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Abstract

Praisesong for the Widow (1984) tells the story of African-American Avey Johnson’s arrival in Grenada, having abandoned an opulent Caribbean cruise, and her sudden encounter with the local “excursion” on nearby Carriacou. Having experienced physical and psychological unease even before this trip she finds that, in attempting to return “home” to her comfortable life in New York, she discovers a new home, that within the transatlantic African diaspora. Ostensibly, Praisesong is a story of a woman past middle age “rediscovering herself” against the backdrop of an exotic Caribbean tourist imaginary, but Avey comes to an understanding not only of herself but of the people around her, both in present-day Carriacou and in the memories of her childhood and earlier adult life. Her past, present and future converge on her at once and, through the ritual dance that forms the novel’s climax, Marshall portrays Avey’s, and by extension all diasporic peoples’ spiritual healing, and the reclamation of our cultural and historic identity from the debilitating effects of slavery, colonialism and “Western” materialism. Avey represents the diasporic subject who must be reunited with a culture she has trained herself to deny, and this culture is not limited by geography.

I will be reading this novel through an Afrofuturistic lens, given its recovery of “the histories of counter-futures created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic projection.”[1] Praisesong is a figurative reconnection of an imagined past with a destabilised present, and a re-engagement with representations of blackness, Caribbeanness, and Africanness that transcend linguistic and spatial boundaries. The counterhistory that Marshall presents allows for an imagining of an integrated black diaspora, one that exists outside of strict geopolitical chronology.

Avey rediscovers herself and her people(s) chiefly through the figure of Lebert Joseph, her unofficial tour guide to the excursion. Joseph, however, is a manifestation of Papa Legba/Eshu Elegbara, the trickster deity of Yoruba/Fon mythology who is at once guardian of knowledge, speaker of all languages, and gatekeeper between this world and the next. Avey, who has been cut off from ancestral knowledge, can only come back to herself and her origins through the ancestors – who communicate, in turn, through him. This reconnection is cosmological as well as cultural, and through my exploration of the characterisation of Lebert Joseph I will argue that Marshall uses African mythology – which she turns into Caribbean cosmology – to envision a black future identity that is not “American,” not “Caribbean,” not strictly “African,” but one that belongs to black people from all of these “nations,” and from which we can all build a trans-temporal, transnational future.

[1] Kelly Baker Josephs, ‘Beyond Geography, Past Time: Afrofuturism, The Rainmaker’s Mistake, and Caribbean Studies,’ Small Axe 17, 2013, pp.123-135 (p.126).

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