Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 2013)

This month’s reading picks — from an artist’s memoirs to the latest fiction


 

What Things Are True, by Jackie Hinkson (Paria Publishing Company, 316 pp, ISBN 9789768054968)

Tempting as it is to term this book Jackie Hinkson’s own portrait of the artist as a young man, What Things Are True semaphores not just the veteran Trinidadian watercolourist himself, but the spirit and sensibility of the age that signalled his first creative forays. Told in Hinkson’s gently undulating, sensitive style, the evocatively titled chapters (“Dreaming of an Old House”, “Autumn Blues in Paris”, “The Pleasures of Exile, the Call of Home”) hearken to a time gone by as much as they announce its residence in the past. Hinkson’s childhood Cobo Town neighbourhood, his Port of Spain streets, his early artistic haunts: these have all metamorphosed into a newer Trinidad, one that makes room for art in different ways.

Light and its shadow opposite are as important to the memoir’s tone as they are to the work the artist has created. Hinkson describes an apprenticeship fraught with uncertainty, tempered in self-imposed isolation, marked by uneven patronage. In his friendship with his fellow creative juggernaut, masman Peter Minshall, the divisions between artistic types make themselves manifest, even from an early age.

“I hold up small pieces of the world around me to the light,” Hinkson muses, in a chapter consecrated to his parents’ house. “I seek to distill the essence of the world as I know it.” Studded with occasionally disconcerting honesty, the memoir affords any art and autobiography enthusiast a riveting spectacle: the chance to see how genius grows up, with a relatively low price of admission. How candidly and calmly remembered are these erasures and moments of cognition in Hinkson’s life — now a public matter of print, as well as paint.

God Carlos, by Anthony C. Winkler (Akashic Books, 200 pp, ISBN 9781617751394)

Longlisted in the fiction category of this year’s OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, God Carlos sings the reader a not-so-new shanty about conquest and acculturation, beneath the mantle (or yoke, depending on your perspective) of a ruthless, unintentionally hilarious seafaring conqueror. Winkler’s narrative brings the sixteenth century roaring drunkenly to life: sensitively handled are the implied comparisons between life then and now, where the author cleverly presents the lines of our history that have been blotted by change, and those that have remained resolutely the same. This is Winkler in fine satirical form, refitting the genre to suit his grimly tongue-in-cheek purpose, serving us an old empire’s collision with the New World, as we likely haven’t read it before.

Ten Days in Jamaica, by Ifeona Fulani (Peepal Tree Press, 164 pp, ISBN 9781845231996)

These stories of postcolonial longing and displacement aren’t as dangerous to sit with as you might imagine. Whether they navigate Brooklyn or Brixton, Calcutta or Jamaica, the wanderers in Fulani’s stories, those with no certain spot of homeland on the map, have acquired more things than certainties. The best stories in the collection seem to urge that this process of finding one’s footing is infinite and chimeric. Yet hope persists in the ways some characters seek out their anchoring, in gritty music, in talismanic dreams, in letting themselves go completely. Survival in the distended global circle isn’t the same story that belonged to our grandparents, and Fulani charts its newness with candour, while examining those points of intersection where history still rings true.

The Child and the Caribbean Imagination, edited by Giselle Rampaul and Geraldine Skeete (University of the West Indies Press, 226 pp, ISBN 9789766402679)

The question of how children figure, or don’t, in our Caribbean cultural landscape finds worthy treatment beneath the critical lens of twelve scholars in this collection of essays. Young people as agents of their own narrative arcs, as the often-impeded forerunners of their autonomy both within the written word and in an oral, functional context: these concerns take centre stage in essays like “Black Heart/White Heart” by Nicha Selvon-Ramkissoon, which confronts the teaching of The Chronicles of Narnia in Caribbean classrooms. Primed to disentangle some of the knots around the juvenile voice within and without a principal area of discourse, the collection is an ideal primer for these essential navigations, in an area of scholarship where books devoted to the issue are few at best.
 

Passages II: Brown Doves, by Helen Drayton (CreateSpace, 120 pp, ISBN 9781478160045)

Forging linkages of beauty and historical resonance across the Caribbean island chain, these poems sound out a self-assured, occasionally magniloquent clarion call in appreciation of the things that are grown locally: a burgeoning sense of self, family, and footing in the tropics. Waxing by turns metaphysical and terrestrial, Drayton’s poems are accompanied by inserts of her own original paintings, serving to further illuminate the technicolour island stories she renders in verse: a place shot through with nostalgia, remembrance, and a brushstroke or two of colourful bacchanal. “Tiny pulsations of life exploring riches” is how the poet describes filaments of soil in one of her pieces: a microcosmic contemplation of what she explores in this thoughtful work.