Memory, for many postcolonial artists, is uncertain territory. This dissertation examines depictions of drowning or the drowned body in Irish and Caribbean postcolonial literature, arguing that rather than simply being the marginal detritus of these island literatures, drowned bodies have been central to the project of postcolonial writing in Ireland and the Caribbean, providing a focal point for a transatlantic discussion of memory.
French historian Pierre Nora argues that modernity’s destruction of “environments of memory,” cultures in which memory plays a central role in everyday life, has resulted in the creation of “places of memory,” sites like archives, monuments, or graveyards where memory lingers. This dissertation argues that postcolonial Irish and Caribbean writers express their ambivalence towards memory in general and places of memory in particular in their representations of drowned bodies. Given the human desire to memorialize the dead, such bodies ought to become places of memory, at least for the families that mourn them. Their placement in the sea, however, troubles this desire. Traditional rituals of memory are disturbed by the drowned body, which may remain lost at sea, or wash up unrecognized on a distant shore. For the authors in this study: J.M. Synge, Derek Walcott, David Dabydeen, and Kate O'Brien, the drowned body symbolizes both the powerful desire to remember and the sense that available ways of remembering may not prove adequate for the unique situation of the postcolonial nation. Statues, gravestones, and memorials are too often tied up with the imperialist desires to possess and lay claim to land, to erect and maintain a dominant narrative of history. While such places of memory can embody collective or national identity for France or England, the situation of the colonized nation is not so straightforward. In the image of the drowned body, postcolonial authors experiment with a version of memory, and by extension of national identity, that is not fixed but fluid, one that is concrete and yet elusive. In so doing, they create a place of memory that changes the terms of what it means to remember.