Caribbean Bookshelf (July/August 2014)

This month’s fiction and poetry reading picks

Coolie WomanUtterLittletown SecretsOlympic Hero: Lennox Kilgour’s StoryToronto Caribbean Carnival: A Tribute

Coolie Woman, by Gaiutra Bahadur
(University of Chicago Press, 316 pp, ISBN 9780226034423)

Guyanese-American journalist Gaiutra Bahadur shows how the word “coolie” — a term that carries derogatory weight in contemporary Indo-Caribbean life — bears a long history, one not immune to oppression. Coolies, East Indian migrant workers who left their homesteads for West Indian colonies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, endured a litany of hardships, including perilous “middle passage” sea crossings, on which they were subject to brutalities and neglect.

Bahadur tells a collective history, by focusing her emotionally involved reportage on both the specific and the personal: namely, the story of her great-grandmother Sujaria, a “coolie woman” who took the risky, calculated crossing over the kala pani (dark water). Historical archives rendered Sujaria a number, a statistic in the long annals of the British Empire. How did her fate change when she arrived in British Guiana? What sort of existence did she envision for herself, and did her own agency shape the life she built in the Guyanese plantations?

These are only a handful of the sharp, curious questions Bahadur asks, in a non-fiction treatment that’s half emotional excavation and half archival scrutiny. This peerless work exposes a dearth of similar scholarship on female-centric indentureship memoirs. Deciding who stakes a sovereign claim in telling the stories of the historically disenfranchised is a tricky business. Bahadur engages with this question, too, and the truth emerges in chapter upon chapter of writing that doesn’t flinch from untidy colonial secrets.

You can choose how to read Coolie Woman: as neo-feminist tract with century-old roots; as an exposé of the former empire’s economic stratifications; as linguistic scrutiny of which words conceal the deepest wounds. If the book endeavours to be a political manifesto, it remains at the same time a personal, familial one. Coolie Woman is a masterpiece that escapes easy categorisation, telling vast stories in miraculous and minute ways.

Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor

Utter, by Vahni Capildeo
(Peepal Tree Press, 78 pp, ISBN 9781845232139)

Something vigorously smart rotates at the core of Trini-dadian Vahni Capildeo’s fifth book of poems, summoning an animal intimacy with nature, a spiritual connection with displacement, and a verse guideline that alternates states of bewilderment and wonder. Here are poems that cleave close to the heart of both known and unknowable wilderness, as well as poems making bold linguistic experiments on the page. The poet mines her muses from a series of convergences: the sea bed meeting the city skyline, the awkward social encounter that diffuses into the cloistered haven of a narrator’s intimacy with libraries. Everything in Utter strikes one indelibly with the weight of memory, and a cunning skill of revisioning old constants in verse that blindsides, skirting away from concrete appellations.

SR

Littletown Secrets, by K. Jared Hosein
(Potbake Productions, 98 pp, ISBN 9789769523616)

The seven deadly sins are cornerstones in popular literary fiction, and they shine with a decidedly sinister new lustre in Trinidadian writer K. Jared Hosein’s debut novella-in-stories for young adult readers. This series of morality fables is proof positive that adolescent tales can contain more in their expanding dimensions than saccharine, colour-by-numbers scenarios. These chilling episodes, in which Littletown’s young citizenry squares off against mythical, folkloric figures of ill-intent, are narrated by the town’s secret-keeper. Set in abandoned clock towers, on the bustle of the cricket pitch, and in forbidding woodland clearings, the lessons to be learned from Littletown’s shady inhabitants are clear: every secret has its price, and its pursuer, too.

SR

 

Olympic Hero: Lennox Kilgour’s Story, by Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
(Caribbean Studies Press, 48 pp, ISBN 9781626321755)

The legend of an athlete with humble origins and vast ambitions leaps colourfully to life in this touching tribute to the sporting accomplishments of Olympic bronze medal-winning weightlifter Lennox Kilgour. Detailing the plucky eleven-year-old’s first interactions with barbell lifting in neighbourhood gyms, the author swiftly transports the reader into Dowdy’s adult streak of medal victories, earned at regional and international sporting events. This children’s book successfully highlights, both in buoyant text and accompanying illustrations (by Dillon Sedar), the travails and persistent dedications that mark an athlete’s life, showing with emphatic poetic resonances how much it takes to create history in new and challenging arenas.

SR

Toronto Caribbean Carnival: A Tribute, by David Ayres
(140 pp, ISBN 9780988105706)

“As a child . . . I was not permitted to participate in the Carnival festivities,” writes Trinidad-born, Canada-based photographer Davis Ayres. “I was still mesmerised by the costumes in the parade,” he continues. Childhood fascination grew into adult participation, and eventually to this large volume of photographs documenting one of Carnival’s northernmost incarnations, the annual festival once called Caribana, and today officially called Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto. Over a two-year period, Ayres captured images of hundreds of the men, women, and children who contribute their creativity and energy to the festival, with sections on pan, calypso, and masquerade. Short profiles of key individuals are interspersed. Toronto Caribbean Carnival is a useful record of the Carnival’s development in its fifth decade — and further proof, if it’s needed, of Caribbean culture’s adaptability to new places and times.

Philip Sander