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Books in brief: Island People by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

The Caribbean is, Jelly-Schapiro contends, at the centre of modernity—not the periphery

By Yohann Koshy   April 2017

Island People: The Caribbean and the World, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (Canongate, £22)

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As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro writes in the introduction to Island People, the Caribbean underwent a unique historical formation. Populated with six million African slaves (compared to 400,000 in the United States) and developed “for the express purpose of providing sugar for distant tables,” it is a place where globalisation and mass migration—those modern neuroses of the west—have been facts of life since the 16th century.

But in a region “figured as a place to be consumed” by outside forces, the Caribbean has struggled with its collective identity. Its political elites and intellectuals have often denigrated it as marginal. “History is built around achievement and creation,” wrote VS Naipaul in his 1962 non-fiction work The Middle Passage, “and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Jelly-Schapiro writes against this pessimistic interpretation of the Caribbean, a place that he loves and has visited throughout his life. These islands, he contends, are at the centre of modernity, not the periphery. They produce culture and critical thought—from the redemptive rhythm of reggae to the caustic anti-colonialism of Frantz Fanon—with global resonance.

But there is too much territory to cover, and Jelly-Schapiro’s method—essays on each island, from Cuba to Guadeloupe, that blend travel journalism with history—renders his argument diffuse. Still, he has a keen sense of how the past expresses itself through the present, guiding an excellent analysis of Martinique’s twinned sons, Aimé Césaire and Fanon, and a lyrical account of the Haitian Revolution—that indelible rupture with colonial rule through which the Caribbean masses, he writes, quoting the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James, “first became aware of themselves as a people.”

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