We’re kicking off the New Year early here at LUP and bringing some 2016 light to ‘Migrations and Identities’, a series which began in 2012 and now boasts 6 titles.
A core theme of the series is the variety of relationships between movement in space – the ‘migration’ of people, communities, ideas and objects – and mentalities (‘identities’ in the broadest sense). It aims to address a broad scholarly audience, with critical and informed interventions into wider debates in contemporary culture as well as in the relevant disciplines.
One of the titles in this series is Shuttles in the Rocking Loom: Mapping the Black Diaspora in African American and Caribbean Fiction by Jennifer Terry. This book explores the symbolic geographies found within modern black fiction and identifies a significant set of relations between these geographies and communal affiliations, identity politics, and understandings of a diasporic past. To find out more about her research, we asked her some questions…
What prompted you to write this book?
For a long time I had been interested in how literature arising out of the experiences and communities of the black diaspora did all kinds of work via its landscapes and geographies, its journeys and forms of dwelling. My background in African American studies meant that literature from the US was my starting point but very early on in the planning the necessity became clear of addressing this concern in the broader range of writing by black diasporan authors from the Caribbean and Europe as well as North America. I wanted to explore how the symbolic geographies contained in fiction related to, and articulated, understandings of the history of slavery and the black diaspora, and varying identity politics and senses of affiliation. I was also interested in how these examples of narrative perform a kind of mapping, not just in describing setting but more formally through narrative passages, jumps, culminations and connections.
What is the main argument of the book?
I’ve probably just started to answer that in response to the first question! I argue for the significance of spatialised politics in addressing a diaspora usually defined as a spatial dispersion initiated by the slave trade. That is, more particularly, my book poses that cultural responses in the form of fiction make meaning through their geographies and the sites and trajectories that they map out. This premise allows me to explore, for example, the shaping of counter geographies to colonial maps, and the wider issues and positions opened up through representation of place, displacement and belonging. And, while remaining alert to specificities, to trace transnational convergences in terms of diasporic geographical visions. All of this allows a new perspective on a powerful black diaspora imagination, its politics and structures of feeling and articulation.
How does the work of Édouard Glissant and Paul Gilroy in particular change our understanding the black diasporic experience?
Both have been very influential in the study of black diasporic culture and both offer insights into how that culture arises from historic experience as well as from creative responses and current conditions. Gilroy’s notion of the ‘black Atlantic’ has been a big contributor to a transnational turn in scholarship, while Glissant brings the French Caribbean into focus at the same time as situating it within the Americas as a whole. For me, they provide frameworks helpful in terms of thinking across national borders/cultures and for their spatial aspects. In theorising circulation, exchange and dialogue between different locations in the Atlantic world, Gilroy offers up the suggestive, spatial zone of the ocean as a means of conceptualising the mobile interaction he seeks to examine. Glissant, like Gilroy, views racial slavery as the starting point for a kind of modernity and charts the landscapes of the Caribbean as embodying this conflicted history. By drawing on the writing of both, Glissant’s work in French and attentiveness to colonial structures assists me in addressing some of the elisions of Gilroy’s Anglophone, maritime formation.
How does your approach differ from other research in this area?
One thing that marks it out is sustained attention to a range of black diasporan writers from both the US and the Caribbean, with the ‘Caribbean’ in my book title also encompassing my black British material. I look at fiction by twenty-six authors in total. Part of this breadth comes with the inclusion of Francophone fiction in a field where Anglophone literature has been the far more frequent object of study, or criticism has tended to atomise along language lines. (One of the reasons why my book might be seen as a good fit for the LUP series is the insistence on the plural in ‘Migrations and Identities’.)
My research also offers a new approach in its emphasis on spatial and geographical aspects, and its identification of a form of ‘mapping’ in narrative terms. Bringing together the material that it does, and arguing for convergences of cultural memory, it extends beyond existing briefer examinations of place and space in African American or Caribbean writing. I hope it furthers understanding of a black diasporic imagination in which spatial politics and visions play a significant part.
You reference both Anglophone and Francophone novels in your book. Did you find any differing approaches between the two languages?
In terms of my main arguments in Shuttles in the Rocking Loom, the short answer is no, aside from linguistic differences. But I will also give a longer answer! Given the many different contexts within the diaspora that my material arises out of, I organised my readings and chapters to recognise this. Thus Chapter One focuses only on US African American fiction (in English) and its geographies, while Chapter Two looks at geographical engagement in Caribbean novels. Chapter Two brings together Anglophone and Francophone writing, tracing common concerns, for example relating to landscape and the organisation of crop production and labour in the Caribbean. My third and fourth chapters both explore symbolic geographies that operate powerfully throughout the black diaspora (of sea crossings and contested city spaces respectively), identifying the mapping of different positions but within a shared spatial vision or mode of expression. Thinking back to your question, differences are important but the differences between Anglophone and Francophone novels were no more telling than the differences between the various French Caribbean fictions that I looked at. Indeed, one of the claims of my approach is that by examining black diaspora literatures together we can chart shared awarenesses and patterns as well as variations, and in the process add to understanding of this body of work.
You can find out more about Dr Terry’s book and others in the series on the Migrations and Identities page.