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“Remembering” Classical Antiquity and the construction of “post-colonial” identity in the Caribbean and Central America


Giulia Champion. University of Warwick. UK.

“Remembering” Classical Antiquity and the construction of “post-colonial” identity in the Caribbean and Central America

Giulia Champion. University of Warwick. UK.


While classical antiquity and Europe do not have a linear and continuous history, the culture and literature from this period have been a major part of European identity construction, as this part of the west cultivates this period as its direct ancestry, especially during colonialism. Hence, the ‘classics’ also had a presence in Europe’s colonies imposing a displaced identity onto the colonies’ inhabitants. As the Martinican author Aimé Césaire explains, “nos ancêtres les gaulois” was a lesson that both amused and confused him and his schoolmates. Thus, the necessity to construct a “postcolonial” identity differently arises, and adapting the ‘classics’ that have been imposed onto the former colonies can be a way to achieve it. As the Cuban author José Martí declared in his essay “Nuestra América” (“Our America”): “Nuestra Grecia es preferible a la Grecia que no es nuestra” (“Our Greece is preferable to the Greece which is not ours”), thereby reshaping the remembrance of the classical, as well as the colonial, past. Remembering and rewriting classical Antiquity thus become part of a broader identity construction achieved through literary adaptation.

In my paper, I would like to explore four literary productions from the Caribbean and Central America which either fully, or partially, use Classical sources to address issues of exile and homecoming. From Odysseus’s nostos to Medea’s exiles, both themes play a major role in Classical Antiquity as well as in the context of former colonies and identity construction. Adapting the Classics aims, on the one hand, to wrest them from the Western hegemonic intellectual discourse in order for former colonies to re/write for themselves a new hybrid identity and to instate it in the cultural sphere. By deconstructing negative figures such as the barbarian, in adaptations of Medea, the rewritings aim to rehabilitate such characters that have been attached to the identity of former colonies’ inhabitants. Similarly, this deconstruction destabilises the binary between Greek and Barbarian that can be found in the tragedy of the fifth century, such dichotomies are not absolute in Euripides’s plays, in which ambiguity offers for adaptation and rewriting. On the other hand, by focusing on the question to determine where “home” is, and whether one fits in such a context, more precise questions around identity arise. The Caribbean colonies and Central America have been “discovered”, “conquered” and colonised by European powers, and to the present-day questions of independence and identity are challenging.

I will focus on four adaptations that questions the notions of exile and homecoming in relation to identity and race. Both themes will be analysed in Alfonso Reyes Mexican play Ifigenia Cruel, in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, in Derek Walcott’s The Odyssey: A Play, and in Cherríe Moraga’s The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. The Classical intertext is not merely used as a framework to express the difficulty of a contemporary situations to the narratives, but it is also challenged in its construction of notions of power relations and discrimination, of human difference and identities. This varied range of works addresses not only Spanish and British colonialism and its remnants in Mexico and Saint Lucia, but also France’s tumultuous relations with its colonies and its push for assimilation. It also investigates the Chicano critique of American neo-imperialism in the Americas and of traditional Mexican values and culture as a reaction to it. Furthermore, I have chosen these works despite their differences in form and in structure in order to present a diverse range of adaptations and rewritings as way to remember classical Antiquity in “postcolonial” contexts.


Bibliographical references:

Homer in the Twentieth Century: Between World Literature and the Western Canon. edited by Barbara and Greenwood Graziosi, Emily, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Unbinding Medea: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Classical Myth from Antiquity to the 21st Century. edited by Heike and Simon Bartel, Anne, Legenda, 2010.

Carrière, Marie. Médée Protéiforme. Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 2012.

Césaire, Aimé. Cahier D’un Retour Au Pays Natal Présence Africaine, 1983.

Greenwood, Emily. Afro-Greeks: Dialogues between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Herrera Díaz, Gustavo. "Mitos Clásicos En El Teatro Del Caribe." Aletria, vol. 24, no. 1, 2014, pp. 81-94.

Hualde Pascual, Pilar. "Mito Y Tragedia Griega En La Literatura Iberoamericana." Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, vol. 22, 2012, pp. 185-222.

Martí, José. Nuestra América. Fundación Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1977.

Miranda Cancela, Elina. "Medea En Las Antillas Hispánicas." Aletria, vol. 24, no. 1, 2014, pp. 67-80.

Moraga, Cherríe. The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. West End Press, 2001.

Reyes, Alfonso. "Ifigenia Cruel." Obras Completas X, Letras Mexicanas, Fondo De Cultura Económica, 1959.

Walcott, Derek. The Odyssey: A Play. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

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