Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2013)

This month’s reading picks — from photography to fiction

–––––

Picturing the Caribbean

The traditional photo book is going through some changes. No longer content to reside stoutly on coffee tables, books on photography are being designed to reflect the new, sometimes startling ways in which we interface with mass media. They demand conversation, juggle with our expectations of what the photographic portfolio is “supposed” to resemble. Pictures from Paradise: A Survey of Contemporary Caribbean Photography (Robert and Christopher Publishers, 224 pp, ISBN 9789769534476), edited by Mariel Brown and Melanie Archer, is a convincing pioneer of this modernising, reshaping ethic. It highlights the work of eighteen Caribbean-born or -based artists, from the mixed media narratives of Barbadian Ewan Atkinson to the memory-infused collages of Nevisian Terry Boddie. In Pictures from Paradise, the syncretic face and body of a Caribbean nation emerges, irreconcilable as it is marvellous to gaze upon.
Alex Smailes (also one of the eighteen artists featured in Pictures from Paradise) shows us how much further the formatting envelope can be pushed, with 10 (Guardian Commercial Printing, 24 pp) a cardboard-boxed, twine-tied collection of ten years’ worth of his Caribbean photographs, printed on twenty-four loose-leaf sheets of newsprint. The 167 images span countries, observances, and moods: gangster life portraits and snow-cone makers from Trinidad; children at play or rest in Belize, Guyana, and Haiti; bar scenes from Guyana to St Kitts. With Smailes’s lens treating each setting compassionately, 10 strikes chords for what one hopes will be an ongoing conversation about where we are in our islands, where we might yet go.

An examination of Edison Boodoosingh’s Trinidad and Tobago: A Caribbean Expression of Colourful Diversity (Plain Vision Publishing, 280 pp, ISBN 9780976162872) bolsters the hope that traditional formats can still inspire dynamic new modes of presentation. Framed in seven sections — including National Festivals, Commerce and Industry, and Architecture and Monuments — Boodoosingh’s photos seek to raise a celebratory beacon from Trinidad and Tobago, with all of its chaotic, serene, progressively contradictory faces. Accompanied by exuberant write-ups of each cultural observance, evincing meticulous design, this is perhaps a comforting book above all else: the ways in which its citizens will see themselves reflected granting a positive self-identification not commonly found in newspaper headlines.

 

Light Falling on Bamboo, by Lawrence Scott (Tindal Street Press, 442 pp, ISBN 9781906994396)

The nineteenth-century artist Michel Jean Cazabon’s personal life remains clouded in speculation, though his landscape painting has long fused itself into the artistic consciousness of Trinidad and Tobago. In Lawrence Scott’s ambitious, vividly realised novel, the year is 1848, and Cazabon has returned home to be at his mother’s deathbed. “Don’t forget where you’ve come from,” she exhorts, and how her son lives up to this — or doesn’t — forms much of the book’s sweeping narrative, spanning five decades of the artist’s life. Even the most unflinching of Cazabon purists cannot stint Scott for the careful world-making that Light Falling on Bamboo purposes, melding history and fiction near-seamlessly to honour the imagined and real life of a talented son of the Trinbagonian soil.

 

Subversive Sonnets, by Pamela Mordecai (TSAR, 112 pp, ISBN 9781894770941)

Pamela Mordecai’s fifth poetry collection sees her in outstanding form: she teases the sonnet form, tugs it down from its Petrarchan-Shakespearian pedestal, and fans it with interpretative zeal. Family histories unwind throughout the long-form poems, recollections steeped in a telling that is at once amusing and gentle, but not forgetful. In “Reading at 4:00 am”, the poet reads other poets, sourcing both synchronicity and defiance in Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Larkin. These are verses seasoned with knowing: how to temper emotion so it lies still on a page, and when to let each poem shake loose years of inherited restraint.