by Kaiama Glover, French, Barnard College
Michael Dash’s article explicitly states its concern with the “anxieties of place and belonging” that lead to a certain “spatial emphasis in postcolonial criticism” and the concomitant reliance on a series of increasingly unhelpful binaries: either a “homogenizing, ahistorical wholeness” or an “emphasis on displacement and diaspora;” either a call for attachment to place à la Peter Hallward or the devaluation of territoriality à la Chris Bongie; either a Césairean affirmation of the local and specific or a Glissantian emphasis on wandering and deterritorialization; etc.
Dash proposes an elegant approach to negotiating these binaries in his thoughtful mobilization of the chronotope of the ship. He offers a convincing articulation of the ship – or bateau-prison – as a metaphorical space that can hold in tension the unique combination of movement and immobility that is the Afro-Atlantic experience. From C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and Edouard Glissant’s configuration of Toussaint as both imprisoned within and liberated from Fort Joux, to James’ reading of Melville’s “mariners, renegades, and castaways” as the proper heros of Moby Dick, to Césaire’s multiple accounts of “contained openness,” the Caribbean literary tradition is marked profoundly, Dash argues, by iterations of this central marine trope. Dash reads the portraits of various men on boats, as it were, in Caribbean literature as so many exemplars of the “true citizens of the hemisphere” who, via what he dubs their “renegade subjectivity,” issue a challenge to the concept of privileged, hegemonic national or cultural identity.
While I by no means dispute the legitimacy – indeed, the usefulness – of such a reading, my engagement with Dash’s essay posits an interrogation of this notion of the bateau-prison from somewhat of a materialist perspective. I’m interested, that is, in thinking about these vessels of always-potential liberation in light of present-day, “real-world” iterations of the bateau-prison trope. In thinking about these literary ships, it would seem important to evoke, for example, the literal floating detention centers controlled by government agencies of the United States and the United Kingdom (exposed in 2005 and again in 2008) where “ghost prisoners” – individuals denied protective anchoring to a sovereign homeland – languish in the international waters of the Indian Ocean. At least as imperative would be a more thorough consideration of those 20th and 21st century Haitians – literal New World castaways and would-be refugees – shipwrecked and lost at sea or turned away from hostile beaches in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Florida…How do we transform the “outposts of the sea” imagined by Glissant as “places of imprisonment and liberation” with the military reality of these spaces as armed boundary-enforcers or colonial settlements linked inextricably to the nation-state?
Without rehearsing Colin Dayan and others’ critique of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, I nevertheless want to be sure to emphasize what I’m perceiving as somewhat of a disconnect between the almost celebratory – or at the very least positively inflected – portraits painted by James and Glissant (and we might make the connection to Walcott’s “heraldic men” here as well) and the material realities of the contemporary Atlantic world. I am asking, that is, how thoroughly these figures “escape from the prison house of imperial narrative” to “proclaim the enduring force of revolutionary ideals.” What exactly are the parameters of their “marine errancy” or “psychic marronnage;” or, more precisely, what or where do such moving metaphors – or metaphors of movement – “get” victimized and disenfranchised individuals and communities in the face of unrelenting social and political constraint? I suppose I’m asking where, more specifically, we can locate the liberation Glissant evokes and connect the important points Dash makes in his dystopian conclusions with the implications of his optimistic epigraphs?
In the end, the trope of the bateau-prison is perhaps most viable and valuable in that it has in fact enabled so many of the political poets of the Afro-Americas to write. It enabled Césaire to conceptualize his journey home – both to Martinique and to sub-Saharan West Africa – from within the spaces of a European continent on the verge of the second World War; it enabled Glissant to imagine himself outside the stultifying space of 1950s Paris, and it enabled James to express his ultimate faith in the revolutionary capacity of the written word from the space of a US prison cell during the height of McCarthyism.
Indeed, as Dash makes plain, there is no denying the prevalence and the richness of the bateau-prison metaphor in Caribbean literature – its haunting of the New World imagination. Even so, the extent to which contemporary (im)migrants and/or imprisoned Caribbean subalterns experience its liberatory dimensions is somewhat less clear. (At what point) do these literary evocations of the bateau-prison propose, then, a coherent discursive position? (In what way) do they engage with the questions of class, power, and subalternity explicitly and implicitly at issue for the writers Dash examines?