Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones. New York: Soho Press, 1998. Written by the acclaimed Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, this novel tells the harrowing and tragic story of Haitian characters who are caught on the Dominican side of the Haitian border during the Parsley Massacre of 1937. This novel tackles the intimate history and memory of a devastating genocide in Caribbean history. It explores concepts that are fundamental to human nature, like race, love, identity, nationality, and survival.
Samuel Selvon. The Lonely Londoners. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1956. In this work, the Trinidadian author Samuel Selvon explores several years in the lives of working-class West Indian people who have immigrated to England following WW-II. The characters are from the “Windrush generation,” a group of Afro-Caribbean migrants who took advantage of Britain’s decision, inspired by wartime pressures, to offer full citizenship to colonial peoples. Selvon uses a third-person narrator who speaks in Creolized English to capture the plight of these immigrants as they saw it themselves.
Paule Marshall. Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York: Random House, 1959. Brown Girl, Brownstones uses a single family to explore the lives of Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, during the Great Depression and WW-II. The main character, Selina Boyce, is a young woman struggling to discover her identity amidst the conflicting energies of her mother and father, who hold opposing views about life in America and the home they left behind. This coming-of-age tale offers a vivid and intimate portrait into how the tensions of culture, race, gender, and age can complicate the pursuit of the American Dream.
Ann Petry. The Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946. Ann Petry’s The Street follows the life of a black single mother, named Lutie Johnson, as she navigates Harlem’s 116th Street with her son Bub during the era of WW-II. Petry’s text is a stinging and visceral indictment of the American Dream from inside a black community. Readers watch Johnson descend into disillusionment because of confrontations with violence, poverty, and sex, race, and class prejudice. Petry’s heartbreaking novel was a masterpiece when it was published in the 1940s, and it does not disappoint today.
Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: André Deutsch, 1966. Wide Sargasso Sea is an iconic postcolonial novel by the Dominican-born British author Jean Rhys. It tells the sad story of Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress and minor character from Jane Eyre. Rhys traces Cosway’s fraught life, from her bullied youth in Jamaica after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, to her unhappy marriage and fall to mental illness in England. The novel is a brilliant commentary on the life of a white Creole trapped between two worlds in which she cannot fit. One is that of the black former slaves of her home island and the other is that of the white upper-classes in Britain.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Miguel Street. London: André Deutsch, 1959. Another work by a Trinidadian, Miguel Street is a lively collection of short stories about the lives of poor people in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago during WW-II. These colorful residents are connected to one another by a common street and their stories are told by the same neighborhood boy. While this narrator may be the only character who has managed to escape the cycles of poverty, violence, depression, and under-education that keep people chained to Miguel Street, Naipaul does neglect the sweetness, humor, and tenderness of the community.
Jamaica Kincaid. Lucy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990. Lucy follows a year in the life of Lucy Josephine Potter, a teenage woman from the British West Indies who has moved to New York to work as an au pair (live-in domestic) for a wealthy and seemingly perfect white American family. The novel tracks Lucy’s maturation as she comes to terms with the reality that her employers’ lives are largely a facade and as she struggles to deal with her own problems related to homesickness, isolation, sexual identity, family strain, and ambivalent attitudes about home.
Michelle Cliff. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Dutton Penguin, 1987. In No Telephone to Heaven, the Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff continues the story of her mixed-race protagonist Clare Savage as she moves from Jamaica to the United States, to Britain, and to mainland Europe during her adolescent and young-adult years. Her experiences with loneliness, racism, violence, hatred, and the legacies of colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s will culminate in her decision to take action by joining a revolutionary movement back in Jamaica.
George Lamming. In the Castle of My Skin. London: Michael Joseph, 1953. This first and autobiographical novel by the Barbadian writer George Lamming takes place in the small town of Carrington Village, Barbados, during the 1930s and 1940s. The main narrator is an smart and sensitive nine-year-old boy named G. His eyes serve as the lens through which Lamming shows us the extraordinary changes affecting Caribbean communities in the mid-twentieth century. We come to see the ways in which racism, capitalism, riots, poverty, and neglect conspire against the futures of people like G., who ultimately learn that loving society can mean leaving it behind.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. A Grain of Wheat. London: Heinemann, 1967. The author’s third and most-famous novel takes place in a rural village in Central Kenya in December of 1963. In the four days leading up to independence from British colonial rule, community members wrestle with what the journey has meant for them. In their own way, each character must come to terms with the fact that independence feels “like water in the mouth of a thirsty man.” The events of the last decade have made freedom necessary yet ultimately unsatisfying.
Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958. The author’s first and most-famous novel takes place in Southeastern Nigeria during the onset of British colonialism in the late nineteenth century. It tells the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo warrior from the clan of Umuofia. Achebe uses Okonkwo’s life to show how colonialism, especially Christianity, can divide and destroy a native society. As generations split over how to deal with colonialism, Achebe gives new meaning to W.B. Yeats’ famous verse, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
Amos Tutuola. The Palm-Wine Drinkard. London: Faber & Faber, 1952. In his first and most-famous novel, Tutuola tells the story of a wealthy drunk who goes on a quest to bring his palm-wine tapster back from the dead. As he travels to Dead’s Town in the hopes of reviving his servant, he encounters spirits from Yoruban folklore and undergoes mythic adventures. Initially criticized for not conforming to Western literary expectations, the book has regained fame as the first novel published outside Africa in English and as a unique literary form.
Ayi Kwei Armah. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. In his first and most-famous novel, Armah explores the meanings of post-independence Ghana through the eyes of a nameless protagonist, known as “the man.” In the year surrounding the overthrow of Ghana’s charismatic first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1966, “the man” struggles to avoid losing his morality. He must resist pressure from family and friends to embrace the corruption of the post-colonial state.