Caribbean Bookshelf (September/October 2013)

This month’s reading picks – Oonya Kempadoo’s novel & much more


All Decent Animals, by Oonya Kempadoo (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 260 pp, ISBN 9780374299712)

As a designer for a prominent, unwieldy Carnival mas camp, Ata has cut her teeth on the creative irregularities of an artist’s life in Trinidad. She searches for more than can be found in her careful blueprints for commercial work, while she tends to her ailing friend, the architect Fraser Goodman. Her European boyfriend Pierre aids in Fraser’s care, but as their mutual friend’s health deteriorates, the couple finds that fewer things between them can be taken with certainty.

Oonya Kempadoo’s third novel, released a full decade after her 2002 Casa de las Américas Prize–winning Tide Running, serves up Trinidad Carnival and Trinidad culture on an ambitious fictive stage, typified by its unusual, often startling use of language. Through Ata’s documentarian eyes, the writer hails out “the chaotic Spanish clamouring, the Indian clannishness and cutlass temper, the African skiving danceability, and English peasant/French farmer crudeness,” noting how “they all blend together into a confused, brash way of life and language.” Fans of Kempadoo’s dually curious and wondrous lexical assignations will revel in her colourful, synaesthetic depictions of J’Ouvert’s messy splendour, of the kaleidoscope that a drive up to Blanchisseuse can afford, in which “Trinidad is revealing slips of her exotic dress.”

But, more than a proclamation of the island’s beauty, All Decent Animals grapples gamely with the ache and persistence of disease, charting the decline of Fraser’s health, hearkening to his longings for the reckless ardour of a hale youth. The novel displays a persistently seeking core, pulsing with questions about the artist’s mission, about the incompatible dualities between passion and usefulness, about how courageous, ordinary people might survive in a pseudo-paradise land beset from within by so many masked devils. Penning both a love letter and a riot act to Trinidad, Kempadoo charts fragile terrain deftly, summoning a portrait of a place that prompts both delight and rich despair.

Chick, by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe Books, 64 pp, ISBN 1852249609)

Hannah Lowe’s debut collection of poems spotlights her father, a Chinese-Jamaican migrant to Britain in the 1940s, revealing segments of the life he led in compartments: chief among them, he was an accomplished card sharp, whose motto read, “If you can’t win it straight, win it crooked.” Lowe peels back layers of her domestic past, revealing as much about the Britain she grew up in as she does about Chick, the tender-hearted, tenacious gambler whose nickname furnishes the collection’s title. These are earnest, immediate poems, of a dice- and card-player’s dexterous hand, of a father’s presence and absence alike, of a daughter’s coming to terms with a man she once claimed as her brown-skinned chauffeur. Chick reads as a litany of memoir pieces, suffused with tenderness, grace, and Windrush-fuelled dreams hung out to dry on Brixton laundry lines.

The Sky’s Wild Noise, by Rupert Roopnaraine (Peepal Tree Press, 370 pp, ISBN 1845231619)

Winner of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Non-Fiction, Rupert Roopnaraine’s collected essays span a lifetime of service to Guyanese politics, representing a compendium of reflections on the nation’s evolving socio-cultural fortunes. Roopnaraine’s unflinching doughtiness as an analyst imbues the writing: certain fellow political luminaries do not escape satirical treatment. The author divides the collection into four sections, covering politics, art, literature, and tributes: fallen and departed comrades are remembered in expansive prose for the merits of their contributions to Guyana’s nation-building, lingering in the political interstices in the literary work of Martin Carter.
The Sky’s Wild Noise reveals as much about the tenor of Roopnaraine’s activism as it does about the often-fractious landscape of Guyana’s navigations towards autonomous rule.

Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, by David Katz (Jawbone Press, 416 pp, ISBN 1908279303)

In this revised and expanded edition of a volume first published in 2003, David Katz augments what was then hailed as a necessary exploration of reggae as an art form, social catalyst, and inter-generational mouthpiece. The full panoply of reggae’s freshest and finest do not escape illumination in Katz’s chronicles: Jimmy Cliff and Buju Banton, the Skatalites and Prince Jammy, Beenie Man and the Wailers — all receive investigation and assessment in the writer’s deft timelining, representing a veritable embarrassment of riches in the art form’s dynamic evolutionary diorama. Repurposed for inclusion in the lineup of the twenty-first century’s musical encyclopaedic contributions, Solid Foundation purposes to be just that: a bulwark of information sure to enhance the historical chops of the reggae savant and dilettante alike.

And Caret Bay Again: New and Selected Poems, by Velma Pollard (Peepal Tree Press, 190 pp, ISBN 9781845232092)

Casa de las Américas Prize–winner Velma Pollard’s newest collection repositions the writer’s semaphore atop the uncertain, often-perilous fissures that riddle Caribbean selfhood. These poems bear the full, frequently disappointed weight of an archivist’s gleanings: a historian observing the land and its peoples, speaking freely of the ways in which we wrong nature, in which we wrong ourselves for uncertain empires of foreign promise. Yet, in the Caret Bay poems, and several others dotted throughout this anthology, Pollard purposes to write away from regional disillusionment, reminding the reader of what sanctuary might be found in Nature’s respite: in “Caret Bay II”, the poet proclaims, “this evening needs no syllables to watch us walk away, shielded by sombre evening and the smell of young smoke rising like incense from a dreadlocks’ hearth.”