Word of mouth (November/December 2014)

2014’s hottest Caribbean novel, Caribbean artists on show in Santa Fe, and a celebration of food and drink in Barbados

  • Writer Marlon James. Photograph by Jeffrey Skemp
  • bluecurry.com
  • bluecurry.com
  • ©Gresei/shutterstock.com

King James version

Nicholas Laughlin explains why a new novel by Jamaican writer Marlon James just might be the Caribbean book of the year

It was around the middle of May when the gleeful boasts began popping up in the online social media feeds of Caribbean literati, in the tweets and Facebook statuses of a well-connected few. I’ve got my hands on the book of the year, they crowed, before you. Because one of the most hotly anticipated Caribbean novels of 2014 — no, of the decade — was finally out in the world, if only in the highly covetable form of advance proofs, not for sale. It was months before it would appear in bookshops, but already A Brief History of Seven Killings, the massive third book by Jamaican writer Marlon James, had won the battle of buzz.

When James’s debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, was published in 2005, it was a shot across the bow of Caribbean letters. Mercilessly funny, frequently ribald, and making a fine mess of the line between the genres of sci-fi and literary fiction, John Crow’s Devil delighted in mocking some of the cherished tropes of West Indian fiction, with its tale of supernatural goings-on in a remote Jamaican village. But it was its successor, 2009’s The Book of Night Women, that made it clear just how large James’s presence and voice would loom in the landscape of contemporary Caribbean writing. Set on a late eighteenth-century slave plantation, it offered a brutal, sardonic, eye-opening take on a history many Caribbean readers may have thought they already knew too well. To channel the voices of his characters, James invented an utterly convincing patois that bends and flexes between the lyrical and the obscene. (At one public reading in Jamaica, audience members tried to shut the author down, because there were children present.)

A Brief History of Seven Killings promises to be equally groundbreaking — one review appearing ahead of its October publication date called it “required reading.” The novel’s genesis moment is one of the most traumatic events in modern Jamaican history, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley — who James calls simply “the singer” — in 1976. To this day, almost nothing is known about the would-be assassins, and their motives. As James explains in a recent interview, a magazine article he read more than twenty years ago sparked his curiosity. “One of them went on to be a major player in the ’80s crack trade,” he says, “and another was assassinated with a bullet to the head in East Germany.” He goes on: “You should write until you fall for your characters, even the villains, and I eventually fell for all of them.”

Weighing in at more than five hundred pages, Seven Killings is a heavyweight in more ways than one. As James follows the trails of his characters, scattering away from the night of violence at 56 Hope Road, the novel becomes an intricate but sweeping investigation of post-Independence Jamaican politics in a decade with no shortage of conspiracies. It’s guaranteed to overwhelm, and probably to offend — no surprise to readers of James’s previous fiction.

North American fans can look out for appearances by the author on a busy publicity tour. One highlight: an evening at the New York Public Library on 15 December, alongside Salman Rushdie — “by and large the writer who made me want to write,” says James. Fans in the Caribbean may have to wait a little longer to catch the author in person — which means we have time to read the book first.


Mixed signals

Philip Sander contemplates the Caribbean presence in Unsettled Landscapes, a new Americas art biennial based in Santa Fe

Perched in the highlands of New Mexico, Santa Fe is five hundred miles from the nearest seacoast. A casual visitor strolling through the mountain city might well be surprised, therefore, to bump into a mast flying a regularly changing series of what seem to be nautical signal flags — the kind that announce, say, the arrival or departure of a ship.

That’s exactly what they’re doing, although there’s no harbourmaster involved, the ships whose comings and goings are heralded are thousands of miles away, and on closer inspection the flags look like — indeed, are — colourful beach towels.

S.S.s is a project by the London-based Bahamian artist Blue Curry, and a standout work in Unsettled Landscapes, a newly revamped and relaunched biennial organised by the SITE Santa Fe contemporary art centre (which opened in July 2014, and runs until 11 January, 2015). Taking for its broad themes the notions of landscape, territory, and trade, Unsettled Landscapes is an attempt to “rethink the biennial,” according to its curators, and “look . . . to the Americas as a vast territory for exploration.” Nearly fifty artists from the Western Hemisphere — from Alaska and the far north of Canada to Chile and Argentina — are included in the six-month show, based at the SITE Santa Fe building but also extending to satellite projects in other locations.

Curry’s S.S.s. is an example of a project linking distant locations that share “shifting histories of occupation, invasions, and now tourism,” in the words of Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, one of five curatorial advisors. S.S.s. is based on an online video feed of Nassau harbour — specifically, of the piers where gigantic cruise ships dock and disgorge thousands of foreign visitors into the small city. “I had the idea . . . to use the port as a site for sculpture, installation, and critical engagement,” says Curry. Monitoring the harbour traffic from the gallery in Santa Fe, SITE staff raise and lower a different flag for each cruise ship as it arrives and departs.

The mast is inspired by one formerly located above Nassau (dismantled decades ago), and the signal flags are made from beach towels with colourful “tropical” patterns and icons, like the ones spread daily by tourists on the Bahamas’ sandy beaches. It’s a cheeky commentary on the idea of possession and occupation, turning the towels used by visitors to lay claim to a fragment of coastline into “a conversation about a history of declaring and seizing territory,” as Cozier puts it.

This sly hijacking of mundane objects is typical of Curry’s practice. Previous works have used materials as diverse as car tyres and dried beans, oil drums and starfish, or — in perhaps his most spectacular work yet — a bright blue cement mixer filled with coconut-scented suntan lotion, to create elegantly absurd sculptural installations that pose questions about the transformation of landscapes and lives by economic and social exploitation.

Unsettled Landscapes includes works by two other artists from the Caribbean region. Deborah Jack’s Bounty, an installation of thirty photographic slides mounted in lightboxes, depicts a bleak white landscape that may seem foreign to Sint Maarten, where she was raised. But these are images of the island’s Great Salt Pond, the natural resource that prompted Dutch colonisation centuries ago. And SITE has commissioned Surinamese Marcel Pinas to create a large-scale installation in his home community of Moengo: a “kitchen” that combines traditional Ndjuka Maroon handiwork with plastic and metal utensils imported from around the world. Embodying a history of trade and exchange that is at once global and local, Pinas’s Kukuu — like the works of Jack and Curry — complicates our sense of the boundaries between places and cultures.

For more information, visit sitesantafe.org/unsettled-landscapes


Don’t forget the rum

B.C. Pires explains the three key elements in the Barbados Food & Wine AND Rum Festival

The fifth Food & Wine AND Rum Festival in Barbados takes place from 20 to 23 November, making this easily the island’s most important culinary weekend of the year — just as its four predecessors have been.

The deliberate all-caps of the AND in the title underlines the importance of rum to the festival — and to Barbados, where it has been brewed for 350 years, and is today served in over 1,500 rumshops on the island’s 166 square miles — a density that might be surpassed only by Barbados’s churches. Over the festival’s four official days, rum will be enjoyed in all the settings Barbados offers, starting with the swimsuit-compulsory, shirts-optional Jolly Roger open water cruise on Thursday 20 November. Here it will take the form of rum punch, the most potent seafaring activity before piracy, but the programme also includes more sombre (and admission-free) tours of the genuinely historic rum distilleries of Barbados. (St Nicholas Abbey offers handmade rum in hand-cut bottles that make superb souvenirs for the discerning.) For the curious, academically and gastronomically, Mount Gay’s rum ambassador, Chesterfield Browne, holds a pre-lunch rum seminar on Saturday at the Barbados Hilton.

The Wine in the festival’s title, too, is usually well-served, with tasting sessions and appreciation seminars being a regular part of the annual event, but this year the opportunities for oenophiles are limited to a pre-festival one, a food-and-wine dinner hosted by Luis Torres of Constellation Academy of Wines. Which leaves a lot of room for the Food — and there’s a good reason it comes first in the title.

The food in Food ranges from the best of fine dining through elegant banqueting to handheld street fare. This year, Food Network star chef Tyler Florence serves his own carefully designed menu in the dramatic dining rooms of what is probably the most famous restaurant in Barbados and the English-speaking Caribbean, The Cliff, and once again street food is available at Sizzle, an open-air Saturday afternoon event, to be held for the first time at the Garrison Savannah, part of Barbados’s World Heritage Site. However, what is likely to be the most popular event — and what is certainly the best value for money — is Ambrosia V, in which four foreign and seven local chefs will prepare excellent, sample-sized dishes that are as close to fine dining as you can eat while standing. The US$100 price of admission includes pourings of more than twenty fine wines, several premium rums, and a champagne bar. Ambrosia is normally held in a huge air-conditioned tent at the Lion Castle polo field in the parish of St Thomas, but this year moves to the far more easily approached Ilaro Court, the official residence of the prime minister.

International chefs expected to take part in cooking demos and to prepare actual dinners include TV names like Anne Burrell and Ed Baines, as well as Marcus Samuelsson, Roger Mooking, and Stephanie Izard. Local — i.e., Barbados-resident — chefs include Ashley Davis, Jamar Drakes, Cecil Gill, Creig Greenidge, Guise Mama, Omar Roberson, and Marco Festini Cromer, the greatly admired chef at the helm of Daphne’s, one of the West Coast’s best fine dining restaurants.

For more information, visit www.foodwinerum.com


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