Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 1995)

A round-up of new books about the Caribbean

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Music

Bachata: A Social History Of Dominican Popular Music

Deborah Pacini Hernandez (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1995)

When the singer Juan Luis Guerra released an album called Bachata Rosa in 1991 — and won a Grammy for it the following year — he put a new product on the world music map: the Dominican Republic’s guitar-based bachata. Until then — as this study of the music’s history shows — bachata had been overshadowed by salsa and merengue, and had remained the music of the country’s dispossessed, scorned and virtually invisible. Deborah Pacini Hernandez — a Colombian-born teacher at the University of Florida — did her research in the mid to late 1980s when bachata was still undiscovered, and is mildly scornful of Luis Guerra’s bourgeois background and the commercialisation of the music. But her book tells a great story. Bachata has much in common with other Caribbean musical forms which have moved from denigration to acceptance to commercialisation, including reggae and calypso, and indeed with countless other forms, from the blues to rap. But the beauty of the book is that it weaves the music so closely together with the society that we end up with a much deeper understanding of a country in transition as well as a vital musical form.

Poetry

Gardening In The Tropics

Olive Senior (McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1994)

No, this is not a book on gardening. In the third of its four sections, all the poems begin with the words Gardening in the Tropics . . . , but then they blossom into wondrous metaphors for unexpected things: such strange spectres fly past as you cultivate your garden, such odd things you dig up; and how quickly the vegetation grows back, so that the briefly absent leader returning from another IMF meeting is forced to overfly and seek “unencumbered skies, over the/Cayman Islands, or Leichtenstein,/or Geneva”. There are deeply passionate poems here, like the opening Meditation On Yellow; there is a beautiful evocation of the Dominican writer Jean Rhys in her English exile; there is much reflection, ice-cool in style and tone, immaculately crafted. The writing is sharp, pointed, alive. This is Olive Senior’s second collection of poems – the first, Talking Of Trees, appeared in 1986 – and it confirms her growing reputation as one of the Caribbean’s finest voices. Born in Jamaica, she is now based in Toronto; but few poets anywhere in recent years have so profoundly evoked the spirit of the Caribbean.

Fellow Traveller

Jane King (Sandberry Press, Kingston and Toronto, 1994)

Here is a really distinctive voice in Caribbean poetry: no wonder this collection won last year’s James Rodway Memorial Prize for Poetry, a programme established by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Born in St Lucia, Jane King has already had some success – local awards, fellowships, publication in anthologies. But Fellow Traveller establishes her as a writer to be reckoned with. It’s not just that she has plenty to say: the thought and feeling are strong and clear, and are delivered with intelligence and humour (one piece, in its entirety, notes: “Some folks, I think, will never see/a poem useful as a recipe”). Even more striking is the assurance of the writing, the grace of the sound and the rhythm, and the way Jane King has already crafted for herself a tone and a style that are all her own.

de Man

Pamela Mordecai (Sister Vision Press, Toronto, 1995)

The Jamaican writer Pamela Mordecai has produced an extraordinary work, which she calls a “performance poem”. It’s the result of a church commission (“write ‘something for Good Friday'”), and would surely be even more striking in performance than on the page. Two people are watching the last hours of Jesus Christ: Naomi, a maid working for Pontius Pilate’s wife, and Samuel, who was taught his carpentry by Jesus’s human father, Joseph. They haven’t met for years: Samuel, disabled, had once been turned down by Naomi, who caved in to family disapproval (“Dem all did seh dat cripple/Man cyaan care fi me”). They are Jamaican in thought, humour and language – the Jamaican vernacular is beautifully crafted (and there’s a careful glossary). As the drama goes through its several stages, their conversation turns from detached commentary to anger to pain, and then to a delicacy and tenderness and reconciliation that goes to the heart of the Christian vision. So much contemporary religious or spiritual writing is crassly propagandist; this is real poetry.

Criticism

In The Trickster Tradition: The Novels of Andrew Salkey, Francis Ebejar and Ishmael Reed

Peter Nazareth (Bogle L’Ouverture Press, London, 1994)

Anansi, the West African spider-figure who made the crossing to the Caribbean with his countrymen, was a trickster, a shrewd and cunning survivor, a creature living by his wits and outwitting formidable foes: a lateral thinker, in fact, long pre-dating that latecomer Edward de Bono. Peter Nazareth, who teaches English and African-American Studies at the University of Iowa, grew up in the Goan community in East Africa – African, but Indian, but Catholic with Portuguese and Malayan heritage; no wonder Anansi interests him. His thesis is that his three chosen novelists – one Jamaican, one Maltese and one American – use the “trickster tradition” by structuring their books so as to trick and startle readers into new ways of seeing and thinking, thus participating in the creation of meaning. Far from the magisterial tradition of mainstream academic critics, this is lively, entertaining, often provocative commentary written from the viewpoint of the “third world” and ranging widely across African, Asian and Caribbean references. The 80-page chapter on Jamaica’s Andrew Salkey is a major advance in the appreciation of this often under-rated Caribbean writer.

History

13 Chapters Of A History Of Belize

Assad Shoman (The Angelus Press, Belize, 1994)

“Belizeans need to come to terms with their history, warts and all,” Assad Shoman claims. “Above all they need to understand how that history has been interpreted and why. If that involves the painful process of examining, and shed- ding, some cherished myths — so be it.” It’s good to see a politician turning to a serious book – especially when it turns out to be as readable as this one. Assad Shoman is a former government minister and was a major figure on the left of the People’s United Party of George Price — he left active politics 10 years ago. He makes no secret of his philosophical assumptions: “The history of Belize is the story of attempts to impose a system of domination and exploitation and of people’s reactions to this, ranging from resistance to accommodation.” But the story pretty much bears him out. This is the first single-volume history of Belize by a Belizean, and it successfully mixes solid research with a readable and often entertaining style. Perhaps in time these “13 Chapters” will acquire some new companions: according to his publisher, Shoman has been working on a new book describing “his often hilarious experiences in Belizean public and private life.”

Fiction

Discerner Of Hearts

Olive Senior (McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1995)

There are some lovely titles in this third collection of Olive Senior’s short stories. The Lizardy Man And His Lady is about a young girl strangled by adult drugs and violence; in You Think I Mad, Miss? a woman is reduced to hustling passers-by at a city inter-section: “if there is still Massa God up above, is what I do why him have to tek everybody side against me? ” The Case Against The Queen tells how Uncle returns from untold years of study in Britain mildly unhinged, having had his heart taken out in hospital and replaced by a cold mechanical heart; his trunk is crammed with correspondence with the Queen regarding appropriate compensation. Narrative spawns metaphor on every page. The “discerner of hearts” in the title story is “Father” Burnham, keeper of secrets and tradition, healer and counsellor, the seer of all the soul’s secrets and architect of one of the book’s few healings and reconciliations. The stories are set in a remembered rural Jamaica; the vernacular dialogue is beautifully crafted, and the texture of life being lived is always vivid; Senior can conjure up characters you feel you’ve known all your life. But the warmth of rooted communities is always offset by the terrible pain of their conflicts and jealousies: the alienation of class and race and wealth, the brutal little subtleties of skin colour and hair quality, the howling of locked hearts. Olive Senior’s first collection of stories, Summer Lightning, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1987 (ahead of Canada’s revered Margaret Attwood); her second, Arrival Of The Snake-Woman, confirmed her reputation as a fiction writer. This third collection leaves behind a haunting question: Senior is so good at working her Jamaican material — where is it going to lead her next?

Cry A Whisper

Lucy Safo (Bogle-L’ Ouverture Press, London, 1993)

An often harrowing novel set in the days of slavery. The triangle sailed by the slave ships – England, Africa, the Caribbean and home – is reflected in a triangle of protagonists: the African slave Akwesi, the Liverpool youngster Hugh who is press-ganged onto a slave ship, and a slave-owner’s daughter, Linda. None of them comes to an enviable end.

Biography

No Surrender: The Growling Tiger

Rawle Gibbons (Canboulay Productions, Trinidad, 1994)

Neville Marcano, known as the Growling Tiger, was Trinidad and Tobago’s first Calypso King (1939), and one of the great veterans of calypso. Rawle Gibbons’s succinct biography includes a list of his calypsos, from 1914 to 1979. Tiger died in 1993, largely unrecognised, like so many of his colleagues: in 1986, when this biography was written, he was hustling a living by selling advertising space for two of Port of Spain’s calypso tents. Gibbons — a teacher and playwright, and Director of the Creative Arts Centre of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad — knew Tiger well for ten years. His book does more than tell the story of a life: it shows clearly what it took to be a calypsonian in the early days, how deep the roots lie, and how valuable the calypsonian’s fiercely independent view was.

Calypsonians From Then To Now

Rudolph Ottley (Trinidad, 1995)

Rudolph Ottley has put together basic interviews and profiles of 20 Trinidad and Tobago calypsonians; they include heavy-weights like Kitchener, Black Stalin and David Rudder, veterans like Pretender and King Fighter, and younger-generation favourites like Machel Montano. Shorty is there, Relator, Bill Trotman, Gypsy, Sugar Aloes, SuperBlue, Crazy, the Mighty Zandolee. There is a desperate need for biography in the Caribbean, for documenting achievers and achievements; Ottley, who has already produced a volume on women in calypso, is doing valuable pioneering work which later biographers will he grateful for, and needs a serious publisher to support him.

NATURE

Orchids of Jamaica

Ancile Gloudon and Cicely Tobisch (University of the West Indies Press 1995)

Orchids like Jamaica. More than 60 genera and 220 species of them flourish there. Now, Jamaicans are returning the affection. Here, with colour photographs and line drawings, 125 of the species are described in flattering detail, complete with vital data and statistics (median and lateral sepals, petals and lips and columns, crenulate margins and rhizomatous stems) and “cultural notes”. More or less everything you might need or want to know has been painstakingly gathered and presented in an easy- to-use format. The only disappointment of this attractively designed and produced book is that the photographs do not allow the reader to ogle the filamentous processes and glabrous roots of its delightful subjects as thoroughly as I (s)he may wish. Otherwise the book is a pleasure: full of mellifluous botanical jargon (which, unlike most other specialist shorthands, is a beauty in itself – there is also a comprehensive glossary), impressively well-researched, and helpfully presented.