Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 2014)

This month’s reading picks — from new poetry to a graveyard guidebook

  • Walking with the Ancestors
  • Pepper Seed
  • Island Voices
  • The Carnival Suite
  • House of Ashes

Walking with the Ancestors, by Angelo Bissessarsingh
(Kairi Heritage Publications, 192 pp, ISBN 9789768249036)

Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port of Spain, Trinidad, may now be an ill-maintained sanctuary for the capital city’s vagrants and stray canines, yet there are more clues to decoding the island’s past in these vandalised reliquaries than you imagine. Historian Angelo Bissessarsingh presents a graveyard history that handily doubles as a walking-tour guidebook, for those to whom the island’s cemeteries are not just resting places, but sources of illumination. A keen conservationist, Bissessarsingh laments the disrepair and willful neglect that typify so many of T&T’s graveyards, but he persists in seeking out unique catacombs. It isn’t merely in Lapeyrouse that you might find an evening’s historically reflective pleasure — San Fernando’s Paradise Cemetery, in Trinidad’s southlands, contains just as much colonial legacy and character study ensconced beneath the crumbling marble of its crypts.

Featuring nineteenth-century artist Richard Bridgens’s lithographs amid an affluence of visual archiving, Walking with the Ancestors delves deep into a wealth of scholarship, gleaned from newspaper archives, folkloric texts, and illustrated biographies. Perhaps what rings truest in Bissessarsingh’s approach to investigating the vaults of the dead is his even-handedness. The lives of all the departed matter, whether they were Trinidad’s colonial captains of industry, such as William Gordon Gordon, or the nameless victims of the island’s 1854 cholera epidemic, interred in a mass grave in Lapeyrouse. Bissessarsingh’s lens has an ecumenical focus: from oil tycoons to indentured workers, nineteenth-century monied landowners to alms-bearing Christian missionaries — all lives and their circumstances are documented with sensitivity and contemplation. As Walking with the Ancestors shows, every state of human endeavour and frailty alike is levelled by Death — and in death, Bissessarsingh’s research proves, we may still see the truest indications of our past and future selves.


Pepper Seed, by Malika Booker
(Peepal Tree Press, 84 pp, ISBN 978-1845232115)

Malika Booker’s poems bloom in a kitchen of sharp instruments. The reassurance of a domestic life isn’t far from many of these verses, yet the yoke of a stifling family intimacy lurks ominously. In these poems, the justices meted out conform to their own fiery cruelties. Booker’s first collection leavens the past’s scars with a sanguine ancestral legacy, rooted in history which both sojourning women and their difficult grandmothers remember, together. “I have covered my head with bhut jolokia, lathered my soul with bird pepper,” cries the woman in “Love is a Rebellious Bird that Nothing Can Tame”. These poems echo with the fragmented praise songs of several such fierce veterans, doing time in the trenches of love’s vicissitudes.


Island Voices, by Philip Nanton
(Papillote Press, 70 pp, ISBN 9780957118768)

Vincentian orator-writer Philip Nanton keeps his ear close to the ground of language, invoking the rhythms, choruses, and inflections of dialogue, and its accompanying drama, into the printed core of his fiction. In Island Voices, erstwhile St Christopher and the Barracudas Police Chief Emmanuel “Fish-head” DeFreitas narrates brief introductions to a tourist-themed audio archive of “island life.” What emerges is an array of vignettes that gallop across the page in Nantonesque surround-sound: St Christopher’s local populace may be many things, but malleable isn’t one of them. One story jam-packs us into a communal bus ride wherein “the scents of Christian Dior blend with Homme and armpit juice.” Visual artist Caroline “booops” Sardine’s mixed media canvases pepper Nanton’s stories with clever gashes of colour and canny flair.


The Carnival Suite, by Virginia Pacifique-Marshall
(StarApple Publishing, 61 pp, ISBN 9789768242457)

How many contemporary Carnival revellers know the sinister crook of the Bookman’s fingers, scrying the names of sinners into his ledgers of baleful reckoning? Do they recognise the Baby Doll’s strident demands for child maintenance, as she roams downtown Port of Spain, swaddled infant in tow? Catcalling Sailors in fancy dress; amply accoutered Dame Lorraines; Moko Jumbies whose stances soar skyward: Virginia Pacifique-Marshall preserves them in writing and illustration. Her cache of traditional Trinidad and Tobago mas figures includes three original compositions, and a hearkening to Peter Minshall’s Tan Tan and Saga Boy. As the author strives to show in these fifteen character treatments, Carnival fever is never far from the collective T&T bloodstream — from Canboulay’s burning fires to present-day rants against the nation’s politicos.


House of Ashes, by Monique Roffey
(Simon & Schuster UK, 368 pp, ISBN 9781471126666)

The 2013 OCM Bocas Prize-winner’s fourth novel sees her grabbing the origins of human terror squarely by the jugular, in a visceral coup d’état set on the fictional island of Sans Amen. A nominally veiled reframing of the routed 1990 Trinidadian coup, House of Ashes holds forth in conversation between oppressor and victim, between gun-toting, reluctant revolutionary and a political figurehead who fears for her life in increasing degrees of desperation. Ashes, a scholar of mild manners who is thrust forcibly into the insurrection, tells his wife a small lie: a promise to make it home for dinner. As the novel deepens its cycles of progressive dread, Ashes’s falsehood joins the communal bloodletting that is Sans Amen’s grim comeuppance.

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