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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Bookshelf (Mar/Apr 2020) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of Everything Inside; Sun of Consciousness; Nomad; A–Z of Caribbean Art; and Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation

  • Everything Inside
  • Sun of Consciousness
  • Nomad
  • A–Z of Caribbean Art
  • Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation
  • Vashti Bowlah. Courtesy Vashti Bowah
  • Sugar cane Valley

Everything Inside

by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf, 240 pp, ISBN 9780525521273)

The eight stories that make up Everything Inside are invitational. Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat wields prose like a full pitcher of water, pouring it with a measured grace, beckoning everyone to drink, and be well. The fiction herein is its own diagnosis and medicine, its own indictment and cure: Danticat never shies away from showing us the ways in which humanity sickens itself, yet no story here is a suffocating lament or, worse, a tirade from a bestseller’s pulpit. The church we are taken to in these stories is instructive and everywhere: on the shore of a coastline strewn with dead and half-living migrant bodies; in the well-worn booths of a Little Haiti bar where diasporic Haitians drink, sing, and are betrayed for love; on the sands of a horseshoe-curved beach where a wedding unfolds and an unnamed country holds its breath against chaos.

Danticat invites us to see our inescapable human ill as bound tightly to our capacity for pure love. While the author pits morally thorny choices against masterful interpersonal tenderness in almost each story, this contrast pulses most strongly in “The Gift”, wherein two embattled former lovers are brought together amid the aftershocks of extraordinary grief. Anika, the former mistress of earthquake survivor Tom, admits an initial flood of relief on hearing his list of beloved dead, the better for him to finally be fully hers. Yet desolation stalks her all the same, a loss so deep it escapes even the language needed to define it: “She started sketching million-year-old birds because she couldn’t imagine how to sketch or paint what she really wanted to, earthquakes.”

It is impossible to leave the universal pews of Everything Inside unaltered. The world, Danticat shows us, has never needed our attention more.

Sun of Consciousness

by Édouard Glissant, translated by Nathanaël (Nightboat Books, 112 pp, ISBN 9781937658953)

An originary essay demanding thoughtfulness across emotional dimensions, Édouard Glissant’s Sun of Consciousness has been translated for the first time into English. Nathanaël, in her translator’s notes to this volume straddling criticism and poetry, calls the work “a tender geography.” This gives us clues to interpreting the text, published in 1956 as Soleil de la Conscience, which explores Martinique-born Glissant’s yearning curiosity at the complications of his early years in France. The benefit of this new issuing to Anglophone readers is rich: in its passionate contemplation, readers can glean the nascent foundations of Glissant’s scholarship, of the “tout-monde” philosophy that renders the entire globe an interlaced series of experiences. Sun of Consciousness makes an island of every realm, then shows how, from these territories, we reach towards an understanding of each other in the living world.

Nomad

by Yvonne Weekes (House of Nehesi Publishers, 80 pp, ISBN 9781733633314)

How to capture the smouldering heart of an active volcano in one poem? Montserrat-born, Barbados-based Yvonne Weekes shows us, in “Stripped”: “The Mountain knows that it has stripped us / pushed us out into frothy oceans / kept us walking on rough lands / and into new dreams.” Weekes, who left the island of her birth following the 1996 Soufrière Hills Volcano eruption, does not rid her poems of the evidence of a Caribbean life marked by natural rupture. On the contrary, Nomad shares its track-marks of ash and sulphur with the reader, bearing witness to unfathomable destruction and rendering it in crisp, dramatic lines. Using her own life as ready canvas, Weekes’s poems reverberate with a refugee’s anguish; a survivor’s resolve; a migrant’s hard-won sense of belonging. The ocean unites us, these poems proclaim, salt-brined and free.

A–Z of Caribbean Art

edited by Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown (Robert & Christopher Publishers, 304 pp, ISBN 9789769534490)

To open the pages of this abécédaire is to walk into a living museum. Think of A–Z of Caribbean Art as an interactive passport, one that catapults you from an unassailably crimson vehicle with green plantains glistening in its red, red truck-bed (Puerto Rican Miguel Luciano’s Studebaker, Plátanos y Machete) to a riotous, blood-stippled woodcut print on paper (Bahamian Maxwell Taylor’s Burma Road). Archer and Brown’s curatorial vision is the best possible version of community-oriented; they’ve engaged as impressive a cast of writers to supply text on the artists themselves. It’s impossible to please everyone in assemblies of this nature; thankfully the work sets its sights beyond a “who’s who.” The question posed, instead, is “where are we, Caribbean makers?” The answer: everywhere, amply and beyond borders.

Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation

by Colin Grant (Jonathan Cape, 320 pp, ISBN 9781787331051)

In his memoir Bageye at the Wheel, Jamaican-British Colin Grant proved he could expertly handle the navigation of his family history on the page. With Homecoming, Grant steps behind the Pathé newsreels of the Windrush experience, to let those stories abundantly tell themselves. In the testimonies and archival recordings of nurses, slum landlords, activists, struggling lovers, and more, this meticulous, generous study brings these “forgotten” voices to the surface. Though devastated by deliberate neglect from the UK’s Home Office rulings as recently as 2019, the legacy of these Caribbean-British citizens cannot be obliterated, or massaged into modern conservative xenophobia: not, Grant urges us, while we have so much remembering, and honouring, to enact in their service. The chorus of voices in Homecoming sings clear, true, and sentimental, too, with not a recollection out of place. 


Bookshelf Q&A

In Sugarcane Valley, subtitled Stories of East Indian Folklore and Superstition (136 pp, 9789768280701), Vashti Bowlah weaves together elements of folk fable and social history in lively short fictions grounded in Trinidad’s Indian community. She talks to Shivanee Ramlochan about her belief in the value of tradition.

Sugarcane Valley presents a fictional but familiar village: does this setting represent one real location, or is it the creative product of several?

Sugarcane Valley is the creative product of several rural areas where I spent my childhood. It bears similarities to Esperanza Village, California, as well as Perseverance Village and Orange Valley in Couva. There are even bits and pieces of Claxton Bay and San Fernando. Life in these areas along the sugarcane belt was full of adventure and excitement in all its simplicity. 

Saapins, churiles, raakhas: do East Indian Caribbean folkloric spirits frighten or delight you as a storyteller?

While these spirits may have some dark qualities, they make intriguing characters and are certainly a delight to write and read about. Elders made many references to these folkloric spirits, but I was only able to understand them as an adult. I recall being told to not go outside at noon or be caught out at sunset, especially near bushes and trees. There were also stories of widows who couldn’t keep a husband because they had “a snake in their back.” I was determined to create my own stories about these fascinating characters and the many superstitious beliefs that surround them. 

Your stories cleave to Independence-era traditions in T&T: which of these rituals of yesteryear has been most essential to your creative writing?

I grew up in the 1970s, and enjoy hearing stories from my parents and others about their experiences in the decades before that. You see, traditions are what bind families together and are an essential part of East Indian culture, lifestyle, and beliefs. When I make references to wanting to preserve our traditions, it’s not because I am stuck in the past, but instead I want us to remember the essence of what helped to make our families strong and humble, yet rooted in a culture that is rich and unpretentious.