The Caribbean is home to a rich tradition of storytelling that has blossomed into respected literature

Since the earliest times, people have relied on storytelling as a way to preserve cultural traditions. While storytelling has been important in the history of many of the world's cultures, it was a particularly popular practice among African slaves who were brought to the Caribbean. However, the casual tradition of telling folk tales is evolving into a more conventional and internationally acclaimed literary form. Caribbean writers are known for their depth and their abilities to craft rich tales.


The tradition of storytelling, or "talking ol' stories" as it's called by the older generations in the Turks and Caicos, is falling out of practice in the Caribbean. But the subjects of these old tales have deep connections to the past of many islanders. Some European stories were brought by the white settlers, but a majority of the Caribbean's folk tales are most similar to Aesop's fables or the American Uncle Remus tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox - "Brer" itself is a shortened form of the word "brother."

Most traditional stories are tales of animals that were gods in Africa. Characters include Tiger, Monkey, Snake, Dog, Cat, Rabbit, Goat, Peacock, and Donkey. However, the most famous character is the trickster-god Anancy the Spider, also called Ananci, Ananse, and Brer Nancy. In Africa, Anancy had been the god of wisdom as well, and his tales of trickery delighted all ages. "Ananci Krokoko" is his name in Ashanti. It means "The Great Spider."

An important aspect of the storytelling tradition is dialect. Each of the islands developed their own dialects, and though the stories themselves may remain much the same, the dialect plays an important role in the telling. The local patois also lends an added humor to the stories, which are common anywhere Africans were brought as slaves. However, the nature of storytelling means no tale is told the same way twice, so while the tales may be familiar, each time they are told they are unique.

Now, these stories are also being passed down with music. Calypso tells these popular stories throughout the Caribbean, though Cuba's Son music and Puerto Rico's Bomba also tell tales. Some islands also feature tales in the East Indian tradition. Tales of villages and moral stories about animals are extremely common.

Literature's Themes

For many centuries, European styles dominated world literature, and the Caribbean colonies were no exception. The most popular works were autobiography and poetry from the 1500s through the mid 1800s, and the Caribbean produced its own works in this vein. A number of slave autobiographies were published in English, French, and Spanish.

Subjects of more modern Caribbean works have drifted from slave autobiographies to contemporary themes in black culture. Life for blacks in the Caribbean changed dramatically throughout the 20th century, and the ways authors handle social themes in their writing has changed as well. Some of the strongest changes in black life can be seen in the way English, French, and Spanish speaking islands have grown into very distinctly different cultures.

African traditions have become more dominant in Caribbean literature in recent years. Throughout the mid-1900s, rhythms, particularly from jazz and blues music, became an integral part of most English-Caribbean writing, but mythology from the Native Americans and Africa also grew to play an important role. At the end of the 1900s, the African and Afro-Caribbean linguistic rhythms have come to be a strong influence on many authors' works. Black and Creole cultural identity were common subjects for French-island writers.


One of the Caribbean's most famed authors, Derek Walcott, hails from St. Lucia. He is known for his poetry, though he was also a playwright, and in 1992 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, while the Caribbean itself is home to many authors, there are also a great number of authors who are of Caribbean descent but no longer live on the islands, whose stories still deal with Caribbean issues.

Jamaica Kincaid is another popular Caribbean author. Born in Antigua as Elaine Potter Richardson, she took on a pseudonym to pursue a career in writing, a career path that had earned her family's disapproval. She moved to New York as a young woman, and it was there that she first entered the world of publishing.

Cuba's Nicolas Guillen began publishing works that deal with issues of Cuba's black community. Guillen is the child of two mixed-race parents. He became friends with Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes. He composed poetry in the style of Son music, an Afro-Cuban blend.

Edwidge Danticat is another author who left her homeland. Born in Haiti, her parents left for New York when she was young, leaving her in the care of relatives who told her stories in the folkloric tradition of the island until she, too, moved at the age of 12. This has deeply influenced the style and content of her writing.

Although these are just a few of the Caribbean's most important authors, they represent the growing group of writers born on the islands who have brought their unique world view to shelves around the world.


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