Bookshelf (May/June 1996)

New books from from and about the Caribbean


 The Autobiography Of My Mother

Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996)

Jamaica Kincaid was born in Antigua and is based in Vermont; her earlier books of fiction  — At The Bottom Of The River, Annie John and Lucy — have already established her as one of the most compelling voices in contemporary literature. Her new novel tells the story of a woman living out her life in Dominica: childhood, school, lovers, marriage, age. But this is not another nostalgic tale of a charmed island childhood. Xuela, the protagonist, loses her mother at the moment of birth, finds no root except deep inside herself, and confronts the world with a fierceness and a ruthlessness born of loss and betrayal. The book conjures up a vividly physical world, but it is not a world of naturalism — it is a mythic world in which Xuela becomes the Caribbean, or perhaps the Caribbean’s women. Part European, part African, part Carib, she embodies the Caribbean’s deepest resources as well as its perennial and well-founded fears and suspicions; above all, robbed of her own mother, she refuses to become a mother herself. Kincaid’s writing is intense, lyrical, poetic; as poised as late Naipaul, as passionate as Walcott (to whom the book is dedicated). Page after page offers insights that slice through familiar assumptions like a blade through butter. This is a profound, truthful and sobering book.

The Interloper

Rabindranath Maharaj (Goose Lane Editions, Canada, 1995)

Some of the best Caribbean fiction these days is coming from the exiles, the writers who for one reason or another have settled in Toronto or New York or London and are torn between two worlds, between restlessness and nostalgia, ambition and roots. Rabindranath Maharaj was a teacher and journalist in Trinidad and is now a teacher in Toronto: this is his first book, a collection of thoughtful, poised and very readable stories which pinpoint aspects of the exile’s dilemma.  Maharaj writes with a welcome humour and irony, free of the overt bitterness and anger that sours so much writing from the diaspora. He manages instead a well-controlled poignancy. “Try and don’t interlope in these people territory too much,” Alvin is told as soon as he arrives in Canada from Trinidad; in his eagerness to integrate, not interlope, the nervous hero of the title story could almost be a  Sam Selvon creation.

The Adventures of Gurudeva

Seepersad Naipaul, with a foreword by V.S. Naipaul (Heinemann, 1995)

“There is reformist passion; but even when there is shock there is nothing of the protest — common in early colonial writing — that implies an outside audience; the barbs are aII turned inwards … this way of looking, from being my father’s, became mine … created my background for me.” In a strong, thoughtful foreword, V. S. Naipaul graciously introduces his father as a man who discovered his talents too late. Gurudeva, a bully and wife-beater, is a prototype of the cramped spiritual and emotional life the younger Naipaul would later depict so powerfully in his own work. There is a pre-modern charm to this novel (which reads more like a collection of stories): light comedy, phonetic dialogue, and a solid journalistic style with a quiet lyricism. Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist at the Guardian newspaper in Trinidad, wrote while the modern, self-conscious and self-critical Caribbean was being forged. The barbs are there — Gurudeva’s brutish parochialism is shown in unforgiving detail — but there’s also a grudging love of the world that produces and contains him. The later parts of the book are uneven, but this remains a fascinating peephole into Indo-Trinidadian life in the first half of this century, and a glimpse into the world that produced, albeit in embittered reaction, the Caribbean’s finest living writer.

The Trinidad and Tobago Steel pan: History and Evolution

Dr F. I. R. Blake (Trinidad, 1995)

The Steelband Movement

Stephen Stuempfle (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995)

Beginning Steel Drum

Othello Molineaux (Warner Bros. Publications, 1995)

The steelband movement — the instrument, the music, the culture it grew from — has been without a serious, methodical, accessible history for far too long. As pan has established itself internationally, the need has grown more urgent. Now the record is slowly being put straight. Dr “Fedo” Blake, a Trinidadian who has been an apostle of pan for many years, has produced a large-format book, published privately in Trinidad and available in good local bookshops, which looks at the movement from the inside, often through the histories of key people and bands. In addition to telling the story of pan from its evolution in the 1930s, he spends time on its cultural roots (including the “orisha” and Spiritual Baptist faiths), the social forces that shaped it, and on the instruments themselves. The second half of the book is devoted to people — pioneers, innovators, supporters, tuners, players, arrangers, hands, sponsors, calypsonians. Stephen Stuempfle’s book has a scholarly tone, being based on his doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania: this is the perspective of the cultural anthropologist, well researched (plenty of fieldwork here) and very readable. After an opening chapter on the musical traditions from which pan emerged, the three central chapters document its almost 60-year history, and a final chapter looks at pan as a process in the creation of Trinidad and Tobago as a nation. Together, these welcome books at last begin to give the steelband movement its history; they could well be read together too — the Trinidadian crusader and the American scholar, the objective study and the personal passion, enrich each other. On the practical side, anyone wanting to move from pan history to the pan itself could well start with Othello Molineaux’s primer, which teaches you the rudiments: tuning, notes, sticks, scales, chords, simple melodies, plus reference sections and a demonstration CD.

Tiger’s Triumph: Celebrating Sam Selvon

ed. Susheila Nasta and Anna Rutherford (Dangaroo Press, UK, 1995)

Cecil Gray, the Trinidadian poet, wrote of Sam Selvon: “. . . you took the small/language used by the island/for picong and calypsos/and stretched its vowels/across the mouth of the world”. True, but unlike the Whitmanian yawp the metaphor brings to mind, Selvon was a gentle ventriloquist. He used Trinidadian speech in his novels with as much craft as Damon Runyon or Elmore Leonard; he also caught the essence of West Indian humour, and life, with a sympathy harshly absent from the later Naipaul. This collection looks at Selvon in every conceivable way: reminiscences, extracts, poems, eulogies, criticism. This makes sense, and it gives a good idea of Selvon’s charming versatility, his earthy intelligence. Selvon’s comedy has perhaps obscured the complexity of his fiction; this collection tries to correct that, but it also offers surprisingly intimate portraits of the man. There is enough material here for newcomer and devotee alike.