New and Recent Books about the Caribbean (September/October 2002)

The latest books from and about the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

Sugar and Slate

Charlotte Williams (Planet 2002, 192pp, ISBN 0-9540881-0-7)

The search for identity must be the predominant theme in Caribbean writing, and the divided self — the individual, the community, the nation, stranded between races, cultures, histories — is our most enduring archetype. The “sugar” in Charlotte Williams’s bloodline comes from the Afro-Caribbean heritage of her father, the Guyanese novelist and painter Denis Williams. The “slate” is her mother’s legacy: Welshness, the landscape and language of north Wales, where young Charlotte grew up. In this nervy and invigorating memoir she searches the story of her life for an answer to the question, “to be mixed was not to be mixed up, or was it?”

In Llandudno in the 1960s, “there was no such thing as ‘black’”; “the word ‘racism’ hadn’t been invented.” The only coloured family in town, the Williams girls struggle instead with their undeniable differentness, and with their neighbours’ incomprehension and curiosity — almost always polite, almost always painfully awkward. Years later, when her Welsh husband takes a job in Guyana, Williams visits her father’s country for the first time. It’s nothing like going home. “History and attachment don’t just flow into your body like the deep breaths of warm air blowing across the black creek waters.” She’s British, as far as everyone’s concerned; she feels more British every day. When personal crisis enters her life, Williams realises “home” can only be Wales, even if Wales is as mixed up as she is. “I would have to do the claiming myself. It would be up to me, and if I was going to adopt the country that seemed so reluctant to adopt me, I had to make some sense of myself within it.” This is the true answer to her birthright puzzle of “halfness”: “we may inherit fragments of a traditional culture from our parents, but these we reformulate and reinvent and locate in our home places.” Sugar and Slate is a story for everyone haunted by the idea of an ancestral home somewhere else. “Home” isn’t a physical place, this memoir insists; it’s the place we make for ourselves, wherever we are, from our hopes and memories and routines and our bonds with the people around us. (NL)

 

FICTION

Mr. Potter

Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2002, 195pp, ISBN 0-374-21494-8)

This, the narrator insists, is the story of Roderick Potter, her father. On her birth certificate he is signified only by a line — an omission. But instead of crossing him out, it binds her to him. An illiterate chauffeur who fathered a multitude of daughters with numerous women, Mr Potter wastes little time on either thought or emotion, and would be unable to articulate them if he were so inclined. After his death, the author-daughter is determined to write him into existence. With Biblical decrees and curses that seem a natural extension of Kincaid’s robust prose, he comes to life, and so does she. His absence is a defining presence in her own story. (AL)

 

POETRY

A Rough Climate

E.A. Markham (Anvil 2002, 119pp, ISBN 0-85646-337-x)

Your voices change in exile, who’s to know how you will read this line

The lifelong erosion of the self by time’s weather — “the wrackful siege of battering days,” as another poet put it — is the chief subject of this seventh collection of poems by Montserrat-born E.A. Markham. Memories of childhood, and of Montserrat as it once was, shimmer behind the storms and drizzles of years of exile. In his best poems here, such as the central “Nearing Sixty”, Markham casts his cold eye over the landscape of his own life, charting loves, losses and regrets in a verse no less rigorous for its necessary melancholy. In the end, as he wishes, “without bitterness/or pity”, he achieves a bracing clarity of understanding. (NL)

 

DRAMA

Haitian Trilogy

Derek Walcott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2002, 434pp, ISBN 0-374-52813-6)

Three plays recounting the contradictory impulses throbbing through the violent history of the West Indies, published together for the first time. They form a “trilogy” only in that the Haitian Revolution is the central event in each. Henri Christophe and The Haitian Earth, written 35 years apart (the former when Walcott was only 19 years old), tell the immediate story of the generals, L’Ouverture, Dessalines and Christophe, who at once freed their nation from the chains of the French empire and yoked their people to a new, native-born tyranny. Drums and Colours, commissioned to celebrate the birth of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies in 1958, places the events of the Revolution in a wider sequence including the stories of Columbus, Walter Raleigh and the Jamaican hero George William Gordon. It’s impossible to read these plays and not think of Shakespeare’s histories; far beyond mere annalising, they are piercing studies of individual character magnified by circumstance to determine the fate of nations, composed in a poetry leaping effortlessly from the exalted to the demotic and back again. (NL)

 

CUBA

Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana

Isadora Tattlin (Algonquin Books 2002, 320pp, ISBN 1-56512-349-2)

 

Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba

Christopher P. Baker (National Geographic Adventure Press 2001, 304pp, ISBN 0-7922-7961-1)

Personal views of contemporary Cuba, written by two very different foreigners. Isadora Tattlin (a pseudonym), the American wife of a European businessman posted in Havana in the mid-1990s, offers a plainspoken record of the four years she spent running a household of 11 in a city where the basic materials of survival were often in short supply. Christopher Baker, a British journalist living in the US, visited Cuba during this same period; his book records his three-month, 7,000-mile motorcycle journey along the length of the island and back. At first, Baker’s may seem the more compelling account: he covers more remote ground than Tattlin, and the idea of seeing Cuba from astride a BMW Paris-Dakar has an undeniable excitement. “I am living in a romantic thriller, riding through Havana with the wind in my hair,” he confesses early on. Baker’s story is the escape fantasy of a man trying to ward off a mid-life crisis — he beds a succession of sultry Cubanas (Teresa, Sonia, Milagros . . .) and mentions his black leather trousers every third page or so. But as he interacts with people trying to survive through the periodo especial (the “special period” of economic difficulty caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union), his starry-eyed faith in the utopian dream of Castro’s revolution is severely tested.

Isadora Tattlin’s Cuba Diaries are largely domestic — her great events are children’s illnesses, parties and receptions, the personal problems of her household staff — but her infectious curiosity and vivacious turn of phrase weave from this mundane matter a story far more gripping than Baker’s. Chronic shortages of everything from flour to toilet paper make decent living a challenge, even for privileged foreigners; ordinary Cubans endure astonishing forms of deprivation. Trying to live what would anywhere else be an ordinary life becomes a difficult adventure. But Tattlin is at ease with Cubans from every niche of society, from teachers to artists to high-ranking government officials (she even entertains Castro at dinner). Their stories become hers. With empathy, with warmth, but utterly without inhibition, she cuts through the propaganda and discovers the battered but passionately resilient heart of the Cuban people. (NL)

 

BIOGRAPHY

Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation

Sandra Pouchet Paquet (University of Wisconsin Press 2002, 335pp, ISBN 0-299-17694-0)

The complexity and multifariousness of the autobiographical exercise is everywhere in evidence in this dense work by Trinidad-born literary scholar Sandra Pouchet Paquet. Beyond individual stories, this study evolves a picture of the regional experience through slave narrative, poetic autobiography, fiction, elegy, journals and travel writing. As one might expect, the subjects come from the A-list of Caribbean writers: C.L.R. James, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, V. S. Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, Jean Rhys, Derek Walcott. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the idea of autobiography appeals to so many of them. Still young, the Caribbean identity is continuously defining and re-defining itself against history and rest of the world. Caribbean Autobiography looks at how we come to our answers and explanations — whether we seek them through our writing, travel, or social or spiritual encounters. (AL)

 

LITERARY CRITICISM

Abandoning Dead Metaphors: The Caribbean Phase of Derek Walcott’s Poetry

Patricia Ismond (UWI Press 2001, 309pp, ISBN 976-640-107-1)

Her colleagues and students have long awaited this book: Patricia Ismond’s major study of Derek Walcott’s poetry from the “Caribbean phase” of his career, taking in everything from 25 Poems of 1948 to The Star-Apple Kingdom of 1979. Few other scholars can have thought so long, so hard or so closely about Walcott’s work, been more attentive to his arguments, more sensitive to the cadences of his music. Ismond’s major thesis is that Walcott’s poetic progress has been an impassioned argument with the Western tradition’s chief modes of thought: “he pursues an alternative, liberating order of values and meanings, generated from . . . his Caribbean.” She discerns an entire metaphysics of metaphor in the poet’s attempt to give new names to this new world of the Antilles. Ismond’s deep delight in Walcott’s poetry is the force that drives this masterful study; fellow Walcottians will be, to use her phrase, “refreshed in its elation.” (NL)

 

ART

Halcyon Days: Sculpture

Luise Kimme, with photography by Stefan Falke (Prospect Press 2002, 93pp, ISBN 976-95057-3-0)

German sculptor Luise Kimme has been part of the Tobago landscape for more than 20 years; her Caribbean oeuvre is recorded here in Stefan Falke’s photographs. Her life-size wood figures, inspired by her fellow citizens of the village of Bethel, celebrate Tobago and its people with the vision and skill of the real artist.

 

Reviews by Anu Lakhan and Nicholas Laughlin. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin