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Caribbean Literature

evil women, Vodun, African religions, Cuban son, supernatural tales

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Caribbean Literature, written and oral literature of the Caribbean from before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century to the present. This literature emerged within a context of many languages and cultures. The languages of the Caribbean—French, English, Spanish, and Dutch—are remnants of the colonizing powers and their historical encounters with the region. Creoles and local patois (hybrid languages) developed from the mixture of European languages with Native American languages, especially Carib and Arawak, and the languages of Africans brought to the Caribbean as slaves. Asians, primarily from India and China, and Middle Easterners also contribute to the region’s cultural diversity.

The topics of Caribbean literature encompass the historical issues of enslavement and forced migration, the related themes of home and exile, and colonialism and decolonization. Caribbean literature also embraces the social and cultural themes of tradition, landscape, culture, and community, and addresses such universal questions as identity, sexuality, family life, pain, joy, and the uses of the imagination.

To limit Caribbean literature to writing produced in the Caribbean islands, however, is to exclude a large body of work. Caribbean literature also originated in the area of Central and South America that borders the Caribbean Sea: Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana; and coastal areas of Colombia, Nicaragua, Belize, and Honduras. Even some of the literature produced in the United States cities of Miami, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana, shares certain aspects of Caribbean culture. Also included in Caribbean literature are works written by people of Caribbean ancestry who live outside the Caribbean, primarily in Europe and major urban centers of the United States.

Oral Literature

The earliest form of Caribbean literature is oral literature, consisting of a rich folktale tradition, legends and myths, and songs and poetry. It flourishes today in popular music, such as the calypso, the Cuban son, and the Puerto Rican bomba; in storytelling customs derived from West Africa and India; and in supernatural tales from African religions, including Santeria, Lucumi, Vodun, and Shango. Caribbean oral literature also thrives in proverbs, riddles, and sayings that reinterpret African, European, and East Indian traditions. Prominent among these are anancy (spider trickster) stories; animal dilemma tales, which typically teach a moral lesson; stories of village life or evil women; tall tales; and rhetorical flourishes, such as boasting, toasts, and speeches.


Caribbean Literature

Breiner, Laurence A. An Introduction to West Indian Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Literary history from the 1920s to the 1980s.

Brown, Stewart, and John Wickham. The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories. Oxford University Press, 1999. Stories by 51 Caribbean writers of the 20th century.

Donnell, Alison, and Sarah Lawson Welsh, eds. The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature. Routledge, 1996. Compilation of English-language texts.

Murray, John A. The Islands and the Sea: Five Centuries of Nature Writing from the Caribbean. Oxford University Press, 1991. Selections from a number of writers; perfect accompaniment for a Caribbean vacation.


Davies, Carole Boyce, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of English and Africana Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton. Author of Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

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