Book Reviews – January/February 2011

The new books that are reflecting the region right now

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  • Anton Nimblett
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  • Perry Henzell

Stories from amid the alien cane

Born with teeth, raakhas are demon babies who will tear out their parents’ throats if they are permitted to live. Then there’s the saapin, a woman down whose back coils a mark shaped like a snake. Pity her unlucky husband: one night the snake will come alive and inflict a fatal bite.

Strong stuff, but these stories are included in a collection meant for readers of all ages. To make the book more useful as a teaching resource, author and publisher Dr Kumar Mahabir has included notes on similar tales from around the region and elsewhere in the world.

These stories are from Trinidad, though Mahabir, an anthropologist, says there are similar stories in Guyana, which also has a large Indian population. Over the years, many collections of Caribbean folklore have been published, but they draw on European, African and Amerindian stories. Mahabir is the first to compile the local legends of Indian origin. Just in time, too: he says few people know them nowadays, and indeed, the youngest of the informants he quotes is 70.

Many of these spirits no doubt came from India with the labourers brought from the mid-19th century onwards to work on the sugar estates. But one may first have taken shape among the alien cane. Mr Azard of Williamsville used to kill a cock every year as an offering to Dee Baba, who protects homes and farms. The spirit of a planter or overseer, perhaps, he seems to be a creole ghost, and must be placated with biscuits, butter, rum and lit cigarettes.

“I have a piece of land in Barrackpore…” Mr Azard told Mahabir. “There was a track in the field where Dee Baba used to ride…In the night my wife used to whisper to me, ‘Come see! A black horse is passing with a white man without a head.’”

This small but important book is filled with these gripping tales.

Indian Caribbean Folklore Spirits Kumar Mahabir
(Chakra Publishing House, ISBN 978-976-95049-5-0, 31pp)

Judy Raymond


Dog days in Rasta City

Only Perry Henzell could have written this book, just as only he could have made The Harder They Come. From the very first page, Henzell lets you know: dis here ain’t no fool-fool fairy tale you reading. Is a fairy tale, yes, but one based on real life.

A ghetto youth, IZion, sits in a small fishing boat watching planes take off and land at Norman Manley International Airport, and he thinks: “It’s one thing to live dangerously and get rich, but to live dangerously and stay poor…no, that can’t go on.”

And so Henzell sets the stage for his version of the 1970s in Jamaica. He begins with a double-cross by the army that turns into a massacre of ghetto youths (this really happened in 1978 – the incident is known as the Green Bay Killings and is immortalised in song by Nigger Kojak). The murders are a wake-up call for the youths. Their awakening leads to a mass exodus from the overcrowded tenement yards of Kingston to their own town by the sea, Rasta City.

Under Henzell’s pen the surreal events of that era take on a realism that leaves you wondering: was there a civil war or not? (It didn’t reach that far.) His characters, based on the “stars” of the 70s – Michael Manley, his wife Beverley, Bob Marley, Chris Blackwell – beg the question: how closely do they resemble the real people? Because Henzell could have known them all personally. And he had the ears to listen intently, and make them speak with real authenticity.

One of the most unexpectedly endearing characters is Eddie Azani, the Lebanese loan-shark stereotype almost unanimously hated yet respected in Jamaica. Eddie owns the recording studio where Zack, a reggae superstar in the making, cuts the anti-Establishment track that becomes the rallying cry of all ghetto factions. The song ends: “Zion know dem as de emperor’s dogs/Mek dem eat crumbs from his table!”

“The emperor’s dogs can put a rocket up your backside from 50 miles away if you fool around with the emperor, my friend,” is Eddie’s comment.

Power Game was first released in 1982, a decade after The Harder They Come, and a mere two years after the bloodiest general elections in the country’s history. Yet this complex yet spellbinding tale about drugs, sex, reggae and politics, and how they all mix up in Jamaica is perhaps even more relevant today.

As I said, only that short, slightly built white Jamaican had the guts, brains and background to write a book as powerful as this. He deals it straight up – but with just the right mix of magic to make life bearable. Just as it is in Jamaica.

Power Game Perry Henzell
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 9780230029903, 426pp)

Nazma Muller


Orange in the Big Apple

The naked man – genitalia strategically covered, direct stare – on the cover of Anton Nimblett’s Sections of an Orange promises a revealing look at male sexuality – gay men’s sexuality. True to that promise, there is a distinct feel of “reveal” throughout the collection’s 11 stories about Trinidadians (gay and straight) living in Trinidad and New York.

What’s fresh are the stories that centre on gay Trinidadian immigrants in New York. Some are in a state of disconnect from home and family in Trinidad. One man goes home to recover from a traumatic experience in New York, but is hesitant to visit his relatives. Another is haunted by the memory of being the “cheese that stood alone” in ring games in Trinidad. The stories reveal gay men who are conflicted about their familial and love relationships, though not about their sexuality. Their conflict arises from feelings of disconnect from their Caribbean home and family, and from the restless metropolis in which they live.

Two stories contain positive messages about resolution. The first is the story of “Old Man” in Trinidad, who spends a lifetime creating his own path by defeating “what often seemed like the island’s indigenous barriers – poverty, classism, jealousy, corruption”.

The second is set in New York, where Push can change people’s assumptions about his identity simply by changing the length of his hair, or the clothes he wears. Overwhelmed by the comi-tragedy of his multiplicity, Push longs for the courage to free himself, like a female relative in Trinidad who walked out of an abusive marriage.

Sections of an Orange, which follows the groundbreaking anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing for the Antilles (2008), is a remarkable first of its kind in connecting the subjects of gay men’s sexuality and their Caribbean home.

Sections of an Orange Anton Nimblett
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 13:9781845230746, 150pp)

Charmaine Valere

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