Sunday, 4 October 2015

Black History Month - celebrating the importance of black women's writing

My blog this year on the topic of Black History Month is on black British and Caribbean women’s writing, and its complex relationship to history.  The relevance of this topic is reflected in the recent publication by Demeter Press of a book called Reading/Speaking/Writing the Mother Text: Essays on Caribbean Women's Writing, edited by Paula Sanmartin and Cristina Herrera.  

The book contains 10 fascinating chapters on various aspects of motherhood and maternal experience and their representation in Caribbean and diaspora women’s writing.  I also have a chapter in this book on the black British author Andrea Levy’s work, entitled, ‘”My Mama Had a Story”: Motherhood and Intergenerational Relations in Andrea Levy’s Fiction’. 

The title quotation of my chapter, “my mama had a story”, is taken from Levy’s most recent novel, The Long Song, a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 19th Century, exploring British slavery in the Caribbean and the experiences of black enslaved women and men.  The quotation emphasises the significance of personal testimony, cultural transmission, and hearing silenced voices, and the act of storytelling. 

Andrea Levy comments on the long history of British slavery in the Caribbean and her research into this subject, in her essay about writing The Long Song which can be found on her author website.  Reflecting on her findings and how they informed her novel, Levy states that:  “Slavery in Jamaica was so inhumane that it is hard to think of it as a society [...] as soon as I began to reflect upon on the plain historical facts, I realised that slavery was much more than a two-act play; it was a massive social system – a society in the true sense – that endured for three hundred years. .”(Andrea Levy, “The writing of The Long Song”,

Caribbean and black women’s writing makes a fascinating topic of study for anyone interested in black history, including its complicated relationship to literary history, tradition and '"the canon".  Commenting on the different literary genres and modes treated in Reading/Speaking/Writing the Mother Text:  Essays on Caribbean Women s Writing, the editors Paula Sanmartin and Cristina Herrera state in their comprehensive preface:  “A common thread apparent through this diversity of genres is the authors’ efforts to revise history through their literary works.”(p.4)  

Sanmartin and Herrera examine Caribbean women’s writing as one of the means by which historical experience can be excavated, reassessed and re-presented through a literary lens.  This critical approach echoes my own, in my chapter in the book, as well as in my other publications and work on black British women's writing (see details of these on my webpage). Focusing on motherhood and symbolic and historical dimensions of the maternal can facilitate an investigation and articulation of herstory, while validating and making visible previously often overlooked and trivialised dimensions of black women’s lives and their representation in literature.

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