Caribbean Bookshelf (Winter 1993)

Some of the best new and recent books about the Caribbean


Selected Poetry

Derek Walcott, with introduction and notes by Wayne Brown
(Heinemann Caribbean Writers 1993)

The awarding of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature to the St Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott has naturally sparked new interest in his work. Heinemann have quickly re-issued this selection by Wayne Brown, first published in 1981 and covering Walcott’s first six major books, from In a Green Night (1962) to The Star-Apple Kingdom (1977), including generous extracts from his long autobiographical poem Another Life. Brown adds an introduction, aimed mainly at fairly advanced literature students and poetry readers interested in technicalities as well as meaning, and some extensive notes on the individual poems which will be helpful to students and serious readers alike. The result is an attractive introduction to Walcott’s work: it’s a pity the collection has not been updated to include extracts from Walcott’s post-1981 writing, but perhaps there’s time for that.

The Shape Of That Hurt and other essays

Gordon Rohlehr
(Longman Trinidad, 1992)

Gordon Rohlehr, Professor of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies, is one of the most stimulating and accessible academic writers in the Caribbean. His enthusiasm for the whole spectrum of Caribbean culture, and his sharp analysis of trends and connections, takes him across history and sociology, philosophy and psychology, as well as literature and the subject he has made his speciality, calypso. Last year he published a collection of essays from the 1970s, My Strangled City; this is the companion volume, mostly from the 1980s. “Both collections are concerned with the relationship between upheaval and making,” he writes, “the vortex of old worlds going out and the turmoil of new worlds coming into existence.” There are major essays on George Lamming, Martin Carter and Edward Brathwaite, and the collection ends with a penetrating study of the apocalyptic strand in calypso and its connection with the traumatic Muslimeen uprising in Trinidad in July 1990.

The Man who Loved Funerals

Frank Collymore
(ed. Harold Barratt and Reinhard Sander: Heinemann Caribbean Writers 1993)

Frank Collymore (1893-1980), the legendary editor and publisher of the little magazine Bim, was godfather to a whole generation of Caribbean writers in the forties and fifties. Scarcely a poet or fiction writer of the period failed to seek out Collymore’s magazine as a stepping stone to a literary audience. But Collymore was an accomplished writer himself– he produced poetry and short stories — as well as a lexicographer, painter, actor, broadcaster and professional teacher. His poems (he published three volumes) have appeared in several Caribbean anthologies. But his stories have been neglected: they are often elegant and witty, and sometimes very perceptive about the darker side of human experience, about alienation and loneliness. Collymore wrote 18 stories, which all appeared in Bim between 1942 and 1972, and they have been collected in this book for the first time. Nearly all have West Indian settings; we see Collymore experimenting with alternative endings, making fun of the social pretensions of colonial Barbados, probing across the border between isolation and madness, excavating beneath the surface of personality. It seems right that a man so successful at literary midwifery should also be remembered for offspring of his own.

Gardening in the Caribbean

Iris Bannochie and Marilyn Light
(Macmillan Caribbean 1993)

Iris Bannochie was the creator of Andromeda Botanic Gardens on the east coast of Barbados, one of the Caribbean’s finest (featured in the Autumn 1993 issue of BWee Caribbean Beat). “This book is about plants for Caribbean gardens,” she wrote in her introduction. “I have written this book because I wanted to tell gardeners, old and young, my colleagues and friends, what I have learned and thus share my experiences and knowledge of our beloved hobby, gardening. There is still so much to be learned.” The book was unfinished when Iris Bannochie died in 1988, and has been completed by her friend Marilyn Light, a Canadian horticulturalist. It’s a thoroughly practical book which assumes that the reader shares the authors’ enthusiasm for gardening but doesn’t necessarily know anything about it; the explanations are simple and practical, the illustrations clear. Three chapters cover basic background and techniques (how plants grow and where and why), the fourth chapter covers all the main plants, and the fifth explains how to deal with plant predators. There are useful appendices and a glossary, and indexes of both common and botanical plant names. A careful reading should leave any enthusiast ready for action.

Women in Calypso

Rudolph Ottley
(Trinidad 1992)

Women have long been a popular subject for calypso: prancing around the calypso stage, the male calypsonian has delighted in portraying women as “insatiable sexual partners; unfaithful lovers; dependable mothers; untrustworthy partners” or whatever. But it is only in the last two decades that women have really come into their own as calypsonians in their own right and in significant numbers. Rudolph Ottley — a training officer with BWIA — traces that process. The book consists of extended interviews with pioneers like Calypso Rose and Singing Francine, some of today’s stars like Drupatee and Denyse Plummer, and leading lights of the younger generation, including Abbi Blackman, Marcia Miranda (a BWIA flight attendant in her other life), Eastlyn Orr and Natasha Wilson. Ottley also interrogates some of the leading (male) calypso tent managers for their views on the women’s revolution (“calypso is just a passing fancy for them,” declares one), and adds useful reference material on the National Calypso Queen contest and its winners and contestants since 1972 and a list of all the women calypsonians performing for the 1992 season — 45 of them. The bottom line? Women are having a tough time in a traditionally male world, but are moving forward with determination. Surprised?

No Other Life

Brian Moore
(Bloomsbury 1993)

Anyone who has followed the recent history of Haiti must have wondered at the dilemmas of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the slightly-built priest who was elected president with an overwhelming majority in December 1990 and overthrown by the army in September 1991. Faced with one of the most desperate cases of poverty and under-development in the world and holding the hopes and dreams of Haiti’s dispossessed in his hands, Aristide was plunged into one of the oldest religious questions of all: in seeking the kingdom of God, how far can the priest go to confront the Caesars who obstruct it? Aristide offered some tough answers. In this brilliant tale, the Irish novelist Brian Moore, who — like Graham Greene — has long explored the frontier between spirit and action, works through Aristide’s dilemmas in an imaginative setting. On the Caribbean island of Ganae, an elderly Canadian priest tells the story of how he discovered a young Haitian boy, educated him at the seminary and sent him to Paris. The boy — Jean Paul Cantave, nicknamed Jeannot just as Aristide is Titide — returns to a slum parish and develops a message somewhere between liberation theology and revolutionary Marxism, is savaged by the power elites and his own church, and winds up as president. His powerful, deceptively simple sermons, delivered like poems, lead into deeper and deeper waters until the army mounts a coup. Cantave’s solution is to turn himself into a myth more powerful than any human being; what Aristide’s solution will be is still unclear at the time of writing. This is a profound book, which turns a cold and penetrating light on some of the terrible dilemmas thrown up by Haiti’s recent past.

The Chinese in Trinidad

Trevor M. Millett
(Inprint Caribbean, Trinidad, 1993)

During the 19th century and well into the 20th, there was significant immigration from China into the Caribbean, mainly to Cuba, the then British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad. It was part of a larger exodus, people with little sense of a future moving to places where there was a need for labour and where the promises of a better life sounded plausible. In Trinidad, where the present (shrinking) Chinese community represents less than 0.5% of the total population, systematic importation of Chinese labour began in 1806. Trevor Millett’s book is the first thorough survey of the background to all this: it traces the reasons for the migration (mostly from the province of Kwantung, now Guandong, in south-eastern China), then moves on to look at the community’s experiences in business, its internal culture and structure, its lifestyle and future. It focuses on several prominent Trinidadian Chinese of recent times, including Sir Solomon Hochoy, and leading Chinese businessmen and artists. It is a valuable pioneering study, which establishes that there is much more to the Chinese community than the restaurants, laundries and corner shops of the popular imagination.