The relationship between imaginative writing and society is complex but inescapable. Whether implicitly or explicitly, imaginative writing, particularly fiction and drama, invariably locates its narratives in some social space. Writers, whether by silence, implicit vision or explicit commentary cannot avoid being taken to say something about the societies they produce in. For most readers, the capacity of fiction to portray the interactions between individual persons and social institutions is one of the attractions of the form. The creation of the fictional world as a microcosmic, critical model of the social world is undoubtedly one of the hallmarks of some of the greatest fiction, whatever its mode of representation.
Although Caribbean critical writing tends to exaggerate the extent to which the British or European society has ever been homogenous, it has become a truism that the relationship between the Caribbean writer and Caribbean society is an especially problematic one by virtue of the heterogeneity of Caribbean societies. As the overview article, The People Who Came, sketched out, only there is a good deal of Caribbean writing that is ethnocentric in its focus, that doesn't avoid the stereotyping of ethnic others. Beyond this, there is strong evidence for arguing that not only are there variations of viewpoint depending on race, class and gender, but that Caribbean social institutions are themselves heterogeneous and contested: that there are institutions competing for the same space, or at least competing models of what such institutions should be. For instance, since the nineteenth century, there has been a long struggle to impose an Euro-Christian family norm, but the reality has also been the matrilineal family (my mother who fathered me), the Indo-extended family, the outside family and all sorts of variants in-between. Caribbean politics has also suffered terribly from the imposition of the pseudo-consensual Westminster model in situations where the reality has been political organisation based on ethnicity.
So whether dealing with family patterns, attitudes to education, participation in economic institutions, patterns of land ownership and use, access to work, attitudes to the law and government, involvement in political and special interest organisations, writers cannot take for granted the existence of consensus, but must deal with competing social models, whether those institutions (and attitudes to them) have derived from the hegemony of the colonial and neo-colonial master, have arisen from the social action of formerly subject groups or arisen from the creolising interactions amongst groups. (Note: the social role of religion and religious institutions is dealt with under the heading of Spirit.)
Inevitably there has been no consensus either amongst social scientists or novelists, dramatists or poets about the nature of Caribbean social reality. VS Naipaul’s characterisation of Trinidadian society as ‘Everyone was an individual, fighting for his place in the community. We were various races, religions, sets and cliques; and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island’ (The Middle Passage), lies at one extreme of perceptions of Caribbean societies, while ‘all a we is one’ lies at the sentimental other.
Academic sociologists such as M. G. Smith (The Plural Society in the British West Indies) and Leo Depres (Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in British Guiana) have developed a theoretical model of ‘cultural pluralism’ that fit the Naipaul view, a model not confined to the African-Indian societies but held to be true of the African-European Caribbean on the grounds that no coherent normative culture exists. The opposite view of the functionalists such as R.T. Smith (‘Social Stratification, Cultural Pluralism and Integration in the West Indies’) or Lloyd Braithwaite has argued that whilst group interests exist, there is a sufficiently broad set of cultural norms for Caribbean societies to function as coherent structures. The historian Elsa Goviea argued that if there has been one normative value it has been that of the fundamentally divisive and unstable ‘acceptance of the inferiority of Negroes to Whites’.
In this complex context, the region’s writers have created some of the most perceptive models/insights into the region’s social structures. From the novels of the Trinidadian Ralph De Boissiere’s Crown Jewel (1952) and Rum and Coca Cola (1956) or Edgar Mittelholzer’s partial microcosm, A Morning at the Office (1950) there have been some attempts to create portrayals of Caribbean societies that incorporate all social classes and focus on the interplay between individuals and social institutions. In different ways, the work of George Lamming (particularly in Of Age and Innocence), VS Naipaul’s The Mimic Men and Wilson Harris’s Guyana Quartet all aim beyond the overwhelming body of Caribbean writing which has tended to duck the complexity of Caribbean societies by restricting its vision to the writer's own community and to forms of autobiography.
Amongst the post 1990s writing published by Peepal Tree, Harischandra Khemraj’s Cosmic Dance, Jan Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow is Another Day and Lakshmi Persaud’s For the Love of My Name all in various ways aim beyond the focus of both the individual and the localized group to give a sense of the interaction between groups and the dynamic involvement of individuals in social institutions. A different approach to the issue of social range is explored in the short stories of Hazel Campbell Singerman and Kwame Dawes A Place to Hide where the dimensions of Jamaican society emerges through the relations between stories rather than within the single text.
Beyond this, though, there are many literary works which have much to say about Caribbean social institutions. These are discussed under such headings as Class, Race and Ethnicity, State Power, Politics, Crime and Justice, Resistance and Rebellion, Family, Sexuality and Gender, Homophobia, Education, Work, Women’s struggle and Trade Unions.