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06 Jan

Religion as a Literary Device in Caribbean Literature

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It is a widely accepted belief that religion serves as one of the defining principles of a culture. Whether it is the forefront of that culture, or simply a secondary characteristic, religion has and will always play a vital role in the development of any cultural history. This idea is perfectly exemplified in the cultures of individual islands in the Caribbean we studies this semester. With unique religions including, but not limited to, Santería, Voudoo, and Hoodoo, there is no doubt that the founding of these religions was at least in part responsible for the creation of a necessary sense of identity. Religion allows the people of a certain place to identify themselves not only on an individual level, but also as a community.

Identifying yourself based on your religion allows for a deeper sense of community that is not restricted to time or place. It does not matter if you were born in the place you live, or if your parents practiced the same religion. Since religious beliefs are based less on class, color, or gender, they allow people to identify based on their common spiritual and emotional traits, rather than compound their differences. 

This need for a greater sense of community is a common idea when regarding the Caribbean and, by nature, its diasporic cultures. The history of the Caribbean islands and their direct involvement with the Americas, European powers, and Africa resulted in large groups of people being entirely displaced without a sense of home, family, or identity. It is the absence of these arguably necessary qualities that has inspired cultural and artistic expressions, originating in the Caribbean and focused on the experiences and feelings of diaspora. 

Religion is quite obviously the focus of my coming argument in its relationship with the literature we discussed in the Caribbean Diaspora class. Authors of the Caribbean Diaspora often use religion as a pointed statement on the authenticity of their work. For example,  in Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Children of the Sea” in Krik? Krak! two lovers write unrequited correspondences after their separation. The unnamed male protagonist uses the name of a voudoo god or ‘Loa’ in his journal entry. “My two gourdes in change had to be thrown overboard as an offering to Agwé, the spirit of the water” (Danticat 20). Though it may seem obvious, Danticat chose this water spirit over the other countless deities associated with the ocean. She did not choose Poseidon or Neptune, but Agwé. She does not delve into an explanation of Voudoo loa or Agwé’s role in Voudoo culture, but simply uses the name. It can be inferred that she is suggesting something about Haiti – its people’s spiritual closeness to the sea - with this one small detail. Danticat is using a Haitian figure that most American readers have likely not seen before. We simply glaze over it, content with the brief description of “…the spirit of the water”(Danticat 20). This pointed use of a specific religious deity can be compared to linguistic devices used by authors such as Junot Díaz. Diaz’s collection of short stories Drown features the author’s intermittent use of hispanicisms . This is not intended to confuse or distance a reader from the text, but simply used to contextually define the piece as authentic to the Dominican Republic, and yet also creating bridges toward readers from different cultures and nationalities. 

A more involved example can be found in Cristina García’s novel Dreaming in Cuban, which follows the lives of a Cuban family during the government of Fidel Castro. One of Celia’s (the matriarch of the family addressed) daughters, Felicia, finds solace through her devotion to Santeria. Santeria is a religion entirely based in Cuba and incorporating African gods under the guise of Catholic saints, as a vast generalization. The religion, therefore, epitomizes the idea of lacking a sense of identity, in that in order to worship their gods, slaves of sugar plantations had to make it more suitable to a Catholic power. In the novel, Felicia, like her siblings, falls into an extremely detrimental identity crisis brought on by splits in her family and an abysmal lack of a sense of self. Through spells of borderline insanity, Felicia turns to the world of Santería, originally introduced to her by a childhood friend. It becomes her defining trait as a character. She becomes so involved in the religion she ascends to the honor of Santera, or priestess of Santería. Garcia uses this trait not only to contextualize her work as Cuban and Caribbean, but also to explore the idea of lacking a sense of self, an experience that can be understood crossculturally. 

Felicia feels that she has no one to turn to, abandoned by men and her own family, and adopts Santería as a way of life. Because the community she adopts is based on religion, she does not need to concern herself with other cultural aspects. The people in her religious family do not care about the color of her skin, her placement in the social class structure, or the origin of her biological family. 

To bring this idea of a religious community, or family as a unifying force out of the books and into our tangible world, I asked a friend and colleague of mine about not only her family, but also her religious practices. Ashley, a young, first-generation American of equal parts Cuban and Haitian descent is a practicing Seventh Day Adventist. Her mother adopted the religion while living ‘back home’ in Haiti. She brought her religion with her when she traveled to the United States following her husband who had been working there for some time. Ashley was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist and states that the majority of her childhood friends were from church, rather than school. She also brought up the fact that almost 100% of her church is of Haitian descent. That is not to say that her mother traveled here with an entire congregation in tow, but rather settled in a community of likeminded fellow Haitians. Ashley describes her church as a type of “extended family”. People in church have known her since she was a small girl and expect her to “become a nurse” like any good Haitian-American girl, despite the fact that she is currently studying journalism at Emerson College in Boston. Her use of the term “family” when talking about her church made me realize that to a person of the Caribbean Diaspora living in America, a religious community can be one of the most simple, and easily found families. Like Felicia, Ashley’s mother was able, through religion, to forge a sense of belonging for herself, and her family.

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Caribbean Writers Abroad

The following articles and artwork constitute the final projects of the students in the Caribbean Writers Abroad – or Literary Crossroads in the Caribbean, which I taught in the Spring 2013 at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
The students have taken my class as an elective, some of them intrigued by its title but not really familiar with any of the literature and art with which I then presented them.  However, I think that the challenge they faced is not dissimilar from anyone’s first response to the   cultures of this region and its diasporas
The literature, music, art and other creative forms that have come to us from the Caribbean hold power on us readers and audience because they offer us a variety of ways by which we can live in the world, while at the same time they remain in that fascinating space of partial foreignness, not entirely readable and translatable. Thus, these cultures speak to us even though – or perhaps because – they do not speak directly about us. Which I believe open up to interesting dialogues,  especially when the readers are  located in the supposedly privileged North which often gives value to different cultures by virtue of their ‘exoticism’ or if they resonate with the viewer/ reader. 
My feeling is that the literatures from the Caribbean are among those that hold our attention and foster our imagination precisely because they represent a challenge to the above patterns. These texts are interesting to my students and myself   because they grate against our comfortable and familiar expectations of what is aesthetically comfortable and conventionally likeable. They grate against our common sense and sense of beauty, they unsettle our truths, in short, they make us think.
They also make us think across the disciplines of academia –and beyond.  Many of the writers discussed in the articles that follow cross-over from one literary genre to another – they merge narrative voices and languages, they also hop from history to politics, from visual art and music in ways that are often painfully conscious of the transitions.  
Artists are extremely sensitive to any cross-over attempts; they value them as exciting creative expressions, even though they also suggest a   less romantic view of the arts and of creativity in general.  These texts are evidence that writing literature does not just happen in a vacuum – in fact being a writer is itself not just an innate talent, but the result of sheer will power and dedication, combined with further gratings of one’s  voice against material and geographical limitations – poverty, migration, displacement, lack of a reference community .   
My hope at the beginning of this class was that the limitations that many Caribbean writers face in the region and abroad would not become the sole justification for my students’ interest for them. I was pleased to see my hope becoming   throughout the semester an exhilarating reality –  the artists you will read next have been open to the contradictions, the joys and the pain expressed in the texts they read,  and have discussed them always in honest and  inspiring ways.
I thank all my students, and Frederic for making their contribution once again possible on Latineos.com
Marika Preziuso

Did you know

The aim of artists from the modernist movement in Latin America in the 1920s was to search for a national identity that could be represented through the arts.