Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 2016)

This month’s reading picks — from sci-fi to poetry

  • The Pain Tree
  • Falling in Love with Hominids
  • Night Vision
  • Farewell
  • Tobago Peeps

The Pain Tree, by Olive Senior (Cormorant Books, 194 pp, ISBN 9781770864344)

The magic of Olive Senior’s stories is that they weather time with uncommon power. In these collected short fictions, published and broadcast in various incarnations from the 1990s forward, the concerns of class, language, identity, and refuge reign, explored in prose that is all the more commanding for its subtle navigations. The Jamaica Senior portrays is a room of many mirrors, reflecting women and men at odds with their country as much as themselves.

Children’s voices are no less essential to the inner machineries of this conflicted, consummately beautiful land. In “Silent”, a young boy’s terror in the wake of a family shooting becomes its own island of dread. Through the child’s ears, bullet-deafened against even the slightest startling sonority, we hear collapsed, compressed worlds of audible tension: the refuge from this crisis lies in “the purity of the clear skies above, and the embedded stars that are shimmering and pulsing like gunshots — but far, far away.”

There are no small characters in the shaping of history, Senior reminds us, taking us into the backroom, sealed-chamber lives of the disregarded, overlooked, and hard done by. In “Moonlight”, it is the quiescent, unobtrusive maid Dorleen around whom so much of one privileged family’s boudoir secrets and internalised shame revolve. “The Goodness of My Heart” and “The Country Cousin” see two matriarchs deal with the class striations in their own domestic milieux, shepherding or rejecting the “lesser” children of non-nuptial bonds, those winsome country girls as yet untainted by elite society’s need to cannibalise its best virtues.

Each of these ten stories travels in two directions: taking the reader deeper into high mountain ranges and stigma-plastered slave’s quarters — and lifting us airborne. Held in Senior’s unflinching fidelities to scribing memory, fear, and bloodlines, The Pain Tree scries the construction, corruption, and crenellation of a world in an island, from on high.

Falling in Love with Hominids
, by Nalo Hopkinson (Tachyon Publications, 240 pp, ISBN 9781616961985)

Nalo Hopkinson, who has roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana, is one of the chief engineers of the Caribbean speculative fiction world. In Falling in Love with Hominids, a lush presentation of previously uncollected short stories, Hopkinson searches both distant galaxies and constellations closer to home for what it means to be most human: sparing no bipeds in her search for the merciless, mendacious means through which Terran folk rough-hew their ends. This assembly of over twelve years of writing traces the author’s own relationships with each tale, sharing glimpses into the creative conceptions of super-sensitive plants and their less savvy handlers. The natural world surrounds the lives and loves of those who do battle and break bread in this collection, and Hopkinson’s focus is multiply pinned on both the terrestrial and the ephemeral.

Night Vision
, by Kendel Hippolyte (Peepal Tree Press, 80 pp, ISBN 9781845232351)

St Lucian Kendel Hippolyte reveals civic devotions in this collection: these poems are concerned with how people live, suffer, and reap bitter fruit within their cities, slums, and high-rise tenements low on hope. The political consciousness of Night Vision is proudly proletariat, speaking of labourers, wage-earners, and of the common suffering that yokes men on and off an island. Many movements of the book explore the artist’s function within despairing societies. Channeling an invocation from Russian-American Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky to “sow seeds of poetry,” one astonished narrator discovers “how simply one can start a revolution (my mind’s eye saw dark sudden flowers of poetry everywhere in bloom).” The labour of socially committed artistry reverberates in the sonic cadences of these poems: Hippolyte pays homage to a realm in which verse is a vital conduit for joy in grim cityscapes.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo
, by Amy Wilentz (Simon and Schuster, 352 pp, ISBN 9781451644074)

Foreign aid swoops into Haiti in the wake of tremors and insurrections, but in what sense does this international investment truly stay? Amy Wilentz’s journalism on Haiti is no new, flighty enterprise: having planted roots in the country since 1985, her non-fiction examines the rigours and civic eruptions to which Haitians have borne grim, enduring witness. Farewell, Fred Voodoo, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, is an uncompromising portrait of a place through decades of ruin, mismanagement, and extraordinary survival, one that wholly evades the messianic complex of the externally privileged observer. In her first full-length treatment of Haiti since her 1989 offering The Rainy Season, Wilentz’s crowning achievement is that she allows Haitians to speak for themselves: to tell their own stories through her careful reportage.

Tobago Peeps
, by Elspeth Duncan (Thou Art Yoga, 95 pp, ISBN 9789768255228)

Fodor’s Travel praises Tobago for “its white-sand beaches, fantastic scuba diving, and untouched countryside.” For Tobago-based writer, yoga instructor, and boutique restaurateuse Elspeth Duncan, Tobago Peeps peels back this halcyon-hued veil column by column, peering more deeply into the island’s cornucopia of curiosities and contradictions. A collection of newspaper musings originally published in the T&T Guardian, the book delves into Trinidad’s smaller but no less singular sister isle with eager-eyed curiosity. From turbulent ferry crossings to fishing boats with blush-worthy titles, the navigations in this compendium are people-centred. Each “peep” into Tobago life is an open window: an introduction to the artisans, taxi drivers, beachcombers, wheelchair warriors, horse healers, and other remarkable citizens who make their homes from Crown Point to Charlotteville.