Book reviews (September/October 2008)

Reviews of some new Caribbean books

Clouds over Cascade, St Ann’s, Trinidad. Photograph courtesy Chickichong PublishingDavid Dabydeen. Photograph courtesy David DabydeenDr Frances Henry. Photograph courtesy Dr Frances HenryJacqueline Bishop. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree PressJane Bryce. Photograph courtesy Denise deCaires NarainMahabir reads an excerpt from her book at its launch on the San Fernando Hill, Trinidad. Photograph courtesy Joy Mahabir

In the house of the spirits

In 1956 Frances Henry, a young white American student, arrived in Trinidad to research the Orisha faith, and was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of the most influential Orisha leader of the day, Ebenezer Elliott.

Known islandwide as “Pa Neezer,” he was both revered as a man of spiritual powers and feared as an obeah man, who could supposedly work black magic—in his classic calypso Obeah Wedding, Sparrow warns the scheming Melda that her designs on him will be thwarted because: “Obeah can’t upset my plan/Because Papa Neezer is my grandfather.”

Was he an obeah man? It depends what you mean, says Henry: she was convinced Pa Neezer had great spiritual powers, but he used them only for good, so although he knew a lot about obeah, it was only so that he could counteract it.

Henry lived in one of Pa Neezer’s houses, and so as well as attending his feasts, was able to attend those of his protégés. She became an academic and went on to write important texts about Orisha.

But this book is a personal memoir. Henry, however, is clearly more comfortable with her accustomed academic style. There’s lots of historical background. She dismisses the fallacy that Orisha is an African faith tainted by Catholicism: the Caribbean form as practised by Pa Neezer was a syncretic one that mingled the two, brought to the region by free Africans who had already encountered Christianity.

Henry doesn’t offer her thoughts on spirit possession, except to say dryly that it happens less often than it used to, possibly because its modern, middle-class devotees worry what may happen to their expensive African finery if they’re mounted by an Orisha power. She describes the physical changes she saw people undergo while possessed, but doesn’t speculate about their mental state, or tell how she felt, for instance, the first time she saw it happen.

Henry doesn’t say why she wrote this book now, over 50 years since the events it depicts. Her first encounter with Pa Neezer began “a connection that has endured throughout my life—and well after his death.” What does that intriguing statement mean?

She may have had supernatural guidance from Pa Neezer, but got no practical assistance from an editor, who was sorely needed to improve the sloppy layout and copy-editing of this book and to encourage her to include more personal memories, emotions and anecdotes. In a single page Henry refers three times to a famous Orisha drummer, but his name is spelt differently each time, and with no further references to him, there’s no way of knowing which is correct. Of the photograph used as the frontispiece, she says it seems to be the only one of Pa Neezer, as he didn’t like being photographed—yet there’s a different photo of him on the cover.

This little book is, however, a fascinating and illuminating portrait of a seemingly simple man who serenely reconciled the apparently contradictory elements in his character and beliefs; a shy but charismatic man whose “true home was the supernatural world of Yoruba gods—Ogun, Ajaja and Yemanja—and the Christian God and his son Jesus Christ.”

He had the Power: Pa Neezer, Orisha king of Trinidad: a personal memoir
Dr Frances Henry
(Lexicon Trinidad Ltd, ISBN: 978-976-631-047-9, 132pp)

Judy Raymond

Colourless chameleons

Jane Bryce’s debut collection of short stories, Chameleon, is named after the self-camouflaging reptile that appears in the eponymous story as a mythical character somehow responsible for the condition of black people in Africa. Bryce’s narrator—variously a white child growing up in colonial Africa, her mother, and white adults in the post-colonial continent—might be a chameleon, but is nothing like the mythical figure in the book.

Instead, Chameleon presents a range of African-friendly, well-intentioned whites who deeply respect native culture, even, it seems by the end, becoming devotees of African religion themselves.

Bryce has crafted well-written and evocative stories, but their characters seem drawn from a Hollywood stencil. There is the innocent white child who doesn’t understand the politics of race; the precocious teen who understands them all too well; the world-weary adult who tries to avoid them but finds they are inescapable in a cultural landscape designed to mock the well-intentioned white.

Divided into three sections, the collection represents a movement from youth in Africa to adulthood in the Caribbean, and one might imagine they trace the life path of Bryce herself, who grew up in Tanzania and now teaches African literature at UWI in Barbados. Strongest lyrically is the first section, a more or less continuous narrative about a child growing up in the sphere of her family’s black servants. However, it is the second section that holds the most intriguing, and most clichéd: the story Lady, which fictionalises an encounter with the fabled musician Fela Kuti. Bryce’s telling of the story pulls the reader along to see beyond the stereotypes. Readers can decide whether or not the attempt succeeds.

Chameleon Jane Bryce
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-041-8/13: 9-781-84523-041-8, 108pp)

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Terse verse

Tropical haiku
Pan, pelau meet Japan’s Zen
Basho would be glad.

Echo of Basho: Haiku Voices of the Caribbean
Poetry and photography by Alex de Verteuil and Dawn Glaisher
(Chickichong Publishing, ISBN: 978-976-8211-19-4, 101pp)

Lisa Allen-Agostini

A surgeon’s Indian summer

Basically divided into two parts—a detailed historical introduction, and the diary of the young surgeon—Theophilus Richmond’s The First Crossing provides an intriguing account of the prevailing conditions during the period of Indian indentureship in the Caribbean.

The introductory section is a scholarly examination of the rationales for introducing Indian labour to the West Indies (specifically British Guiana) to work on plantations that were being abandoned en masse by newly freed African slaves. It refers substantially to parliamentary records, Hansard reports and the papers of John Gladstone, who conceived this labour alternative. He was a member of the West India Association in Liverpool, and the owner of plantations in Jamaica and British Guiana.

It also analyses the contents of Richmond’s diary and his family background, using information no doubt gleaned from historian Brigid Wells, a descendant of the Richmond family.

The editors also traced the general history of Indians coming to the Caribbean: the major settlements in British Guiana and Trinidad and to a much lesser extent in Jamaica, and the difficulties they experienced in integrating themselves into those societies. Problems were exacerbated by the enormous gender imbalances among those who made the crossings, so that family life was almost impossible. Their contracts were to have allowed them free passages back to India at the end, but as the need for their labour remained unabated, all sorts of measures were introduced to detain them. The final ship to return to India, the Resurgent, in 1955, carried a sad and impoverished group, who would find themselves doubly dislocated on returning to an India that was vastly changed politically and socially. Many would unsuccessfully seek to return to the West Indies.

Richmond’s diary was kept for the edification of his family (particularly his mother), and is a literary travelogue. His entries are fairly regular for the nine months or so of his voyage (from June 23, 1837 to the last entry on February 4, 1838), and are replete with poems and lyrical descriptions so liberally supported by literary citations that it is clear that the diarist carried many books among his luggage. In the beginning, he mentions putting away his boxes, “one of which is so abdominous [sic] that it could well afford to be made into three.”

His sense of humour is always present (he couldn’t resist copying a letter from a seaman to home thus: “Dear John, I send you 2 pups for your 2 sisters which are bitches”), as is a naturalist’s eye, which is apparent in detailed descriptions of the fauna and flora and the landscapes he encounters.

The journal substantively covers the first leg of his journey to Mauritius (58 pages), with only 27 on the Calcutta stop, and a disappointing 12 devoted to the voyage to British Guiana. Perhaps it was because on this leg he had to deal with an outbreak of cholera among the new additions of “170 Coolies including 7 women and 11 children,” which resulted in several deaths, including one crew member, before he managed to contain it.

The final entry, titled “Scenes in Demerara,” carries nothing, and it is here one realises that it is probable that Richmond succumbed to yellow fever in July 1838: a young man who had made a major crossing himself by the time he was 23—the final one.

The First Crossing: Being the Diary of Theophilus Richmond, Ship’s Surgeon aboard the Hesperus, 1837–8
Eds David Dabydeen, Jonathan Morley, Brinsley Samaroo, Amar Wahab & Brigid Wells
(The Derek Walcott Press, UK, 2007 (A division of the Heaventree Press), ISBN 978-1-906038-01-4, 175pp)

Vaneisa Baksh

Art imitates life
One of 137 books from 45 countries nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Jouvert is the most recent work by New York-based Trinidadian Joy Mahabir. It tells the story of Annaise, an East Indian artist born in Trinidad, now living in New York, relating the experiences of her childhood and how they have affected her artist’s eye and the way she expresses herself artistically.

The book is divided into three parts, each dealing with part of Annaise’s past and using those images to explain her present introspection and behaviour. Written in the first person, it is set in Brooklyn and Toronto, with flashbacks taking the reader back to Trinidad, where pivotal events in her life occur.

Jouvert presents a rarely told story of East Indian life in Trinidad, far removed from colonial days and the ever-present sugarcane of much West Indian literature. As Annaise says, “The real, complex Caribbean has always been understood by ordinary Caribbean people who have passionate discussions about this Caribbean at street corners, in fetes and dance-halls, in taxis, at river limes, in calypso and soca and chutney tents, in mas camps and kitchens. Yet it seemed to me that the knowledges emerging from these arenas would stay at the crossroads until someone opened the path for their articulation.”

The judges must have had a hard time culling the longlist to ten novels for the Dublin award, if Jouvert is a typical example of the contenders.

Jouvert Joy Mahabir
(AuthorHouse, ISBN 1-4259-3094-8/978-1-425930-943, 160pp)

Mirissa De Four

Gloria is ghetto fabulous
Gloria, the heroine of The River’s Song, is a perceptive child whose brightness earns her a scholarship to one of Jamaica’s most prestigious high schools, though she lives in a ghetto tenement yard that is worlds away in terms of social class and economic standing. It is the first of many contrasting scenarios sketched by Jacqueline Bishop in this coming-of-age novel, which imparts a sense of the drastic social divisions inherent in contemporary Jamaica.

At home, where her mother is struggling to help Gloria better herself, life is inevitably challenging. The cramped space of the tenement means that neighbours are inevitably in each other’s business, and the ongoing threat of domestic violence is only one of the most obvious problems that they face. Yet despite an intrusive police presence and a lack of basic amenities, the tenement is not without its forms of joy, as seen in the friendships Gloria fosters with other girls in her age group, and with the prostitute who once rescued her mother from an assailant. Such scenes are contrasted with idyllic school holidays spent in the countryside with her grandmother, evocative in their suggestion of a realm of innocence and purity.

In the tenement, several young women are distracted by the empty promises of men, and although Gloria has too much sense to follow in their footsteps, the male species eventually poses problems as she reaches womanhood, first when a mysterious man of dubious character returns from America to woo her mother, and later when Gloria becomes romantically involved with a fellow student.

Although the ground trodden in this debut novel is not altogether unfamiliar, and although some characters have a depth and clarity not present in the entire cast, Bishop tells the tale with care, adding fine flourishes of plausibility through good use of local dialect and custom.

The River’s Song Jacqueline Bishop
(Peepal Tree, ISBN 978-1-845-23038-8, 183pp)

David Katz