Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 2001)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

–––––––Pick of the month

Pick of the Month

The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century

Peter Abrahams (Ian Randle Publisher/David Philip Publishers 2000, 409pp, ISBN 976-637-014-1)

This is 80-year-old novelist and journalist Peter Abrahams’s account of his fascinating life. It is spiced with reflections on the great black thinkers of the 20th century, and with searching examinations of the pervasive racism of modern society. Abrahams, who was born in South Africa, has long grappled with the issue of colour, whether in the apartheid of Johannesburg, imperial Britain, or his adopted home in Coyaba, Jamaica, “where contemplating the nature of things came more easily than anywhere else on earth.”

The gently persistent current of Abrahams’s simple language pulls you to the very core of his book. There are times when historical exposition and political detail threaten to overshadow his insights, but if you overcome these patches, you’re in for a reward. Abrahams’s genuine compassion shines brightly, and the half-expected bitterness at racial injustice never tarnishes this glow.

Most compelling is the final chapter, a seamless conclusion to all that Abrahams proposes, where he amalgamates the thought of thinkers such as Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey into his personal vision for the new century, a vision of “muted hope”. He closes, you sense, in a rushing stream of consciousness, in which the words flow passionately, almost desperately, from this modern man of ancient wisdom. (RC)

ART

Seamless Spaces

Roberta Stoddart, with photography by Abigail Hadeed (Port of Spain 2000, Crapaud Foot, 28pp, ISBN 976-8173-459)

This slim but lavishly and lovingly produced volume originates in a series of paintings exhibited by Roberta Stoddart in 2000. Stoddart, Jamaican by birth, has lived in Trinidad since 1999, and these paintings are her response to the “psychological heartscape” of her adopted home. Her subjects are the homeless citizens of Port of Spain, the city’s ubiquitous vagrants. Starting from photographs taken by Abigail Hadeed, Stoddart creates monumental portraits set against a blindingly white sky. Her unsparing vision notes every wrinkle, scar and bruise in these battered faces, but she sees them also as “indispensable parts of a spiritual whole.” They look like holy men or apostles of some unknown creed. More than a catalogue of the exhibition, Seamless Spaces attempts to explain the metaphysical stance from which Stoddart views these wanderers, and includes an interview with one of them, Carol “Wheeler” Williamson. Inevitably, the paintings suffer from reproduction at one tenth their full size, but it isn’t too much to call this book a significant step in Caribbean art publishing. (NL)

HISTORY

Great Estates of Trinidad

Anthony de Verteuil, C.S.Sp. (Port of Spain 2000, The Litho Press, 360pp, ISBN 976-95008-2-8)

Fr. de Verteuil is an amateur historian of the best variety: a lover of the past with the literary skill required to communicate his enthusiasm to the common reader. Great Estates, perhaps his most ambitious book to date, is an attempt to show that “the history of Trinidad is, to a considerable extent, the history of its estates.” Each of the 20 chapters deals with one of the island’s more prominent agricultural estates: its geography and geology, the men and women who owned and laboured upon it, the crops they raised, its economic fortunes, and its eventual fate in the present day. De Verteuil is fond of facts and figures, but also has a keen appreciation for the amusing or alarming anecdotes that make his narrative such a lively delight. He fills the margin of every page with illustrations, photographs and notes, creating a sort of running gloss on the body of the book. Here is social history at its best. (NL)

A Journey of Memories: A Memorable Tour of Trinidad and Tobago

Joseph Abdo Sabga (Port of Spain 2000, Paria Publishing, 141pp, ISBN 976-8180-33-1)

Do tourists still send postcards, or are they more likely to head for the nearest Internet café and e-mail their friends back home? Reminding us of a quainter time, this attractive coffee-table book reproduces over 200 postcards from the collection of Joseph Abdo Sabga, depicting Trinidad and Tobago in the first few decades of the 20th century. The arrangement of the postcards is meant to recreate the journey of the title. Presenting images of town and country landscapes, significant buildings, and men and women posed in native dress, they suggest the experience of a first-time visitor to the islands. Excerpts from contemporary sources contribute to the documentary function. Perhaps most intriguing, though, are the snippets of correspondence on the back of some of the cards: these observations are for the most part banal, but they offer the risky thrill of reading a stranger’s mail. (NL)

The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny

Karla Gottlieb (Africa World Press, 2000, 120pp, ISBN 0-86543-565-0)

Queen Nanny, leader of Jamaica’s Windward Maroons, the rebellious ex-slaves who fought the British colonists with great success in the 1730s, is what you might call a virtual heroine. Almost nothing, in official or recorded form, is known about her, but she exists all the same as a national icon and a revered figure in oral history. As a result, this short and somewhat stilted study is mostly a collection of fables and anecdotes, most of which reinforce Nanny’s mythic image as a warrior, spiritual force and perhaps obeah woman. Not only, it seems, did she mastermind the Maroons’ lethal brand of guerrilla warfare, but she was even capable of catching British bullets between her buttocks and firing them back. Not entirely plausible, you might think, but then that is really Karla Gottlieb’s argument: that Nanny’s reality is born less out of historical evidence than from the workings of collective memory and imagination among Jamaica’s Maroon community. (JF)

MUSIC

Project New Wave: What You Never Knew about the Rhythms of Trinidad & Tobago

Ronald Aqui, with Appendix by Rellon Brown (Port of Spain 1999, 56pp, ISBN 976-8180-19-6)

When most people think about the rhythms of Trinidad and Tobago, the musical forms that come to mind are calypso, soca and rapso. This slim volume and its accompanying cassette seek to reintroduce musicians and teachers of music to the rich possibilities offered by other traditional African-based folk rhythms. Pannist Liam Teague, who contributes a foreword, notes that although these rhythms have been documented in academic theses, this is the first time they have been presented to the wider public in such an accessible form. In so doing, Ronald Aqui hopes to encourage their use in contemporary music. He defines and provides a brief history of each form, and includes notes on arranging the rhythms and reading the scores. The cassette, which contains recorded samples, completes this user-friendly introduction for anyone interested in pursuing fresh approaches to contemporary Caribbean music. (JH)

FICTION

Jahaji: an Anthology of Indo-Caribbean Fiction

Ed. Frank Birbalsingh (Toronto 2000, TSAR, 182pp, ISBN 0-920-661-88-2)

In his introduction, editor Frank Birbalsingh identifies insecurity, alienation and homelessness as the predominant themes of Indo-Caribbean writing. Indeed, most if not all of these 16 narratives owe some debt to one or more of these demons. Whether set at home (such as it is, in Trinidad and Guyana) or abroad (in the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in Canada, the United States and England), these stories are populated by characters who must acknowledge and accept what it is to be at once Indian and West Indian. Jahaji manages to cover a fair range of prose styles, while thoroughly exploring issues and preoccupations relevant to the Indo-Caribbean experience. These are not new stories; no new concerns are raised. However, this collection affords the opportunity to see how much (or how little) the circumstances of a people have evolved, how new landscapes have changed them, and how they, in turn, have altered these places. (AL)

POETRY

Wings of a Stranger

Anthony Kellman (Leeds 2000, Peepal Tree Press, 72pp, ISBN 1-900715-44-9)

Kellman is a multi-talented man — not only does he write and sing his poetry, he also produces his own music and plays instruments in his Tuk band too. Listen to the accompanying CD before reading the poems: the verse truly comes to life when the rhythm of Barbadian Tuk is added. Some of the songs are playful and dreamy. All I’m dreaming of, in its ingenuousness, recalls the Beatles in the mood of Octopus’s Garden. Island, already a powerful collection of images in miniature, is even more impressive in Kellman’s smiling, slightly watered Bajan accent. His varied cadence lingers long after the music is over. A few of the poems implode, as strong, memorable lines bow to those more brittle, but on the whole Wings of a Stranger is worth a read, or a listen. And the indigenous Ruk-a-tuk folk music of Barbados is well served here. (RC)

TRAVEL

Explore Barbados

Harry S. Pariser (3rd edition, Manatee Press, 2000, 215pp, ISBN 1-893643-51-4)

This third edition of Explore Barbados joins an ever-increasing parade of Barbados guidebooks. Uncommonly thorough, though occasionally inaccurate, Harry S. Pariser delves deep into the island’s nooks and crannies to provide detailed insights on life, culture, cuisine and nature. He snoops the rum shops, side streets, archives and gullies, and covers everything from sea life, trees, birds and insects to history, economy, cuisine and culture. Cultural activities, events and sights are naturally included, with contact information (phone numbers and websites). Practical suggestions on a host of topics such as conduct, attire, tipping and snorkelling are helpful. The problem with this book is the inordinate number of typographical errors, including incorrect names for some sights and places. While much of the book is current, some pieces of information are out of date by up to ten years. While Explore Barbados stands tall for its in-depth examination of the island, it cries out for a good fact-checker and proof-reader, and better photography. (RK)

Reviews by James Ferguson, Robert Clarke, Julie Harris, Roxan Kinas, Anu Lakhan, Nicholas Laughlin