Lending a literary voice to the haunts of history
“We live in a haunted time,” writes Erica L. Johnson at the beginning of her new book, Caribbean Ghostwriting (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009). In the popular imagination, ghosts typically arise after mysterious deaths; Johnson argues that forgotten or suppressed stories can haunt the annals of history as well.
Johnson, an associate professor of English and director of Wagner College’s Honors Program, analyzes several literary attempts to give historical “ghosts” a voice. “Ghostwriting” is her term for a subgenre of historical fiction exemplified by the Caribbean authors Maryse Condé, Dionne Brand, and Wagner alumna Michelle Cliff ’69, who “write novels about Afro-Caribbean and African American women whose lives find fleeting and inconsistent mention in the archives.”
In Free Enterprise, for example, Cliff “offers a poetic portrait” of Mary Ellen Pleasant, a little-known yet fascinating African American who seems to have provided significant financial and moral support for the famous 1859 event known as John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.