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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

8 - “Radiant Affliction”: Disability Narratives in Postcolonial Literature

from PART I - ACROSS LITERATURES
Summary

When Derek Walcott's poet-narrator describes the “head-wound” and subsequent trauma sustained in World War II by Major Plunkett, one of the central characters in Omeros (1990), he states that “He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme / of this work.” A poem set on Walcott's beloved Caribbean island, St. Lucia, and covering in epic scope the long history of the African diaspora and the manifold legacies of slavery and colonialism – including poverty, environmental damage, and the degradations of tourism in the contemporary Caribbean – the “wounds” in Omeros are indeed plentiful, and are physical and mental, literal and allegorical, human and ecological. A focal point for this trope of affliction lies in Philoctete, the “hobbling” (20) fisherman whose painful leg wound, caused in realist terms by “a scraping, rusted anchor” (9), is figuratively linked to the historical inheritance of the slave trade:

He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles

of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?

That the cross he carried was not only the anchor's

but that of his race[.]

(19)

Philoctete's understanding of his wound positions the poem's Caribbean setting as a space still somehow “crippled” by the violent heritage of slavery, and his wound performs an important narrative function as an access point to the partial and fragmented story of slavery that is one of Walcott's major preoccupations in the poem. In its visceral representation and recurring imagery, Philoctete's “putrescent shin” (247) becomes a visible and powerful symbol of this history of colonialism and violence.

The central disability in Omeros is far more than a stigmata in a “poetics of affliction,” however. Even while it is both a source of agony that makes work and daily functioning difficult for Philoctete, and a symbol of historical shame drawing attention to the embodied nature of slaves’ suffering, it undergoes many poetic transfigurations in the text and is also frequently aestheticized as something beautiful, a “radiant anemone” (9) rooted in the poem's natural environment.

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The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability
  • Online ISBN: 9781316104316
  • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316104316
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