Book Reviews (November/December 2011)

The new books that are reflecting the region right now

Memoirs of a Jamaican giant

Edward Seaga is a giant of Jamaican politics. During 45 years of public service in the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Seaga played key roles in the development of the nation as Minister of Finance, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. He was a shrewd tactician who perpetually challenged the shortcomings of the left-leaning People’s National Party (PNP); there is no denying his impact.

Volume I of his autobiography ended with the JLP’s 1980 victory, a triumphant Seaga taking the reins via the bloodiest election in living memory. Surprisingly, Hard Road to Travel, the second volume, begins with no sense of urgency, its first 100 pages burdened by convoluted budgetary matters, as Seaga seeks to liberalise the Jamaican economy. It is highly instructive to learn of his protracted battles with a very punitive IMF, though he claims his Reaganite fiscal policies merely fell victim to the world recession.

Things heat up considerably in Chapter 8, when Seaga recounts Jamaica’s involvement in the controversial 1983 US invasion of Grenada, after the execution of Maurice Bishop by hard-line Marxists. Seaga chartered an Air Jamaica aircraft – complete with stewardesses – to ensure that Jamaican soldiers were present.  He also mentions helping Haiti’s deposed dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, to flee to France.

As in Volume I, fear of communism is an overriding concern. Citing an unnamed source formerly at the Russian embassy, Seaga is at pains to “reveal” his PNP adversary, Michael Manley, as a bona-fide communist, but notes that the Soviets were unimpressed when Manley appealed directly for funds in 1979. Yet, if the Soviets found Manley an unconvincing Marxist, it is hard to comprehend why Seaga expects us to feel otherwise.

Following the hill-and-gully ride of his 1980s tenure, Seaga details challenges to his leadership from JLP dissenters, as the PNP return to power with a more “centrist” approach. He excels at citing PNP abuses of power (such as those connected to the “fraudulent” 1993 elections), without acknowledging any wrongdoing by the JLP, but it is telling that a chart of civilians shot and killed by police that appears in Chapter 16 shows a much higher tally during his reign.

Later, Seaga details Bruce Golding’s defection from the JLP and his eventual reinstatement. He also explores Jamaica’s cocaine problems, his own failing first marriage, and his unwitting selection of a controversial campaign song.

The overall portrait that emerges is of a ruthlessly driven character who is absolutely convinced his vision has been the right one for the island. And whatever side of the political fence you sit on, there is no denying the fascination of this weighty text, which provides all kinds of relevant, if selective, information on Jamaica’s recent history.

My Life and Leadership Volume II: Hard Road to Travel 1980 – 2008 Edward Seaga (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 9780230021648, 480pp)

David Katz

When East met West: a surprising story

The subtitle of this book is more accurate than the main title: “Japanese and other immigrants in the Dominican Republic”. Which, you might think, pretty much limits the possible readership to Japanese immigrants in the DR, the minority of educated DR citizens and book reviewers.

However, the Dominican-born Peguero, a historian who lives and works in the United States, has managed to present an account which goes beyond its insular parameters. This story of an odd historical encounter between Japan and the DR highlights the differences between a developed collectivist nation and an underdeveloped, authoritarian one. Between 1956 and 1959, 1,320 Japanese emigrated to the DR to become farmers and fishermen. The immigration was the result of an agreement between the government of Japan and the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo. Japan needed outlets to relieve the pressure of its growing population; Trujillo wanted immigrants who, he hoped, would inter-breed with Dominicans to create a lighter-skinned populace; and the immigrants themselves wanted the opportunity to own land that they would not have in Japan.

In outlining these motives so clearly, Peguero avoids the ideological sin of too many Caribbean academics. She is respectful of the Dominicans, but not idealistic. She cites the Japanese immigrants’ praise for the Dominicans’ generosity, and the Dominicans’ admiration of the Japanese family ties and work ethic. But she also notes the racial perspective of the Japanese, and records how their women were raped by Dominican gangs after the fall of the Trujillo regime.

As an academic historian, Peguero is mostly interested in the facts. Her detailed treatise, however, allows insights into larger political and social issues.

Immigration and politics in the Caribbean Valentine Peguero (Caribbean Studies Press, ISBN 978-1-58432-482-9, 310pp)

Kevin Baldeosingh

A literary coup

The author claims Allah in the Islands is a work of fiction: “any resemblance to real persons or situations is not to be taken literally, but some people may do so anyway, alas”. Well, none other than literary luminary Kamau Braithwaite sees an uncanny resemblance between the attempted coup by a radical black Muslim group in the book and “the brief topical and astonishing take-over of tropical Trinidad by Yasin Abu Bakr… leader and imam of the Jamaat al Muslimeen of Port of Spain, Trinidad in July 1990” as he writes on the cover.

And Dr Flanagan, who teaches creative writing, Caribbean and African-American Literatures at Davidson College in North Carolina, would have a hard time convincing a judge that the tall, striking Haji Ben Yedder and his gift of the gab are not based on Abu Bakr.

Having left Trinidad in 1967, Flanagan returns home for her second novel, undoubtedly moved to fictionalise the startling events of 1990 in her homeland by her personal experiences as a United States cultural ambassador in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya), and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide. She uses the characters of her first novel, You Alone Are Dancing, and resurrects the young, outspoken Beatrice Salandy to engage Haji and his bold attempt to start a revolution in the mythical island of Santabella.

This is easy enough, since the politicians, following in the footsteps of foreign imperial powers, are brazenly corrupt, and the people of Santabella remain disenfranchised and poor. This comes across as far too simplistic: the ease and sophistication with which Haji is able to bring in guns and network with financial backers in the Middle East jars with the rustic 1950s feel of Rosehill, where Beatrice lives. Here, the villagers appear trapped in a time warp: they make pails of coconut ice cream; blocks of ice are delivered to Ling Chung’s shop from the ice factory every morning; and they can’t understand how black people could be involved in Islam – “Indian people religion”.

It gets even more fanciful when Beatrice, having concluded that to make something of herself she has to migrate to America, lines up outside the US Embassy. Moved to visit the church opposite, she borrows a hymnbook and returns to the line. She starts humming a hymn, is joined by others, and soon there’s a choir singing to the heavens outside the embassy. This induces the consular officers to approve more than half the applications for visas that day – even from those without bank statements.

Many readers (including Trinis) will still be thrilled by Flanagan’s detailed depiction of local culture, from the use of dialect to a passing mention of the notorious gangster Boysie Singh, and Mother Dinah, a Baptist woman in Moruga, feared for her spiritual powers. And Flanagan astutely mines her motherlode of humour once again.

Allah in the Islands Brenda Flanagan (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845231064, 217pp)

Nazma Muller

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