Word of mouth (September/October 2016)

Caribbean writers star at the Brooklyn Book Festival, a new musical work remembers the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, and Trinidadians anticipate the sweet treats of Divali

  • Jamaica-born debut author Nicole Dennis-Benn. Photo courtesy Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • Photo courtesy Hannah Kendall
  • Photo by Nyla Singh

Lit city

September brings New York City’s biggest free literary festival — with Caribbean writers always in the mix. Nixon Nelson gives a preview

Where is the capital of the literary Caribbean, if such a place exists? Sixty years ago, it was indisputably London, thanks to the postwar publishing boom that drew in many West Indian writers of the 1950s and 60s. Nowadays, Port of Spain and Kingston may wish to vie for the title, but you could make a strong argument for New York City, and in particular the borough of Brooklyn: home to tens of thousands of Caribbean migrants and their descendants — writers and literary activists among them.

A good place to investigate the question: the eleventh annual Brooklyn Book Festival, a jam-packed programme of literary readings and discussions in mid-September, with a week of widespread “Bookends” events, starting on 12 September, and the main festival on Sunday 18, drawing huge crowds of literature lovers to Brooklyn’s landmark Borough Hall. NYC’s biggest free literary festival ranges from avant-garde poetry to heated debates on current affairs. Brooklyn-based authors are always among the headliners. And Caribbean writers are obviously in the mix.

One of the BKBF’s hottest tickets this year — that is, if you needed tickets, which you don’t — will indisputably be Claudia Rankine, the Jamaica-born poet whose book Citizen is an astonishing dissection of racial pressures and aggressions in the twenty-first-century United States. With a bracing timeliness that poetry can sometimes achieve, Citizen has won Rankine nearly every possible poetry prize. Expect the queues for her BKBF events to be long and ardent.

And Rankine won’t be the only star Jamaican writer in downtown Brooklyn. She’ll be joined by debut novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn, a longtime regular in the festival audience, who’ll now find herself on stage, in the spotlight, reading from Here Comes the Sun. Lauded left, right, and centre, Dennis-Benn’s novel, set in the Jamaica of her childhood, has leapfrogged the author into the literary front ranks.

Another obvious favourite: Olive Senior, one of Jamaica’s best-loved writers, making her BKBF debut with The Pain Tree, her OCM Bocas Prize-winning collection of short fiction. Her fans — and they are many — will have no fewer than three opportunities to hear her read from her scintillating fiction. On Wednesday 14 September, she’ll head the bill at a Bookends event hosted by T&T’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest, also featuring fellow Jamaican Jacqueline Bishop, Trinidadians Sharon Millar and Shivanee Ramlochan, and Tiphanie Yanique of the US Virgin Islands. Senior will star once again on Saturday 17, reading alongside Elizabeth Nunez, Bernice McFadden, Carol Mitchell, and 2015 Burt Award winner Imam Baksh, at a literary evening cohosted by Brooklyn-based Caribbean Cultural Theatre. Finally, Senior will bring her sunshine to the BKBF’s main Sunday programme, alongside literary luminaries from far and wide.

Look out too for Puerto Rican novelist Esmeralda Santiago and Cuban writer Yoss, a.k.a. José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, whose sci-fi novel Super Extra Grande involves interplanetary escapades and sly political satire. And keep an eye in the audience for budding Caribbean-Brooklynite writers with bright eyes, clutching notebooks, imagining their own future appearance on the stage — one of them might be the next Nicole Dennis-Benn.

For more information about the 2016 BKBF programme, visit brooklynbookfestival.org


Out of his time

A new musical work by composer Hannah Kendall tells the story of the late Guyanese poet Martin Carter, and the continuing relevance of his words and ideas. Philip Sander learns more

“I dance on the wall of prison / it is not easy to be free and bold / it is not easy to be poised and bound / it is not easy to endure the spike.” The poems of the late Martin Carter — literary conscience of his native Guyana — embody the human spirit’s defiance of political oppression and the harms of history. Veering from rebellious optimism to fierce melancholy, Carter’s words always proclaim the power of art to intervene in an unfair world. “Out of my time I carve a monument,” he wrote in “The Knife of Dawn”. “Out of a jagged block of convict years I carve it.”

“A lot, if not all, of what Carter stood for — including political freedom, racial and social equality — is still very relevant today,” says Hannah Kendall. “He showed us how vital it is for us to continue challenging and fighting against these issues, which are ever-present.” British but half Guyanese — her mother was born in Georgetown, with roots in Berbice — Kendall was first introduced to Carter’s poems by her uncle. A formally trained composer, she had previously set poems by writers like the First World War poet Wilfred Owen to music. “I was immediately struck by how evocative Carter’s texts are,” she says. Her musical mind was at once inspired.

She began with an orchestral work, commissioned for the London Philharmonic, inspired by Carter’s poem “The Great Dark”. “Lines such as ‘the probability of the spirit’ and ‘the ever weaving weaver’ allowed me to create a contrasting musical journey from broad and menacing, to delicate and still, to fast-moving and kinetic,” she says. It premiered in 2013, and Kendall already knew then that she wanted to compose another major work based on Carter’s poems.

The result is The Knife of Dawn, a one-act chamber opera set during Carter’s imprisonment in 1953. A leading anticolonial activist in what was then British Guiana, Carter was detained without charges after the British authorities declared a state of emergency in the colony, to head off the newly elected socialist administration of the People’s Progressive Party. The experience inspired Carter’s classic Poems of Resistance, published in 1954 — and now Kendall’s opera, with a libretto by the Guyanese writer Tessa McWatt. It premieres on 6 October, 2016, at London’s Roundhouse Sackler Space, with solo baritone Eric Greene in the lead.

“Carter’s poems are beautiful, powerful, and incredibly lyrical, and therefore lend themselves very well to music,” Kendall says. “There are varying structures to his texts, which means always having to think of different ways to ensure interesting musical material, if the structure is particularly extended, or making a concise, yet impactful musical statement if it’s overly short.”

And though it’s written in what Kendall calls “the Western contemporary classical idiom,” The Knife of Dawn incorporates subtle influences from her Guyanese background — such as a traditional lullaby she remembers from her grandmother. “At some points the tune is very clear, so that the listener might be able to point it out,” she says. “In other instances, it’s been masked or embedded into the overall musical landscape, but I enjoy knowing that it’s there, forming an important part of the work’s structure.”

Kendall’s hope is that The Knife of Dawn will eventually travel to Guyana, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, taking Carter’s words and story back home, transformed by this granddaughter of the soil. And she hopes too that audiences take inspiration from Carter’s courage, finding ways to channel his political commitment into different kinds of endeavour. “If we all work towards and champion inclusion and equality through ways we’re able, such as writing an opera, we’ll see greater shifts and advances.”

For more information, visit www.hannahkendall.co.uk/the-knife-of-dawn


Sweet celebrations

As Hindus across the Caribbean prepare to celebrate Divali, their friends anticipate the delicious sweets shared at the festivities. On a trip to India, Nazma Muller learns the candy repertoire is even bigger than she suspected

Growing up in the “Kwayzay” — as Trinis call the Croisée, a busy crossroad in San Juan (pronounced “Sah Wah,” of course) — I saw Indian sweets in the nearby market every Sunday. Precisely stacked columns of golden jalebi, creamy barfi, round ladoo, and fat, dumpling-like kurma called to me from behind a protective cover of clear plastic, and I would diligently save a dollar from my pocket change every week to buy a gleaming honeycomb of jalebi.

My family being a typical Trini mélange of religions and ethnicities, both my Christian mother and my Muslim father would be inundated every Divali with oil-stained brown paper bags filled with these goodies from their Hindu friends and colleagues. Every year without fail the fridge would be filled with a dozen bags of these sweets — along with ten pounds of paratha roti (better known as buss-up-shut) and container-loads of curried veggies and sweet mango. Like us, many other non-Hindus in T&T look forward to Divali, eagerly awaiting these goodie bags of sticky prasaad, kurma, jalebi, barfi, halwa, and gulab jamoon.

We all knew these sweets originated in India, and they were part of the traditions brought over by immigrants in the nineteenth century. It never occurred to us that back in India there could be dozens more different sweets made from dazzling permutations and combinations of sugar, flour, milk, and ghee, with fruits and nuts. Imagine my shock and awe when, on finally landing in India in 2005, I discovered, in a small Delhi market near my friends’ apartment, a sweet shop. The glass cases were filled with rows upon rows of traditional sweets in every colour of the rainbow. All manner of barfis, halwas, and ladoos sat gleefully glistening with ghee. Barfis made with cashew nuts, others with cardamom or saffron, ladoos with coconut, sesame seeds, dates, and almonds, and halwas specifically for the goddess Kali, who is honoured at this time.

The shop staff gave me odd looks, puzzled by my surprised delight. Surely I had seen sweets before, in whatever part of India I came from? My friend explained that I was not Indian Indian, but one whose ancestors had migrated to Trinidad. “Trinidad? Where is that?” they wanted to know. So then came the task of describing this tiny island’s precise location on the map — no, it was not part of Jamaica, yes, close to Cuba, but not that close. Finally, I said, “The island that Brian Lara comes from.”

“Ah, Brian Lara!” They smiled and nodded admiringly.

They then proceeded to give me an Introduction to Indian Sweets 101. Divali sweet-making is now a major industry, with even online shopping portals to a virtual Candy Land of barfi (also called burfee or burfi), flavoured with every type of nut and fruit, as well as mithai, malai chum chum, jangiri, and kalakand. But the king of all Indian sweets, the rajah, if you will, is the rasgulla. Perfectly round, soft, milky white and syrupy, the rasgulla is popular at every Indian festival, especially Divali.

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