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Mapping Caribbeanness

  • Marsha Pearce Department of Creative and Festival Arts University of the West Indies (UWI)


When we pair the word “Caribbean” with the suffix “-ness” we kindle or conjure up a certain state or condition. We summon to mind something that has a particular shape with its own contours, structure and profile. Yet, what is it that we invoke? Can we picture it with any exactitude? Can we describe its features? Can we map its topography? And can we restrict that map to a specific location? There is much to consider in such a mapping exercise.

Stuart Hall reminds us that with the decimation of the indigenous peoples under the regime of colonialism, “everybody in the Caribbean comes from somewhere else” (27). Hall adds that the “Caribbean is the first, the original and the purest diaspora” (28). In conceiving our map we would therefore have to attempt to portray that which has been fashioned from disparate components. Our map would need to take into account the splinters of Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. It would have to seek to describe what Derek Walcott has called a “shipwreck of fragments,” which he understands as “the basis of the Antillean experience” (70). The picture we draw would have to be “textured” – to use Rex Nettleford’s word here – in order to delineate a shape composed of diverse layers; a shape that has the richness of both pain and promise born of efforts to create syntheses from an array of bits and pieces. We would need to employ “the mechanism of collage” – borrowing James Clifford’s phrase. Collage is that technique of image making in which a picture is made manifest through the glueing together of different materials. The process of combining various elements can indeed be sticky, that is, difficult and not without problems but the resulting collaged composition is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Mapping Caribbeanness then, is a task that demands that we address the making of a complex, variegated composition. It is an undertaking that necessitates attending to a topography characterised by nuanced, uneasy mixings or as Nettleford puts it: “the awesome process of creolisation with differing elements now coalescing, now separating, now being assimilated, now resisting, now counter-resisting in a dynamic contradictory relationship that produce[s] agony but also new life”.

If we are to map Caribbeanness as a processual condition then we must acknowledge that our picture can never be completed – our map would always be in the making. Furthermore, the matter of location complicates the mapping endeavour. Cartographic representations are most often visual establishments of a particular place or locus. Yet, Clifford’s observation that “we are all Caribbeans now in our urban archipelagos” (173) suggests a global condition, a “-ness” that transcends the chain of islands washed by the Caribbean Sea. His statement implies a Caribbean syncretic way of being as a prototype of experience and existence everywhere. How then, do we pinpoint Caribbeanness on a map if it evades a precise location? Antonio Bénitez-Rojo helps to answer this question by his reference to what he calls “the furtive locus of ‘Caribbeanness’” (22). The place of Caribbeanness remains nebulous and unbounded. Caribbeanness defies an instinctive want to sketch in boundary lines. Bénitez-Rojo uses the metaphor of the repeating island to describe a way of being, a being “in a certain kind of way” that can recur or extend anywhere. He deploys the word “island” to encapsulate and express that “-ness.” He explains that it is an island that is ultimately impossible to locate in any one place. He declares:

" Which one, then, would be the repeating island, Jamaica, Aruba, Puerto Rico, Miami, Haiti, Recife? Certainly none of the ones that we know…. This is […] because the Caribbean is not a common archipelago, but a meta-archipelago…. Thus the Caribbean flows outward past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance, and its ultima Thule may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern of circa 1850, at a Balinese temple, in an old Bristol pub […] in a windmill beside the Zuider Zee, at a cafe in a barrio in Manhattan…" (3-4)

Our map would have to consider this meta-ness, this beyond-ness. Any attempts at mapping Caribbeanness therefore would be a rough drawing, a work that must always be redrafted as new coordinates are found again and again.

In an effort to describe Caribbeanness with any fidelity, our map would have to bear evidence of what is called, in the arena of image making, pentimenti, that is, those visible traces of alterations to the image – faint marks, repositioned lines, erased yet noticeable strokes – as we try to chart shifts, changes and movements. We would, of course, also have to take into consideration those dominant myths that have been and continue to be circulated about what “the Caribbean” is and is not, in our visual construction, because ultimately, all maps have legends.

Catégorie : What is the Caribbean ?

Pour citer l'article : Pearce, M. (2013). "Mapping Caribbeanness" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/what-is-the-caribbean/mapping-caribbeanness.html.


Bénitez-Rojo, Antonio. 1996. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Translated by James Maraniss. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 2001. “Negotiating Caribbean Identities.” In New Caribbean Thought: A Reader, edited by Brian Meeks and Folke Lindahl, 24-39. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press.

Nettleford, Rex. 2003. Caribbean Cultural Identity. Kingston and Miami: Ian Randle Publishers.