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20 Seiten, Note: 2,0
2 Why is identity an issue in Canadian Caribbean women poetry?
2.1 Perceptions of gender
2.2 History of Colonialism
In recent years, Caribbean literature is experiencing a revival as the growth in the number of publications by Caribbean authors as well as the resulting rise in scholarly criticism indicate. A number of reasons can account for this development. One important reason is that Toronto, or more generally speaking Canada, came to replace London as the centre of Caribbean literature, as David Chariandy states. Since the rapid rise in immigration, especially from the Caribbean islands, to Canada brought about a significant demographic change, the government launched a campaign to promote minority writers. This resulted in a significant growth of Caribbean literature in Canada.
It is to say that despite the fact that a strong sense of Caribbean identity connects a large number of literary works, it is essential to also be aware of their disparities since each author’s work is influenced by their unique position in culture.
The aim of the following paper is an analyses of selected poems of Claire Harris and Olive Senior in regard of the theme that connects the poetic work of these two women writers - identity. At first glance, it might come as quite a surprise to some readers that the literary artist Harris and Senior share a connection in their poetical exploration of themes. However after having a short glance, a commonalty between them will became apparent. Due to the subject the essay is informed by concepts of feminism, post-colonialism and cultural studies in order to depict the different ways in which identity is addressed in their work.
I will argue that the ideas of identity that surface in the poetry of the two writers Harris and Senior all share certain characteristics marking their cultural positions, with all the differences and more importantly all the similarities that occur in their voicing of Caribbean Canadian diaspora identities of women. However, since the prevalent theme of the Caribbean self would vastly exceed the limitations of this paper, several limitations had to be made. First of all, I will limit myself to the genre of poetry. Another limitation is that only the three mayor aspects of Caribbean Canadian cultural identity can be taken into account. The first of these is these is the influence of gender in the formation of cultural identity as depicted in their poetry. Next is the impact of colonial history on the post-colonial subject, and the last topic is the question ofhome and exile, or more generally speaking ofbelonging.
One important factor in shaping individual identity is the concept of gender. As critics have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the surge in women poets has resulted in giving a new perspective to common themes in Caribbean poetry (Brown and McWatt XXXI), among them identity, it seems to be necessary to evaluate the impact of gender on identity in Harris’s and Senior’s poetry as well. For women, identity is even more important. (Gikandi 197ff) In her essay “Why Do I Write”, Harris even explicitly stated that one of her main concerns in writing is to “[...] reveal what happens when a woman must deal with the realities of racial as well as gender subjugation” (Harris "Why Do I Write" 27). Among the several verses dealing with the role of gender in the formation of women’s identity; Senior’s “One Night, the Father” or “The Mother”, Harris’s “Nude On a Pale Staircase” or “Policement Cleared in Jaywalking Case”; the paper will focus on the formation of gender roles in Caribbean society to evaluate their influence on individual identity. Therefore it will be attempted to first analyse “Birdshooting Season” by Olive Senior and subsequently “Child This Is the Gospel On Bakes” by Claire Harris in regard to the influences of gender.
In the following paragraph the poem “Birdshooting Season” is to be discussed in relation to gender, in order to explain how gender shapes the identity of Caribbean women. Senior’s “Birdshooting Season” consists of four stanzas of irregular length; four, six, two and five lines respectively (Senior "Birdshooting Season"). The first stanza of “Birdshooting Season” seems to describe the gathering of men at the father’s house of the speaker in the night before the bird shooting out of a children’s perspective, while the second verse seems to describe the women’s various activities of preparing provisions for the men (11. 1-10). Further, the second stanza enables the reader to recognize the setting as Jamaica, because typical Jamaican food and drinks are mentioned: “[...] cerassie/ wrap pone and tie-leaf’ (11. 7-8). Critic Renate Papke also commented on Senior’s use of alliteration “[...] men/ make marriages with their guns/ My father’s house turns macho” (11. 1-2) and “[...] contentless women/ stir their brews: hot coffee/ chocolate; cerassie” (11. 5-8) to illustrate the concept of gender in Caribbean society (115). Even though it is obvious to the speaker of the poem that the women do not approve of the bird shooting, as they describe them as “[...] contentless women” (1. 5), they nonetheless do not voice their discontent regarding the hunt but rather support the men with their preparations. In addition Senior here points out the traditional gender roles in the Caribbean family, according to her remark in Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean “[t]here seems to be [a] widespread acceptance of this practice among all classes, of females catering to males and of failing to make them assume responsibilities for domestic activities[...]” (Senior Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean 35). The male participants of the hunt are free to spend the night drinking “[...] white rum neat” (11. 10), whereas the women in the house prepare their provisions for the occasion. “Birdshooting Season” continues with a couplet depicting the men leaving the house very early in the morning to go on their hunt, followed by the last stanza of the poem. In the last stanza describes how the children watch the men leave. Also, it seems probable that the speaker of the poem is a little girl, as the speaker refers to the group of children:
We stand quietly on the doorstep shivering. Little boys longing to grow up birdhunters too Little girls whispering:
FlyBirdsFly (11. 13-17)
Senior’s often employs the child’s point of view in her works, though mostly in her short-stories, to criticise adult society (Pollard 541). In this case it seems as if she makes use of this technique to question traditional gender roles. On the one hand the boys want to become hunters just like their fathers (Papke 115). On the other hand, the girls appear to have accepted that they are helpless in this patriarchal society, as they only dare to whisper their hopes that the birds might be able to escape their hunters. Much in the same way their mothers are unable to voice their contempt for the hunt. In contrast to Papke’s interpretation of the women’s reaction, as having lost empathy for the birds (115), I would rather argue that it is not acceptable for women in their culture to overtly criticize men (Boyce Davies 52). This would correlate with a statement Senior made in an interview with Anna Rutherford. Senior noted that she wants to dismantle the myth of the “black matriarch” as “[...] the myth disguises the fact of her powerlessness in the wider society” (Rutherford 98). Like Senior, Harris portrays the powerlessness of women through the perspective of a child in “Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes” ("Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes").
“Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes” is taken from Drawing Down a Daughter, when the female speaker of the poem talks about traditional family recipes and the women associated with them:
Girl all of us in this family know how to make float how to make bakes the real thing and acra not even your father’s mother make so good and pilau and callaloo with crab & salt pork barefoot rice rich black cake cassava pone (is true your Carib great aunto on your dad side teach your mother that) but the coconut ice cream andfive-fingersconfetti buljol souse thoseare our things (Harris Drawing Down a Daughter 44)
More important than all listed Trinidadian dishes, is the sense of family history and culture they convey though (Williams "Claire Harris and the Poetic Shape of Women's Words" 70). After her thoughts have pondered on the different recipes she knows and the female relatives from whom she learned them, she remembers an evening when she was making pastry with her mother in her childhood, which is where “Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes” begins. In her description of the scene the social reinforcement of gender roles becomes apparent. Besides being taught her family’s recipes, which could be seen as Harris implying the girl’s introduction to female domesticity, it additionally represents women’s confinement to the house or rather private sphere in Caribbean society. Moreover the speaker is also scolded for being a dreamer by someone stating “[...] ‘this child always dreaming yes/ but what you going to do with her’” (Harris "Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes" 163). Thus the young girl is discouraged from following her ambitions and is instead expected to live up to female gender roles. Yet her mother replies “[...] ‘let her dream/ while she can’ [...]” (Harris "Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes" 163), as she is well aware of the fact that her daughter will only have little time left before she has to eventually give up her dreams. Dannabang Kuwabong reads the mother’s reply as signifying her understanding of her daughter’s dreams for a better life than hers (Kuwabong 134). Further, the speaker watches a boy playing outside “[...] a small boy barefeet/ on the plum tree his voice shrilling king/ of the mountain threats old voice eggs him on” (Harris "Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes" 162-63). In contrast to her being scolded for dreaming, the boy is encouraged by an old man in the yard to explore his environment. Only a few lines further in the poem, it becomes obvious that the young girl has already started to accept her role by stating “[...] the way girls should/ waiting patiently for evening” (Harris "Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes" 163). As the child kneads the dough for the pastry, she reflects on “[...] the recurring dream in which she climbs/ through a forest of leaves[...]” (Harris "Child This Is the Gospel on Bakes" 163-64) chasing after a bird. This dream could be interpreted as visualizing her desire for personal freedom in a patriarchal society that restricts her to the private sphere. Another aspect of her dreams is that it shows that even though the girl is consciously aware of her role in society, she nonetheless has an
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