“Pushing the Boundaries”

May 2013

A Conversation with Elaine Savory    

 Professor Elaine Savory is one of the two editors of Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature (1990), a landmark anthology in Caribbean feminist letters. One unique aspect of this anthology is the preface, “Talking It Over: Women, Writing, and Feminism,” which Savory and her coeditor, Carole Boyce Davies, structured as a conversation that reflects the text’s creative and critical representations of an emergent Caribbean feminism’s diverse concerns. Savory has contributed extensively to scholarly archives on Kamau Brathwaite and Jean Rhys. Other areas of specialty include African and Caribbean drama and theater, gender, and issues of transnationalism; her experiences as a resident of England, Africa, and the Caribbean enrich the latter in particular. Her published poetry includes flame tree time (1990) and “miranda: the first voicing” (Caribbean Writer, 2010), in which Miranda discards her “guarded & fortressed name” to confront the “prison” of her heritage as Prospero’s daughter. Recent publications include “Brathwaite: Grounded in the Past, Revisioning the Present,” which appears in The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (2011); “Walcott: Toward a Caribbean Ecopoetics” (2011); and “Postcolonialism and Caribbean Literature,” which appears in The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature (2012). Savory presently teaches Caribbean and English literature and poetry and creative writing at The New School in New York. Her forthcoming book, The Quarrel with Death: Anglophone Poetry in the Shadow of Empire, examines the elegiac poetry of American, English, and Caribbean writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Geoffrey Hill, and Kamau Brathwaite. It was an honor to speak with Professor Savory at the The New School campus in September of 2012. 


Sheryl Gifford: You’ve written extensively on Jean Rhys’s works. How did you become interested in her writing?

Elaine Savory: I wasn’t particularly interested in Rhys at first. I was interested in writers of African descent because that was the field I was most involved in. I had read Rhys, of course, and knew that she was an excellent writer, but I didn’t seek her out. But then Reinhard Sander contacted me as he was editing a volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography.1 He had decided that he would approach scholars who were not in the field of a particular writer, I guess to get fresh responses. I did not immediately agree. Then I thought it was just an article, not a huge investment of time. But of course I reread all her works for this short piece, and after that I did get interested—to the extent of more essays and two books.

Also I began to think seriously about Rhys’s work in the context of diaspora and the transnational as related to nation. I had struggled with this while teaching Paule Marshall’s fiction. Rhys was for quite a long time considered only African American, but she is just as much Caribbean. She was born in Dominica, went to England, then back and forth to Paris, but spent most of her life in England. She only went back to Dominica but for three weeks or so in middle age. My first book on Rhys was for the Cambridge series on African and Caribbean writers, and I felt it had to make the case for her as belonging to the Caribbean. Even the Caribbean wasn’t totally convinced that she was a Caribbean writer at the time. So part of the mission was to say, no, you don’t have to be in the place you were born to retain an attachment or engage with it. It was her journey that fascinated me.

I really wanted to justify Rhys’s place in a series on African and Caribbean writers because there had been so many questions about her place in the Caribbean canon. The racial question was far secondary, in terms of the canon. The same series has a monograph on Nadine Gordimer, so it did not define African or Caribbean only in terms of race. It was the question of whether Rhys’s work is Caribbean, in its concerns and style.

SG: And that was a question simply because she had spent the majority of her life abroad.

ES: Yes, and because only two of the novels have anything to do with [the Caribbean]; only two had Caribbean settings, and one of those only for part of the narrative. A number of the short stories are set there. So I realized I was very interested in how a writer crosses borders in the work. But I see the Caribbean as a subtext in everything she wrote, lurking in the background always. I can also understand that if you don’t want to see it there, you could say it’s not there, because it wasn’t pushed to the forefront enough to be an obvious element in three of her novels. But to me it made total sense. I do know, however, that there remain readers and critics who claim her for English modernism.

SG: According to the article in which you describe your visit to a family member of Rhys’s who didn’t want to talk about her, it seems that even those who might be considered closest to her had a hard time claiming her.2

ES: I interviewed Daphne Agar, a relative.3 She died shortly after I talked to her. She disapproved of Rhys; to her Rhys was just generally a bad girl. She didn’t dislike her, she just didn’t quite approve of her. In Dominica, I realized that there weren’t that many people who cared what she had done in the world. I stayed in the compound of Pat Honychurch in Dominica; of course her family knew about Rhys, because Rhys interacted with their elder, Elma Napier, in Dominica in 1936. It was not a positive encounter, according to Carole Angier, Rhys’s biographer. After all, Rhys left at sixteen and did not come back for decades, and then she showed up with her English husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, in 1936. This is the subject of “Imperial Road,” which was a piece of creative nonfiction she wrote when she went back. She and Leslie set out to find the Imperial Road, which was an unfinished project designed to encourage colonial settlement and then abandoned. In the piece, Rhys hurts her ankle, and she and Leslie go into a house where a woman tends to the injury but lets Rhys know she is doing this for Leslie, not for the white Dominican Rhys was. Also in that piece is an insolent girl, who’s clearly a rehearsal for Amélie in Wide Sargasso Sea.4 It’s a powerful little piece, full of racial tension, but it was never published maybe because it might have been considered racist. At any rate, Diana Athill, editor of the short stories, decided to leave it out.5 But it’s very interesting, and I think important to understanding her, because she was raised in a racist society, hated being white, wanted to be black. She was complicated and even contradictory about race.

To return to the issue of Rhys’s work, I am very aware of the pull and push of locating writers with regard to nation or even region.  I did think I needed to position Rhys with regard to the Caribbean when I did the first book, because even the Caribbean was barely convinced that she was Caribbean. It was important to do it for that audience and for the audience from England who thought she was English only and didn’t belong anywhere else. But we’ve authorized literature on the basis of nationalism too long. As we move into a moment when we’re trying to think not only of diaspora and nation but of transnation and globalization and all those issues, and as we realize literature is responding more and more to that, we recognize that we’re in a different space.

With Paule Marshall, the argument does not have to be made anymore: she’s known as both Caribbean and African American. But there was a moment when it did, and then we got through that moment. I hope we’re through that moment with Rhys. I’d say she was transnational, and though from the Caribbean, certainly shaped by her migration.

SG: You’ve written about the role that “ex/isle” plays in women’s writing. You conceive of “ex/isle” as “desire, which is the origin of writing, [that] manifests as a result of separation from the Caribbean."6 How do you see this concept informing contemporary male writers’ works?

ES: It depends on where they are. I think it certainly informs some of the diaspora writers. I see a strain of it in Caryl Phillips’ work, of not being quite in the right place. I think also of people like Thomas Glave who are working on two spaces, so he’s addressing Jamaica and living here. It’s present in Dionne Brand’s work too. I think what dictates it now, male or female, is being true to the transnational diasporic experience. It’s not exile in the same way as nationalist male writers thought of it. It was a different world for them, because they couldn’t come back easily after they first left. But now I think it’s important, particularly for those who were born in the diaspora and who have grown up in the diaspora, for whom the region is not familiar. Paule Marshall had no connection with Barbados when she did The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. She had to go back for several months and experience the place before she could write Bournehills. That, I think, stays the same in every generation. You have to go back, you have to be there; you have to accept that journeys are likely to be a part of your life. I’m thinking of a writer like Nalo Hopkinson, who has left Toronto, which has been the center of her writing. Now she’s on the Pacific coast, and I would imagine there are going to be journeys in her next work. I think that’s the same experience male writers now have.

SG: You’re well known as a Brathwaite scholar; a prominent recent contribution is your article on Brathwaite in the 2011 Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature.7 You wrote on Derek Walcott’s work before you started writing about Brathwaite.8 I want to ask this without perpetuating an opposition between the two: What spoke to you in Brathwaite’s work?

ES: I like Walcott’s work, but I didn’t see a need to find a way into Walcott. It seemed to me there were a lot of people who facilitated access to his poetry. What’s really important to focus on is the work that’s missing. I kept hearing that people didn’t understand Brathwaite, and he’s not easy to read if you don’t know how to read him. Like Brathwaite, I had lived in Ghana and Barbados, and I was living in New York when he moved here. It seemed natural to approach that work. But I’ve been coming back to Walcott. I wrote an essay for the Abiola Irele seminar at Harvard that explains why Walcott and Brathwaite have been pitted against each other, and hopefully offers reasons to bury that opposition.9 After the presentation a colleague said, “Thank God you said that. I’m so sick of this whole thing!” I agreed.

I’ve returned to Walcott recently via ecopoetics. I’ve also submitted a proposal on Walcott for a November [2012] seminar in Barbados that merges Irish and Caribbean studies. I’m interested in paralleling the location of poetry in both cultures in relation to the difficult histories, as well as to the English poetic influence and inheritance, and using Walcott to examine the history and linguistics of those parallels. I might discuss Walcott in relation to Heaney. I’m not sure that’s earth-shattering, but it’s the first time I’m thinking about how to put these two together.

SG: Speaking of facilitating access to Brathwaite’s work, you’re editing MLA’s Approaches to Teaching the Works of Kamau Brathwaite. Brathwaite’s use of form and language invites the reader to create meaning. What meaning do you find in his use of both?

ES: I always tell my students that a poem doesn’t mean what it says; it means what it does. Brathwaite’s combines the oral (aural) and the scribal in very innovative ways. So for example, in his later work, he’s gone to the illuminated manuscript, the old medieval model, if you’d like. I don’t know if you’ve seen those massive books of his, of Barabajan Poems and so on.10 They’re very much like that, and he has affirmed that connection. He actually just doesn’t reinvent the poem, he reinvents the book. He has been asked why he does not present his poetry as oral, using media. But Brathwaite wants to continue the artifact of the book as well as the presence of orature in the scribal text. So I find that the relationship between the sound of the words and the look of it on the page is particularly kinetic in his work. It’s there in every poem. You can’t interpret his work unless you think out of the box of how poems are usually aligned on a page, and also think about the sound. This is true for reading all poetry, but most especially for reading Brathwaite. I find that very, very interesting about him. He’s always pushing the boundaries.

SG: You’ve written poetry as well.11 Whom do you consider influential and what are you inspired by?

ES: That’s a harder question to answer than I thought it was going to be! [laughs] I started writing poetry when I was a teenager, and so at that point I was star struck by “big” poets. But I think for me, it’s poets who manage to combine technical genius or technical expertise with an engagement with social justice. That is the political and ethical combined with a mastery of craft.  The stronger the political element the stronger the craft must be, or the poem will fail. Politics has got to be turned into craft in some important, innovative way. I of course can enjoy poems that don’t have a political edge, but for me that really lifts poets—that’s what really made me love Brathwaite so much as well as Blake. I’m working on Dionne Brand right now—she has that balance between craft and political edge.12

SG: And Brathwaite is very much a visionary, just as Blake was.

ES: Yes, exactly. So those are the poets that really get to me, and right now, I’m also working on Geoffrey Hill. He is one of the most difficult poets on the planet, but he’s worth the effort. He taught me a lot when I was his undergraduate student. But it is only now I find I want to write on his work. I’m interested in elegiac poetry, so the book I’m working on now is about elegiac poetry and empire.13 Not quite elegies, because a lot of elegies are quite self-indulgent and more about the poet than the death, but rather elegiac poetry, which I define as responding to mass death. This book reads the work of poets who have lived in the long shadow of the British Empire on both sides of the Atlantic, whether in societies built on colonialism and slavery or in Britain itself, where the empire has its own long shadow founded on internal inequalities and eventually building a long national erasure of the consequences of imperialism. It includes Christopher Okigbo from Nigeria, Brathwaite and other Caribbean poets, Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison from the UK, and Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell from the US. All these poets are very serious about formal questions but acutely aware of mass trauma and death from systemized violence.

SG: You’ve also written extensively on African drama and literature. The introduction to your interview with Francis Abiola Irele notes his assertion that critics must know the cultural context of a literary work.14 What are some of the contextual factors that inform African literary criticism? What relationships do you see between African and Caribbean critical perspectives?

ES: There’s so much. For example, African literature in English emerges at about the same time as it does in the Caribbean, during the 1950s. And in the same way there are a few males in the beginning. They share the inheritance of British colonialism, and they share the inheritance of African oral traditions, like the Anancy stories, although on one side it’s diluted. There are lots of similarities in terms of dissecting the past, though it’s a very different past. The English showed up in West Africa at a much later date. The height of British colonialism is in the 1930s, and it’s all over by the 1960s. In the Caribbean, that past is from the sixteenth century to the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century, and then colonialism continues to the 1960s. This difference means that in West Africa, colonialism made a series of indentations on traditional cultures. They were not completely removed. They were slowed down and then naturally tended to adapt. Once those cultures sought preservation by resisting the tendency toward adaptation, they fossilized in some ways. There’s language, all those languages. So there’s a lot more in West Africa that’s different. At the same time, there’s a real reverberation in the processes by which literature comes into being. People had to go away to study, so Wole Soyinka goes to Leeds to do his degree; Brathwaite goes to do his in Cambridge. Those questions of whether to go back, when to go back—that sense again of exile, and of changing yourself through going to the colonial motherland, acquiring education and coming back and doing what you will with it—that seems to be both similar and different.

I did a lot of work on West African drama, and I loved it. The experience of directing Death and the King’s Horseman was a challenge, because it’s a Yoruba play in a Yoruba world, and I was doing it in Barbados.15 I wasn’t working with Yoruba people, but with Barbadians and other West Indians, my colleagues and other actors in the community. When it came to the music, I knew they couldn’t sing Yoruba, so I got Yoruba music. And then I had to teach them to dance it. Abiola Irele had done work in the Caribbean, and he pointed out to me that European dancing goes out slightly, whereas African dancing goes down: it connects to the earth. I knew I had to work the dancing into the play, so I set about it with what he’d told me in mind, and it worked beautifully.

What was really interesting was that the women who were playing the market women, who had to do this dancing, transformed. I couldn’t give them that dancing; I could only indicate to them some ways to try it and then let them try it themselves. When we got to the dress rehearsal and they were in costume, they became Yoruba women. It seemed like they had found something that they didn’t know they had. And that’s exactly what Brathwaite’s talking about in Barabajan Poems where he’s going past this little wooden church and he hears these women singing hymns. They’re singing “flat” in an English interpretation. And when he performs this piece, he provides a brilliant interpretation: underneath their singing he hears Shango, and he brings it all the way up until Shango emerges as a part of this flat singing. He actually hears Africa behind it.16

When I went to the Caribbean, I found Africa there, but it was hidden; it was behind a veil. That’s another difference: in West Africa, everyone knows what’s African and what’s not. In Barbados, you have to discover it. The process of discovering it was what I found so moving and potent about directing Soyinka’s play. I could not have recognized it had I not had time in West Africa. It wasn’t just being in a physical place. It was having my body in a physical place. It was learning to live in 103- or 104-degree temperatures and extraordinary humidity with no air conditioning. It was learning to understand the culture and the tensions within it; the symbols and their meanings; a way of life. It was taking the time to learn how and why people did things.

SG: Your introduction to your interview with Irele also identifies it as the first in a series with major African diasporic critics and theorists. What made you decide to initiate this series?

ES: I’d done an essay on Bruce St. John for a book that was coedited by Holger Henke, who is also the editor for Wadabagei.17 He asked me if I’d like to do something for the journal, and I told him I thought I’d like to do an interview series. I did the one with Pam [Mordecai], and then went on to do a few more with women, and then I changed directions and did the Irele one.18 I really enjoyed doing them, because it’s a way of asking the sorts of questions that you don’t get to ask very often.

SG: Indeed. I’ve been doing this series because I think we should ask more about Caribbean feminist critics’ work.

ES: It’s a sign that we’ve reached a certain place chronologically. Women’s writing isn’t a new phenomenon in the Caribbean anymore, so the next thing that needs to be done is an analysis of the critical history. One of the things that interested me when I was going to university was the history of English literary criticism. I’d read Samuel Johnson and realize that not only was he one of the first poets, he was also a pioneer in the critique of poetry. Criticism’s the other side of the story. A series like yours suggests that there’s enough of a body of literature and criticism for it to have a history, a presence.

SG: Earlier, you identified Rhys as a transnational writer. How would you characterize her view of gender?

ES: She didn’t assume the stereotypical roles that women are supposed to be good at. She wasn’t a cook, she wasn’t a great domestic person, she loved her daughter but she wasn’t able to do what most mothers do. She followed her gift, though she involved others in her journey more than some single-minded authors do. She reminds me in some ways of my husband’s aunt, Lois Mailou Jones, whose family was like Rhys’s family where women got married and had kids and that was what the norm was.19 But Lois was lucky that her mother had spotted the gift and told her, “Don’t get married until you’ve made something of your talent.” Lois took that so seriously that when she was in her late forties, her mother came back and said, “I didn’t mean that you would never do it!” [laughs] By that time, a man she had loved in her twenties, Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, had come back into her life and she married him in 1953.20 But Lois was always very clear that her work came first. Working on Rhys and talking to Lois helped me understand Rhys. Though the latter married three times and had a child, it is clear the writing came first. To this day we struggle as women with how far to go along with the stereotypes, though stereotypes that include loving people are not necessarily terrible. The issue is how far to commit to our work. Women still get accused of being ambitious and hard and masculine if they choose to commit to work first. Having it all, family and career, remains very, very hard work.

SG: You also made that point in Out of the Kumbla, in which you defined “giving voice to women’s concerns” as “fighting back against the pressures which obstruct women from finishing things, from engaging fully on professional projects over and above those of the working day."21 Do you think women have found a way to resolve the tension between the two?

ES: I struggle with this in my own life, that I have often put my work second to my family, and then I realize that that shouldn’t be a masculine choice or a feminine choice, it should simply be a choice. But if you want an education and a career, you shouldn’t have to do what women have traditionally done. But maybe we can think of phases of women’s work. In African and Asian cultures, for example, women are more powerful after menopause. An Indian colleague said to me, “You know, if I were a woman, I don’t know if I would want to be an older woman in the East or a younger woman in the West.” And I said to him, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, younger women think they have more power in the West, and older women definitely have more power in the East,” meaning mainly in families. That’s changing a little, across the world. But in many cultures, you’re supposed to make the most of your achievements when you’re younger, and that’s what the male profile is, to get it behind you when you’re younger, and then do whatever you do after that. I still think we haven’t solved that problem for women.  Women still have that terrible burden of “Will I have children or not? Does it matter to me or not?” If it doesn’t, that’s fine and it shouldn’t be an issue. But if it does, how does it coexist with a career?

SG: Do you think women writers might resolve that dilemma in part through a strategic claim to creative authority?

ES: There are particular instances of that authority. For example, Ramabai Espinet, the author of The Swinging Bridge, has a very interesting background.22 The Swinging Bridge is the story of an Indo-Caribbean family in Trinidad and the double diaspora. There’s an ancestor, a woman, who comes across the oceans to serve as an indentured laborer. Espinet was born in Trinidad, and when she researched her family, she found out that her family had converted [to Presbyterianism] along with a number of other Indian families who were given to understand that if they also converted, they would have all kinds of privileges and so on. It also meant they might be staying on and not claiming government resources to return to India, as was clear when I interviewed her.23

However, as a young woman in Trinidad, she knew silence was the expected female response about difficult issues in public. We worked together in the women’s movement, and Ramabai edited an anthology of poetry for the local feminist organization CAFRA [Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action in Trinidad and Tobago].24 Ramabai’s journey as a writer began when she was an editor and a critic. She wrote poetry, but the novel came much later. She gave herself permission to speak out by becoming an editor for other women. You do what you need to do, and let others figure out if it has been groundbreaking or not.


Sheryl Gifford is a PhD candidate and an instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University.


See Reinhard Sander, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, vol. 157, 3rd ed. (Stamford: Gale Cengage, 1995).

2 Elaine Savory Fido, “From Barbados to Dominica: On the Love of Small Islands, and in Search of Jean Rhys,” Jean Rhys Review 9, nos. 1–2 (1998): 25–36.

3 Daphne Agar is Pat Honychurch’s sister.

4 Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London: Norton, 1966).

5 See Diana Athill, Stet: An Editor’s Life (New York: Grove, 2000), 177–78.

6 Elaine Savory, “Ex/Isle: Separation, Memory, and Desire in Caribbean Women’s Writing,” in Adele S. Newson and Linda Strong-Leek, eds., Winds of Change: The Transforming Voices of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 169–77.

7 Elaine Savory, “Kamau Brathwaite: Grounded in the Past, Revisioning the Present,” in Michael A. Bucknor and Alison Donnell, eds., The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (New York: Routledge, 2011), 11–19.

8 Elaine Savory, “Value Judgements on Art and the Question of Macho Attitudes: The Case of Derek Walcott,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 21, no. 1 (1986): 109–19.

9 Elaine Savory, “Rethinking the Critical Location of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott,” in Biodun Jeyifo, ed., Africa in the World and the World in Africa: Essays in Honor of Abiola Irele (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2011), 219–45.

10 Kamau Brathwaite, Barabajan Poems, 1492–1992 (New York: Savacou North, 1994).

11 See Elaine Savory, Flame Tree Time (Kingston: Sandberry, 1993).

12 Elaine Savory recently presented “Dionne Brand’s Historiography of the Environment in Three Poetry Collections” at the Northeast Modern Language Association convention, Boston, 22 March 2013.  

13 Elaine Savory, The Quarrel with Death: Elegiac Poetry in the Shadow of Empire (forthcoming).

14 Elaine Savory, “An Interview with Francis Abiola Irele,” Wadabagei 12, no. 1 (2009): 109–32.

15 Death and the King’s Horseman is a 1975 play by Wole Soyinka.

16 See Brathwaite, Barabajan Poems, sec. 7.

17 Elaine Savory, “Playing Both Home and Away: National and Transnational Identities in the Work of Bruce St. John,” in Holger Henke and Karl Heinz-Magister, eds., Constructing Vernacular Culture in the Trans-Caribbean (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2008), 219–65.

18 See Elaine Savory, “Contemporary Caribbean Writers in Conversation: Interview with Pamela Mordecai,” Wadabagai 7, no. 2 (2004): 73–83.

19 Lois Mailou Jones (1905–98) was an African American artist and a professor of art.

20 Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël (1910–82) was a distinguished Haitian graphic designer and painter recognized in the United States for his stamp engravings.

21 Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, eds., Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature (Trenton: Africa World, 1990), xix.

22 Ramabai Espinet, The Swinging Bridge (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2003).

23 Elaine Savory, “Interview with Ramabai Espinet,” Wadabagei 10, no. 2 (2007): 82–96.

24 Espinet, Ramabai, ed., Creation Fire: A CAFRA Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry, 1st ed. (East Haven, CT: Inland Womensource, 1991).


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