Book buzz (September/ October 2004)

Anthony Winkler’s new book of short stories tackles life’s big questions with healthy mirth • Hilary Beckles challenges the notion of quiet little Barbados • Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool offers calypso lore and commentary, straight From the Horse’s Mouth • “Being Here”, a poem from Guyana-born Cyril Dabydeen’s new collection, Hemisphere of Love • Jeffrey Stollmeyer’s opinionated 1948–49 diary chronicles the West Indies cricket team’s first tour of India

Cover of the Annihilation of Fish and Other StoriesIllustration by Marlon GriffithIllustration by Marlon GriffithJeffrey Stollmeyer batting in India, Courtesy The Estate of Jeffrey Stollmeyer

The bright side of life (and death)

The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories

Anthony C. Winkler (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-2639-1)

A letter-writing cow with a good secondary-school education seeks manumission and redress from his absentee owner. An immigrant family is afflicted with good fortune and embarrassingly successful offspring. A farmer loses his heart and a village-wide search for it ensues. A parallel universe created by an unlikely deity named Joe proves superior to anything in this world, and sows discontent among the Jamaican masses.

In this profoundly insane book, all worlds — living, dead, animate, inanimate, human, bovine — coexist in an easy domesticity; or, as in the case of the pensioner whose wrestling matches with the devil are refereed by the sweetheart of Puccini’s ghost, at least in openly acknowledged enmity. Jamaica-born, US-resident Winkler’s stories prove definitively that the literary critic’s magical realism has long been the Caribbean’s social reality.

The real magic is his ability to ask the big questions without becoming tiresome or cringe-worthy: what is home? What are hearts for? What are the perils of fate? Oddly enough, one of the funniest-ever collections of West Indian short stories is largely about death from varied causes: suicide, murder-by-ackee, old age. In an unbroken conversation between this and the after-life, Winkler reconciles many ethical and metaphysical dilemmas.

Situating the remarkable in the everyday, and treating it as such, demands an irreverence and lightness of touch that Winkler’s lithe prose (a Jamaican spin on the dry hilarity of Muriel Spark) answers well. It is, in the end, an enormously comforting idea that one might not only go gently into death, but with company. Unless having a deceased spouse who “squatted illegally, like a hooligan on idle government land” on the right side of your head is really not your idea of peace.

This is a book you’d like to have as an elder relative: wise, mirthful, and generous of spirit; knowing enough to be able to remind you to laugh out loud just at the joy of life. Or death, depending.

Anu Lakhan

 

Rewriting Barbados

Great House Rules: Landless Emancipation and Workers’ Protest in Barbados, 1838–1938

Hilary McD. Beckles (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-085-0)

Chattel House Blues: Making of a Democratic Society in Barbados

Hilary McD. Beckles (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-086-9)

One often thinks of Barbados — quiet little “Bimshire” — as the most tranquil, least troubled corner of the Caribbean. Hilary Beckles, professor of history and principal of the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, has set out to challenge this idea in a two-volume history of the island in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Great House Rules, Beckles proposes that we think of emancipation in 1838 as the start of a “Hundred Year War” for political and economic power, between the newly freed but landless black population and the white “Great House” proprietors — a war that manifested itself in street protests, court cases, legislative skirmishes, and finally the 1937 Riots, led by Clement Payne.

The second book, Chattel House Blues, continues this narrative, from the achievement of universal adult suffrage in 1950 to independence in 1966, then through the young nation’s struggle to deal with issues like race, identity, and economic power. In both these volumes, Beckles boldly challenges the notion that democracy in Barbados was a gift from colonial authorities, arguing instead that working-class demands for social and economic justice have driven the island’s political development.

“Historians, like politicians, are generally trained to be professionally cautious,” writes Beckles. Great House Rules and Chattel House Blues are scrupulously researched and clearly written — ordinary, non-academic readers will find much to engage them — but no one can call them cautious.

Philip Sander

What is the Landship? What does NICFA stand for? What is the oldest hotel in Barbados still in operation? Where is Russia Gully? Answers to these and many other questions are at your fingertips in A–Z of Barbados Heritage, by Sean Carrington, Henry Fraser, John Gilmore, and Addinton Forde (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-92068-6), now in its second edition — comprehensive, reliable, amply illustrated, and not so massive that you’ll strain your wrist while reaching it down from the shelf. Oh, the answers to those questions above? Look them up!

Liming with Chalkie

From the Horse’s Mouth Hollis Liverpool (Juba Productions, ISBN 976-8194-13-8)
When Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool won his sixth Calypso Monarch crown earlier this year, it was not just a vote for his songs — it was an honour offered to one of Trinidad’s most accomplished intellectuals. Equal parts scholar, writer, performer, and public figure, Chalkie holds a PhD in history and ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan, and is currently a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. In spite of a controversial seven-year tenure as Director of Culture for Trinidad and Tobago, Chalkie has regained much of his personal popularity, and continues to break new ground in a multifaceted career.

His new book, From the Horse’s Mouth, seems to pick up where his earlier one, Calypsonians to Remember, left off. It offers a fascinating grab-bag of calypso history, lore, and commentary, mostly drawn from informal interviews and backstage conversations only he could have conducted. However, the ostensible organisation of the book as a series of profiles of calypsonians like Pretender, Lion, and Superior is a bit misleading. While Chalkie does provide some biographical information about these figures — many of them, like Supie, wildly underappreciated — the book comes across more as a series of genially disorganised lectures in which Professor Chalkdust shares some of his vast collection of quotes, comments, and historical esoterica. I can’t remember a volume more densely packed with amusing calypso facts and factoids.

From the Horse’s Mouth is probably not the best choice for readers looking for a basic introduction to the history of calypso. But followers of the art form will find themselves opening this volume again and again for the keen pleasure of hanging out with the kaisonians whose articulate and informed recollections form the backbone of the work. As a matter of fact, reading From the Horse’s Mouth is a lot like dropping in on Chalkie’s annual Carnival Tuesday gathering at Park and Abercromby. The lime is the thing.

Michael Goodwin

Being Here

Being here, where else? Instincts buttressed
with memory as I balk at the new place.

I say, Wait awhile as I travel on another
journey while the ocean’s still full.

I throb at the limits, if you must know,
and remember other emblems.

At the river’s mouth there are openings:
this living world without a sense of valour

Or make-believe as the waves rise higher.
Sounds of a siren too after regular hours.

The conch shell presaging what’s to come:
seaweed or other forms of sargasso,

Like the Atlantic’s own distress signals,
as I again come forward with crossings

Still holding the oars aloft.

Guyana-born, Canada-resident Cyril Dabydeen’s ninth collection of poems, Hemisphere of Love (TSAR, ISBN 1-894770-12-9), ranges over many landscapes, geographical and spiritual, as it charts the permanent mysteries of human life: belonging, believing, wanting, and loving.

 

“It was then only a matter of time”

It was all over 15 minutes before the close on this 4th day. Immediately after the tea interval, Trim bowled Mankad with a break-back (21). The fate of India was now sealed. Hazare seemed to realise this and opened out while Sen pottered around in his own peculiar fashion. He is not a good bat . . . I went across and more or less set myself and next over, I didn’t have to move. 119-8. It was then only a matter of time and the scramble for souvenirs . . . And so ended the Fourth Test. An overwhelming victory for the West Indies and long overdue at that.

In 1948 and 1949, the West Indies cricket team made its first tour of India, playing five Tests and numerous other matches. Trinidadian cricketer Jeffrey Stollmeyer, later to captain the West Indies, kept a detailed and opinionated diary of the tour, with commentary on all the matches, his fellow players, and conditions in newly independent India and Pakistan. Fifty-five years later, The West Indies in India, 1948–1949: Jeffrey Stollmeyer’s Diary (Royards, ISBN 976-8185-24-4) has finally been published, edited by Kenneth Ramchand with Yvonne Teelucksingh (email baxters@wow.net for more information).