Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 2017) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks

The Colour of ShadowsMeasures of ExpatriationNew Worlds, Old WaysNo SafeguardsColumbus, the Moor

The Colour of Shadows, by Judy Raymond (Caribbean Studies Press, 200 pp, ISBN 9781626325197)

Nineteenth-century artist Richard Bridgens’s illustrations may not adorn the genteel sitting rooms and foyers of stately Caribbean mansions, but they occupy a cultural and historical mantel that is arguably even more important. These sketches and studies strive to accurately depict plantation life in Trinidad, and are themselves the products of a plantation owner. If this makes them a peculiar puzzlement, then much the same could be said of Bridgens himself, whose motives often seemed to be at cross-purposes, and who lived an enigmatic, contradictory life.

Judy Raymond’s presentation of Bridgens, and his impact on chronicling Caribbean slavery, vaults past the merely biographical: The Colour of Shadows illuminates not only Bridgens’s life, but that of the enslaved Africans he drew. Quietly yet forcefully debunking the notion that Trinidadian slavery was milder than that of other islands, Raymond draws on the incriminating wealth of documentation from slave registers and reports made to the Protector of Slaves. Both these sources, and the visual realities of Bridgens’s drawings, put paid to the notion that French planters were inclined to greater acts of kindness, leniency, or compassion.

In this and other ways, The Colour of Shadows is incriminating without being accusatory. All charges levelled against the guilty are beyond disputation; Raymond is more interested in revealing the microstructure of daily slave resistance, in the several conjoined forces that led to each of Bridgens’s pencil-strokes, than she is in pointing fingers. “In every possible way, sugar was a cruel master,” Raymond writes, showing the reader that, though Bridgens was deeply complicit in the suffering of the enslaved, he was also curiously motivated to portray African life in Trinidad — creating an archive that would outlast him, and educate generations past his death.

 

Measures of Expatriation, by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet Press, 95 pp, ISBN 9781784101688)

Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Collection, Vahni Capildeo’s new poems chart skeletal transit maps across the globe, taking the routes of the most frequently dispossessed to get to where they need to go. Measures of Expatriation is not only the province of the embodied narrator in several of these poems, who closely resembles the Trinidadian author herself. The poems also speak in tongues of queerness, brownness, blackness, chronic illness, and disability, recounting futile quests for medicine, the indignity of immigration interrogations, the burden of often being the only Othered figure in the room. All through its seven measures, each one a bursting suitcase of complicated signifiers, the poet explores home: how to get back to it, how to make peace with it, how to invent it when it exists at no fixed compass points.

 

New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, edited by Karen Lord (Peekash Press, 145 pp, ISBN 9781845233365)

Speculative fiction readers and writers alike know it: the future is closer than we think. For generations, tales of the weird, fantastic, and terrifying have made landfall in foreign countries, their origins striped and stippled with the sounds, smells, and soucouyants of the Caribbean. New Worlds, Old Ways aims to root the legacy of science fiction and fantasy writing more reassuringly in home ground. These are stories of terrorized citizens seeking innovations under a police state, of ancestral beginnings butting up against the grim realities of climate change and exile. They announce that Caribbean speculative writing is here to stay. Overseen with a generous yet judicious eye by Barbadian editor Karen Lord, the anthology unites fresh voices in fiction from Trinidad to Bermuda, presenting stories of mayhem, mischief, and mas-making, from beneath the wide-brimmed hats of modern day Midnight Robbers.

 

No Safeguards, by H. Nigel Thomas (Guernica Editions, 375 pp, ISBN 9781550719840)

H. Nigel Thomas’s No Safeguards confronts the chained spectres of homegrown secrecy, seen through the eyes of two brothers who contend with their gayness while growing up. Caribbean respectability politics clash against the brothers’ desires to live on their own terms, prompting frank and forthright musings on the nature of selfhood, of stifling theology, of the bitterly inevitable yet dogged quest for personal happiness. Thomas, who was born in St Vincent and is based in Canada, wields his narration with all the vulnerability of an open bruise: through the intertwined perspectives of Jay and Paul, several communities clash and converge, each desperately doing what they believe is right. Between Montreal and St Vincent lies the emotional freight of many worlds: Thomas reveals them to us, showing in sensitive prose that return journeys, in either direction, often cost their weight in bribes, guilt, and Hail Marys.

 

Columbus, the Moor, by Charles Matz (House of Nehesi, 104 pp, ISBN 9780996224215)

Intrepid explorer or savager of the Caribbean’s First Peoples: depending on which history books you read, Christopher Columbus means different things to different tribes. Columbus, the Moor is a genre-bending, multilingual approach to mapping the very stars in the sky, and the motions of the tides, during Columbus’s advent in the West Indies. Written in English, Spanish, French, and Italian, Matz’s focus on the cultural collisions and devastations of 1492 are decidedly poetic, an interpretive and lyrically lavish fusion of fact and speculation. At once an existential dilemma, a truth-seeking mission, and a treatise on madness and the sea’s infinite caprice, Columbus, the Moor sings a shanty of curious inventiveness, infusing an old, violent history with unexpected colour and consideration. Whether you respect Columbus or revile him, this slender yet imaginative poem-drama will have you consider his journey from startling, inquisitive shores.