Bookshelf (Jan/Feb 2019) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture; Giant; Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow; A View of the Empire at Sunset; and Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean

  • High Mas: Carnival and the  Poetics of Caribbean Culture
  • Giant
  • Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow
  • A View of the Empire at Sunset
  • Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean
  • Courtesy Maria Nunes
  • In a World of Their Own: Carnival Dreamers & Makers

High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture

by Kevin Adonis Browne (University Press of Mississippi, 256 pp, ISBN 9781496819383)

Perhaps it’s only when our sight is risked that our seeing acquires a specific urgency. For Kevin Adonis Browne, “open-angle” glaucoma prompted a reflection on how he might see the world, and his place in it. In High Mas, his book combining essays and photographs, we witness myriad possibilities not only of seeing mas but of seeing oneself as a mas — a personal conglomeration of the mystical, the rapturous quotidian.

If we believe the sweetly-crooned mantra that Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the greatest show on earth, Browne’s essays in High Mas are confessional agents at that altar. Composed with sociological cartography, the rhetoric on display here is that rarest of things: accessible, and joyously available to all — like Carnival itself should be. In the vivid, immersive suites of photographs that follow the essays, Browne’s lens tears down the tiered barriers that often dictate how Carnival bands are organised. As co-celebrants of his vision, we see the inhabitants of mas at sweating range, plastered in blue paint or dragging their cloven hooves before them. The images, even to an untrained eye, have been composed with all the accuracy of which love is capable.

Essays flank and surround the thoughtfully-captioned photographs, both contextualising and celebrating the rich feast of images. In this way, Browne’s written and seen mas conjures itself with a voluble understanding of not only Carnival, but Trinidadian and Tobagonian resilience, rambunctiousness, and puncheon-soaked badmind. All of this makes High Mas an offertory libation, a potent brew, and an enduring sight.

Giant

by Richard Georges (Platypus Press, 80 pp, ISBN 9781999773618)

In “Wardian Case”, from Giant, Richard Georges’s second poetry collection, the image of “a fading Union Jack buffeting in the summer wind” carries an ill breeze of decaying empire. You can look to Georges’s poems for this elegant artillery against the colonial past of the British Virgin Islands. Such work, created without flashiness but with ample fervour, is a clarion to disturb former plantation scions where they are interred. Giant is a collection concerned as deeply with the subterranean as the skyscraper, as motivated by towering superstructures as by the confessions of the earth. Georges attunes us to the rhythms of violence, but never without a message we might take into the dark: “When words, like bullets, rupture / flesh and make us meat, / burning holes in our pretty worlds, / what else but poetry can unmake such terrors?”

Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow

by Christine Barrow (Peepal Tree Press, 163 pp, ISBN 9781845234171)

Christine Barrow, who made Barbados her home for nearly fifty years, delivers a masterclass in short fiction’s powers of subtlety with her first book, Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow. These stories do not declaim so much as they stitch, quietly and with stunning resolve, a Barbadian tapestry as complicated as it is unsentimentally beautiful. You will find it difficult to dispute that these characters could be anything but real: the strong grandmothers brined in superstitions and regrets; the world-weary women who both keep and resent each other’s domestic secrets; the fisherman who knows to his detriment that the sea can be dangerous. Threaded in with menace is a hard-won ease, a sense that “the love going round and coming round will keep you safe.”

A View of the Empire at Sunset

by Caryl Phillips (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp, ISBN 9780374283612)

The Dominican writer Jean Rhys, best known for her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, was no stranger to either penury or obscurity while she lived. A View of the Empire at Sunset by Kittitian-British novelist Caryl Phillips lands us in the thicketed interior of Rhys’s story, before she penned the tragedy of Antoinette Cosway. Phillips’s fascination with Rhys — Gwen, as she is called throughout the novel — is total and consuming. As a narrator, she is allowed all the imperfections and obsessions of character that befit a true exiled creative, a writer and woman at the crossroads of empire and innocence, enchantment and dispossession. This is no dutiful “Jean Rhys: Greatest Hits” fictional biography: it’s something subtler, better.

Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean

by Lyndon K. Gill (Duke University Press, 312 pp, ISBN 9780822368700)

Queerness was no more “discovered” in the Caribbean than anything else Columbus claimed to have found. As Lyndon K. Gill’s Erotic Islands reveals in a passionately accessible branch of academia, these islands have always been queer. In the way a spectacular Minshall mas might contain a bedazzlement of many mirrors, so too is this text populated with multiple points of light. Gill stirs a primordial cauldron of same-sex desire and identity in our region through the scrutiny of history, the picong and balladry of calypso, the revelry of Carnival, the legacies of death and survival wrought by HIV and AIDS. Gill’s mirrors of revelation do more than bedazzle: they alert us to the interlocking truths of how queerness has been sung, danced, paraded, elided, and resurrected in our Caribbean space.

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Bookshelf Q&A

Trinidadian Maria Nunes’s debut collection of photographs, In a World of Their Own: Carnival Dreamers & Makers (Robert & Christopher Publishers, 216 pp, ISBN 9789769614208), witnesses multiple lineages of mas performers and artists. Shivanee Ramlochan, who wrote an essay for the book, talks to Nunes about the latter’s role as Carnival archivist, documentarian, and devotee.

In a World of Their Own spans more than two hundred pages of some of T&T Carnival’s beloved icons: tell us about selecting the lives and stories that envelop this work.

It’s been a gradual process of making connections over time, of one thing leading to the next, of one person leading you to another. With some people, like renowned and beloved wire artist Señor Gomez and legendary Black Indians Narrie Approo and Darlington Henry, it was clear to me that I wanted to pay special tribute to them. With others like Steffano Marcano and Tracey Sankar-Charleau, who are on the front and back cover of the book respectively, I’d developed a significant body of images documenting their work, so there was no question they would feature prominently. The decision that the book would be a journey through time and place in Carnival was the singular guide to what was chosen in the end. It was a very helpful focus to have, given the volume of work I had to consider with the editors.

This book represents the power of the archive, a resonant invocation of memory and ritual: has the mas become a home to you, and how?

It most certainly has. Mas has become inextricably bound up with my identity, my vision, my aesthetic. Mas has claimed me. I have a deep sense of belonging now within mas. I’ve also developed a deep sense of how much memory is embedded in playing a mas. This is what engages and animates me in my work.

A maker of images is often last to be photo-graphed themselves. Where do you feel you reside most strongly in your work?

I think I am there somehow, dissolved in the emotional intensity of the moment, there in the stillness, there as a reverent witness.