Caribbean Bookshelf (Summer 1995)

A selection of new books from and about the Caribbean

–––––––

A Small Gathering of Bones

Patricia Powell (Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series 1994)

Spirits in the Dark

H. Nigel Thomas (Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series 1994)

The pioneering Caribbean fiction writers had heaven-sent themes: decolonisation, the discovery of identity, the creation of a truly Caribbean literature. There were great names among them — V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace, just to start with.

Their successors — notably the Antiguan Jamaica Kincaid — have had to set a new agenda. Many are writers who left the Caribbean at an early stage, have been through North American creative writing courses, and in some cases have wound up as university-level creative writing teachers. They tend to approach the Caribbean from a different angle: with technical confidence and a metropolitan vision. Powerfully haunted by the Caribbean, still psychically split, they are expatriate in a different way from their predecessors: perhaps for the next generation the Caribbean will be merely an echo, a nostalgia.

The latest additions to the Heinemann Caribbean Writers series both tackle themes that Caribbean-resident novelists avoid. Patricia Powell — born in Jamaica 1966, emigrated to the US 1982, now Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Massachussetts – is the first Caribbean novelists to deal head-on with gay relationships, through the gathering tragedy of a Jamaican confronted with a crumbling passion, social hostility and a terrifying illness spreading among his friends. The setting of A Small Gathering of Bones is Jamaica in the late 1970s, with AIDS still unrecognised and unnamed. Powell, who did her creative writing training at Brown University in Rhode Island, casts her narrative in a careful Jamaican vernacular like her first novel Me Dying Trial, which was set in the rural Jamaica of a decade earlier.

H. Nigel Thomas — born in St Vincent 1947, emigrated to Canada 1968, now Associate Professor at Université Laval in Quebec– has already published short stories, poems and literary criticism, but Spirits in the Dark is his first novel. It too breaks new ground by exploring the powerful “mourning” ritual through which certain Caribbean faiths bring their adherents face to face with themselves. In this way the protagonist moves from self-repression and nervous breakdown to healing and self- acceptance.

The sacred journey begins on the first page — “No vision must come from outside. All yo’ sight must turn inward, on yo’ soul”. Again there is the careful vernacular treatment, at least in the dialogue — always difficult to bring off, since the rhythm of Caribbean speech is even harder work than the tortuous depiction of pronunciation.

Much of the work of the new generation of Caribbean expatriates is rewarding to read, though few — Kincaid is one obvious exception — can yet generate the power, excitement and depth of vision of their best precursors. But in forcing Caribbean fiction to face some of its cherished taboos, it is performing a real service.

The Bishop of San Fernando

David McLaurin (Duckworth 1994)

Alfred Palmer-Ross has been Bishop of San Fernando — Trinidad’s second city — for 20 years, and has accomplished little or nothing. The twilight years of his quiet and expendable career are rudely interrupted by the arrival of young Simon Palmer (the Bishop’s one fall from virtue returning to haunt him) and of a new Vicar-General whose new broom threatens to sweep away all the Bishop’s comfortable isolation. As his beloved Cathedral disappears beneath the Vicar-General’s monstrous new concrete, Bishop Palmer-Ross is faced with a reckoning he thought he could escape.

Anthony Trollope transposed to the Caribbean? In a way, yes. Except that the bad guy is the villainous Mr Seth, who is financing the hideous new cathedral for various inscrutable purposes, and for whom the word drugs seems to suggest more than pharmaceuticals. Seth draws young Simon Palmer into his web, and the tale moves towards a satisfyingly melodramatic climax.

David McLaurin was born in England in 1963: his father had been an officer in the pre-independence Trinidad and Tobago police. The blurb announces that the author is now a theology student in Rome who spends his free time “visiting historic churches, reading St Thomas Aquinas and arguing about the nature of religious belief.” His first novel conjures up a bleak spiritual world where belief is an endangered species: neither the washed-up Bishop nor the thrusting and trendy Vicar-General are much cause for optimism.

Studies in West Indian Literature: Theatre

Judy S.J. Stone (Macmillan Caribbean 1994)

This ground-breaking book by a leading Caribbean theatre critic examines Caribbean theatre under five main categories – “the theatre of social realism, the theatre of the people, total theatre, classical theatre and the theatre of ritual”. As a pioneering history and survey of Caribbean theatre it is an essential reference — much of the background will be new even to seasoned theatre-goers. But Stone’s close familiarity with the material and a fluent style also make the book invaluable as a study of the various strains of Caribbean drama. Leading playwrights are covered in detail — Errol John, Earl Lovelace, Dennis Scott, Trevor Rhone — and there is a chapter on black British writers, making links with Caribbean roots. The substantial chapter on Derek Walcott is a very useful summary of his work and development. There is also an extensive 80-page bibliography.

Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama

Bruce King (Oxford University Press 1995)

The poet and playwright Derek Walcott was born in St Lucia in 1930, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Between 1959 and 1976 he headed the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, a partnership that is now entering a new phase. Literary critic Bruce King — whose earlier books include a study of V. S. Naipaul — sees in this collaboration “a heroic story . . . a great story of our time.” Walcott, refusing to seek his fortune overseas, “decided to stay and create a world-class theatre company … a West Indian equivalent of Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble . . . (with) a specifically West Indian style of acting, as distinctive and recognisable as Noh or Kabuki theatre. To do this Walcott had to find the actors, dancers, technicians and stage hands; he had to produce, design, find theatres for, stage and direct his plays . . . He would show by doing that the creation of great theatre by a great drama company was the true West Indian revolution, the true liberation from the burden and shame of history . . . “. The high hopes and the tribulations of that long relationship are the theme of this pioneering book, which weaves theatre history and literary criticism together in a fresh and rewarding way.

The ABC of Creative Caribbean Cookery

Kathy Janzan (Macmillan Caribbean 1994)

This book progresses in alphabetical order from ackee (joining mushrooms and cheese in a soufflé) to yellowbird (a cocktail made with rum, fruit juices and banana liqueur). Kathy Janzan spent seven years in the Caribbean, cooking on charter yachts between the Virgin Islands and Grenada, taking her clients on expeditions to Caribbean markets and cooking up good Caribbean dishes along with some creations of her own. Many of the Caribbean standards are here, plus some happy inventions, mixed with creative cocktails and notes about the islands.

Trinidad and Tobago: A Photographic Atlas

Dr Russell Barrow (Media & Editorial Projects, Trinidad, 1994)

Trinidad and Tobago unbelievably, has 433 different bird species. Russell Barrow, a radiologist by profession and an experienced nature photographer, has put together a coffee-table selection of some of the most interesting and eye-catching varieties, with detailed descriptions of the birds, how to identify them, where to find them and how to photograph them. With 128 sumptuous colour photographs — whether of the motley brilliance of a Copper-Rumped Hummingbird, the furry texture of an Anhinga or the whiskers of a Peewee — the book is a triumph of detail. Local birders should take pride in noting that this handsome book was produced entirely in Trinidad and Tobago.

A Caribbean Dozen

Ed. John Agard & Grace Nichols (Walker Books 1994)

This is a beautiful large-format anthology of Caribbean poets, ideal for younger readers. Each selection is prefaced with an autobiographical page which explains unfamiliar language or local details, presumably for an English audience. Agard and Nichols have chosen a solid group of poets and cull from them verse which will sit easily in nurseries anywhere. The book is a wonder of design with delicious illustrations by Catherine Felstead (who did the dust-jacket for Alice Walker’s The Color Purple) on nearly every page. £12.99 may sound like a lot for what is essentially a kindergarten text, but this is in the Beatrix Potter class — a book that you keep for life.

When Grandpa Cheddi Was a Boy and Other Stories

Janet Jagan (Peepal Tree Press 1993)

Janet Jagan, Guyana’s First Lady, is famously remembered for reading Colette when V.S. Naipaul passed through Guyana while researching The Middle Passage. Thirty hard years of politics later, with her husband now president in Guyana’s “return to democracy”, one might expect these short stories for her grandchildren to be bursting with political allegory and covert allusions — but no. Instead, Mrs Jagan offers a mixture of Guyanese folklore and nursery narrative with local details, which can only be politicised by the most determined reader. Boris the crocodile, for example, turns out to be a loyal friend to Barney the otter in his hour of need, though the political iconography must have tempted otherwise. Personal references to modern Guyana are there — Dianne (see Postcard from the Rupununi, elsewhere in this issue) turns up in a Land Rover in one tale to rescue ailing otters — but Mrs Jagan’s touch is invariably light and uncontroversial. This may be a literary curiosity, but it stands on its own as a charming collection of children’s stories with a strong Guyanese flavour.