Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 1997)

What's new in Caribbean books


FICTION

The Counting House

David Dabydeen (Jonathan Cape 1996, pb, ISBN 0-224-043439)

Set in India and British Guiana in the mid-19th century, The Counting House is a poignant exploration of Caribbean plantation life and its ravages. In this new novel by the Guyanese poet and novelist David Dabydeen (Coolie Odyssey, Disappearance, Slave Song, Turner), ex-slave and indentured Indian scrabble for the same piece of dirt; India and Africa are brought to their knees in the swampy, infested coastlands of South America. Men and women are defined by their ability to survive. The women, it seems, are better at it: Rohini learns more quickly than husband Vidia how to exist in a world outside the ways of India; Miriam the African servant makes herself indispensable. This is a fast but enjoyable read, full of poetry, never pretty; it brings us closer to understanding those who survived — the ancestors of today’s Caribbean societies — and those who didn’t. (PG)

Catherine Of Gardenpiece

Gloria Grant (Pearce Publishing House 1996, pb, ISBN 976–8138–09–2)

Just when you think you have worked Catherine out, she falls “through the floor of a latrine”. Her first lover, Andy McNab, has been killed off by a brain tumour four chapters earlier, but Frederick (a “red skin” fellow who lives with his mother in neighbouring Sherwood Forest) proposes, and soon they are married and have a child. But Frederick fortuitously steps on a wooden peg and dies from a fever. Kate soldiers on until Alonso Matthias of St Ann’s steps into the breach and sires five new children, but he’s an honest sort and he makes Catherine very happy. And so life continues, with personal disasters and stoic recoveries, too many to be listed here. This is Mills and Boon Jamaican style: uneven prose, a jerky plot and page after page of improbable scenes of “old-time country living and Pentecostalism.” (BdC)

HISTORY

Tobago: Melancholy Isle, Vol. 2

Douglas Archibald (University of the West Indies 1995, pb, ISBN 976-620-061-0}

When the going gets tough in Tobago, Tobagonians sum it all up with a simple expression: “boy, it ain’t easy”. There’s more than an echo of that in the second volume of the late Douglas Archibald’s oddly-named three-volume history, which covers the period 1770–1814. Slaves revolt, blood flows, ants level the sugar cane, a governor is killed in a duel, Americans harrass, the French invade: in brief, this is not a happy time for poor Tobago. Archibald’s work offers little insight into what motivated settlers to put up with these hardships (Africans had no choice). He presents a concise collection of historical data, but it’s an incomplete image, lots of bones but not enough flesh. And it’s a shortcoming that the book does not have an index. (PR)

TRAVEL

Trinidad & Tobago

ed. Elizabeth Saft (2nd edition, Insight Guides, Apa Publications/Houghton Mifflin 1996, pb, ISBN 0-395-75501-8)

This is the updated edition of a guide first published in 1987. Like other volumes in the series, it is remarkable for its bold pictures and its weight of background information — there are 287 pages with over 130 full colour photographs, contributed by a string of local journalists and writers. Practical information is condensed in concise format on yellow pages. But it’s the photography that provides the strongest impressions of the place and people. Many of the photos are repeated from the first edition, but they nevertheless impart a sense of the diversity of these islands. Despite its imperfections — some errors are picked up quite easily — this is a useful resource book. (PG)

POETRY

The Long Gap

Anthony Kellman (Peepal Tree Press 1996, pb, ISBN 0–948833–78–5)

Circling, ever-circling this ague-shaken earth, the sound/of bluejays cheupsing acapella — clearly, this poet knows what he’s doing. Later: I yearn for a different shore/to elude indigenous vines/encircling me like snakes. . . .  Then: Through tenebrous back alleys/choked with crack and rum,/a fine actor scuttles. A poet’s/filed and forgotten in some/sweltering Government office. . .Will I join them, or will I accept/a foreign hand and earn a living from my art? Kellman chose the foreign hand, but his memory of home is sharp and detailed, and his ear tuned finely to the rhythms left behind. These poems are expertly nuanced, quietly humorous, and crisply lyrical. Like his bluejays, whose songs yoke slang and formal music together, Kellman can evoke the sensual immediacy of the West Indies through a confident familiarity with foreign traditions. The last man to master that trick won Robert Graves’ admiration and a Nobel prize. (BdC)

Savannah Ghost (Selected Works Volume II)

Paul Keens-Douglas (Keensdee Productions 1996, pb, ISBN 976-8069-06-6)

Paul Keens-Douglas is one of the Caribbean’s pioneer “dialect poets” and storytellers; live performance is his main medium. He published six volumes of stories and poems between 1975 (When Moon Shine) and 1992 (volume I of Selected Works). His appeal lies in the tone of his voice, the way the lines are couched within the Trinidadian dialect, and the down-to-earth feel of the tales themselves. It’s a peculiar island trick, to stand up in one place and just observe, with wit rolling off the tongue. Some of the pieces selected here are very funny; others are nostalgic memories of childhood in a simpler time; others are jokey tales, such as you might tell over a few beers in a bar. But they all capture a moment that might have had no importance but for the poet’s ear. (PG)

FOOD AND DRINK

Rums of the Eastern Caribbean

Edward Hamilton (Tafia Distribution)

One wonders about Edward Hamilton’s liver after his painstaking (some might say painless) research for this book. Sixteen islands, 3,000 miles, 55 distilleries — and “I visited most of the distilleries twice and several more than three times,” the American writer recalls. “Of course I accepted my rum; my hosts would have been insulted if I refused.” Barbados claims to have invented rum (rhum, or kill devil) in 1654. The islands’ rums range today from Cuvée Speciale de la Flibuste, a 33-year-old Guadeloupe aristocrat, to Carriacou’s Jack Iron, which bears the warning “keep clear from open flame”. Among the ingredients Hamilton discovers are a centipede and an elixir of bark from the Bois Bandé tree, a notorious aphrodisiac. No, he doesn’t name his favorite rum. Even if you don’t like the taste or smell of rum there’s plenty of history and folklore embroidered into the book’s pages; after all, says Hamilton, rum is the spirit of the Caribbean. (PR)

SOCIETY & ECONOMICS

The Political Economy Of Food And Agriculture In The Caribbean

Belal Ahmed & Sultana Afroz (Ian Randle Publishers and James Currey Publishers, 1996, pb, ISBN 0–85255–156–8)

Unexciting as it sounds, this is an excellent guide to what may be the single biggest problem for the modern Caribbean. As GATT and NAFTA prepare to nibble, chomp and gobble our trade, here is a well-written analysis of the menu. Naive handling of foreign aid, bad post-colonial deals, failure to diversify, lack of proper funding to small local farmers, invasive multinationals . . . At the end of 1984, no fewer than 89 multinational corporations had a stake in agriculture and food processing in the Caribbean: “Through vertical integration, [they] virtually control everything, from the supply of farm machinery. . . to distribution, processing and marketing.” Bananas, rice and sugar face bleak futures, and only tired rhetoric is offered as help. The authors do not believe all is lost, yet. But the merit of this book is its quiet force in describing the forces that have undermined Caribbean agriculture. (BdC)

Ethnicity in the Caribbean

ed. Gert Oostindie (Macmillan Caribbean 1996, pb, ISBN 0–333–64561–8)

These ten essays are part of a 30-volume publishing spree from the Caribbean Studies Department of Warwick University. Once again, the range is impressive; the blurb’s claim that “these analyses of race and nation-building . . . are widely pertinent to the study of current social and international relations” is unarguable, and this is as thorough a baptism into the complexities of race and class politics in the Caribbean — Spanish, Dutch and French territories are included — as a layman is likely to find. The jargon that commonly plagues books like this is largely absent, and contributors generally write with intimacy and sophistication. (BdC)

Colonialism And The Destruction Of The Mind

Amon Saba Saakana (Karnak House, 1996, pb, ISBN 0907015–56–5)

What is it in Caribbean literature that attracts mystical monographs like this? The second volume of a critical trilogy on Caribbean literature, subtitled “psychosocial issues of race, class, religion and sexuality in the novels of Roy Heath”, the book begins in the beleaguered Afrocentrism of Martin Bernal (of Black Athena fame) et al., and offers it as a context for a “non-European” reading of Heath. Said, Eagleton, Soyinka and the other usual suspects are footnoted in, but the major premise remains uncomfortably shallow. Déja vu, all over again. (BdC)

ART

Inyaspace

Melvina Hazard, illustrated by Lisa Mendes (ISBN 976–8157–14–3)

Take two parts Blake and a dash of Kafka; add a teaspoon of Trinidad, for bitterness, simmer, then print. The result is a book of unapologetic starkness, a jagged pill. Printed almost at tabloid size, this book is designed to disturb. A pitbull-faced infant fingers a large pistol alongside the text “. . . bang bang de game over . . . ah really kill yuh dead”; a splay-legged female with dangling bosom squats on a stool above a phallic beer bottle, “queen of the rumshop poster hoes” scrawled on her belly. Dark and unmentionable problems consort with large, mythic gestures toward “lunah” and “solah”, light and dark, death and life. The illustrations are powerful, especially in this large format, and the companion texts are pointed. Some Caribbean Gothic is refreshing, but the angst of this volume will prove too strong for most. (BdC)

Reviews by Brendan de Caires, Pat Ganase and Peter Rickwood.