Bookshelf (Mar/Apr 2018) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of The Tower of the Antilles; The Dear Remote Nearness of You; Kingston Buttercup; Writing on Water; Pocomania and London Calling

  • The Tower of the Antilles
  • The Dear Remote Nearness of You
  • Kingston Buttercup
  • Writing on Water
  • Pocomania and London Calling
  • Lennox Honychurch. Photo courtesy Lennox Honychurch

The Tower of the Antilles, by Achy Obejas

Akashic Books, 150 pp, ISBN 9781617755392

For every Cuban passport stamped, every long-desired visa claimed that takes Cubans away from their tierra natal, how many Cubas exist in the imagination, in the psychogeography of limbo? The short stories in Achy Obejas’s newest collection thread a clear and bittersweet needlework of longing, exile, erotic need, and chaos between Cubans living at home and those who strike out, with desperation and pragmatism, to America.

Many of these stories are navigated by the needs of the human body: shelter, food, sex. In “Kimberle”, two women steer the tense, desire-laced uncertainty between them by sharing a series of lovers, each more improbable and exciting than the next. “The Cola of Oblivion” marks the sharp difference between those who have fled Cuba, and those who have remained; a “visitor” is reminded that her mother “never sent a single vitamin . . . not a single can of meat or iPod, not a single anything.”

Obejas reveals with equal intensity the desires of the human spirit, cataloguing the results that spiral from losing security, sanctuary, and sight of oneself. “The Sound Catalogue” witnesses an immigrant’s gradual, terrifying loss of hearing, set against the fading ricochet of her life’s most valuable sounds: gunshots, the roar of frenzied mobs in revolt, the Cuban national anthem.

Cuba exists in these pages as a living, organic entity: vibrant and sinewy even in the memories of the citizens who have left it. Obejas reminds her readers that Cuba is no single destination, and that the Cuban imagination is a dense, intricately networked map unto itself. These stories come to life in explorations of sleepy-eyed boys with concupiscent superpowers, of large brown women building towers of boats in the Antilles. “Is there any real chance you can leave a place?” these stories ask. The answers are multiple and mysterious.

The Dear Remote Nearness of You, by Danielle Legros Georges

Barrow Street Press, 62 pp, ISBN 9780989329699

In her second collection of poems, Haiti-born, US-based Danielle Legros Georges gives us access to worlds that are both submerged and emerging. Whether her poems’ speakers contemplate centenarian eels, or seek to shift the rubble left by Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, The Dear Remote Nearness of You takes careful account of the cost of survival. The atmospheric quality of these poems is dense with attention to the sounds of an inhabitable life: the shock of a shouted racial slur, the high-pitched screech of children, the very sound of the earth splitting. The unsettling intimacies Georges reveals encompass our human relationships with animals, alongside our human understanding of ourselves. Haiti’s own mirrored conversations with itself, through generations of privation and exquisite natural beauty, are the centrepiece of this book’s success.

Kingston Buttercup, by Ann-Margaret Lim

Peepal Tree Press, 72 pp, ISBN 9781845233303

“I remember a barrel / with the biggest doll I’d ever seen. / I remember nights without a mother.” Ann-Margaret Lim’s second collection of poems teems with the typically unsaid, releasing domestic, maternal, and historic memory from the unlatched suitcases of generational secrecy and shame. In her narrator’s eyes, Jamaica is a crossroads of extreme violence and ecstatic joys, which she offers to her readers in images of doppelgänger girls lining the obituaries, big-bottom Julie mangoes, men who lavish kicks and kisses on their firstborns, and poet Mervyn Morris “bringing life from the depths of souls / to his class, which was never / contained on the Mona campus.” Kingston Buttercup is a worthy successor to Lim’s debut collection, The Festival of Wild Orchid: flowers intertwine their symbolisms at the heart of both books, wafting multiple meanings of strength, deadliness, and comfort.

Writing on Water, by Maggie Harris

Seren Press, 136 pp, ISBN 9781781723708

Wooden stilt-houses perched on riverbanks; rafts disintegrating beneath the tempestuous sea; terraces teeming with secrets and too many mouths to feed: home, in Maggie Harris’s stories, is a complex endeavour. Guyana-born, Wales-based Harris steers her protagonists in and out of peril and pleasure, creating short fiction that sweeps us into riptides and rough waters of human emotion. In these stories, mothers wrestle with the demands of their children and the creeping tendrils of their other suppressed desires; myths and monotonies stir in the same cauldron of everyday living; the Caribbean and the United Kingdom cradle journeys of hope, horror, and the grey space in between. As the central character from Writing on Water’s title story convinces us, “Who was she to think the word ‘home’ meant a place? This . . . in-between-ness, this was it.”

Pocomania and London Calling, by Una Marson

Blouse & Skirt Books, 154 pp, ISBN 9789768267030

Una Marson’s Pocomania, first staged in Jamaica in 1938, remains one of the Caribbean’s most important works of theatre. Marson was a dramatist, poet, and activist, the first black woman broadcaster to be employed by the BBC. This necessary publication engages new generations on the plays’ cultural significance, their trailblazing political engagement, and their feminist agency. Pocomania directly and bravely confronts colonial attitudes towards Jamaican folk religion, while London Calling exposes the racist, classist weaknesses of the British empire with satirically crafted humour. “I think it is terrible how most of us live under the delusion that we are free,” one of the central figures in London Calling says: these are plays that speak as potently of systemic oppression, of the long and heavy arm of institutional racism and misogyny, as they did in the 1930s.

Q&A with Lennox Honychurch

In his new book In the Forests of Freedom: The Fighting Maroons of Dominica (Papillote Press, 231 pp, ISBN 9780993108662), Dominica’s preeminent historian Lennox Honychurch tackles an aspect of his country’s history little known to outsiders. In this Q&A, he explains why it matters.

In the Forests of Freedom focuses on the Dominican Maroons, but also carries the reader through the growth of an entire island’s consciousness. Tell us about this important parallel.

I have always been interested in the neglected corners of Caribbean history. I seek to include the enslaved, indentured, or indigenous groups who have left few, if any, written records of their own, but who played a significant role in our region’s history. How does one go about locating their position in the mosaic of Caribbean heritage from their point of view, when the records at your disposal are written by the coloniser? I had to search beyond the focus of the coloniser’s lens.

How do you hope your work amplifies our Caribbean understanding of slavery, revolt, and rebellion?

When one hears about Maroons in the Anglophone Caribbean, the immediate reaction is to think of Jamaica, because for decades academia and popular literature have been dominated by the Jamaican experience. In terms of slave rebellions, Haiti has been represented as the prime example. I wish to show that the reaction to enslavement across the region was widespread and deeply engrained, even in the so-called “small islands” where populations were more tightly confined. There were social diversification and hierarchies, multi-faith patterns and cultural tensions, diverse skills and a vast bank of acquired knowledge that came together in the Caribbean. The way that their leaders absorbed and acted upon what was happening in the colonial and metropolitan centres of power during the age of revolution is also important.

How has the spirit of Maroon resistance survived in contemporary Dominica?

As Dominica moved to self-government, along with the nationalist symbols of flag, anthem, and coat of arms, there came the legends of nationhood. Among the most vocal were the Rastafarians. In their advocacy of healthy living, vegetarianism, and respect for the natural environment, as well as the encouragement of creativity in dance, music, and art, they were seen as heirs of the Maroon experience. Dominicans are increasingly conscious of this inheritance and it provides a significant motivation to face the challenges ahead.