Bookshelf (July/August 2000)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

The Immaculate Invasion
Bob Shacochis (Viking Penguin 1999; Bloomsbury paperback 2000; 408pp, ISBN 0-7475-4529-4)

When the United States invaded Haiti in September 1994, one US colonel took along a list of all the services he figured he would need to set up – Water Department, Sanitation, Fire Department, Sheriff, Education, City and County Police, Dogcatcher. “But here in Cap [Haitien],” comments Shacochis, “all he could do was look around and say to himself, Boy, this isn’t the way it works back in Bryant, Texas.” The invasion was code-named Operation Restore Democracy. But what did democracy mean in Haiti? Bill Clinton saw it one way, the US embassy in Port-au-Prince saw it another. It wasn’t clear who the good guys and the bad guys were, whose side the troops were supposed to be on, or whether the tyrant of the day, General Raoul Cedras, was an ally or an enemy. Depending on who you listened to, the President in exile, ex-Father Jean Bertrand Aristide, was a respectable democrat or a pestilential leftist troublemaker, his Lavalas movement was the voice of the people or a sinister rabble,
and the sinister FRAPH was a bunch of thugs or the “loyal opposition”.

Multiculturalism is not the forte of the US military: nor is political science. “Soldiers are very simple guys,” a sergeant told Shacochis, “it’s either black or white. You give soldiers a gray area, that’s where they’re going to get into trouble.” By the time they handed over to the UN six months later, the Americans had learned, late in the day, that there were no black-and-white solutions in Haiti.

Bob Shacochis is a hard-nosed American writer who has spent time in the Caribbean – earlier books of his (Easy In The Islands, Swimming In The Volcano) were set there. He spent months on the ground in Haiti with the American forces, mostly with a unit called ODA 311 in Limbe, south-west of Cap Haitien. You have to admire the journalism in this book: he lived and moved with the Green Berets, put his life on the line several times, understood the issues on both sides. And he has chronicled it all here in lively prose that only occasionally gets bogged down in internal American melodramas.

Many of the issues raised by Operation Restore Democracy were to resurface later, in Kosovo, in East Timor: how much can military muscle really do to resolve ancient tribal conflicts? Shacochis never expected the Immaculate Invasion to entrench democratic habits in the country of the macoutes, the attaches, and the FRAPH. “We are clumsy sponsors of freedom,” he concludes, “proud but graceless and self-subverting. The White House had done the right thing, cleansing Haiti of the tyrants du jour, and then it was business as usual.” (JT)

PHOTOGRAPHY

Jamaica: Portraits 1955-1998
Maria LaYacona (Marco Press 1998, 200pp, ISBN 976-610-076-4)

Photographic portraits of the Caribbean usually want to please the visitor’s eye: the beauty of landscape and seascape, playgrounds, exotica. Local people smile for the camera in a welcoming and endearing way. But Maria LaYacona’s images of Jamaica are the work of an artist, not a propagandist. American-born, she came to Jamaica in 1955 on assignment, and never left: more than 40 years of work (including 30 as official photographer of the National Dance Theatre range of comparison. The 131 duotones in this beautifully produced book capture Jamaicans from every level of society and across nearly half a century, each with their own dignity and selfhood and pride, whether they happen to be a prime minister, a captain of industry, a higgler or a handyman. These images help you to see beyond the stereotypes and to sense the reality of people and the world they live in. Jamaican writer Olive Senior contributes a thoughtful and sensitive introduction which understands this process perfectly. (JT)

BOOKS AND WRITING

Reading and Writing: A Personal Account
V. S. Naipaul (New York Review of Books 2000, 64pp, ISBN 0-940322-38-2)

Here is the latest chapter in Naipaul’s late-period obsession- the art of seeing with his own life and work as a case study. It’s a beautifully written 64-page essay, focusing on the process of self-discovery, and the way it interacts with thoughtful reading and truthful writing.

Naipaul traces the path which led him first to comedy, then to travel, history, and quasi-autobiography, each in response to the demands of self-knowledge and of his craft. Readers familiar with earlier books – The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World – will understand very well what Naipaul is up to here, including his argument that the novel is past its usefulness as a literary form. Enjoyable enough as reminiscence, this is another exercise in self-deconstruction. (JT)

FICTION

Bruised Hibiscus
Elizabeth Nunez (Seal Press, 2000; ISBN 1-58005-036-0)

Born in Trinidad, Elizabeth Nunez is professor of English and director of the Black Writers’ Institute at Medgar Evers College in New York. The setting of her new novel is class-conscious, cosmopolitan Trinidad in the 1950s; her theme is “man-woman business”. And it’s not pretty. A woman’s disembowelled body washes up on the island’s south coast; another woman is chopped up and fed to pigs; an important racehorse owner might be using women’s hearts to improve the fleet-footedness of his steeds. Nunez uses startling imagery to explore “the heart of a woman” in a society which places strictures on women’s feelings, options, rights and sexuality, and which sees love in terms of ownership and rape – the “bruised hibiscus”, the marks that bloom on women’s skin. It’s only a partial consolation that the two women at the centre of the story both come to understand the healing power of real love in the end. (PG)

The Caribbean Connection
Peter Morgan (Caribbean Quality Adventures 2000, ISBN 8078 05 7)

Peter Morgan’s new novel shows how easily a Caribbean island can be overrun by the drugs mafia, and – more controversially – what ordinary Caribbean people can do about it. This is a lively story from an amateur writer, part thriller, part cautionary tale, with some chilling scenes of violence. Morgan insists that the Caribbean is in deep trouble with drug trafficking. He suggests that the long-term solution is international decriminalisation, to break the market (as happened with prohibition 70 years ago). But in the meantime, he hints, the Caribbean may not be as helpless as it likes to think. If people are prepared to confront the truth, take some real risks and fight a dirty war on its own dirty terms, they can put the drugs mafia on the run. Morgan – a former hotelier and government minister in Barbados – puts the case for a new approach with passion and urgency. (JT)
Available through selected Caribbean bookstores and from the author at fax 246- 433-1719, e-mail meridian@sunbeach.net

Legend of the Rockhills
Funso Aiyejina (TSAR Publications 1999, 154pp, ISBN 0-920661-78-5)

These ten stories have a Nigerian setting and author, though Funso Aiyejina has been teaching in Trinidad for several years and there is a strong resonance between African and Caribbean experience. In clear, humorous, deceptively simple narratives, Aiyejina explores the tragi-comic clashes between settled African societies and the disruptive, often brutal forces of modernism – military rulers, petty bureaucrats, missionaries, colonial officials, fantasists, power -mongers. He neatly captures the absurdity and the violence of these confrontations, and the price they exact. The book did well in this year’s Commonwealth Prize, being named the best first book out of Africa in 1999. (JT)

BIOGRAPHY AND MEMOIRS

Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit
Austin Clarke (Ian Randle Publications 2000, 248pp, ISBN 976-637-011-7)

The genial Barbadian novelist Austin “Tom” Clarke, long transplanted to Canada, seems to have invented a new literary form. Imagine him standing in a kitchen, pots bubbling on the tire, beers and rums and scotch pouring, some Sparrow (or maybe Allison Hinds) on the CD, and talking as he works. Well, not works – cooking is to enjoy, and no nonsense with cookbooks or recipes either. Clarke explains what he’s doing all the time, but keeps getting distracted by memories of his mother’s kitchen, the dubious Bajan butcher of his childhood days, the time he went looking for Chicken Box Number Two in North Carolina with Norman Mailer, or why you need to be very careful when asking a Bajan woman about her cou-cou. And here it’s all, written down, more or less as it would happen in the kitchen, in easy-going semi- Bajan, stories and all. This is a crash course in creole cooking, by a man who relishes what he calls “slave food” (“What a culinary microcosm os Wessindian succulence is a fish head!”) and has all the nostalgic zeal of the Caribbean exile. Pepperpot, pelau, souse, “drinking food”, breadfruit cou-cou, it’s all here; after a few pages, you really feel hungry. (JT)

HISTORY AND SOCIETY

Blood and Silver: A History of Piracy in the Caribbean and Central America
Kris E. Lane (Ian Randle Publishers 1999, 230pp, ISBN 976-8123-96-9)

Pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, sea beggars, freebooters – by whatever name, they have exercised a fascination ever since they made their appearance in the New World in the wake of the Spaniards. Were they criminals, or revolutionary anarchists before their time, challenging the morals, conventions and prejudices of Europe’s emergent capitalism? If you want to find out, and meet such dubious but colourful characters as Francis Drake, Piet Heyn, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, William Kidd and the two cross-dressers Ann Bonny and Mary Read, then Kris Lane’s Blood and Silver is an invaluable resource. This is an overview of piracy, from its beginnings as an approved attack on Spanish monopoly in the New World to its final days when buccaneers were hung as common criminals. It’s packed with information on everything from Elizabethan navigation, 17th-century shipbuilding and gambling to pirate cuisine. (SL)

Reviews by Pat Ganase, Simon Lee and Jeremy Taylor