Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 2015)

This month’s reading picks, from a memoir of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake to a history of doubles

  • The World is Moving Around Me
  • Ground Level
  • Limbo
  • Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies
  • Out of the Doubles Kitchen

The World Is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake,
by Dany Laferrière, trans. David Homel (Arsenal Pulp Press, 192 pp, ISBN 9781551524986)

“Étonnants Voyageurs”, the name of an international book and film festival, means “astonishing travellers,” lifted from a line of Baudelaire’s. In 2010, on 12 January, Dany Laferrière and his fellow Haitian creatives were poised on the cusp of this celebration, when the world split itself. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that tore through Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, and other communities, Laferrière recollects the inability of his company — a band of shaking scribes, clinging together — to speak sense into the terror that threatened to swallow them whole and whimpering.

“Words failed them,” writes Laferrière, “when it came time to describe that moment of truth, when brutal reality left the voice of fiction speechless.” The Haitian-Canadian novelist continues the main vein of his earthquake reportage in a telling primed to keep his emotional gunpowder dry. No handwringing crumples these pages, only a clear-eyed post mortem of life in the wake of
12 January, 2010. This is memoir writing that both reduces and elevates a torn world to the sum of its most basic components: the author gives thanks for the press of earth that does not shake like a flapping sheet, for the simple locomotion of a green Jeep, “driving around town, saying hello to the living.”

In The World Is Moving Around Me, Laferrière does more than mark out the basic guideposts of a survival primer: he shows, in writing restrained and modulated by grief itself, how so much is not survivable, in the face of catastrophe. “When it comes in such unexpected and massive fashion, death will not easily leave us,” he says. The memoir moves its archivism of post-earthquake life from despair, to the panic of witnessing so much destruction, to the sure truth that we take the rubble of our national calamities with us, wherever we roam on the multiply fissured earth, on all our astonishing travels.


Ground Level, by Jennifer Rahim
(Peepal Tree Press, 100 pp, ISBN 9781845232054)

Going with Jennifer Rahim to Grande Riviere on Trinidad’s north coast, we read the worlds within an island that so many islands hold: the poet takes time, ours and hers, and slows it, filters it through the trickle of water over rock, and birdsong meeting village talk. The poems in Ground Level make much of journeying into the light — many of them grimly inspired by the 2011 government-decreed state of emergency in Trinidad and Tobago. Out of this “crude season of curfew from ourselves,” Rahim polishes our heroes: high-heel-wearing whistleblowers, conductresses of our nation’s chantwells, reminders of those who did not bury themselves in darkness. The poems are as brave as they need to be, holding court with fear, just as “the lean faith of prayers holds its carnival on all our graves.”

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Limbo, by Esther Figueroa
(Arcade Publishing, 256 pp, ISBN 9781628723199)

“All over Jamaica,” muses Limbo’s protagonist, environmentalist Flora Smith, “are places with the name Hope — New Hope, Old Hope, Hope Bay, Hopewell, Good Hope. We are a hopeful people.” These name-states of Flora’s native land belie the sand mining and coral reef mutilation against which Flora fights, despairing but doggedly determined. Largely unlucky in love, and not immune to the restorative balm of a messy sob session, Flora is the sort of unlikely, credible heroine who ought to populate the main plots of more Caribbean fiction. Figueroa arms her with vulnerability and grace, pitting her against the faceless conglomerate greed of a society that would see Jamaica stripped down to profit margins and business portfolios — a land in as much limbo as our plucky leading lady herself.


Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies, by Kei Miller
(Peepal Tree Press, 160 pp, ISBN 9781845232283)

Working in poetry, prose fiction, and non-fiction, Jamaican Kei Miller’s something of a cross-genre savant. Writing Down the Vision, his first book of essays, tells true stories with all of the muscular grace and heft manifest in his other writing. This work is no less creative for being factual. Miller takes us to church, to the dub dancehall circuit, to the impossibly real tales of invading crabs and haunted Guyanese houses that typify his nascent belief in a world of accuracies, peppered by a deep sense of the fantastic. In these essays of multiple motivation are the writer’s relationship with Jamaica as a world unto itself, and the world as it connects to the islands of the Caribbean, with Jamaica beating solidly at the centre of its complexly rewarding heart.


Out of the Doubles Kitchen, by Badru Deen
(Caritrade, 256 pp, ISBN 9780615855363)

Doubles, an East Indian diasporic roadside food that ranks high on T&T’s daily dinner (and breakfast, and lunch) go-to list, was born in the overheated, woodsmoke-burning 1930s kitchen of Mamoo Deen and his wife Rasulan. Their son Badru wraps this memoir of the Deens’ legacy in doubles pioneering in equal parts reverent nostalgia and aching regret. The evolutionary lineage of doubles’ growth is mapped out alongside young Badru’s resentment at being the “son of a doublesman.” Spanning generations, Out of the Doubles Kitchen reads like a faithful almanac of family deaths, dismays, and hopeful returns to happiness. Deen’s historiography is steeped in the good spice of memory, rendering one clan’s remarkable culinary story with great heat and heart.