Bookshelf (Spring 1992)

New and recent books about the Caribbean. Reviews by Kevin Baldeosingh, Simon Lee and Jeremy Taylor


POETRY

Leaving the Dark

Cecil Gray (Lilibel Publications, 1998; ISBN 0-9681745-1-5)

This collection of poems by Cecil Gray, his third, is a rather uneven one. There are real treats among the 74 poems, such as Belmont, with its economic and precise imagery; Black Coffee, with its masterful, well-structured word-painting; and The Clock, with its perfectly cadenced rhythms. These elements infuse almost all the poems, but at times Gray loses control of his gifts. Thus, we have overblown phrases like “progeny of the pen” and “throw a kind net/down seas of verse” in A poem does not, while Sailing comes fearfully close to parody. Several of the poems suffer from a painterly vagueness, with the broad strokes of private experience failing to become public. Gray’s themes range from childhood and aging, memory and history, to religious fundamentalism, alienation, cultural imperialism, and political consciousness. Thought is the essence of the best poetry, language its vehicle. But, at times, Gray’s language overwhelms his thought. He never falls below competence, but he rises only occasionally to poetic brilliance. Still, as things go, this is no mean achievement. (KB)

FICTION

Buxton Spice

Oonya Kempadoo (Phoenix House 1998; ISBN 1 861591 21 7)

This first novel caused quite a stir when the manuscript landed in London a year ago. In no time publishers were on the phone to the young Guyanese author, then living in Tobago; a top London agent, David Godwin, flew to Tobago to sign her up, staged an auction in London and sold to Phoenix House for £37,500 — which just shows what an unknown Caribbean writer can do if the work is good and the market is right. Kempadoo was born in the UK to Guyanese parents, returned to Guyana at age four and grew up there. Her novel is about four early-adolescent girls in a coastal village in the seventies; African, Indian and Portuguese live side by side, Burnhamism is rampant, and the big Buxton Spice mango tree in the narrator’s yard seems to know everything that’s going on in her young mind and body. The striking thing about the book is its authenticity: vivid writing with a strong Caribbean feel, short fast-paced sections almost like a film scenario, the sense of a child’s circumscribed world slowly reaching out towards dangerous horizons, mysterious eruptions of violence into the village’s familiar world. Above all, perhaps, the treatment of the young girls’ blossoming sexuality — part mischief and laughter, part fear and anxiety and unexplained turbulence. The Caribbean has produced many novels of childhood, but none with such a frank recognition of sexual feeling. Kempadoo has reworked the childhood novel for a new generation; this is a name to watch. (JT)

CARNIVAL

The Trinidad Carnival

Errol Hill (revised edition 1997, New Beacon Books, UK: ISBN 1-873201)

First published in 1972 by the University of Texas and long out of print, Errol Hill’s study of the Trinidad Carnival and its musical offshoots is the seminal work on Caribbean Carnival, the book to turn to if you want to find out how it all started, what it means, how the various traditional masquerades developed, how the early calypsonians and steelbands evolved. This new edition reproduces the original book in its entirety, with a few extra photos. With Carnival now firmly rooted in dozens of cities and countries outside the Caribbean, including London and Toronto, New York and Miami, New Beacon Books have done the Caribbean a service in making Hill’s book available again — just as valuable as ever, despite the many studies that have followed it. The obvious problem, though, was — how to cover the years since 1972, nearly three-quarters of the post-independence period, during which Carnival in Trinidad has changed in many fundamental ways? Hill opts for a nine-page introductory essay which can do no more than summarise some of the main developments of nearly three decades. Soca gets half a paragraph; Peter Minshall gets a page and a half, but Minshall’s fundamental rethinking of 1970s Carnival is not seriously addressed; singers like Machel Montano, who have long displaced Sparrow and Kitchener in the minds of a new generation, aren’t even referred to. Even as a stop-gap, it’s not enough: the most valuable contribution Hill could now make to the Carnival would be to bring the story up to date in a second volume that has the space to examine the late 20th-century Carnival with all the thoroughness and seriousness of the original book. (JT)

MUSIC

Reggae Routes

Kevin O’Brien Chang and Wayne Chen (Ian Randle, 1998; ISBN 976-8100-67-2)

Here is the first insiders’ guide to Jamaican popular music and reggae in all its forms, from ska to dancehall. The book is lucidly written by two razor-sharp young Jamaicans, copiously illustrated (artists, album covers, posters), highly informative and, thanks to liberal doses of Jamaican humour, eminently readable and entertaining. The authors chart the development of the indigenous music which put Jamaica on the world map in the 70s and made Bob Marley as much of a cultural icon as Che Guevara. Starting with African retentions like Kumina, Brukins, Etu, Gumbay, Tambo and Dinkie-minnie, quadrille song based on European dance and the emergence of mento as the national folk music, the authors go on to show that a major catalyst in the genesis of ska, the prototype reggae, was the attempt to recreate North American R&B. So in one sense, the advent of rock, which supplanted R&B on the airwaves, provided the push for reggae. After bringing us up-to-the-minute with dancehall, which they show is probably more “authentic” than classic roots reggae, the remaining two thirds of the book is dedicated to an in-depth analysis of the best sounds of the last four decades and those responsible for making them. Tracing the roots gives us as much insight into modern Jamaican society as its music. The book is a must for anyone interested in the contemporary Caribbean. (SL)

SPORT

A Spirit Of Dominance: Cricket and Nationalism in the West Indies

Edited by Hilary McD. Beckles (Canoe Press, University of the West Indies, 1998; ISBN 976-8125-37-3)

Cricket fans with an intellectual bent will love this book. Intellectuals with a cricketing bent may find it interesting but irritating. Edited by Hilary Beckles, a professor of Social and Economic History at the University of the West Indies, A Spirit of Dominance consists of 11 articles by academics and journalists on various aspects of cricket. The academics are more erudite and the journalists are more interesting. The contributors include Antiguan politician and journalist Tim Hector, West Indies Cricket Board member K. H. L. Marshall, University vice chancellor Rex Nettleford, and literature professor Gordon Rohlehr. Published “in honour of Viv Richards on the 21st anniversary of his Test debut”, the outstanding element of this book is the cricketing history it offers. The rise of the West Indies cricket team to Test status, the role of cricket in the anti-apartheid campaign, and the genesis of the Packer World Series are all dealt with. More abstract topics like “Cricket as a performing art” and “Pan-Africanism and West Indies cricket” are also covered. This is where the irritating aspect comes in, for most of the academics seem stuck in outdated ideologies and write in a turgid style entirely unsuited to the topic. On the whole, however, the book is a nice blend of cricket history, character portraits of outstanding West Indian cricketers, cultural ideology and regional politics. (KB)

PHOTOGRAPHY

Return To Kairi: A Trinidad & Tobago Journey

ed. Nigel Campbell, photography by Cyan Studios (Jett Samm Publishing, Port of Spain, 1998: ISBN 976-8106-01-8)

Organising a book of photographs is much harder than you would think. Many of the hundred-plus images in this hard-cover art book are very beautiful, gently exploring areas of Trinidad and Tobago life from the tenderness of an orange sunset to the toiling buttocks of a Carnival band. Not all of them have reproduced well — there are some problems with colour, graininess, definition — but Cyan is one of Port of Spain’s top studios, photographers Ian Yee and Ken-Hong Mack are well established in their field, and some of their work here is outstanding. But the photography has been undermined: the selection tends towards visual stereotypes, the text introduction and the sporadic captioning are clichéd and unsophisticated, the themes are not supported by the relevant images, the page design seems determined to offset the impact of the images, and detailed captions are gathered at the back of the book, so that you constantly have to be turning pages to discover what you are looking at (and there are no page numbers to help). If the publishers had done justice to the images, this would have been a great souvenir. (JT)

CARIBBEAN LIFE

Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader

ed. Nathaniel Murrell, William Spencer, Adrian McFarlane (Temple University, US, and Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica, 1998: ISBN 976-8123-62-1)

It’s significant that this survey of the Rastafarian movement has been put together by two theologians and a philosopher. Even in the Caribbean, too many people still think of Rastafari in terms of reggae, ganja, dreadlocks, crime, and delusions about Haile Selassie: these American scholars treat it as a religion, with a complex network of beliefs and cultural practices, seriously devoted to “the dismantling of all oppressive institutions and the liberation of humankind”. They have compiled a 470-page book that covers, both objectively and readably, every aspect of Rastafari that you could think of. Alongside a battery of American academics, many of the people who have contributed to public understanding of the movement over the years are here, from Rex Nettleford and Barry Chevannes to Roger Steffens. They cover the movement in careful detail: the history, the ideology, the arts and culture, the theology. They include, with commentary, one of the founding texts of the movement, Leonard Howell’s The Promised Key. This excellent reader might have been even more welcome had it originated with Caribbean rather than American scholars. But at least it is a co-publication with Ian Randle Publishers in Jamaica, the most successful indigenous publishing house in the English-speaking Caribbean; a reminder that the day will come when key Caribbean texts are generated and published in the region. Irie. (JT)

HISTORY

The Story Of The Jamaican People

Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett (Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica, and Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 1998: ISBN 976-8100-30-3, 1-55876-146-2)

One of the most interesting things that Dr Eric Williams did for Trinidad and Tobago when it became independent from Britain in 1962 was to write — albeit hurriedly — a History Of The People Of Trinidad And Tobago. It was published by his own party and it established once and for all, in black and white, a nationalist view of the past to replace the colonial view that had dominated until then (and still survives in some quarters today). It helped to reshape and redefine popular thinking, and made it not merely valid but necessary to put the young nation’s own experience at the centre of its history, not the experience of its colonisers. The Story Of The Jamaican People is a much bigger and later book, by one of Jamaica’s foremost scholars and a Jamaican librarian, but it has the same motive. “The Jamaican people have never accepted what was presented to them as the history of Jamaica,” announces the introduction. “The heroes of the British Empire are not their heroes . . . Africa is the centre of the story.” That this should need stating nearly 40 years after independence indicates how hard it has been for Caribbean people to assimilate their past and to see themselves at the centre of their world, rather than as adjuncts to a European or North American world. Sir Philip Sherlock and Dr Bennett have given Jamaica a new version of this vision, readable, passionate, solidly researched, with a deeply rooted African-Jamaican point of view. Perhaps this is a task that has to be undertaken again and again until the Caribbean finally shakes off its traumas and history is free of its necessary task of evangelism. (JT) 

Reviews by Kevin Baldeosingh, Simon Lee and Jeremy Taylor