Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 1–26 | Cite as

Trans(l)atlantic I-Con: the Many Shapes of Ananse in Contemporary Literatures

  • Pietro Deandrea


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  1. 1.
    The Twi spelling ‘Ananse’ will be used here for the sake of homogeneity. Needless to say, its variants ‘Anansi’, ‘Anancy’, ‘Annancy*, ‘Nancy’ and ‘Nansi’ will be maintained when quoted from other works.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic — Modernity and Double Consciousness, London & New York, Verso, 1993; cf., for instance, p. 151 on Richard Wright.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Their trade, contrary to what Byron’s epigraph says, is far from being sullen.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    William J. Hynes and William G. Dotty (eds.), Mythical Trickster Figures — Contours, Contexts, Criticism, Tuscaloosa and London, University of Alabama Press, 1993, p. 2.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    One should also think of American Indian tricksters and their long penis, here; cf. Paul Radin, The Trickster — A Study in American Indian Mythology, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956, p. x.Google Scholar
  6. 5a.
    Ananse, after all, does not hesitate to make love to his beautiful daughter, thus killing her, in another tale; cf. Z. Konrad,, Ewe Comic Heroes, pp. 231—34.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Zinta Konrad, Ewe Comic Heroes — Trickster Tales in Togo, New York & London, Garland, 1994,p. 249.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Cf. Z. Konrad, Ewe Comic Heroes, pp. 156, 224, 226, 245, 253, 254, 258, 260.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Cf. unspecified author, Tales Collected in Baglo and Odumase/Buem, Central-Volta Region, Humboldt University, Institute of Africanistic, 1964, Tale XVII, pp. 42–44.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Cf. Mary Esther Kropp Dakubu and Phyllis Riby-Williams, Ga Adesai Komei — Stories in Ga, Legon, Institute of African Studies — University of Ghana, 1972, p. 8.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Cf. J. Osafoa Dankyi, Ananse Searches for a Fool and other stories, Accra, Sedco, 1994, pp. 26–37.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Cf. David M. Abrams and Brian Sutton-Smith, ‘The Development of the Trickster in Children’s Narrative’, Journal of American Folklore 90.358 (1977), pp. 29–7, where the authors’ survey demonstrates how the children’s creative attitude in inventing trickster tales is symptomatic of a higher level of logical development. The most immediately useful teaching Ananse provides to a child is contained, amongst the works I have read to date, in a novel by Fred D’Aguiar: while being victim of a severe concussion, the young protagonist Red Head is tortured by the painful apparition of a tiny devil, but he clings to real facts by recollecting an Ananse story narrated by his teacher in order to explain to his students the working of fractionsGoogle Scholar
  13. 11a.
    F. D’Aguiar, Dear Future, London, Chatto and Windus, 1996, pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Christopher Vecsey, ‘The Exception Who Proves the Rules: Ananse the Akan Trickster’, in Hynes and Dotty (eds.), Mythical, p. 118. Cf. alsoGoogle Scholar
  15. 12a.
    Kwawisi Tekpetey, ‘The Trickster in Akan-Asante Oral Literature’, Asemka —A Bilingual Literary Journal of the University of Cape Coast 5 (September 1979), pp. 78–82.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Cf. Z. Konrad, Ewe Comic Heroes, p. 139.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    According to Vecsey, Ananse subverts and revalidates, challenges and reinforces, being ‘the exception who probes and proves the rules’; ‘Exception’, p. 119.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Cf. Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa -A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, Berkeley and Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1980, pp. 1–2, and also pp. 35–51.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    Cf. also A.W. Cardinal, Tales Told in Togoland, London, Humphrey Mildford and Oxford University Press, 1931, pp. 36–40. According to a LoDagaa myth from northwestern Ghana, the spider’s web can help the hero to climb to heaven and see God; cf.Google Scholar
  20. 16a.
    Jack Goody, The Myth of the Bagre, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972, pp. 27, 62.Google Scholar
  21. 17.
    Cf. Z. Konrad, Ewe Comic Heroes, p. 49.Google Scholar
  22. 18.
    So that the word for ‘folktales’ changed from ‘Nyankonsem’ to ‘Anansesem’; cf.Google Scholar
  23. 18a.
    Lawrence A. Boadi, ‘The Language of the Proverb in Akan’, in Richard K. Priebe (ed.), Ghanaian Literatures, New York and Westport and London, Greenwood Press, 1988, Contributions to Afro—American and African Studies no. 120, p. 30.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    In Twi, the language of the Akan peoples, poetry is called ‘anwonsem’, ‘word-weaving’.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    Joseph Boakye Danquah, The Third Woman, London and Redhill, United Society for Christian Literature, 1943, p. 11.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    Cf. Efua Theodora Sutherland, The Marriage of Anansewa, Harlow, Longman, 1975.Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    For a more detailed study of this phenomenon, cf. Pietro Deandrea, Fertile Crossings - Metamorphoses of Genre in Anglophone West African Literature, Amsterdam and New York, Rodopi, 2002, pp. 185–97.Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments, 1969, London, Heinemann, 1974, p. 4. Cf. also the stylised Ananse on a bank’s façade, p. 66.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    Cf. also the proverb ‘Dua baako gye mframa a bu’: ‘If one tree alone stands in the path of the wind, it falls’. Florence Abena Dolphyne, A Comprehensive Course in Twi (Asante)for the Non-Twi Learner, Accra, Ghana Universities Press, 1996, p. 127.Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    There exists, after all, a Banana Spider (Heteropoda Venatoria), rather common in Jamaica, which ‘arrives as an unwilling stowaway in shipments of bananas’; it ‘could very well be the Anancy of Jamaican folklore’, according to the arachnologist Tom Farr; ‘Seven Spiders’, Jamaica Journal 4.3 (September 1970), p. 27.Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    P. Gilroy, Black Atlantic, p. 13.Google Scholar
  32. 27.
    Wilson Harris, ‘History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas’, in Andrew Bundy (ed.), The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination — Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, London, Routledge, 1999, p. 157.Google Scholar
  33. 28.
    Alistair Campbell, Anansi, Welton-on-Thames (Surrey), Thomas Nelson, 1992, pp. 8, 12, 15,24.Google Scholar
  34. 29.
    Olive Senior, ‘Nansi ‘Tory’, Callaloo 11.3 (Summer 1988), pp. 531–33.Google Scholar
  35. 30.
    Cf. Diane J. Austin-Broos, Jamaica Genesis — Religion and the Politics of the Moral Order, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 46.Google Scholar
  36. 31.
    Lawrence L. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness — Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 105.Google Scholar
  37. 32.
    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, N.Y., Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 5–42.Google Scholar
  38. 33.
    Richard D.E. Burton, Afro-Creole — Power, Opposition and Play in the Caribbean, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 50–51.Google Scholar
  39. 34.
    Cf. Gordon K. Lewis, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought — The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492–1900, Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, p. 179.Google Scholar
  40. 35.
    Generally speaking, Ananse stories are considered very tricky just like Ananse himself, and their careless use can create serious trouble. In Pauline Melville’s short story T Do Not Take Messages from Dead People’, the radio broadcaster Shakespeare McNab lazily chooses ‘Anancy and Hog’ for the reading of his programme: it will cause an angry reaction by the vice-president of Guyana, Hogg, being an involuntary hint at the rumour concerning Hogg’s killing of his own wifeGoogle Scholar
  41. 35a.
    cf. P. Melville, Shape-Shifter, 1990, London, Picador, 1991, pp. 1–6.Google Scholar
  42. 36.
    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey’, in Figures in Black — Words, Signs and the ‘Racial’ Self, 1987, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 235–47. Cf. also the representation of Esu as having two mouths, mentioned by Gates in The Signifying Monkey, p. xxv. Another interpretation of Ananse through Gates’s theories on Signifyin(g) is offered in B.O.M. Gibbs’s Ananse: From Africa to the West Indies, unpublished research, University of Warwick, 1992, pp. 8–11.Google Scholar
  43. 37.
    Cf. Sylvia Winter, ‘Jonkonnu in Jamaica — Towards the Interpretation of Folk Dance as a Cultural Process’, Jamaica Journal 4.2 (June 1970), p. 45, where the author rightly observes that African high religious traditions could not survive under the plantation system, and therefore religious myths inevitably suffered a distortion. Beryl Gilroy states that Ananse was ‘criminalised’ by the slave trade, even though she seems to idealize the West African, pre-Middle Passage trickster in ‘Who Criminalised Ananse?’, Leaves in the Wind — Collected Writings, edited by Joan Anim- Addo, London, Mango Publishing, 1998, pp. 180–81.Google Scholar
  44. 37a.
    Cf. also O.R. Dathorne, Dark Ancestor — The Literature of the Black Man in the Caribbean, Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1981, p. 44Google Scholar
  45. 37b.
    Anthony McNeill, ‘Dennis Scott, Maker — Part 1, ‘Journeys”, Jamaica Journal 5.4 (December 1971), p. 50Google Scholar
  46. 37b.
    D.J. Austin-Broos, Jamaica Genesis, p. 47Google Scholar
  47. 37.
    Jan Carew, ‘The Caribbean Writer and Exile’, in Onyekachi Wambu (ed.), Empire Windrush — Fifty Years of Writing About Black Britain, 1998, London, Phoenix, 1999, p. 298.Google Scholar
  48. 37c.
    An original theory, propounded by the Ghanaian scholar Kwadjo Opoku-Agyemang, considers the West African Ananse, too, as a product of the slave trade, of ‘the victim society created by slavery and slave wars’; ‘The Logic of Escape in the Akan Trickster Tale’, Asemka -A Literary Journal of the University of Cape Coast 8 (1995), pp. 102–103. In both his essays and poems, Opoku-Agyemang has been carrying a very intriguing investigation into the disruptive psycho-social effects of slavery in the Akan communities. It seems hard, though, to accept his theory completely, when it implicitly erases the existence of Ananse before the slave trade began.Google Scholar
  49. 38.
    L.L. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, pp. 83, 90, 104.Google Scholar
  50. 39.
    V.S. Reid, New Day, 1949, London, Heinemann, 1973, pp. 19, 23, 39, 57, 77, 92.Google Scholar
  51. 40.
    Mervyn Morris, introduction to New Day, no page reference.Google Scholar
  52. 41.
    Trevor Rhone, Old Story Time and other plays (with School’s Out and Smile Orange), Harlow, Longman, 1981, p. 177.Google Scholar
  53. 42.
    T. Rhone, Smile Orange, p. 190.Google Scholar
  54. 43.
    T. Rhone, Smile Orange, p. 177.Google Scholar
  55. 44.
    Cf. Frederic G. Cassidy, Jamaica Talk — Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica, London/New York, MacMillan and St. Martin’s Press and Institute of Jamaica, 1961, p. 276. According to Cassidy, such pronunciation flaws have a direct connection with the Twi language; cf. p. 42.Google Scholar
  56. 45.
    Cf. David Lowenthal, West Indian Societies, New York, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 274.Google Scholar
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    Cf. ‘David Johnson talks to Yvonne Brewster about Louise Bennett’, Kunapipi XX.l (1998), pp. 74–76. On the jamaicanization of theatre, cf. Wycliffe Bennett, ‘The Jamaican Theatre -An Overview’, Jamaica Journal 8.2/3 (Summer 1974), pp. 3–9; Alex Gradussov, ‘Thoughts about the Theatre in Jamaica’, Jamaica Journal 4.1 (March 1990), p. 50.Google Scholar
  58. 47.
    Cf. Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh, The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, London, Routledge, 1996, pp. 122–23.Google Scholar
  59. 48.
    Cf., for instance, Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s History of the Voice — The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry, London, New Beacon, 1984, passim.Google Scholar
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    Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, 1981, Trans. J. Michael Dash, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1989, p. 282.Google Scholar
  61. 50.
    Cf. R.D.E. Burton, Afro-Creole, pp. 62–63. On the complex implications of Ananse in the Caribbean, cf. also Helen Tiffin, ‘The Metaphor of Anancy in Caribbean Literature’, in Robert Sellick (ed.), Myth and Metaphor, Adelaide, Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English, 1982, Crnle Essays and Monograph Series No. 1, pp. 21–22. With regard to the scapegoat role, one should mention the impressive case of the commission of inquiry set up in Ghana to investigate into corruption, which ‘seemed to have come to the conclusion that the tendency to misuse public office for personal gain may in fact have something to do with the dominant presence of Kweku Ananse in Ghanaian folklore’Google Scholar
  62. 50a.
    Kofi Anyidoho, ‘National Identity and the Language of Metaphor’, in K. Anyidoho and James Gibbs (eds.), FonTomFrom — Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theater and Film (Matatu, Journal for African Culture and Society, nos. 21–22), Amsterdam and Atlanta, Rodopi, 2002, p. 11.Google Scholar
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    B. Gilroy, ‘Who Criminalised Ananse?’, p. 180.Google Scholar
  64. 52.
    L.L. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, pp. 98–120.Google Scholar
  65. 53.
    Burton aptly analyses the ‘numerous progeny he [Ananse] has spawned in West Indian legend and life’, concentrating on Caribbean politicians; R.D.E. Burton, Afro-Creole, p. 64, and cf. also pp. 144–55 (on Bustamante), 258–61.Google Scholar
  66. 54.
    Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, ‘tek a trip from Kingston to Jamaica’, On the Edge of an Island, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1997, pp. 20–21.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Michael Gilkes, Couvade -A Dream-Play of Guyana, 1974, Sidney, Dangaroo Press, 1990, pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
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    M. Gilkes, Couvade, pp. 7, 30, 55, 59.Google Scholar
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    E. Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, p. 109.Google Scholar
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    Caryl Phillips, introduction to The European Tribe, London, Faber and Faber, 1987.Google Scholar
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    E. Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, cf. especially pp. 100 and 162 on the Caribbean as a ‘field of relationship’. Cf. also Poetique de la relation, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, pp. 74–75, 125.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed study of Glissant’s theories, cf. his translator’s J. Michael Dash’s The Other America — Caribbean Literature in a New World Context, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, pp. 11–14, 147–58.Google Scholar
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    Erna Brodber, ‘Oral Sources and the Creation of a Social History of the Caribbean’, Jamaica Journal 16.4 (November 1983), p. 7Google Scholar
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    L.L. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, pp. 95–96, 110.Google Scholar
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    Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang, ‘Gender-Role Perceptions in the Akan Folktale’, Research in African Literatures 30.1 (Spring 1999), pp. 118–20, 137–38.Google Scholar
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    Cf. also Carole Boyce Davies, “Woman Is a Nation...’ Women in Caribbean Oral Literature’, in C.B. Davies and Elaine Savoury Fido (eds.), Out of the Kumbla — Caribbean Women and Literature, Trenton (NJ), Africa World Press, 1990, p. 165.Google Scholar
  80. 66.
    Significantly, in both Ghana and the Caribbean the pioneer figures who initiated Anansean written literature in Enghsh were women — Efua T. Sutherland and Louise Bennett.Google Scholar
  81. 67.
    Donnell and Welsh, Routledge Reader, pp. 149–50. According to the critic Carolyn Cooper, in her poem ‘Jamaica Oman’ Louise Bennett fuses Ananse’s tricksterism with the ability of the Jamaican woman to deal amicably with her male partnerGoogle Scholar
  82. 67a.
    cf. C. Cooper, Noises in the Blood — Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture, London, MacMillan, 1993, Warwick University Caribbean Studies, p. 48Google Scholar
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    Louise Bennett, Selected Poems, 1982, Kingston, Sangster’s Books, 1983, p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Cf. R.D. Pelton, Trickster in West Africa, pp. 35, 57–59.Google Scholar
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    Wilson Harris, ‘History, Fable and Myth’, p. 158; cf. also pp. 156–59. The equation artist=trickster is developed on p. 166. The drive towards an ethno-cultural synthesis is the same principle expounded in Gilkes’s Couvade which, in fact, is inspired by Harris’s theories.Google Scholar
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    H.L. Gates, Jr., ‘Blackness of Blackness’, p. 239.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Joyce Jonas, Anancy in the Great House — Ways of Reading West African Fiction, New York and Westport (CT) and London, Greenwood Press, 1990, Contributions in Afro- American and African Studies no. 136, pp. 2–3, 33, 41, 52, 132.Google Scholar
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    Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island — The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, 1992, Trans. James Maraniss, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 11, 190, 295. Gates defines African-American ‘Signification’, as opposed to Standard English ‘signification’, as having the same fluid nature: ‘Whereas signification depends for order and coherence on the exclusion of unconscious associations which any given word yield at any given time, Signification luxuriates in the inclusion of the free play of [...] associative rhetorical and semantic relations’; Signifying Monkey, p. 50.Google Scholar
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    J. Jonas, Anancy in the Great House, p. 73.Google Scholar
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    Kojo Laing, Major Genu and the Achimota Wars, London, Heinemann, 1992, p. 1.Google Scholar
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    Cf. R.D. Pelton, Trickster in West Africa, pp. 68–70.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed study of Laing’s works, cf. P. Deandrea, Fertile Crossings, pp. 71–79, 92- 110, 168–74.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Mervyn Morris, ‘Anancy and Andrew Salkey’, Jamaica Journal 19.4 (November 1986 / January 1987), p. 40, where the critic notices how ‘Anancy can play all sides in this divided world’ and Salkey fully uses his creative freedom to develop all those sides.Google Scholar
  105. 89.
    Andrew Salkey, Anancy’s Score, London, Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1973, p. 65. Helen Tiffin denotes Salkey’s greater pessimism, if compared to Brathwaite and Harris’s views, on the issue of the trickster’s regenerative possibilities vis-a-vis history, cf. ‘Metaphor of Anancy’, p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Roy Audrey Kelvin Heath, Kwaku, Or the Man Who Could not Keep His Mouth Shut, 1982, London and New York, Marion Boyars, 1997; The Ministry of Hope, London and New York, Marion Boyars, 1997.Google Scholar
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    R.A.K. Heath, Kwaku, p. 127.Google Scholar
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    R.A.K. Heath, Kwaku, pp. 15, 65–67. In the sequel novel the same symbolism recurs when the Minister kills one of Kwaku’s friends by throwing him in the very same conservancy; cf. Ministry, pp. 256–57.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Ian H. Munro, ‘Roy A.K. Heath’, in B. Lindfors and R. Sander (eds.), Dictionary of Literary Biography 117: 20th Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, Detroit, Bruccoli Clark Layman / Gale, 1991, p. 199.Google Scholar
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    Cf. also Chiji Akoma, ‘Folklore and the African- Caribbean Narrative: The Example of Roy Heath’, Research in African Literatures 29.3 (Fall 1998), p. 94. Compare Kwaku’s creative disruptions with Glissant’s idea of the computer virus as a healthy sign of disorder and with his view of the science of chaos as including the accidental in a way similar to poetry; Poetique de la relation, p. 152.Google Scholar
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    Symbolized by Kwaku’s Ghanaian first name and his East Indian sounding family name, Cholmondley.Google Scholar
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    In Stuart Hall’s words, ‘the diaspora of a diaspora. The Caribbean is already the diaspora of Africa, Europe, China, Asia, India and this diaspora re-diasporized itself here’; ‘The Formation of a Diasporic Intellectual’, in O. Wambu (ed.), Empire Windrush, p. 205.Google Scholar
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    M. Harris, Limbolands, London, Mango Publishing, 1999, p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Maggie Harris, Foreday Morning — Poems Inspired by the Caribbean, Maggie Harris, 2000, p. 40. The folk roots described as ‘beads’ might be compared with Grace Nichols’s poem ‘one continent / to another’: it is about the Middle Passage, and the enslaved protagonist is depicted as ‘walking beadless / in another land’ (G. Nichols, i is a long-memoried woman, London, Caribbean Cultural International Karnak House, 1983, p. 7). Maggie Harris’s image could be construed as a sign of a more solid identity, of a less traumatic passage.Google Scholar
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    P. Gilroy, Black Atlantic, chapter 2, pp. 41–71.Google Scholar
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    I have borrowed this expression from the Ghanaian poet Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang’s collection Cape Coast Castle, Accra, Afram, 1996, p. 12.Google Scholar
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    Stuart Hall et al, ‘Re-inventing Britain: A Forum’, Wasafiri 29 (Spring 1999), p. 43.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of the Journal of Transatlantic Studies 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Pietro Deandrea
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Foreign Languages and LiteraturesUniversity of TorinoItaly

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