Caribbean Bookshelf (Spring 1993)

A round up of new and recent books about the Caribbean

Travels with my Trombone

Henry Shukman (HarperCollins 1992; hardback)

Shukman, a young musician in love with South America and its rhythms, packed his trombone and set off to discover the Caribbean. This entertaining travel book, a tour through Caribbean beats as much as Caribbean islands, is his account of how he sought out fellow musicians along the way, and of the many other things that befell him. He gets to play with the Police Band in Grenada, finds little action in Carriacou and Guadeloupe, falls for Dominica where he works out with a jing-ping band, and slides into the lurid cauldron of Colombia where he is arrested by bored policemen in need of some amusement. But the most vivid part of the book is his stay in Trinidad, where he plays with Blue Ventures for Carnival, learns to wine, and attends a Shango ceremony at which his inappropriate offering conjures up the wrong deity.

The Caribbean

James Henderson (Cadogan Guides, 2nd edition 1992; paperback. Cadogan Books, UK; The Globe Pequot Press, US)

Those planning a more relaxed and conventional Caribbean journey will need a book like the revised Cadogan Guide, 670 pages of hard-packed information on everywhere from Port of Spain to Nassau (mainland countries like Guyana and Belize are not covered). There are good clear maps, attractive line drawings (by Lucy Milne), and useful introductory pages giving thumbnail sketches of each island and the “best of the Caribbean” (from backchat to local fast foods), as well as standard background information and history. Each island is covered in lengthy chapters which provide lots of useful hard detail like phone numbers and prices.

The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry

eds. lan McDonald and Stewart Brown (Heinemann 1 992; paperback)

Many have been the anthologies of Caribbean poetry over the years. But this one has a welcome freshness to it. Even with the giants (Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Edward Brathwaite, Martin Carter) the editors have avoided well-worn anthology pieces and have chosen recent work which will be unfamiliar to many readers. They have aimed for quality, arranging writers alphabetically without any fuss about themes or geography or groupings. And, to join the ranks of the older well-established writers, they have introduced some strong work from newer names, many of them women, several writing in creole. Alongside Olive Senior, Pamela Mordecai, Gloria Escoffery and Amryl Johnson are Jean Binta Breeze, David Dabydeen, Mahadai Das and Mike Smith. The book covers only poetry in English. Next, a real pan-Caribbean collection would be good, to see what’s been happening among the poets of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Any takers?

The Humming Bird Tree

lan McDonald (Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series 1992; paperback)

Reprinted to mark the recent TV film version, this novel first appeared in 1969 and is a classic of Caribbean childhood. Its author (also co-editor of the new Caribbean poetry anthology above) is a Guyana-based poet and playwright, sportsman and businessman. Set in Trinidad in the late 1940s, the book is a moving Romeo-and-Juliet tale. The growing affection between 12-year-old Alan, white and well-to-do, and young Jaillin, the Indian kitchen girl who works for his mother, is doomed to disaster.

Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day

eds. Peter Hulme and Neil L. Whitehead (Oxford 1992; paperback)

Despite last year’s Quincentennial protests, the Carib people who inhabited the Lesser Antilles islands five hundred years ago when Columbus bumped into the Bahamas are still getting a bad press. Virtually extinct, thanks to Europe, they are still inaccurately branded as aggressors and cannibals. This excellent anthology traces the slowly shifting European consciousness of the Caribbean’s original settlers over five hundred years; it is a collection of eye-witness accounts, from Columbus’s early reports to patronising inspections by TV’s Alan Whicker and busy modern travel-writers. It reveals an amazing saga of misapprehension and prejudice, a saga that continues still.

The Dispossessed

Clem Maharaj (Heinemann Caribbean Writers series 1992; paperback)

This slim first novel sees Trinidad’s “East Indian” community–descended from 19th-century indentured labourers imported by the British to work the sugar plantations after emancipation–as dispossessed, insecure, with an uncertain future. “We is cane people and nothing else, and when de cane is done we finish.” Cane farming still staggers on in the Caribbean, but for how long? Maharaj, Trinidad-born, was much influenced by C. L. R. James, and now works in a London law centre.