United States allow for a focus on contemporary novels and memoirs including Andrea Levy's Small Island and Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother. In an examination of how writers such as Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat have responded to the readers who encounter and assess their work, I critique apparent conflations of Caribbean literature, Caribbean geography or landscape, and Caribbean identity. Slippages in understanding the differences and boundaries between these concepts - literature, geography, and identity - in reading practices warrant a more methodological view of the impact of reading and reception on Caribbean literary history and its global reach. While representations of readers within the Caribbean space reveal a desire for a distinct origin and rootedness in the Caribbean landscape, migrant writers redefine the legacy and relevance of Caribbean literature through a discourse of emotion without boundaries or frontiers. As a whole, this dissertation challenges the dominant view of primarily political origins of postcolonial Caribbean literature, upholding its less recognized genealogy in intellectual and aesthetic discourses.