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Similarities between Anglophone Caribbean and Russian literature

Tatiana A. Tagirova

My dissertation, “Claude McKay’s Transnational Narrative: Russian and Caribbean Literary Connections,” will establish similarities between Anglophone Caribbean and Russian literature that have virtually been untouched by scholarly criticism. If very little work in the humanities engages a comparative analysis of Russian and American cultural production, there is currently no work that addresses affinities between Russian and Anglophone Caribbean writing. Kate Baldwin and Dale Peterson have already established literary and historical links between Russian and African American literature, but Claude McKay as a precursor of the Russian and Anglophone Caribbean literary relationship has not yet received the attention he merits.

The third chapter of my dissertation, “Mutual Concerns and Contributions: Claude McKay and the Soviet Union of the twentieth century,” will analyze McKay’s 1922-1923 visit to the Soviet Union as a space for “exploring the possibilities of international aspirations, both literary and political” (Baldwin 28). His positive interactions with the Soviet Russia provided “the possibility of reclaiming the denigrated space of blackness within a sphere of interracial contacts, and to use these crossings as a source for a revamped notion of blackness and social change” (Baldwin 58). The Negroes in America, McKay’s book published in the Soviet Union, is “documentation that a radical Harlem Renaissance position found a second home in Moscow, where it stretched the intellectual borders of the Black Atlantic and rephrased Marxism’s Negro Question in the earshot of a receptive Kremlin” (Maxwell 93).

While in Home to Harlem and Banjo McKay clearly states his predilection for the nineteenth century Russian literature, there is also a possibility that the Russian writers of the twentieth century influenced the writings of McKay as much. In his 1901-1929 diary, Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky, a leading critic and an author of children’s books, writes about the parties at Mayakovsky’s house, the place where McKay read his poetry in Russian (Chukovsky 238). Similar to Boris Pilnyak and Evgeniy Zamyatin, the other twentieth-century Russian writers he met, McKay protests against the use of literature for nonliterary purposes and criticizes the conformist middle class and industrial societies. Along with Maxim Gorky, the twentieth-century Russia proletarian writer, he depicts “the fields of the lower depths of rural and urban life” (McKay’s manuscript “Group Life and Literature,” CMPJ)

The materials that I found in the libraries and archives of St. Petersburg and Moscow will be the most beneficial in my analysis of McKay’s contribution to the Soviet understanding of the Negro question. Numerous articles about him and his poetry that appeared in such Soviet newspapers and magazines as Pravda, Krasnaya Nov’, Krasnaya Niva, Literaturniy Ezhenedel’nik, Noviy Mir, and Literaturnaya Gazeta show that indeed Soviet critics, writers, and politicians acknowledged McKay’s importance in the Soviet understanding of American and Caribbean blacks of the 1920s. However, despite the enthusiastic reception that he received during his stay in the Soviet Union, reviews of Home to Harlem, Banjo and Banana Bottom published in periodicals reveal the inability of these novels to satisfy the revolutionary expectations of the Soviet audience. For example, in “Kurs Na Ar’ergard”, Pesis describes his disappointment in McKay as a “fighter for the liberation of the Negro masses” (my translation 16). Furthermore, in their introduction to the Russian translation of Home to Harlem, Mais and Vil’son criticize McKay for his inability to depict characters that are “strong in spirit” (my translation 6).

Through an analysis of visible links between McKay’s writings and those of the Russian writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I will contest the Soviet criticism of McKay and show that his novels are revolutionary enough in the Anglophone Caribbean context. I will argue that his narratives are not what Pesis, the Russian critic of the twentieth century, defines as “a cause of influence of apt types of bourgeois literature” (my translation 18), but rather an example of genuine creation of a distinct Negro identity. Along with C.L.R James and Ralph de Boissiere, other Caribbean admirers of the Russian literature and history, he turns to the indigenous Afro-Caribbean culture and its people as the main subject of his writings. Similar to James’s The Black Jacobins and de Boissiere’s Crown Jewel, his writings are “the mouthpiece of new reality in action” that expresses “the heart of the people” (Fanon 223). Like those two authors McKay escapes the supremacy of a European culture by turning to the indigenous Caribbean people and their culture as the main source of his inspiration.

Works Cited
Baldwin, Kate. Beyond The Color Line and The Iron Curtain. Reading Encounter Between Black and Red, 1922-1963. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2002.
Chukovsky, Korney Ivanovich. Diary 1901-1929. Moscow: Soviet Writer, 1991.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Mais, Van and V. Wil’son. “Introduction.” Home to Harlem (in Russian). Moscow: State Publishers, 1930. 5-6.
Maxwell, William J. New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
McKay, Claude. “Group Life and Literature.” Claude McKay Papers; James Weldon Johnson Collection of Negro Literature and Art, American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven. 1-10.
Pesis, B. “Kurs Na Ar’ergard.” Kniga i Revolutsiya 29-30 (1930): 16-18.
Peterson, Dale. Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.

Potential Research Questions:

  1. What exactly would constitute “intriguing moments in Russian cultural production that suggest McKay’s importance in the Soviet thinking about race” (Baldwin 85)?

  2. What kind of influence did McKay have on the Russian writers of the twentieth century?
    a. Is there any specific evidence that a Negro poet, R-13 of Zamyatin’s novel We, is indeed “a fusion of McKay and Pushkin” (Baldwin 280)?
    b. Is the African delegate of Zamyatin’s play The African Guest is based on the character of Claude McKay? Why?

  3. Is there a possibility of the engagement of the twenty-first century Russian writers with McKay?
    a. Why does Vladimir Kirpishikov, a contemporary Russian writer, include “Hands” and “Without Enemies”, two poems by McKay, in his 2001 volume of poetry?

  4. Why have the Russian scholars failed to acknowledge “their long-denied kinship with the souls of black folk” (Peterson 200)?

  5. What are the areas of affinity between Russian are Caribbean literatures?

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