The Hills of Hebron: Sylvia Wynter’s Disruption of the Narrative of the Nation Shirley Toland-Dix AbstrAct: Sylvia Wynter’s 1962 novel, The Hills of Hebron, is both a narrative of the nation and critique of the extant vision of the nation. Writing her novel from the perspective of a theorist, Wynter introduces insights and concepts that she has since developed in her extensive body of theoretical essays. This article looks particularly at the strategies she uses to incorporate gender issues into her novel. In a 2000 Small Axe interview with David Scott, Jamaican critical theorist, cultural critic, playwright, and novelist Sylvia Wynter reminisces about growing up in Jamaica in the 1940s, in the midst of the anticolonial struggle: “You cannot imagine today how total a system colo- nialism was. . . . How could it ever have occurred to you then, before the struggles erupted, that you as a ‘native’ subject could take any action on your own?” Describing the impact of attending high school while “a wave of social protest movements” went on all around her, she exclaims: “It was as if you were suddenly in a different dimension . . . the whole sense of activity, of a self-initiated new beginning—I would say that movement determined everything I was going to be or have been” (emphasis added).1 Wynter explicitly provides a generational context for her body of work when she returns to this point throughout the interview, repeat- edly emphasizing the lifelong impact of experiencing her “own political awakening during the anticolonial struggles.”2 Tellingly, she adds: “where I think there is a great distance between 1. David Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe no. 8 (September 2000): 125. 2. Ibid., 168. small axe 25 • February 2008 • p 57–76 • ISSN 0799-0537 58 | SX25 • The Hills of Hebron today’s feminists and myself is that then we knew that it was as a population—men, women, and children—that we had thought we could not do anything.”3 Over a period of almost fifty years, Wynter’s engagement with feminism has been complex but consistent. Despite contemporary challenges, she continues to present feminism and women’s rights as issues that are subsets within her analysis of Western humanism and the consequences of its racially based definition of “man.”4 Factoring in her generational perspective provides additional insight into both the strengths and the impasses in Wynter’s approach to the particular issues facing African and African-descended women. With The Hills of Hebron, a narrative of the emerging nation published in 1962, the year Jamaica became independent of British colonial rule, Wynter audaciously inserts herself into a discourse generated almost exclusively by Caribbean male authors and dares to envision the Caribbean nation. Not content to merely discuss what the West Indian novel should do from a detached and prescriptive space, Wynter creates a narrative of the nation, experimenting with the possibilities of the genre, experiencing frustration with the genre’s limitations. Wynter approaches writing a novel from the perspective of a theorist, introducing insights and con- cepts that she later develops in stunningly brilliant and erudite theoretical essays. Among the theoretical inquiries she incorporates into the novel: an interrogation of the role of the artist and the intellectual in emerging nations, her rejection of mono-conceptual frameworks, her engagement with the role of groups most marginalized or liminal within societies, and a sug- gestive investigation of gender dynamics within the black community. The Hills of Hebron is experimental, complex, and paradoxical, both epic narrative of the nation and critique of the extant vision of the nation. Moving beyond a celebratory approach, Wynter is concerned with exploring how newly independent Jamaica could become a viable, cohesive, and progressive society. Through her depiction of the Revivalist counter-community of Hebron, she examines the challenges the new nation will face and queries how a society responsive to the needs of all of the citizenry can be created. In “The National Longing for Form,” Timothy Brennan observes that historically a direct link has existed between the novel and the nation, for nations are “imaginary constructs that depend for their existence on an apparatus of cultural fictions in which imaginative literature plays a decisive role. . . . the rise of European nationalism coincides especially with one form of literature—the novel.” However, Brennan continues, since the Second World War, the fictional 3. Ibid., 138. 4. In the above-referenced interview, Scott summarizes Wynter’s engagement with “the question of gender” as “not so much a strategic question of the subordinate place of the concept of gender but that race has a fundamental priority because of the place of race in the epistemic break that you point to. . . . there is a foundational epistemological priority of race vis-à-vis gender.” To this statement Wynter replies: “Exactly.” Ibid., 183.
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