Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2015)

This month’s reading picks, from a debut Jamaican novel to an anthology of fresh Caribbean fiction

We Kind ah PeopleSketcher‘Til the Well Runs DryDifficult FruitPepperpot

We Kind ah People: The Trinidad Carnival Masquerade Bands of Stephen Lee Heung,
by George Tang and Ray Funk (120 pp, ISBN 9781320341851)

How you play mas in Trinidad and Tobago is as much a political stamp in your passport as your church habits, or the criteria you use to pick your after-church Sunday morning rumshop jaunts. This generous presentation of Carnival bandleader Stephen Lee Heung’s life in T&T mas keeps the politics on the back burner, letting George Tang’s previously unreleased band photographs speak standard-bearing volumes on Lee Heung’s legacies.

Ray Funk’s accompanying text cites other Carnival theorists’ writings inclusively, taking an equitable approach to his analysis. He draws references from Michael Anthony, Roy Boyke, and the opinion pieces of a then–Trinidad Guardian arts reporter, Derek Walcott, who described Lee Heung’s China, The Forbidden City (1967) as displaying “a determined, nearly defiant authenticity
. . . rigorously researched and executed with such taste that it may have crossed that vague frontier between theatre costume and Mas.”

In truth, it’s that capital-M “Mas” to which Funk ascribes the unflinching, visionary work ethic that characterised so much of Lee Heung’s oeuvre. What emerges palpably from this textual and visual tribute is the spirit of a certain, now-evanescent Mas Culture: one rooted in creative collaborations, thankless seven-day workweeks, and a Bandleaders’ Association founded on a fifty-cent registration fee.

We Kind ah People will arm any nostalgic Carnival Tuesday Savannah Grandstander with a directory of mas veterans’ names, titles, and crowns, but it does more than present a fêter’s pictorial who’s who. It makes memory of Trinidad and Tobago’s great street theatre visibly, keenly felt, in a parade of Stephen Lee Heung’s lifelong odysseys in band creation, transmuted through so many smiling, glitter-streaked faces lifted towards the sun.

 

Sketcher, by Roland Watson-Grant (Alma Books, 288 pp, ISBN 9781846883125)

Jamaican Roland Watson-Grant gives his debut novel’s characters a boon, arming them with no small allotment of linguistic sass: he makes the dialogue fairly sing in Sketcher, a plucky coming-of-age story situated in the Louisiana bayou’s magically primed depths. “Skid” Beaumont, the nine-year-old navigator of this enterprise in quirky, idiosyncratic bildungsroman-building, tells his family’s story, and his own, with equal parts incorrigible hard-headedness and big-hearted hope. Watson-Grant fiddles with conventional narrative structure and pacing, priming his storytelling with flourishes and sharp turns worthy of an impish hat-tip from the Artful Dodger himself. Sketcher tangles with folkloric tropes, weighs its historical origins both carefully and with revisionist insistence, and becomes that oft-hoped for thing in fiction: a bold, bright declaration from a main character with an unusual voice.

 

’Til the Well Runs Dry, by Lauren Francis-Sharma (Henry Holt, 400 pp, ISBN 9780805098037)

Young, resourceful Marcia Garcia cuts an unlikely figure as a romantic heroine — which is perhaps why she anchors ’Til the Well Runs Dry with all the credible earnestness of a 1960s Caribbean diasporic migration tale. In her historically fictional world-crafting, US-based Trinidadian Lauren Francis-Sharma shows how commendably she can straddle a pastiche of emotional felicity and societally induced fissures. When the novel’s plot turns to romance, it’s a hard-won affair: Marcia and Farouk must contend with the multiple malaises of a Trinidad steeped in small-minded governance strategies and familial bêtes noires. Following in the tradition of novels that seek to carve identity niches amid a tumult of shifting values, strange continents, and uncertain fortunes, Francis-Sharma’s players assail daunting odds, torn between states of hope and despair, of home and uncomfortable exile.

 

Difficult Fruit, by Lauren K. Alleyne (Peepal Tree Press, 72 pp, ISBN 9781845232276)

US-based Trinidadian Lauren Alleyne’s debut collection of poems frames bodies under attack. It declares in both subtle and searing conveyances that no street corners are safe, that no spectators are innocent in the war against women’s bodies and against the rights of all those who are daily beaten down. When the poet turns towards some lightness, it isn’t to leaven her dark matter with false hope. Rather, she allows a fully examined life to arise, one not short on sacrifice, but not immune to the sweetness of communal prayer, in which she exhorts: “Let the dead make way with hallelujahs. In their rain voices, let them whisper to me.”

 

Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, by various authors (Peekash Press, 224 pp, ISBN 9781845232375)

The ambitious, firstborn child of Peekash Press, an imprint of Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books, Pepperpot echoes not with one prescribed identity, but with a marketplace of tongues through which the authentic Caribbean might be told. An anthology curated from 2013’s Caribbean-region entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, it leaps headfirst into audacious narrative water, sustaining a diversity in storytelling that’s indicative of the panoply of ways to love, sin, and write about it, in these our unpredictable, conjoined societies. “The Whale House”, Trinidadian Sharon Millar’s story of loss, separation, and the natural splendour of maritime savagery, opens the collection with an audacious fever pulse, one that resonates on a wavelength spectrum of high and low humours. Strong contributions from Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados make the collection a regionally consistent showing in nascent talent, geared — the reader will hope — towards longer-form revelations.

Reviews by Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor