Exploring identity and space in Caribbean literature through the works of Derek Walcott

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Walcott, through this play, has created a world that transcends beyond hard-stone set patterns of psychological and conscious frameworks, Sofía Arslan Qadeer writes in this article for Pakistan’s The Nation.

The Caribbean territories were colonized by the British, the French and the Dutch forces numerous times—the most prominent of the colonized spans being in the 17th century. Like most of Derek Walcott’s plays, Dream on Monkey Mountain, is set on a Caribbean island.

As a literary text, the play is a representation of not only the Caribbean experience, but also acts as a mouthpiece for all geographical landscapes that have been subject to colonization at any point in time in history. The island literature, as it is called, is emblematic of the efficacy and need to regain lost space, rediscover identity and recreate a niche in history. It is a play that breaks away from the fetters of conventional rationalizations and archetypal thinking mechanisms that validate antediluvian notions employed to define the world of sanity. The play houses characters like Makak, who are instrumental in constructing new avenues of freedom, through the vision of dream. Having survived the hybridized existence, and brutally snagged between the dilemmas of black and white, the colonizer and the colonized, and their peripheral existences of characters like Makak still dare to flex the system enough to claim from within the mainstream, a space of their own. As a play, Dream on Monkey Mountain crystallizes the foundation of owning an identity that is matured by liminal spaces and a shade of “in-between-ness”; the exuberance and ecstasy of Makak’s vision highlight how an individual’s multicultural disposition offer the traction to grip his own personal roots. The messianic figure of Makak restores a bastion of hope for all those who are snagged between two identities and are deeply submerged in a morass of subjugated existences and dysfunctional attitudes—Makak offers to them a tinge of positivity on two metaphysical levels; one, he solidifies an understanding that humans are synonymous to bundles of binaries and therefore human consciousness cannot be defined in absolute black-and-white terms; and two, he portrays that it is not necessary to side with any one of these two binaries in terms of racial identity, religion or language/linguistic facility. Hence, through the character of Makak, Walcott describes how it is essential to not part with any one of the varying identities, because that would kill the very reality of the Caribbean experience—forcing the segment of the Caribbean community to be imprisoned within their mental recesses.

Walcott makes use of certain abstractions, binaries and motives that identify the need to transcend beyond concrete realities, parochial boundaries and restrictive barriers that fetter an individual’s imagination as well as his existence. An avid example of these binaries could be explored in one of his poems, A Far Cry from Africa which is in perfect sync with this notion of a baffled consciousness. The coupling of the “corpses” with the “paradise” in the poem, hints upon the binaries that reflect the same double consciousness that the character of the corporal in Dream on Monkey Mountain represents. The bifurcated affiliations of the characters are synonymous to how Walcott deliberates in the poem, “I stand divided to the vein”. Towards the end of the poem, Walcott establishes a stance under the veneer of his questions based on identity, reflect his effort to forge unity of purpose: “between this Africa and the English tongue that [he] love[s]?/Betray them both, or give back what they give?” in order to make the world cognizant about the predicament of the one who is tattered between two diverse identities, but has sincere affiliation with both.

Similarly, the vision portrayed in the play coupled with the linguistic facility, is an all-encompassing descriptor for this double consciousness that is endowed with richness of its own sense—it is not borrowed or contrived, but is colored by a unique combination of cognitive and psychological activity, and the motives of imagination and experience. The sound of birds, the brushing against the spider’s web, the sight of the woman singing, the white mist, the confusion of vapour, shapes, demons, spirits, a cleft-footed woman, a man with a goat’s head, and the figure of a woman with a white face and long black hair, all amalgamate the beauty of symbolism with that of fantasy. These natural and animal images represent a “void of conceptions”, in order to display that the characters go beyond empiricism in order to ascertain the knowledge of identity. It hints at the collective consciousness of the characters that flexes itself to create a metaphorical and creative space for nourishing the mystical experience embedded within the Caribbean experience. This carries out an exegesis into the idea that when Makak, and other characters, shift from the sway of their colonial identities to the sway of their post-colonial “in-between-ness”, it fosters within them a communal taste as well as garners for them the strength to articulate their existence and their essence.

Walcott, through this play, has created a world that transcends beyond hard-stone set patterns of psychological and conscious frameworks delineating hybridity and a racial identity outside the theoretical confines of the written discourse.

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