Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Elma Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered:  Pioneering Caribbean Literature

Elma Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered: Pioneering Caribbean Literature


I am so glad you decided to read this early
example of Caribbean literature. Elma Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered was
published in 1938, becoming one of the earliest novels by a Caribbean author to be published
in the twentieth century. While she was not born in Dominica, Napier
embodies the spirit of Caribbean authors of her own generation and of those to come. Indeed, while A Flying Fish Whispered may
not be a perfect novel that ties all the plots together in a seamless manner, it does allow
us to see significant tropes found throughout Caribbean literature. I hope this presentation will showcase how
the novel is a pioneering example of Caribbean writing. Elma Napier (pictured on the right), by all
indications, was an incredible woman for her time. As a member of upper-class society, she used
her advantages to the fullest, traveling around the world and meeting people from all around
the British Empire and the rest of the world. This travel made her a very cosmopolitan woman
who learned from others’ experiences, which influenced her to see the world very differently
from the typical British expat. According to her marvelous introduction to
the book—one I highly recommend reading for more context—Evelyn O’Callaghan notes
how unusual the Napiers were in their time: “White, British and privileged they were;
yet they could not have been more different from the rest of Dominica’s tiny white expatriate
society, mostly colonial officials” (“Plot” 9). One reason for this difference is that colonial
officials often lived on the islands temporally, with promises to return back to England. Elma Napier though made Dominica her home
and tried to make it better for its people. For instance, she campaigned for the construction
of the Transinsular Road, which connected the north and south areas of the island (O’Callaghan,
“Elma” 115). In many ways, her fiction and other writings
also unified the island. To return to her differences with other white
people in Dominica, Napier also was different from Creoles: whites of European descent who
were born and/or raised on the islands. (For more discussion of this population, please
watch my video on Jean Rhys on my YouTube channel). Being white and British, but not part of either
the bureaucracy or/and aristocracy, allowed Napier to have an insider’s perspective
with the sympathy for and outlook of native residents. You can see the contrast between these groups
from the book in the Morells (e.g., Derek who is a Creole from Parham Island/Antigua
and Janet who is an expat with Scottish origins) and in Tommy and Teresa (e.g., both longtime
residents on St. Celia/Dominica and who start to defend the rights of the black people of
the island). O’Callaghan finds that the novel “radically
critiques colonial rule and its racist matrix”: “Keenly aware of racial inequalities and
the impotence of colonial dependency, the novel occasionally sparks with rage at imperial
exploitation of the West Indies and its people” (“Plot” 18). O’Callaghan also labels this novel and its
project as “proto-feminist” (“Plot” 21), a term I interpret to suggest the fight
for women’s rights while not exactly aligning all women with those rights. Indeed, one problem in the novel is the narrator’s
exclusion of the black, female servants around issues pertinent to feminist ideas, such as
birth control, economic stability, and domestic abuse. Regardless of its shortcomings, Napier’s
novel tries to portray Dominica, both its nature and its people, with honesty and respect. The map on the left shows the Lesser Antilles,
the group of islands between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Dominica stands in the middle of the Leeward
and Windward islands of these Lesser Antilles, belonging to the Leeward group of islands. The map on the right shows the entire island
of Dominica (Map). The interior of the country is dominated by
two national parks, outlined in green. There also are lots of rivers and waterfalls
throughout the country. Since A Flying Fish Whispered is fiction,
the various settings are not exactly on this map of northern Dominica. However, Calibishie, Napier’s home, and
Postmouth/Grand-Anse, the major town they travel to, are on this map. The Morells’ estate would most likely by
near Calibishie. The real life battle of beach access occurred
in Woodford Hill and Wesley. Dominica was “discovered” by Columbus,
who arrived there on a Sunday hence its name. According to researcher Christina Healey,
“Most of the native population of Dominica is descended from African slaves who were
brought there to work the plantations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” The most recent data from the Dominica census
(as of 2011) listed the population to be approximately 72,000 people. Dominica is one of the Caribbean’s most
beautiful and naturally preserved islands. According to the national website for Dominica,
Dominica is officially described as the following: “Uniquely Natural. Naturally Unique. A rich tapestry of lush rainforests, rivers
and waterfalls, with volcanic wonders on land and under the sea. The people of Dominica welcome you to share
the beauty and tranquility of ‘Nature’s Island.’ To discover the rich culture of the people. An enriching eco tourism experience. The physical challenge of extreme adventure. Or the serenity of a secluded spa retreat. When you discover Dominica, you discover yourself
– and a Caribbean experience like no other” (“We are Dominica”). Indeed, the national motto (After God is the
Earth) and its flag represents the country’s natural wonder: “The flag of Dominica uses
a tricolored cross design superimposed across a green field. The cross consists of three vertical and horizontal
bands of yellow, black, and white, representing, respectively, the native population, the soil,
and purity of the water. A red circle, or disk, is centered in the
flag’s field; within the circle is the indigenous Sisserou parrot, Dominica’s national bird,
which is encircled by ten green stars, representing the island nation’s ten parishes” (Healey). A beautiful flag to match the beautiful country! As side from the natural wonders, Dominica
has a population of indigenous Kalinago, formerly known as the Carib Indians, of around 2500
people. The Kalinago are one of the last surviving
indigenous populations to live in the Caribbean islands. This population lives primarily on reserve
territory in eastern Dominica (“Kalinago”). The picture on the right shows this territory. The Kalinago survived in part because of Dominica’s
isolation and topography. Dominica’s volcanic makeup has allowed it
to sustain a natural beauty that many islands in the Caribbean lost during the colonial
period. Additionally, the government has two massive
natural parks on the island to maintain this beauty. Its mountainous, rain forest climate made
settlement slow and difficult and contributed to unique type of tourism compared to other
islands. Indeed, “Dominica was the last of the West
Indian islands of any consequence to become accessible by airplane; it could be reached
only by boat” until the early 1970s (Campbell 308). Because of this isolation, Dominica has been
able to preserve and cherish its natural wonders and its indigenous culture. Boiling Lake, located in the southern Morne
Trois Pitons National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is perhaps the most famous natural feature
on an island with countless natural, unadulterated features. For this reason and others, Dominica was a
major film location for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Petrie). You can take tours related to this film and
others. However, Dominica is one of the leading countries
in the world for ecotourism, which is tourism driven by the environment and its natural
beauty. Almost a miniature Costa Rica, the gold standard
of ecotourism, Dominica has started to change how ecotourism operates in the Caribbean. Ecotourism often carries a bad name in the
Caribbean due in part to the cruise industry that does not promote sustained interactions
with and/or appreciations for natural beauty and its preservation. For this reason and others, ecotourism may
need to be rethought in the Caribbean. Dennis Gayle found in 1997 that the Caribbean
“requires sustainable tourism that balances short-term needs for the rise of natural capital,
which simultaneously ensuring its long-run supply.” Sustainable tourism differs from traditional
ecotourism because it is “based on the understanding of the sectoral impact upon the natural, cultural,
human, and economic environments, leading to the development of reliable methods of
environmental accountability, inclusive consultation, and an equitable distribution of benefits,
as well as costs” (Gayle). As of 2009, Dominica may be embarking on a
more sustainable method for ecotourism. Vanessa Slinger-Friedman finds that “the
model of ecotourism found in Dominica shows significant local benefit through ownership,
management and general employment opportunities, as well as a potentially higher multiplier
effect due to greater linkages between tourism and other sectors of the economy. So far, government policy in Dominica has
been beneficial to small-scale locally owned facilities, and with the ecotourism’s focus
on natural features in rural locations, this type of development has occurred throughout
the island” (15). In many ways, Dominica stands as a model for
other islands to emulate (Slinger-Friedman 18). No wonder, the Napiers found their forever
home among this land and its peoples. Dominica’s history has been dominated by
its relationship and location to its surrounding neighbors, the former French colonies of Guadeloupe
and Martinique. The novel depicts some of the tensions that
existed regarding the various raiders and opportunists that arrived from those islands
onto Dominica. The image on the left shows Dominica in relation
to the rest of the Lesser Antilles. The image on the right shows the proximity
of Dominica to its closest neighbors. The proximity directly impacted Dominica’s
history, particularly in regards to slavery. Guadeloupe and Martinique both had large plantation
systems. Socially, “Dominica’s complex history
had left it suspended between French mores and English institutions, a fact that still
marked it deeply at the turn of the twentieth century” (Paravisini-Gebert 13). Dominica “had not been successfully settled
until the mid-eighteenth century, and then only by French sugar planters from the neighboring
islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. It changed hands repeatedly between the French
and the English during the eighteenth century, and despite coming firmly under English control
in 1805 remained, until well into the twentieth century, a French colony at heart” (Paravisini-Gebert
13). Indeed, the two official languages of Dominica
are English and French patois. While it was not a thriving plantation colony
like its immediate neighbors or islands of the Great Antilles (i.e., Jamaica, Hispaniola,
and Cuba), Dominica’s history is still dominated by slavery: as plantations were started on
the island and as a haven for escaped and freed slaves from surrounding islands. Still, an estimated 127,436 enslaved Africans
were brought to Dominica, ranking it sixth among Britain’s ten main Caribbean colonies
(“100-Year”). In comparison, the British imported an estimated
164,869 enslaved Africans onto Antigua, or Parham Island in the book (“100-Year”). These estimates are more astounding when you
consider the size of the islands. Dominica is approximately 290 square miles
(nearly the size of Charlotte, NC). On the other hand, Antigua is approximately
108 square miles (nearly the size of Savannah, GA). However, “The island’s rugged terrain
and poor communications by force kept the size of plantations small, and the topography
had always made the black population much less dependent on plantation work than in
other islands. There had been in Dominica, even before emancipation
in the 1830s, large settlements of free black and mulattoes who owned land or lived as squatters
in abandoned or neglected estates” (Paravisini-Gebert 14). We can see several examples of this situation
in the novel. Still, the plantation economy of the Caribbean,
during the colonial period, defined even Dominica. Archeologist Mark Hauser investigated how
plantations were organized and developed on the island. He finds, “while small islands like Dominica
were relatively underdeveloped and economically marginal they were nonetheless subject to
the same boom cycles of plantation economies” (602). Additionally, the cultures of the enslaved
influenced life on Dominica: “the social and economic networks of enslaved Africans
caught up in this distinctive mode of settlement continued to be shaped locally and on the
ground” (603). And while our novel takes place in the twentieth
century, we can see the linger effects of slavery among the characters, particular in
Tilly who wants to satisfy her matron as she is dying (“’Miss T’resa, de cauliflowers
is on de stove. De cauliflowers is still on de stove’”
(Napier 119). While the book has autobiographical elements,
A Flying Fish Whispered is a work of fiction. Teresa is not Elma Napier, even though they
do share political sentiments and background. The book also is partially based on a real
incident regarding beach access at Woodford Hill and Wesley, which led to the Napiers
getting a legal guarantee of the right of Dominicans to access their beaches (O’Callaghan,
“Plot” 9). One shortcoming of the book is the narrator’s
often mishandling of black characters. While the book and its authors are not racist
(in my evaluation), I think Teresa’s admissions reflect her privilege, class, and race. For instance, Teresa is shocked “that the
blackness of a negro’s skin was so thin” that it could “shrivel [. . .] away [and]
expose white flesh whiter than her own” (Napier 118). This realization evokes fear in her mind,
first from the scene itself that causes this whiteness to occur, and second from the “flesh
of a stark staring whiteness” (Napier 118). The trauma of this scene, regarding Tilly,
alters Teresa permanently. Although the narrator’s language is a tad
insensitive to our current ears, I think it shows how Teresa is trying to come to terms
with another person’s humanity, especially a person who has been historically and economically
disadvantaged compared to herself. I will let you explore Teresa’s complete
evolution as a character and person with your own reading and interpretation. Napier’s true achievement in the book is
her ability to capture life, both flora and human. O’Callaghan agrees, noting how Napier achieves
mastery: “Verbally ‘painting’ scenery, she never falls into the trap of arranging
‘natives’ as picturesque adornments to the prospect. They emerge, rather, as vivid personalities
whose lived realities are clearly familiar to the author” (O’Callaghan, “Elma”
116). For this reason and others, I think we end
up rooting for Teresa and the story she embodies. As I said in the previous slide, I will let
you make the final interpretation of Teresa. While the book is not a traditional bildungsroman
(or coming-of-age story), A Flying Fish Whispered does track the main character’s change. O’Callaghan interprets the book’s structure
well: “It is divided into sections which track the path of Teresa’s sexual intoxication,
breakdown, reflection, and insight, and the consequences of her change of heart in the
social and personal spheres” (“Plot” 25). The titles of the sections reflect the significant
plot moments in her journey, except for the generalized title for the “Interlude.” While this part may be rather unconventional
and unbalanced with the rest of the novel’s romance theme, the Interlude makes the novel
more significant, and it helps to show how the book is a powerful example of Caribbean
literature. Again, O’Callaghan explains, “The several
chapters which make up ‘Interlude’ are pivotal in signaling the binary oppositions
set up in the novel: between Teresa in and out of love; the social order of colonial/Parham
island and creole/St. Celia; relationships between the sexes and between humans and the
land” (“Plot” 25). O’Callaghan is correct to focus on the binary
oppositions in the novel, which is an important method of analysis for postcolonial interpretations. However, the Interlude signals Napier’s
awareness of distinct Caribbean histories and experiences, differences that make political
action imperative to Caribbean life. It would have been easy to write a romance
of Dominica through her characters. Everyone would have been happy. Yet Napier chooses to concentrate on how this
romance dissolves, particularly along political and cultural borders between the participants. By engaging the political dimension, alongside
the culture and beauty of the island, Napier is pioneering what Caribbean literature will
do in the future. As a final slide, I want to talk about nature
in the novel. Nature is the crux of the conflict in the
novel, for it becomes the main reason for the end of Teresa and Derek’s romance. In the slide above, I have listed three examples
of the many ways nature works in the novel. In the first example, Teresa recalls seeing
manatees at the Botanical Gardens, full of life and loving their surroundings. Whereas in London, these manatees are sterile
and unable to thrive, and they are forced lettuce to eat instead of grass. In the second example, nature forgives man’s
ugliness. And finally, nature anchors Teresa’s world:
she is surrounded by beauty and appreciates it in minute detail such as the sun’s lasting
effect on leaves. She also rather suggestively equates nature
to people’s behaviors such as the roosters or men in Capesterre. Napier’s attention to detail regarding nature
is profound and revolutionary, pioneering what later writers will learn to celebrate
and cherish about the Caribbean. In terms of literary and cultural history,
“The colonial landscape, at once strange and domestic, a place belonging to Britain
yet abroad, created an altogether different set of problems. It could be beautiful, lavish and lush, but
so too could it confront the viewer with epistemological difficulties that destabilized meaning and
certainty. And when that viewer stepped up to the landscape
as a colonist, imbued with authority, expected to impose his or her will upon a foreign land
as matter of routine, or because change was deemed imperative, then questions not unnaturally
arose” (Hooper 4-5). While the last quote above mentions as walled-in
garden, Teresa chooses to look beyond it and appreciate the wonders beyond her place. As Richard Grove in his monumental and excellent
study Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of
Environmentalism reminds us, the Caribbean often sparked white residents of European
descent to become mad because “the landscapes of island and garden were metaphors of mind”
(14). This concept becomes important in Jean Rhys’s
Wide Sargasso Sea, for instance. Colonialism affected how nature worked, especially
in the Caribbean where the land was used and misused for economic gain. Significantly, part of this reality became
the interest in a New Imperialism. Historian Peter Hulme explains this term:
“Within this [British] Empire there is an openly racial distinction between the ‘self-governing
colonies,’ no longer thought of as dependencies, and the ‘tropical colonies,’ which are
still dependent. In the self-governing colonies such as Australia
and Canada, [British Prime Minister Joseph] Chamberlain [in 1897] said, the sense of possession
had given way to a sense of kinship, while in the tropical colonies such as the West
Indies it had given way to a sense of obligation” (114). Dominica becomes the test case for New Imperialism,
where neglect could be reversed to maximize the “’productiveness of the soil’”
(Hulme 115). Derek’s character embodies this mentality. O’Callaghan finds that the novel seeks a
different understanding of nature: “It embodies and promotes a different kind of relationship
to the land than that of the tourist, however, and savagely critiques the human and environmental
consequences of British colonization. A Flying Fish Whispered constitutes a pioneering
attempt, way ahead of its time, to engage with feminist and ecological discourses”
(“Plot” 7). Napier through her protagonist encourages
a robust love of nature. O’Callaghan agrees, “Teresa romantically
puts her faith in Caribbean nature, which will resist and outlast human destruction”
(“Plot” 17). This attachment to nature emerges from a women’s
travel writing tradition, which in the West Indies, “tends towards the ‘sentimental’
rather that the ‘scientific,’ the ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’ rather than the factual, and
frequently assumes a spontaneous, personal, confessional style (O’Callaghan, “Hot”
98). This lens can be seen in one quote cataloging
flowers: “[Y]ou realized that not even here did Nature ever stand still. Trees lost their leaves, although never all
together. Flowers bloomed in their seasons. You watched for pois-doux as once for hawthorn;
for red lilies as for tulips; for petrea instead of lilac” (Napier 170). Such subtle attention to the details of the
seasons from the previous list shows how amazing Napier is to her narrative’s focus on nature. In this way, “Napier’s centering of land,
as well as its ownership and stewardship, constitutes an early, even pioneering contribution
to the development of ecological consciousness in the Caribbean literary tradition” (O’Callaghan,
“Elma” 114). Finally, O’Callaghan finds that “Napier’s
evocation of Dominica is indeed an insider’s perspective: it is precise, particular, and
celebratory at a period when many West Indian-born poets were rendering their landscape with
reference to classical or English literary models or as exotic postcard ‘views’ (“Elma”
115). I completely agree. As one last note, the novel’s title of A
Flying Fish Whispered encapsulates the nuanced but profound attention to nature. When Derek remarks that he is going to love
her and not the island, the narrator describes that message: “And said it so softly that
she thought she must have dreamed he said it; thought that a flying fish had whispered,
or a turtle, rising to the surface to breathe” (Napier 41). This metaphor conveys Derek’s attitude and
reflects Teresa’s relationship to nature. She wants her love to be spontaneous and thrilling
like the flying fish, yet it may be fleeting and quiet. Such a moving way to describe this affair,
and one that offers a pioneering trail for Caribbean literature. Please use the sources here to explore more
about the book, its author, and colonialism in the Caribbean.

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