Although some critics regard the “folk story” and literary short story as different entities, most contemporary West Indian writers and poets have been aware of the oral traditions in their own writing, utilizing the character of Anancy, the trickster spider, or Ol’ Higue, the bloodsucking witch. The Anancy or “nancy stories” seemed an appropriate colonial metaphor for the Caribbean, illustrating the possibility of the powerless to survive and overcome larger forces than oneself with cunning, patience and wit. Whether or not attributions of traditional folklore, notably depictions of Anancy, play an appropriate role in Caribbean writing today is a chief argument challenging folklore. Does Anancy’s male trickster identity still apply to the Caribbean or should it be abandoned?

While the folktale tradition has greatly influenced the movement towards the language of speech becoming vernacular narration, certain writers have taken stories and characters out of the oral tradition and re-created them in a literary context. In many cases these writers use legendary figures as agents of meaning. By reinventing Anancy, the folktale serves as an aesthetic construct that informs characterization as well as a viable means of representing reality by the Caribbean writer.

Transcending these differences of name, the spider-figure

provides images of memory and survival, compromise and

obstinacy, past and present, that are directly related to a wider

process of creolization which is crucial to the formation and

understanding of the West Indian cultural heritage” (Tortello 2).

In recent texts, Anancy takes on new roles, and even claims to be as much female as male in Andrew Salky’s “Anancy and Jeffery Amherst.” For writers such as Andrew Salky and Willi Chen, the representation of the mythic imagination taken from folklore is not a matter of ornamentation in their work. Rather it functions as the means adopted by these writers of questioning the Caribbean reality through myth, and above all, constructing an aesthetic model that takes into consideration both the post-colonial world and the roots of the Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Andrew Salky remains one of the most well known innovators of the Anancy tale, as the legend formed the basis for his novels and short stories. In “Anancy and Jeffrey Amherst,” in which Anancy is sent to seek out a military official to answer to English atrocities for Caribbea, the protagonist appears at first mention to be the character of the folk tradition, called “Brother Anancy.” Yet when next described by the narrator, we get a revelation about his character which becomes a theme throughout the story. Brother Anancy is “the ancient African and Caribbean spider-man, who was also a woman” (Markham11). Salky reinforces the authority of Anancy’s presence in mentioning the folk hero’s historical background as well: “Amherst’s English ruling class clip didn’t unnerve Anancy in the slightest; as an African and Caribbean spiderman-woman, he had been well accustomed to that sort of Albion ambush, ever since the gimlet years of the Middle Passage” (Markham 12). Salky’s contemporary version of Anancy utilizes another folktale element—duality—to create a literary hybrid. Not only is Anancy both female and male, but of the present and of the past. Jeffrey Amherst tries to dismiss Anancy, thinking the odd gender fusion a sign of weakness, but realizes he has been approached by a strong figure that will not let him off easily:

‘And who are you?’

‘A spider-man who is also a woman.’

‘An unusual fusion?’

‘Only because the universal ancestors have kept the two quite

separate for ages.’

‘Still, absolutely extraordinary that you should claim such a duality.’

‘Two heads, two souls, always better than one of anything’ (Markham12).

Here Salky addresses the issue of creolization and blended ethnicity in theCaribbeanas a strength, not a weakness. Amherst’s reason for giving infected blankets to Indians disturbs Anancy, even though the reader can clearly see which character is in the wrong. Amherst’s definition of survival puts down weaker peoples, while Anancy’s is based on cunning wit and optimism to survive the tactics of Amherst. The agenda ofAmherst, a symbol of the British colonial power and Anancy, of the African Caribbean man and woman, are in perpetual opposition, as the empire still maintains influence over former colonies today. In the end, Anancy is disheartened by the clash. “He paused and closed his man-woman selves, tight shut, so that he would be able to heal the terrible crater” (Markham13). Even Anancy, superhero character that he/she is, has doubts about “two heads, two souls”—the blending of backgrounds existing in the Caribbean—being better than “one of anything.”

“Anancy and Jeffrey Amherst” demonstrates how Anancy is a universal and timeless Afro-Caribbean participant as well as authority figure, able to apply to the post-colonial identity and creolization issues of the today’s Caribbean due to the folktale character adopting a broader, hybrid form. Anancy’s relevance to the literary movement, however, is relatively new as writers sought to reconnect with folklore as a contemporary aesthetic.

Part of the colonial agenda was to convince its African subjects to believe the concept that “progress” derived from a Western consciousness, as represented by Western literary paradigms such as the novel (Akoma 2). Following the literary awakening in the Caribbean in the 1930s, writers shied away from the traditional European aesthetic and began to uncover their own. Folktales and legends, which had been forced underground by a colonial empire, surfaced again and were rediscovered by the post-independent literary movement in the 1950s and 60s, but the initial encounter was problematic. The folkways had become “fakeways” exploited politically for cultural nationalism and the growing tourist industry (Rohlehr 8-9). Poets and writers sought to give folk traditions an everyday appeal, a challenge when for so long folklore had been considered eccentric. The literature based on oral tradition and folktales resulted in creating a unique Caribbean aesthetic, such as the Anancy myth that has informed the structure and supplied ethic for Salky’s Caribbean stories and novels, among others.

Several writers making up the Caribbean literary scene today bring twists from different cultural backgrounds to the Anancy tale, and new versions of Anancy emerge from this melting pot to play various roles in fiction. Willi Chen’s game-cock trainer in “Moro” is not so much a trickster as an underdog trying to overcome the odds of defeating a foreigner on home turf, and makes more use of disciplined routine and patience than cunning. Abandoning the characteristic of Anancy’s blatant trickery, the story plays up other elements found in an Anancy tale of the past to recreate the folkhero in a more modern form. While Salky used a folktale style to tell “Anancy and Jeffrey Amherst” along with the characters of Anancy and Caribbea, Chen takes an entirely different stylistic approach for his Anancy allegory.

In Chen’s tale, a rich game cock owner seeks out a poor game cock trainer, Moro, known for his discipline and serious training, to help train his birds against the champion Spanish cocks coming toTrinidad. When Mr. Holman, the owner, asks, “Think we have a chance, Moro? Think Trinidad will finally be in the picture?” he foreshadows a symbolic showdown between post-independent Trinidad and a former dominating colonial influence (Markham296). Moro gives an Anancy-like answer. “Time’ll tell, boss…dem oversea cocks is world-class, but dat doh mean a thing. A good fighter cock could come from the bush. Get what ah say?” (Markham296). Moro is quick to point out that breeding and strength alone aren’t enough to win every time. The Trinidadian cocks entering the fight as the underdogs are representative of the Anancy folkhero along with Moro. The stakes rise for the Trinidadian cocks after their champion, Satan, is defeated by El Diablo.

With just three victories to the Trinidadians, they acknowledged

defeat. There was an aggressiveness in the foreign birds which

could never be found in their own cocks. Holman recognized the

superiority and fighting instincts in the five cocks fromHaitiand

Martinique, and knew there was a strong need for more training

and breeding to develop a stronger fighting strain (Markham298).

Through the cockfight, Chen illustrates the many challenges facing Trinidad in competition with the outside world. The evident “superiority” of the foreigners causes them to realize the need for better education and preparedness for their birds, in addition to a need for “aggressiveness” in facing competition. It seems, for the moment, all is lost, and the Trinidadian cocks must adopt outside ways of training and breeding in order to gain equal footing with the foreigners, or else lag behind.

However, Moro returns to the ring with a new opponent for El Diablo, one of his own birds:

It stood tall, its head almost round, but it had no tail…It was odd

looking with its large, round head and the stump of short feathers

for a tail. Once in the arena, the tailless bird evoked laughter from

the crowd. It was weighed, and someone remarked about going

back home for its clothes, but Moro stood his ground proudly

(Markham298-299).

The red and black Dom functions as a significant symbol for the melting pot of ethnicities in Trinidadian society, where, in comparison to other Caribbean islands, creolization occurred to a much greater extent with the migration of East Indians and Chinese adding to the population. Creolization, defined by Brathwaite in his rewriting of the history of Jamaica, explains how the Trinidadian pyramid of social structure was hardly fixed (Chandrasekaran 2). Instead, a productive interaction developed, and because of the mixed origin of its occupants, Trinidad, likeJamaica, experienced a high level of creolization (Chandrasekaran 2). The Dom doesn’t look like a purebred because he isn’t purebred, and therefore is not taken as a serious threat by the observers. “Again there was laughter at the tailless Trinidad bird, though it stood taller than the red Spanish terror…many were hesitant to put their money on the Trinidad fighter. El Diablo was the red menace, conqueror from overseas, the one always victorious” (Markham299).

Chen sets us up for the unfolding of a modern Anancy allegory relating a new world experience. Islands such as Trinidad continue to struggle to prove legitimacy in a world that would rather “put their money” in one of the “conquerors from overseas” rather than risk investment in a post-independent country. Only Moro has confidence in his bird. The Trinidadian Dom waits for his opportunity until El Diablo strikes before making the fatal blow. The underdog outsmarts his great opponent and wins.

To Holman and his fellow trainers, it meant they had arrived at a

milestone in the sport, and that with dedication and continuous

training and breeding, they would be able to produce their own

successful strain. Moro had proven that by entering his tailless

battler, which he had raised in his own yard. ‘No more Venezuelan

cocks,’ Moro heard someone say. ‘Just now we goh do our own

exporting’ (Markham300).

In “Moro” the Anancy folktale is successfully adapted to show the Trinidadian capability to use their homegrown strength and skillful wit to triumph over adversity, namely to hold their own against the threat of foreign competition. The Anancy characteristics as demonstrated by Moro aren’t necessarily of the trickster, but rather of self-reliance and self-affirmation.

Both Salky and Chen use the Anancy tale as the basis for theme, structure and character to effectively convey meaning in their work. Though the styles and stories themselves differ greatly with Salky’s spider man-woman and Chen’s gamecock trainer, the folklore aesthetic functions today largely due to the freedom the contemporary authors have with which Anancy characteristics they chose to focus on from the tales. Trickery may no longer be in the forefront, but Anancy’s wit, patience, and determination are strengths capable of overcoming adversity and the challenges of creolization. “According to…Brathwaite, (creolization) is defined as ‘a cultural action, material, psychological and spiritual based upon the stimulus response of individuals to their environment and as white/black culturally discrete groups to each other’” (Tortello 2). Thus, the use of folklore itself as a literary aesthetic is one method of the creolization process for Caribbean writers. The select experiences that make up the society’s cultural consciousness reinforce the role of myth in realism.

“Realism to the African-Caribbean is both material and

transcendent. From the ordinariness of everyday existence

to the scars of a traumatic historical experience, the community

weaves narratives that validate and give life to that existence,

as well as establish themselves as the totem for group

identity and destiny” (Akoma 3).

The ability of Anancy to change into many forms and assume a dualistic nature allows writers such as Salky and Chen to look at him for inspiration as a way to solve the trials of everyday experience, ensuring the folk tradition will retain its place in Afro-Caribbean literature for years to come.

 

 

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