Cultural Identity in Caribbean Literature

In George Lamming’s In The Castle of My Skin, a novel first published in 1953, the author uses G’s personal history to reflect upon historical events in the Caribbean history. Through his fiction, Lamming attempts to reconnect the population with their past, a past which is gradually becoming a phantom to haunt the future. The radical change of perspective in the novel gives room to a multiplicity of subjects that through the rhythm of oral tradition and the pace of Barbadian dialect bring to the text the weight of cultural legacies. While the narrator deals with the vicissitudes of the present time, such as the floods, hard days at school, smooth conversations by the beach, gossips over the fences and the mothers’ despair to provide formal education to their sons, the past comes at night to haunt G as part of the boy’s subconscious. It is a colonial past that endures, resisting forgetfulness. It is in the emptiness of his room, he is confronted with the ambiguities of absence/presence, dark/light, and death/life. 

Those ambiguities are part and parcel of G’s world as someone who must look ahead to find his own path, leaving behind the past. On one hand, the spirits of his father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins make part of the hallucinations of a boy that had to deal with absence. As his tries to live the present, the imposed effacement of African cultural ties, a strategy of survival in the life in the colonies,  through an education that values British culture and history, a part of his identity gets blurred.

George Lamming’s novel transgresses serves as a vehicle to reconnect the population with the past. TLamming’s writing resists conventional plots as well as subject/object paradigms. Instead, the author reverses the gaze, bringing to the nucleus of the narrative a multiplicity of voices, common people, men, women, and children that become subjects of their own history. In this context, the voice of the elders of the village, Ma and Pa, becomes an attempt to highlight the importance of culture.

The whole chapter four is a long conversation between the old man and the old woman. At this point, the narrative retold in the flashback provides the reader with an entirely new perspective. Through their conversation, it is possible to understand that gradually the elders began to be part of a vanishing past.  Nevertheless, it is not without purpose that Pa starts talking about the natural disasters, the floods and how those who are still children will tell their own children what they have seen in the village. It is worth noting that Pa assumes that the information about the events in the village will be passed through oral history instead of the medium of writing. Here, memory plays a pivotal role in maintaining history.

It is worth noting that the language used by the elders represents the rhythm of their lives. Not only through the dialect which is spoken but mainly through the smooth rhythm that makes the reader to be transported to an almost remote time. The non-linearity of the conversation, changing from the preoccupation with the transformations of the present to the meaning of Pa’s dreams, makes one thinks that what is really said is as important as what is silenced. In the conversation, Ma and Pa do an analysis of Mr. Slime’s intentions with the Friendly’s Society and the Penny Bank, and while Pa trusts in Mr. Smile’s sincere intentions, Ma assumes a skeptical attitude towards the man’s intentions. For her all the riches are corrupt and the only Savior is God.

Pa’s memories would not have any importance in a westernized world. Here, they are seen as the resources of the village, the pillars, the center of a fragmented world where things start to change. Thus, Ma and Pa are part of a past that must not be forgotten or abandoned, a past of ancestry. And being sites of memories the elders give the balance the village needs to expect the future. Sometimes a future embedded with some contradictions, what means change and progress can also mean disruption and loss.  Also, the very presence of the elders Ma and Pa in the narrative is somehow paradoxical, functioning as a threat to the transformations of the future. While the past must be preserved, it always poses a threat to a future as well as its westernized idea of progress. 

The novel gives a lesson that depriving people of its cultural identity means to provoke an amnesia which certainly will function as a ghost, haunting the future and being part of the next generations’ nightmares. The phantoms that had tortured G in his dark room during his childhood could be part and parcel of the collective memory. 

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