Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 2002)

This month's reading picks

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PICK OF THE MONTH

Peacocks Dancing 

Sharon Maas (HarperCollins 2001, 485pp, ISBN 0-00-711737-X)

Rita Maraj, our heroine, lives in a crumbling Georgetown mansion with her chronically unreliable father, a menagerie of pets, and as much freedom as any resourceful six-year-old might desire. This idyll is suddenly disrupted by the entrance of a hostile stepmother, who banishes Rita’s animal companions, forces the household into respectability, and generally makes Rita’s life miserable. The appearance of a tantrum-prone baby stepsister doesn’t help.

We follow Rita through eventful adolescence: family dramas, early crushes, and a growing emotional isolation despite, or because of, the pressure to be “normal”. “I hear this other drum,” she confides, “and need to run and dance and turn somersaults.” Events take a turn for the intriguing when her father unexpectedly dies and, spurred by a visit from a mysterious messenger, Rita, now 27, journeys to India in search of a distant relative hidden in a web of secrets.

Combine adventure, wealth, royalty, romance and abduction by a prostitution ring, and you get a richly thrilling climax, deftly swerving past the predictable. By staying true to the voice of her heart, Rita finds the extraordinary destiny she has always known was hers.

Of Marriageable Age, the first novel by Sharon Maas (born in Guyana, once resident in India) made a considerable splash in Europe, but Caribbean readers seem hardly to have noticed the ripples. Peacocks Dancing possesses the same best-seller ingredients. Unlike most attempts at Caribbean popular fiction, it is genuinely entertaining and uncondescendingly smart. Maas is an energetic storyteller, and her gift for humour speeds the narrative. Though her canvas stretches wide — from the Pomeroon coast of Guyana to the slums of Bombay — it is intricately and sensuously detailed. Step back, and the shape of her theme is readily revealed: there is no cosmic force of fate: character is destiny. (NL)

 

POETRY

A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion

Winston James (Ian Randle Publishers 2001, 265pp, ISBN 976-637-051-6)

Claude McKay is best known for the poems and novels he wrote in the US in the 1920s and 30s, major contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. But little critical attention has been focussed on the Creole poetry he published in Jamaica before his emigration in 1912. Winston James, an American academic with Jamaican roots, persuasively argues that his early poetry is crucial to our understanding of McKay’s political and literary development. (“The Robert Burns of Jamaica”, some of his contemporaries thought him.) The kernel of this book is a selection of poems from McKay’s Jamaican books, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, as well as some uncollected verses originally published in the daily press. Around these, James writes ten short lucid essays on McKay’s major themes; biographical material fleshes out the volume. An indispensable contribution to the rediscovery of early West Indian literature. One sighs a little only that the full texts of McKay’s early collections are not included. (NL)

 

SCIENCE

The Hunt for Caribbean Viruses: A History of the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory

Elisha S. Tikasingh (Carec 2000, 156pp, ISBN 976-8114-11-8)

In 1952, after its successful involvement in yellow fever research, the Rockefeller Foundation decided to fund a series of centres for the study of tropical arboviruses (viruses transmitted by arthropods — insects, ticks and mites). The Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory (TRVL, apparently pronounced “Travail”) was one of these, and its 22-year history is the subject of this unexpectedly fascinating book. TRVL’s first staff arrived in the island to find no lab to work from; they set themselves up in an abandoned US Army building just in time to head off a yellow fever outbreak in 1954. Elisha Tikasingh, who joined TRVL in 1960, livens his account of virology afield with excerpts from the scientists’ diaries, many photographs and anecdotes about “sentinel mice” and trapping thousands of mosquitoes using human bait. Such dedicated effort paid off: by the time TRVL was subsumed into the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (Carec) in 1975, it had isolated 37 arboviruses in Trinidad (only three were known before that), 20 of them new to science. (NL)

 

PHOTOGRAPHY

Caribbean: The Islands

Donald Nausbaum (Macmillan Caribbean 2001, 136pp., ISBN 0-333-94614-6)

On his first visit to the Caribbean, photographer Donald Nausbaum was married at a St Lucia beach resort. Unsurprisingly, his feeling for the region runs to the sentimental. Since “that momentous first taste”, Nausbaum has visited almost every island of the Antilles, taking his trusty Canon EOS system (and sometimes his wife) along with him. Caribbean presents the visual record of what he calls his search for paradise. Nausbaum, who lives in Toronto, sees the islands through an outsider’s eyes (or an outsider’s viewfinder) and his images are those most striking to tourists: beaches, colourful buildings, more beaches, tropical blossoms, beaches at sunset, tourists on beaches, boats anchored off beaches. Casual visitors, one suspects, will best appreciate this collection as a souvenir of their sunburnt vacations. For locals there is the brief intrigue of seeing which aspects of their home islands have been caught on Nausbaum’s film. (Trinidad: gingerbread houses on Cipriani Boulevard, miscellaneous Carnival revellers.) (NL)

 

POLITICS

Caribbean Charisma: Reflections on Leadership, Legitimacy and Populist Politics

Anton Allahar, ed. (Ian Randle Publishers 2001, 258pp, ISBN 976-637-026-5)

I dare suggest there has never been such a gathering of Caribbean leaders as that which graces the pages of Caribbean Charisma. Editor Anton Allahar selects eight nationalist icons and, using Max Weber’s definition of charisma, seven contemporary Caribbean scholars examine their mass appeal. It is clear that these politicians possess those charismatic qualities which set heroes apart from common men, but what specific traits made each successful? Was it brilliant oratory — such as that of Guyana’s Forbes Burnham? An ability to make history engaging — as accomplished by Trinidad’s Eric Williams? Or courage and personal magnetism such as that which radiated from Jamaica’s Michael Manley? As exemplified by many of these leaders, charismatic leadership often lends itself to abuses of power; however, most of these men were entrusted with delivering a people from colonial rule, and all continue to capture the imaginations of millions. Caribbean Charisma fits snugly into the slowly expanding canon of Caribbean political literature. (RC)

 

MEMOIR

Toco Boy

Clifford Hendey (Sawd Books 2000, 157pp, ISBN 1872-489-222)

In the late 1950s and mid-60s, a young Anglican priest from England spent seven years ministering in the parish of Toco — a rural and still secluded community on the north-east coast of Trinidad. In this memoir Father Hendey, now Honorary Chaplain to Canterbury Cathedral, recounts his experiences: his role in the formation of Toco’s first steelband side, an amusing rivalry with the Catholic priest, the screening of the first-ever film in the Toco area. Hendey has drunk deeply of Toco people’s mannerisms and, having imbibed, he has recorded their story in a simple and entertaining way. The small-publishing industry, represented here by Sawd Books, has made accessible the recollections of many who would otherwise remain voiceless. It is a boon to our knowledge of history’s intimate details. Spelling and punctuation errors are sprinkled throughout this book, liberally enough to make you believe you are reading Hendey’s original hand. But what an interesting and faithful hand it is. (RC)

 

MUSIC

The Rough Guide to Reggae: The Definitive Guide to Jamaican Music from Ska through Roots to Ragga

Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton (2nd edition, Rough Guides 2001, 475pp, ISBN 1-85828-558-5)

Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton’s indispensable guide was first published in 1997. A boon to curious novice and seasoned enthusiast alike, it was simply the most comprehensive study of reggae yet published. This revised edition is 80 pages thicker, with plenty of new CD and book reviews, and an updated commentary ironing out the few kinks in the original. The book is packed with facts about the music’s complex progression, with plenty of fascinating side-boxes offering testimony from artists and producers, as well as photographs, rare album covers, concert posters and other ephemera. It is an easy text to navigate, with hundreds of insightful suggestions to help the reader find precisely the best of what is available. In the curious minefield of reggae re-issues, where things are often not as they seem, this is no mean feat. For those wondering where to start, or for old hands who have long followed the music, The Rough Guide is still the best overall examination of Jamaica’s ever-evolving musical culture. (DK)

 

CHILDREN

Stories from the Cockpit: Three Tall-Short Stories for ages 6 to 106

Andy Campbell (Paria Publishing 2001, 122pp, ISBN 976-8054-46-8)

Andy Campbell is a BWIA L-1011 pilot, and with a title like this you might anticipate tales of excitement aloft. Actually, one sort of flight or another does figure in each of these engaging, unpredictable stories. First, the semi-fictional autobiography of Grommit, a black vulture — what Trinidadians call a corbeau — who, orphaned as a fledgling, is lucky enough to be adopted by an angelic human mother. Raised in unprecedented comfort, he develops a taste for sponge cake and enjoys watching cowboy movies. A section of photographs shows us the real-life Grommit on whom the story is based.

The second story, To Patos and Back, concerns a resourceful little boy named Oliver. Playing race jockey in the St Ann’s River, he is one day accidentally swept out to sea, all the way to the island of Patos, off Venezuela. I won’t tell exactly how he gets home, but a large flock of pelicans is involved. Finally, Squirrel Coconuts recounts the travels of a Mayaro-born squirrel who finds adventure and true love in a distant land: a modest version of the archetypal heroic monomyth. (NL)

Reviews by Robert Clarke, David Katz and Nicholas Laughlin. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin