Bookshelf (Summer 1994)

New books about the Caribbean, new books from Caribbean authors

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Fortunate Circumstances

Trevor McDonald (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1993)

As the anchor for ITN’s nightly News at Ten, Trevor McDonald is one of the best known faces on British television, a journalist at the top of his profession. He has tackled many of the world’s most intriguing political leaders and has reported from some of its hottest hotspots. But he was born in Trinidad, and worked his apprenticeship at Radio Trinidad before transferring to the BBC World Service and thence into television. The title of this autobiography picks up Arthur Ashe’s disclaimer that much of his success has been due to “fortunate circumstances”; but in McDonald’s case, a whole lot more is clearly due to his thorough and understated professionalism. He was the first journalist to interview Nelson Mandela after his release, the first to get an interview with Saddam Hussein as the Gulf War loomed ahead; other chapters in the book describe his adventures with Gadafi, Ortega, Arafat and others. McDonald has had a wonderfully busy and interesting career in the turmoil of historic events, but what comes across in the book is his persistence and curiosity, his humour and common sense. Good journalism still depends on a whole lot more than a portable satellite link.

Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean

Jenifer Marx (Krieger Publishing Co., Florida 1992)

As a child, American writer Jenifer Grant Marx grew up on Treasure Island and Pieces of Eight, and felt sure that among her own ancestors was some “weather-beaten swaggerer with gold hoops in his ears, a pistol tucked in his crimson sash and a gleaming cutlass in hand”. Later, living in Jamaica, she met her husband Robert Marx, an underwater archaeologist who was excavating the old pirate city of Port Royal, destroyed by an earthquake in 1692. This book was a logical conclusion, the result of countless hours and contented days in archives around the world, poring over faded manuscripts”. It’s a thoroughly researched work about the reality of Caribbean piracy, the facts behind the romantic legends; and the facts, as Marx shows, are even more fascinating than the myths. If you want to know who the pirates really were, what their lives were like, how they became prototype terrorists, pioneering hijackers, and how they came to wield such enormous power over the oceans of the world — well, read the book.

For the Life of Laetitia

Merle Hodge (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1993)

More than twenty years ago, Trinidadian Merle Hodge produced a much acclaimed novel of Caribbean childhood, Crick Crack Monkey. Now comes a sad and beautiful story of a 12-year-old girl from a rural Trinidad village struggling through her first two terms at secondary school, battling against a mountain of other people’s expectations and prejudices. The narrative moves from early success into breakdown and tragedy; but it focuses all the while on Laetitia’s inner strength, her tenuous sense of who she is. Set perhaps 25 years ago, the story foreshadows many of the tensions that have developed since then in Caribbean school systems and families; it points to the terrible problems of adjusting to new worlds without losing touch with one’s real self. The writing is clear, lucid, deceptively simple; Merle Hodge, who teaches at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies, should not wait another two decades before her next book.

For children

If you’re looking for the latest soca hits in Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies (Macmillan 1993), you’ll be disappointed. But if you want simple musical versions of some of the most famous Caribbean songs of yesteryear — Day-O, Yellow Bird, Kingston Market, Jamaica Farewell — try this collection of 13 songs. They are composed or arranged by the legendary Irving Burgie, with illustrations by Frane Lessac, and are easy to play or sing. There is an afterword by storyteller Rosa Guy explaining the background.

Anne Marie Linden’s One Smiling Grandma is a Caribbean counting book for very young children, in an attractive hardcover format with plenty of full-colour illustrations (by Lynne Russell). A young girl spends a holiday with her grandmother, and as they go about their business they play a counting game with hummingbirds, steelpans, flying fish and much else. Cric Crac is a collection of West Indian stories for rather older children, traditional Caribbean tales retold by one of the region’s master storytellers, Grace Hallworth, and lovingly illustrated by Avril Turner. They range from a spooky ghost story to tales about how the stars came to be in the sky and how the cunning Anansi was trapped by his own greed. Published in the UK by Heinemann, both books are distributed in the Caribbean by West Indies Publishing in Kingston, Jamaica.

Between Two Seasons

I.J. Boodhoo (Longman Caribbean Writers, 1994)

Isaiah Boodhoo, already a leading Caribbean painter, retired from a fulltime administrative job in 1989 to paint and write fulltime. Since then he has produced a flood of new outstanding work: he has exhibited in the US and the UK as well as the Caribbean (and was profiled in the Summer 1993 issue of Bwee Caribbean Beat). He creates crosswords and puzzles for fun, and keeps this magazine supplied with them. One of his paintings now adorns the cover of his first novel, originally drafted more than 30 years ago. Set on a doomed cocoa estate in 1950s Trinidad, it is the compelling story of one Indian family: the restless, hard-drinking Manu Hanuman, driven to escape from humiliation and poverty by playing diable for Carnival; his long-suffering wife Samdaye; and their young son Mangal. Much of the book is like a detailed and valuable painting of the estate community and the humour and stoicism of its daily life. But towards the end the narrative gathers momentum and the conflicts that have lain beneath the surface force events towards a bitter and tragic climax as Manu is hunted down for a crime he did not commit and Samdaye embarks on a new life of her own. Like a folk tale, the book has the force of lived experience.

St Vincent and the Grenadines

Lesley Sutty (Macmillan Caribbean 1993)

The latest addition to the Macmillan Caribbean Guides series covers St Vincent and the Grenadine islands which stretch southwards towards Grenada through some of the finest sailing waters in the world. It follows the format of the other volumes in the series, tracing history and culture and providing a useful basic introduction, with plentiful colour pictures.

Why Not A Woman?

Radhica Saith (ed.), photography by Mark Lyndersay (Paria Publishing, Trinidad and Tobago 1993)

In many of the Caribbean islands, there is a strong but quiet women’s — well, not movement exactly, not a lobby, more like a tide. Rarely resorting to the aggressive strategies of radical US feminism, Caribbean women have evolved a formidable sensitivity to gender issues and have quietly taken influential and leadership positions across a wide range of Caribbean life (including two women prime ministers). This large-format book celebrates the achievements of more than 80 women in Trinidad and Tobago, through brief profiles and handsome black-and-white portraits; they range from the Speaker of the House of Representatives to a deckhand, from celebrities like dancer/choreographer Beryl McBurnie to a 14-year-old schoolgirl who started Kids for Saving the Earth. These women are pilots (one of BWIA’s four women pilots is photographed on the aircraft steps, looking formidably competent), engineers, networkers, mayors, race-horse trainers, artists, managers, bankers, environmentalists, journalists, doctors, pundits, calypsonians, government ministers, professors, technologists, conductors, parachutists, firemen, cricketers, and heaven knows what else. The point is made, if it ever needed making: there’s nothing women can’t do.

Warwick University Caribbean Studies series

(Macmillan)

This is a well established series which issues serious academic studies of social and political issues in the Caribbean. The four latest additions focus on revolutionary politics, popular culture and economic policy. In Caribbean Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory, university lecturer Brian Meeks looks at the “revolutions” in Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada and puts them in a historical context of “revolutionary” thinking since the French Revolution. In The Fractured Blockade, edited by Alistair Hennessy and George Lambie, several writers compare American and European attitudes to the Cuban revolution (and to “Third World” radicalism in general), suggesting that European approaches, less ideological and less moralistic, have played a critical role for Cuba.

Caribbean Economic Policy and South-South Co-operation
examines the options facing Caribbean economic policy-makers in the new global economic climate. Finally, there is often something comic about academics gravely examining popular culture; but Carolyn Cooper’s Noises in the Blood looks at Jamaican culture — popular language, DJs, the lyrics of its music, its theatre and poetry — in an unusually lively way, including some pioneering work such as a chapter examining the erotic language of dancehall (“Slackness hiding from Culture”).

Woman Version

Evelyn O’Callaghan (Macmillan/Warwick University Caribbean Studies 1993)

Apart from a few pioneers like that fine Dominican writer Jean Rhys, Caribbean literature until quite recently was a male preserve. The big names were all male: Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite, George Lamming. But these days, much of the more interesting work is coming from women, notably Jamaica Kincaid and Olive Senior. A new generation of women writers, especially from Jamaica (Alecia McKenzie, Vanessa Spence, Christine Craig, Patricia Powell), is steadily moving into new territory.

Hotly pursued, of course, by the academics. Evelyn O’Callaghan, who lectures in literature at the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies, traces the female presence in Caribbean writing and analyses its concerns and the different focus it provides. She argues persuasively that the emergence of so many successful women writers does bring a genuinely fresh perspective to Caribbean literature. That, after the men have dominated the arena for so long, it is time to recognise that there is a “woman version” too.

The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Esteban Montejo, Miguel Barnet (Macmillan, Warwick University Caribbean Series 1993)

In the summer of 1963, the Cuban writer Miguel Barnet met a man who was 105 years old. His name was Esteban Montejo; he could not only tell stories about fighting in the war of independence against Spain and life on the sugar plantations in the late 19th century, but he could remember what life was like as a slave in Cuba and as a runaway. Slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1880, and Montejo spent years as a runaway — a cimarrón or maroon — including 18 months in total solitude in the forests. Barnet wrote Esteban’s story as a documentary novel, which first appeared in 1965; it is an extraordinary document, a piece of living history. It has been out of print in English for many years, and is now re-issued by Macmillan in a welcome paperback format.

Crossing the River

Caryl Phillips (Bloomsbury 1993)

Phillips, the St Kitts-born novelist now making a successful academic reputation for himself in the United States, uses the quasi-documentary style of modern historians to explore the varied sensibility of the African diaspora, and in doing so covers the three points of the infamous slave trade triangle. The novel centres on the descendants of Africans sold into slavery: Nash, the American ex-slave sent by the American Colonisation Society to Liberia, where, neglected and abandoned, he reverts to the religion and lifestyle of his forefathers; Martha, the old escaped slave who dies on the long cold trek to California; and Travis, a black serviceman stationed in the north of England during the second world war. The novel is a tribute to all those who endured the harsh journey across the river and survived, knowing there was no return.

Eric E. Williams Speaks

ed. Selwyn Cudjoe (Calaloux Publications, Massachusetts 1993)

This collection of speeches by the late Dr Eric Williams, the historian and first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, includes such seminal pieces as My Relations with the Caribbean Commission, in which Williams presented his credentials to the people, and Massa Day Done, his famous condemnation of the colonial mentality. Williams’s political rhetoric is lucidly intellectual; along with illuminating essays by Cudjoe, George Lamming and C.L.R. James, the speeches offer a contemporary audience an insight into “the rich legacy of a party in its ascendancy, as it moved . . . to forge its own destiny and give voice to the hopes and aspirations of essentially voiceless and silent people.”