Identifying a Chinese Caribbean Literature

Pitfalls and Possibilities

• February 2014

Some years ago, when I was challenged by my doctoral supervisor to “do something on the Chinese in the Caribbean,”1 my first thought was that I would explore literary work by Chinese Caribbean people—“Chinese Caribbean literature”a field of literary texts that I assumed must exist. My background was, after all, postcolonial literary study, and I thought that it would be intriguing to explore how questions of representation, language, and the body as signifier might manifest themselves in work written by Chinese Caribbean people. I also assumed that a concern with “Chineseness” as a cultural identity in the Caribbean would be articulated in these works and was eager to explore how Caribbean constructions of Chineseness might complicate my understanding of postcolonial theories and literature. But I immediately ran into a problem: very few Chinese Caribbean people (or individuals that I could easily racialize as Chinese by name or physical features) appeared to have been published. In fiction, the area I am most interested in, the field basically consisted of Easton Lee (Jamaica), Willi Chen (Trinidad), and Janice Lowe Shinebourne (originally from Guyana). My problem was further complicated by the fact that authors such as Shinebourne and Chen seemed to have very little interest in engaging with questions of Chineseness in their work. I wanted to explore a so-called Chinese Caribbean literature, but the existence of such a field seemed ephemeral at best.

Except for the publication of Kerry Young’s novel Pao in 2011, very little has changed since I struggled to define a literary research question for myself around the Chinese in the Caribbean.2 And so, to be posed the question “What does it mean to identify a Chinese Caribbean literature?” brings me once again to face two questions that I wrestled with during my doctoral studies: Is there such a thing as Chinese Caribbean literature? What would make such literature identifiably “Chinese Caribbean”?

Of course, the two questions are intrinsically intertwined; to ask if there is such a thing as Chinese Caribbean literature is to ask what criteria should be used to identify certain writing as Chinese Caribbean. Should we start by finding authors who “look Chinese” or have Chinese names? To me, such an approach would prove to be a particularly problematic basis for establishing such a field, since the Caribbean is a region in which interracial and intercultural mixing has long been a societal feature. When would an author be considered Chinese Caribbean? Would her or his fiction have to display cultural qualities associated with Chinese ethnic heritage, like the use of a Chinese language within the text, to be considered Chinese Caribbean? How many of these cultural details would need to be included before the work could be deemed Chinese Caribbean? Would the author need to be accepted by other Chinese Caribbean people as Chinese Caribbean to claim this identity, or might the author and his or her publisher simply label the work as such in their marketing endeavors? Would both parents of the author have to have been from China? Would only one parent or grandparent need to be Chinese? What if we discovered that a well-established Caribbean author had some Chinese ancestry—would that author suddenly be designated a Chinese Caribbean author? To draw on the history of American slavery, how many drops of Chinese blood would an author need to have to be considered an authentically Chinese Caribbean author? Of course, I use the term authentically self-consciously as a way of linking such questions to the debates surrounding issues of cultural appropriation, ethnic authenticity, and legitimacy in postcolonial studies in the late 1980s that led many theorists to argue that “the idea of accurately or finally distinguishing authentic from inauthentic discourse [is] impossible”3 and reductive. To define the academic borders of a field called Chinese Caribbean literature around racial and ethnocultural categories that are themselves built around the concept of “authentic Chinese Caribbeans” would only reveal the inherent gaps and ambiguities in the very boundaries such an approach attempted to set. If we reject this approach, what other criteria might possibly serve to delineate a Chinese Caribbean literature?

To distinguish between Caribbean literature and Chinese Caribbean literature is to focus on difference. As such, Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s now classic definition of a “minor literature” may provide a starting point from which to determine the difference that would set Chinese Caribbean literature apart from its Caribbean counterpart.4 Deleuze and Guattari define minor literature partially on the grounds that the author is a member of a minority ethnic community and that his or her writing is political in nature. In the latter case, Deleuze and Guattari are not arguing that authors of minor literatures only produce texts that are overtly engaged in political claims or statements; rather, they posit that the unique perspective of being a member of a minority group renders their work innately political regardless of whether the questions they want to explore, particularly in terms of questions of identity, are, in the most general sense, the same as authors of majority literatures. The result of such an argument is that an awareness and politicizing of difference becomes the underlying feature distinguishing minor literature from literature of the majority. The development of Asian American literature as a recognized academic literary field provides a fitting example of a literary category defined in terms of such difference.

It has long been argued that the demand for recognition of Asian American literature as an academic field emerged from the political activism of 1960s Asian Americans, particularly those in the college and university-age group.5 The literature defined as “Asian American” was intrinsically connected to the radical identity politics of the period. Canonical authors in the field, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin, were closely associated with literature that explicitly contested national narratives that marginalized or misrepresented their ethnic communities, challenged the racist sociopolitical structures of American nationhood, and, in general, contemplated what it meant to be defined as Asian in the United States. Thus, Asian American literature has been defined as a distinct field in terms of its difference from, and challenge to, mainstream American concerns and perspectives brought about by the unique historical experiences of Asians in the United States. Asian American literature is, by such a definition, “ethnic literature,” where ethnicity is understood to be “a conflict term . . . a dialectical, dramatistic or antagonistic term, requiring as agents a ‘we’ and ‘they’ . . . [and] a duality in identity which is based on a doubling of social relations,” and an ethnic writer is defined as one who straddles two realms as evidenced in her or his “double consciousness,” “shifting loyalties,” and “ironic vision.”6

I briefly historicize the experience of Asian American literature as an emerging literary field primarily to draw attention to its roots in political activism and to note the lack of a similar politicized movement in the Caribbean that would, at this time, allow us to define a literature as Chinese Caribbean based on an articulation of difference—to emphasize, in other words, the difference of Chinese Caribbean writing within the scope of academically recognized difference in defining an ethnic literature. In general, Chinese Caribbean communities have never radically asserted themselves as a distinct community in the Caribbean in terms of a politics of difference. This is not to say that a sense of Chineseness has not existed in the Caribbean. Certainly the long history of Chinese Caribbean newspapers, schools, clubs, and associations articulate an understanding of Chineseness as a separate identity within the Caribbean. But such ethnocultural identification has tended to be somewhat muted on the political stage, especially in comparison to assertions of Afro- or Indo-Caribbean identities.

I suspect that the failure to assert this type of politicized Chinese identification is the result of a confluence of factors in Chinese Caribbean experience. First, authors who generally become ensconced in the literary canons of ethnic literatures, at least ethnic literatures associated with migrant communities, usually emerge from the educated first and second generations of that community, namely, those who have both the linguistic dexterity and the confidence to write in the language of the majority and who have the luxury of time to write. For the Chinese Caribbean community, this generation would have come of age during a time of heightened nationalist politics in the region as Caribbean colonies moved steadily towards independence. During this period, Caribbean national identities were carefully articulated within a pluralistic framework. Ethnic difference was officially recognized and validated by national discourses. But while Caribbean national discourses initially acknowledged ethnic difference, they ultimately tended to flatten out that difference, as is evident, for example, in Jamaica’s motto, “Out of many, one people,” or Eric Williams’s memorable assertion that Trinidadians should only recognize one mother: Mother Trinidad.7 To identify oneself in terms of difference—as Chinese or Chinese Caribbean rather than as simply Caribbean—may have had, therefore, little appeal on either a political or social level for Chinese Caribbean people of that era.

I have argued elsewhere that the suppression of ethnic difference in Caribbean narratives of nation is part of the grounding of Caribbean nationalism and national identity in a narrative of anticolonial oppression that emerges from the history of slavery.8 Caribbean identity has been linked to a struggle against exploitation that began on the plantation; however, unlike Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadians, for example, the Chinese in the Caribbean do not have very deep roots in plantation experience. Instead of plantation labor, Chinese Caribbean people have been closely associated with the retail trade sector, a socioeconomic position that has a long history of being depicted as distanced from other Caribbean people in terms of common interests or experiences. In fiction, for example, in the writing of early Caribbean authors such as Alfred Mendes, Chinese shopkeepers are often represented as a type of financial bloodsucker, preying off other Caribbean people. In such representations, marking out the ethnoracial difference of the Chinese played an important role in identifying Chineseness as other to Caribbeanness. Thus, many Chinese Caribbeans might have felt that to draw attention to their Chineseness during the mid-twentieth century was to be identified as “other than Caribbean,” at best, and as an economic parasite and unwanted outsider, at worst.

Another important factor that possibly contributed to the lack of development of a politicized Chinese identity around which to build a Caribbean Chinese literary canon might include the fact that first- and second-generation Chinese Caribbeans were part of a general out-migration of middle-class Caribbean people to places such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the mid- to late twentieth century. As Chinese Caribbean people abroad, their focus may have been less on asserting a Chineseness that was distinct from other Caribbean people than on asserting commonality with other Caribbean migrants and maintaining nostalgic links to their homeland. Additionally, their sense of being Caribbean as opposed to being either Chinese Caribbean or Chinese may have been amplified by encounters with Chinese people from other locations in the world. Such encounters could very well have enhanced their sense of being culturally Caribbean and convinced them that a shared phenotypical and even distantly historical background was not necessarily a basis for a shared sense of cultural identity. Furthermore, the rise of Communist China, a country very different from that which their parents and grandparents had known, may have also increased their sense of alienation from a Chinese identity and thrust them back on the Caribbean as the site in which their sense of self was grounded.

Although we may not be able to specify with absolute certainty the reasons for the Chinese Caribbean community’s seeming failure to develop and articulate a politicized Chinese Caribbean identity based on difference from other Caribbean people during the twentieth century, we can certainly note its lack in the literature by Caribbean authors of Chinese descent. Willi Chen, for example, has explicitly stated that he is more interested in capturing the lives of Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians in his work than those of the Chinese on the island.9 Until recently, with the publication of short stories such as “The Berbice Marriage Match” and “London and New York,” and the novel, Chinese Women, Janice Lowe Shinebourne’s work has been identified with rural, Indo-Guyanese spaces.10 Easton Lee’s work is, however, somewhat different. His poetry and short story collections often celebrate his Chinese, or, more specifically, Hakka, heritage and provide glimpses behind the shop counter into the lives of the Chinese shopkeepers in rural Jamaica.11 Nevertheless, Lee’s major interest is in depicting the richness of rural, Jamaican life. The Chinese characters whom Lee creates are as much a part of their Jamaican community as any other of his non-Chinese characters and their Chineseness becomes a marker of the sociocultural complexity of the community. Kerry Young’s novel Pao is perhaps more typical of what academics look for in terms of identifying literature that could be claimed as part of a Chinese Caribbean literary canon. Its main character is identifiably Chinese, the Chinese community on the island is highlighted, and the novel explores aspect of Chinese history in Jamaica while raising questions regarding how Chineseness is negotiated as a lived identity in the island. In short, it is a novel that revels in its distinct Chinese Caribbeanness. Also important, despite the fact that Young has lived in the United Kingdom for a number of years, she can be identified as phenotypically Chinese. In this way, Pao seems to typify the key factors of a text that would be identified as ethnic literature, or, in this case, as Chinese Caribbean literature; but a standalone text hardly denotes the existence of an entire field of literature.12

If identifying Chinese Caribbean literature means locating a body of work that fits into typical academic criteria for categorizing ethnic literature, then there is currently a striking lack of texts around which such a field called Chinese Caribbean literature could be built. Nevertheless, the exercise of attempting to identify a Chinese Caribbean literature at this time is not futile. Instead, it gives us the important opportunity to think deeply and critically about the processes involved in categorizing literary fields. For example, to ask, “What does it mean to identify a Chinese Caribbean literature?,” gives us a starting point to think about who, and under what conditions, an author is permitted to write under the label Chinese Caribbean. It brings to the forefront what is often made invisible in the process of designating literary categories, namely, the fact that such categories are not self-evident or natural divisions but are acts of agency on the part of those in power to make such classifications. We are also led to confront questions pertaining to who benefits from naming a Chinese Caribbean literature. Certainly, there might be some very tangible advantages in being able to label a text as Chinese Caribbean literature. Fiction written in English by members of the Chinese diaspora has proven to be quite marketable, and authors who could be sold as Chinese Caribbean might find new markets opened up to them under this label. University English departments and academics with an interest in Chinese experiences in the Caribbean, a group in which I am implicated, would also benefit from being able to offer courses, write critically about, and research in a field named Chinese Caribbean literature. But does naming a Chinese Caribbean literature as distinct from Caribbean literature lead us farther into territory that has been described as a “cosmopolitan alterity industry”—an industry “invested on a large scale in the commodification of cultural difference”—and, in so doing, also reaffirm the power structures that it ostensibly seeks to dismantle?13 Is it possible for either critics or authors to escape this industry? Is there a possibility and responsibility for critics to demystify this so-called alterity industry while working within it?

Another concern is that naming Chinese Caribbean literature would open the door to furthering American intellectual imperialism. A field of Chinese Caribbean literature suggests exciting possibilities of comparative work exploring the writing of members of the Chinese diaspora in the Caribbean and elsewhere. At the same time, however, as revealed in my attempt to suggest the importance of recognizing the different history of the Chinese of the United States and the Chinese of the Caribbean in the brief discussion of the nonemergence of politicized Chinese Caribbean identities above, there is a danger that important differences might be marginalized and suppressed in the attempt to facilitate such discussions. Additionally, such work might have the tendency to privilege the United States “as primary interlocutor,” thus extending “US-based research paradigms to the hemispheric level.”14 Would Chinese Caribbean literature be expected to conform to already established American paradigms of ethnic and Asian literatures? Or would a problematically defined Chinese Caribbean literature provide an important challenge to such paradigms?

Finally, asking what it means to identify a Chinese Caribbean literature brings into view the continuing investment intellectual institutions have in maintaining ideas of race and of racial binaries. There is actually a considerable body of Caribbean texts that provide space within which to thoughtfully consider Chinese experiences and questions of Chineseness in the Caribbean—short stories such as Michael Anthony’s “Many Things” and V. S. Naipual’s “The Baker’s Story,” and novels such as Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda and Elizabeth Nunez’s Bruised Hibiscus.15 These texts are not, however, written by individuals racialized as Chinese Caribbean. What if, in the process of rethinking the category of Chinese Caribbean literature, we ignored the “race” of the author and dared to think of including their work under this label? Such an inclusive categorization would not only help us to resist or question established institutional literary categories; it would also force us to rethink static, homogenizing, and reductive categories of racial and cultural identification. Perhaps such a choice would help to move us closer to cultural identification in terms of “unstable points of identification” as practice and not just theory.16

Ultimately, for me, the value in asking what it means to identify Chinese Caribbean literature is not to come up with a comprehensive reading list that we might comfortably include on a course on Chinese Caribbean literature or to set absolute terms for the boundaries of such a literary field. Rather, the value of the question lies in its disruptive nature, the possibilities that it unleashes to allow us to revise, displace, and seize “the apparatus of value-coding” inherent in naming a literary field.17 The act of looking for Chinese Caribbean literature—and the difficulties in identifying such a literature—unsettles the binary terms in which ethnic literatures have traditionally been cast and challenges the literary limits often imposed on authors who are exoticized by both phenotype and ideas of race. It reminds us that our role as responsible critics and researcher must encompass a willingness “to interrogate and strategise one’s own position within the institutional parameters” of a literary field—even one that may be deemed to be only emerging.18 It is in this constant questioning that, for me, meaning is found in the attempt to identify a Chinese Caribbean literature.

 

Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Dr. Hyacinth Simpson for conversations that helped me to clarify my thoughts on this topic.

 

Anne-Marie Lee-Loy is an associate professor in the English Department at Ryerson University. She researchers and publishes on Chinese experiences in the Anglo-Caribbean. Her monograph Searching for Mr. Chin was awarded the 2011 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Book Prize.

 


1 By Caribbean I am referring to the Anglo-Caribbean, with a particular emphasis on Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana.

2 Kerry Young, Pao (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2011).

3 Margery Fee, “Who Can Write as Other?,” in Bill Ashcroft et al., eds., The Postcolonial Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1995), 245.

4 Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “What Is a Minor Literature?,” trans. Robert Brinkley, Mississippi Review 11, no. 3 (1983): 13–33.

5 A concise overview of the development of Asian American literary studies can be found in Donald Goellnicht, “A Long Labour: The Protracted Birth of Asian Canadian Literature,” Essays on Canadian Writing 72 (Winter 2000): 1–41.

6 Berndt Ostendorf, “Literary Acculturation: What Makes Ethnic Literature ‘Ethnic,’” Callaloo 8, no. 3 (1985): 579.

7 Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (Port of Spain: PNM, 1962), 279.

8 Anne-Marie Lee-Loy, Searching for Mr. Chin: Constructions of Nation and the Chinese in West Indian Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).

9 E-mail from Willi Chen to Anne-Marie Lee-Loy, 3 August 2002.

10 Janice Lowe Shinebourne, “The Berbice Marriage Match” and “London and New York,” in The Godmother and Other Stories (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2004), 103–12 and 95–101; Shinebourne, Chinese Women (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2010). At the time of this writing, Shinebourne’s newest novel, The Last Ship, is in production phase. This novel focuses on a Chinese family who migrated to Guyana in the late nineteenth century.

11 See Easton Lee, From Behind the Counter: Poems from a Rural Jamaican Experience (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998); Lee, Heritage Call: Ballad for the Children of the Dragon (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001); and Lee, Run Big ’Fraid . . . and Other Village Stories (Kingston: BalaPress, 2008).

12 Ostendorf argues for four key factors—language, authors, readers, and forms and genres—as identifying ethnic literature. Ostendorf, “Literary Acculturation,” 580.

13 Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London: Routledge, 2001), 12.

14 Erika Lee, “Orientalisms in the Americas: A Hemispheric Approach to Asian American History,” Journal of Asian American Studies 8, no. 3 (2005): 250.

15 Michael Anthony, “Many Things,” in Cricket in the Road (Oxford: Heinemann, 1973), 66–71; V. S. Naipaul, “The Baker’s Story,” in E. A. Markham, ed., The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories (London: Penguin, 1996), 165–75; Patricia Powell, The Pagoda (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1998); Elizabeth Nunez, Bruised Hibiscus (New York: One World/Balantine, 2003).

16 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds., Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), 394.

17 Gayatri Spivak, “Post-structuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality, and Value,” in Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan, eds., Literary Theory Today (New York: Cornell University Press, 1990), 228.

18 Huggan, Postcolonial Exotic, 9.

 

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