Dossier Studi Culturali


Gianfranca Balestra

Paule Marshall's cultural identity as a first generation African American of West Indian descent positions her in a problematic and at the same time rich cross-cultural context, shared by many writers of the diaspora. Acknowledging the trouble critics had defining her as a Black American or Caribbean writer, in a 1977 interview Marshall expressed both the difficulties and advantages of her situation, first stating: "I fall between two stools, I'm neither West Indian nor Black American", and then assessing it in a more positive light: "I have got my feet in both camps so that I am able to understand and respond to Black American culture as well as West Indian culture. (...) This is what my work is about - to bring about a synthesis of the two cultures and in addition, to connect them up with the African experience" (Ogundipe-Leslie: 1989, 33). Marshall's discourse shows the unstable condition of a writer in search of a synthesis at a time when the cultural value of hybridization had not yet been extolled, as well as her awareness of the fruitfulness of a double perspective. She succeeds in turning these contradictions into artistic representations of cross-cultural situations, by creating multicultural microcosms and mesmerizing plots, staging characters of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds and making them interact. As a storyteller who learnt her art from the "women in the kitchen", she is not afraid of interweaving rich and varied threads in an ornate language that owes a lot to oral tradition, incorporating music and dance, West Indian dialect and rhythms, biblical and literary allusions1.
Marshall's career, from when she started writing in the 1950's about Caribbean immigrants in the United States, shows a growing multicultural awareness and reflects parallel developments in theory and cultural perspectives. One element, however, remains constant from the first novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) to the most recent The Fisher King (2000), and that is her creative effort to connect the world: not only the United States, the West Indies and Africa, but also South America and Europe. In a more recent interview, Marshall confirmed the role of her work as a cultural bridge: "I like to think of myself and my work - especially my work - as a kind of bridge that joins the two great wings of the black diaspora in this part of the world" (Dance: 1992, 14). The Caribbean islands represent geographically and metaphorically this bridge. In The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, her second novel published in 1969, they are described as "stepping stones that might have been placed there long ago by some giant race to span the distance between the Americas, North and South" (Marshall: 1984, 13). This novel can be seen as a paradigmatic example of Marshall's pioneering role as writer of a "literature of reconnection", to use a term applied by Brathwaite specifically to it (1970: 225). She performs "ceremonies of reconciliation", in spite of her awareness of their problematic effectiveness, as implied by the ex-ergo to the novel, taken from the Tiv of West Africa: "Once a great wrong has been done, it never dies. People speak the words of peace, but their hearts do not forgive. Generations perform ceremonies of reconciliation but there is no end".
In this essay I will concentrate on The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, with special attention to its spatial and cultural dimensions. The chosen place is a Caribbean island and the timeless people are the native inhabitants2, in all their gradations of color and class. The fictional Bourne Island can be identified as Barbados, the homeland of Marshall's parents, but, as she claims, it is a mythical island, representative of all the Caribbean3. In fact it is both a real island, very precisely laid out on the map, and, in many respects, a symbolic island. Or, to use Antonio Benìtez-Rojo's expression, it is a "repeating island" in a meta-archipelago that we need to reread in order to reveal its textuality. This critic lists the characteristics of the Caribbean that also constitute the main obstacles to its study: "its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness, its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity; its contingency and impermanence; its syncretism, etc." (1992: 1). According to him, scholars from postindustrial societies, who try unsuccessfully to apply their methods, tend to define "the Caribbean in terms of its resistance to the different methodologies summoned to investigate it" (2). This is precisely what happens in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People when a team of American anthropologists comes to Bourne Island to study its most stagnant area (Bournehills) and prepare a development project for it. Through this device the writer becomes herself a sort of ethnographer - in fact a critic appropriately talks about "the ethnographic novels of Paule Marshall" (Coser: 1994, 35) - and puts the reader in the same position, allowing her/him to gradually explore the "chosen place", its social structures and rituals, while the story unfolds with its conflicts and revelations.
This novel effectively questions the role of anthropology in a postcolonial world which has seen a radical change in the relation between the observer and the observed. In a scene towards the end of the book, there is a significant reversal of roles, when the anthropologist Saul Amron, who has been interviewing the local inhabitants for his research, is interviewed by Merle Kinbona, the native Caribbean protagonist educated in England. Throughout, the novel addresses many of the epistemological, ideological and even moral issues that anthropology as a discipline has had to face in its confrontation with "the Other", moving towards a sort of postmodern self-questioning anxiety - an anxiety often shared by white western literary critics reading postcolonial texts. With Saul, Marshall creates a positive version of the well-intentioned open-minded anthropologist who, by doing fieldwork and trying to promote social change, eventually looks back at his homeland and into himself. He is portrayed sympathetically and as well equipped for the job precisely because of his failures and sufferance. Even his physical description is made to establish a connection, albeit feeble and improper, with the African population, when his hair, coarse and rust-colored, is called "nigger hair"4. As a Jew he shares a history of oppression; as a man he feels guilty for the loss of his wife and child; as an anthropologist he has experienced defeat in other parts of the world and has come back to the field after a period of academic work. He is aware of the ambiguity of his position: he is the head of a research project financed by the Center for Applied Social Research (CASR), an agency which is part of a business corporation (Unicor), whose wealth came from the exploitation of Third World countries and which invests on their development to save on government taxes5; he is expendable and will be expended with; his efforts to bring about change are within the old political structure of exploitation and neo-colonialism. Moreover, in spite of his professional experience and intellectual honesty, something in the most degraded part of the island keeps eluding him, although he seems to be getting closer to grasping it through his understanding of personal and social history.
The other anthropologist, Allen Fuso, is a statistician, who has written a doctoral dissertation on "The Quantitative Approaches to the Analysis of Social Anthropological Data". His scientific methodology is a necessary complement to the research and, on a personal level, allows him to maintain a certain degree of distance and objectivity. Also in his case, however, the experience on the island will bring about self revelations and repressed conflicts. He is described in these terms: "All the various strains that had gone into making him (and between his parents these included the whole of Europe from Ireland to Italy) might have been thrown into one of those high-speed American blenders, a giant Mixmaster perhaps, which reduces everything to the same amalgam beneath its whirring blades" (17). This whole-European version of the American melting pot has a disturbing quality, underlined by the mechanical metaphor and homogenizing result, and it serves as a counterpoint to the different type of hybridization of the Caribbean inhabitants.
Merle Kinbona, the Caribbean protagonist, is portrayed as a representative example of the local hybrid, branded by a history of colonization: she is the daughter of a white man of British descent and a black West Indian mother, spent her formative years in London, had an ambiguous exploitative relationship with a white woman, married and lost an African man before coming back to the island. Her physical description stresses the presence of different strains: Bantu face dusted over lightly with talcum powder, earrings carved in the form of European saints, colorful print dress with African tribal motifs. The narrator's comment is most significant: "She had donned this somewhat bizarre outfit, each item of which stood opposed to, at war even, with the other, to express rather a diversity and disunity within herself, and her attempt, unconscious probably, to reconcile these opposing parts, to make of them a whole" (5). Her multiple heritage produces painful fragmentation and lack of identity. At the end of the novel Merle will stop using talcum powder, discard her European earrings and start on her voyage to Africa: it is an open ending, but one that looks to Africa in search of an identity and a lost daughter.
Among the "visitors", the only true Wasp and representative of white colonial power is Saul's wife Harriet, a descendant of a family directly involved in the slave trade and business exploitation of the West Indies. Her controlling and manipulative personality, her refusal to look into herself and the past, her condescending attitude prevent her from establishing a real cultural dialogue and equal relationships. Her arrogance and capacity to destroy inevitably result in self-destructiveness and finally suicide6. From her very first glimpse of the island from the plane, her fearful encounter with the "heart of darkness"7 is suggested: "Because of the shadows Bournehills scarcely seemed a physical place to her, but some mysterious and obscured region of the mind which ordinary consciousness did not dare admit to light. Suddenly, for a single unnerving moment, she had the sensation of being borne backward in time rather than forward in space" (21). Saul's encounter with the island will later be depicted in similar terms - "Bournehills could have been a troubled region within himself to which he had unwittingly returned" (100) - but it will have entirely different consequences.
Time and space, the two elements stressed in the title, could be taken as the main coordinates for an in-depth analysis of the novel. I will concentrate here on the spatial coordinate, with inevitable references to the other, in an attempt to explicate "the chosen place", with its biblical echoes of "the chosen people" and ruined Eden. All of the characters, in fact, but especially those from the outside, have to confront themselves with the "chosen place", and by doing so they either deteriorate or find themselves. In this process, moreover, they reread the "repeating island". Instead of concentrating on the important psychological implications of this story, I will elaborate on this rereading.
The first encounter with the island is from the inside, when Merle is stuck in the mud with her car on her way to the airport: the road has been washed away by the heavy rain. The first overview of the island is from an airplane descending towards it. From above the map is clear: the approaching island is the most eastern in a string of islands in the Caribbean sea (as quoted above, stepping stones that bridge the Americas), but the mere geographical facts are overcharged with symbolic language. The whole passage is worth quoting because it establishes an important reading of the island:
The island that had finally claimed his attention was essentially no different from the others he had flown over since leaving Florida at dawn. From this height it was simply another indifferently shaped green knoll at the will of a mindless sea, one more in the line of stepping stones that might have been placed there long ago by some giant race to span the distance between the Americas, North and South. Like the others, it was small, poignantly so, and vulnerable, defenseless. At any moment the sea might rise and swallow it whole or a hurricane uproot it and send it flying. Like all the rest, it seemed expendable: for what could it be worth to the world, being so small? Unlike the others, though, which followed each other in an orderly procession down the watery track of the Caribbean, the island below had broken rank and stood off by itself to the right, almost out in the Atlantic. It might have been put there by the giants to mark the eastern boundary of the entire continent, to serve as its bourn. And ever mindful of the responsibility placed upon it in the beginning, it remained - alone amid an immensity of sea and sky, becalmed now that its turbulent history was past, facing east, the open sea, and across the sea, hidden beyond the horizon, the colossus of Africa (12-13).
The point of view is initially that of Vere, a native of the island who is returning home after a period of work in the United States, but the narrator's voice introduces unexpected images and mythical elements, inviting interpretation. First of all, the island is repeatedly connected to the other islands: "essentially no different from the others", "simply another indifferently shaped green knoll", "Like the others", "Like all the rest". The essential unity and similarity of the Caribbean is underlined: this and all the islands are small, vulnerable, defenseless, expendable; they are at the mercy of nature, the mindless sea that might swallow them, the frequent hurricanes that might uproot them. A rhetorical question denies their worth for the world, but their geographical location is charged with symbolism: while the Caribbean archipelago is seen as bridging the Americas, Bourne Island (Barbados) is seen as connecting to Africa, the colossus on the other side of the open sea, the place of origins.
As mentioned earlier, at the end of the novel Merle goes back to Africa. Her journey is symbolic in more than one way: she does not take the usual northern route through New York and London, but she flies "south to Trinidad, then on to Recife in Brazil, and from Recife, that city where the great arm of the hemisphere reaches out toward the massive shoulder of Africa as though yearning to be joined to it as it had surely been in the beginning, she would fly across to Dakar and, from there, begin the long cross-continent journey to Kampala" (471). This itinerary further signals the interconnectedness of the Caribbean, South America and Africa: geography counts, as does a history of slavery and colonialism. The return to Africa has psychological, political and cultural meanings which are only suggested in this novel and will be fully developed by Marshall in Praisesong for the Widow (1983). As Denniston has argued, "the chronology of Marshall's publications suggests her intentional design to reverse the 'middle passage'; that is she examines the experience of blacks not in transit from Africa to the New World but from the New World back toward Africa" (1983: xii).
The interconnectedness of the Third World, of all the areas depleted by colonialism and other forms of exploitation is underlined in other passages of the novel, most precisely when the anthropologist Saul looks down from the hills to Bournehills valley, a place which reminds him of all the other areas where he has worked before: the Peruvian Andes, the Highlands of Guatemala, Chile, Bolivia, Honduras, Southern Mexico, the cotton lands of the Southern United States, Chiapas. "It was suddenly, to his mind, every place that had been wantonly used, its substance stripped away, and then abandoned" (100).
From the very beginning and throughout the novel similarities and connections are established to make Bourne Island a paradigmatic place, with its peculiarities, the most striking being its sharp division into two unequal parts: the gentle plain to the west terminating in the placid Caribbean sea and the ragged eastern part towards the rough Atlantic ocean, which resembles "a ruined amphitheater whose other half has crumbled away and fallen into the sea" (14). The white sand beaches with fancy houses built by the wealthy expatriates and exclusive hotels for tourists, encroach on the inland plantations of sugar cane and the poorest areas. Harriet wonders how "an island as small as this could sustain such a dangerous division" (21), and this is precisely the point: the island as a microcosm represents the sharp contrasts and contradictions of the Caribbean, its divided landscape reflects a history of social and economic divisions that continues after emancipation. Moreover, there is a consistent relationship between physical place and psychological space: the fracturing of the island mirrors the personal fragmentation of the characters, Harriet herself, but also, in different ways, all the other characters8.
The three Americans go and stay at Merle's guest-house, a rambling, run-down, bleak house which fits its surroundings, being built on the Atlantic side of the island, where the sea is "the color of slate, deep, full of dangerous currents (...) and with a sound like that of the combined voices of the drowned raised in a loud unceasing lament" (106). The explicit reference, carried out with powerful resounding language, is to the millions of Africans who died in the Middle Passage and are angrily mourned by the hurling sea. It is only appropriate, as Spillers points out (1985: 155), that Harriet commits suicide in this rough sea, and that her body is never recovered, probably swept away by the huge breakers into the open sea where the Atlantic and the Caribbean converge off the island. One of the local women believes that she has been borne back to the United States, according to the African conviction that one's soul returns to its native homeland. It is at this time that the sea is undergoing its violent seasonal change or, as "Bournehills people said, was cleaning itself, and they stayed away from it" (414).
The sea, the precise topography of the island and its larger geographical setting operate at a metaphorical level, encompassing all of the Caribbean. At the center of the island is located the sugar factory with the big machine, "the machine of machines" to quote again Benìtez-Rojo, who adapts Deleuze and Guattari's concepts specifically to the Caribbean and to the plantation system, with its connections to slavery, underdevelopment, capitalism, imperialism, repression, and wars. As he points out, "Europeans finally controlled the construction, maintenance, technology, and proliferation of the plantation machines, especially those that produced sugar" (Benìtez-Rojo: 1992, 9). The history of this Caribbean machine has been written, but Marshall studied her subject thoroughly and managed to rewrite it in her fictional text, interweaving it in the intricate plot and in the web of metaphorical language. Saul's first encounter with the sugar machine is an illuminating example:
There was the noise, for one - the loud unrelieved drumming and pounding of the machines that powered the rollers which crushed the juice from the canes, and the shrill, almost human wail of the rollers themselves as they turned in their deep pit. There was the heat, for another, which came pouring up through the metal floor from the furnaces below to join the heat and steam flaring off the large open vats and boilers in which the cane juice was boiled till it turned to sugar. And the light in the place was dim and murky as in the hold of a ship, the color of molasses bubbling away in the boilers. Moreover, because of the dimness and the cane chaff which came flying up from the roller pit to whirl like a sandstorm through the air, the men working there appeared almost disembodied forms: ghosts they might have been from some long sea voyage taken centuries ago (154).
This hellish description draws parallels between the factory and a slave ship, between present-day workers and the original Africans being carried as slaves to the Caribbean. Not much has changed from the times of enslavement to the times of colonialism and post-colonialism: exploitation and dehumanization continue, the white man is still in power, controlling the means of production. If the black workers look like ghosts from the middle passage, the white supervisor, with his total power and ridiculous colonial outfit, calls to mind "some ghost who refused to keep to his grave even during the daytime" (161). Slavery and colonization cannot be completely eliminated, "once a great wrong has been done, it never dies". When the machine breaks down, the factory will shut down, leaving the workers and the small local farmers in trouble with their canes to be ground. Merle will indict "the machine", technology, and Saul, who cannot fix it9. He will eventually organize the farmers to carry their canes to a different sugar mill, in a successful if limited attempt to develop a community spirit.
The persistence of the past in the present introduces the other polarity of the novel, the notion of time and history. While space coordinates are visible and, in a sense, more easily readable, time coordinates depend more on cultural and interior perception and conceptualization, not necessarily in tune with natural cycles. Part of the mystery of Bourne Island that eludes the anthropologist is related to the concept of time, the traditional African view of it that permeates life on the island: a cyclic continuum rather than a linear extension. As Denniston explains, founding her analysis on various studies of African religions and philosophy, it is a synchronic view of time, which "might suggest the abolition of history as Westerners ordinarily understand it, but it does not negate a sense of history. The orientation is simply different. Time from an African perspective must be experienced in order for it to become reality, and experience suggests the past and the present" (1983: xviii). Oral tradition, the recovery of Caribbean history and its re-enactment at Carnival are central issues in the novel, and, in fact, a constant preoccupation in West Indian literature10.
Merle, who in many ways embodies the history of the island, was fired from a teaching job for telling the story of the Cuffee Ned slave revolt, the same story which is re-enacted every year in the Carnival pageant and offers an example of rebellion and resistance. The episode, which has many precedents in the Caribbean area11, enables the community to find a cultural hero that helps them come to terms with the past and might serve as an example for the future. As Merle explains, "We don't forget anything, and yesterday comes like today to us" (102).
The best intersection of space and time can perhaps be found in Merle's room, which encapsulates her personal fragmentation as well as the island's history of slavery, plantation, multiple heritage. When Saul enters, he finally feels close to understanding not only Merle, but Bournehills itself:
Like the room it, too, was perhaps a kind of museum, a place in which had been stored the relics and remains of the era recorded in the faded prints on the walls, where one not only felt that other time existing intact, still alive, a palpable presence beneath the everyday reality, but saw it as well at every turn, often without realizing it. Bournehills, its shabby woebegone hills and spent land, its odd people who at times seemed other than themselves, might have been selected as the repository of the history which reached beyond it to include the hemisphere north and south (402).
At the conclusion of the novel Merle will dismantle her room, sell the old colonial furniture and start her problematic journey of reconciliation to Africa. She is a woman in quest for wholeness, as most of Marshall's characters: hybridization is still a painful story in her fiction. Perhaps the island, too, will "someday be released from the stifling grip of its history" (Pettis: 1995, 104), but no improvement project has been implemented, and the anthropological team is temporarily leaving. However, Paule Marshall's attempt at reconciliation and reconnection is inscribed in this novel as in all of her work, promoting cross-cultural encounters and readings, projecting her vision on the extended Caribbean and the wider experience of postcolonial writing. This complex and over-layered novel dramatizes many issues central to the Caribbean: the consequences of slavery and British colonialism; the effects of what is perceived as American neo-colonialism; past and present history of struggle and resistance; class, gender and racial relations; cultural identity and the search for African roots; music and dance rituals culminating in Carnival celebrations. Moreover, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, with its Caribbean setting and the problematic interaction of American and Caribbean characters, is a significant contribution to the multicultural dimension of the literature of the United States in a period of enormous changes like the 1960's, anticipating important theoretical and narrative developments.

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