Caribbean Beat Magazine

Bookshelf (July/August 2001)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life

Bruce King (Oxford University Press 2000, 714 pp, ISBN 0-19-871131-x)

Derek Walcott turned 70 in 2000, and to more or less coincide with this anniversary, Bruce King has completed the first full-length biography of the Caribbean’s – and arguably the English language’s – foremost living poet. Permitted to read letters, diaries and unpublished writings, and having located hundreds of interviews, articles and reviews, King has amassed a breathtakingly huge collection of documentary material. We expect a certain massiveness of detail from professional biographers, but this feat verges on the obsessive: dates, names, itineraries and timetables, an inventory of magazine publications, summaries of every significant review, notes on what must be every known performance of a Walcott play, guest lists, the menu (and wine list!) from the 1992 Nobel banquet.

From his youth in St Lucia, where King believes all the essential characteristics of Walcott’s work were distilled, we follow the fortunate traveller from continent to continent, from literary festival to university conference to television interview. Here is the exemplary international writer, working in a universal mode, yet unshakeably keyed to the rhythms of the island he always returns to. But the poet’s life is not fundamentally romantic. We also get an inside view of the haggling world of publishing, all deadlines and contracts and disappointingly small royalty cheques. “Walcott continued to have financial problems” is a line that often recurs with minor variations, at least until the years of Nobel bounty. One of the most interesting sub-plots here is Walcott’s 30-year struggle to achieve not just literary recognition but financial self-sufficiency. We see it all through a thick flurry of documents and details: almost literally, an embarrassment of research.

And here lies this biography’s flaw. Overwhelmed by sheer profusion, King has difficulty transforming his data into the kind of book that can actually be read, as opposed to referred to. Biography at its best is both a science and an art: discovering and classifying facts, and then arranging them with a novelist’s craft into a narrative approximating the vivacity of the subject’s life. King is a researcher, not a storyteller, and might have been better suited to compiling a Walcott encyclopaedia. To be fair, he gives warning in his preface: “Lives are not clear unless you take the blood out of them and reduce them to ideas and illustrations.” Scores of eminently readable biographies dispute this suggestion; but King, true to his word, has produced a rather bloodless work. Walcott scholars and students, however, have ample reason to be grateful for this prodigious compilation (as well as the 22-page bibliography). King prepares the way for those future biographers who will more vividly recreate for us this extraordinary poet and extraordinary man. (NL)

FICTION

Hendree’s Cure: Scenes from Madrasi Life in a New World

Moses Nagamootoo (Peepal Tree Press 2000, 149 pp, ISBN 1-900-715-45-7)

Superstition, drums, cricket, love, and the Guyanese swampscape: these are the basic ingredients of Hendree’s Cure. Nagamootoo uses a fictional narrative to record the ethnographic details of a community of formerly indentured Madrasi labourers in the village of Whim in the 1950s and 60s. Initially, as case study wrestles fiction to the damp Guyanese earth, the novel sounds like a thinly veiled anthropological list. But once ethnography ceases to intrude, the story tightens, and humour and heartache manifest in healthy quantities. Some flirtatious love scenes and prolongation of foreplay make the novel’s tiny climaxes all the more enjoyable. Indeed, unlikely and ultimately doomed romance is the best part of Nagamootoo’s subject matter. This chronicle serves well as the Whim Madrasi eulogy. Refusing to lament the community’s now-near extinction, it is a celebration of existence: “Live you may; die you must” pronounces Gunraj the Kali priest. And triumphantly at that. (RC)

ESSAYS

Talk Stories 

Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001, 247 pp, ISBN 0-374-27239-5)

Readers who know Jamaica Kincaid for her novels and stories of Caribbean childhood may be surprised to learn that she made her literary start as a writer for the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker. Between 1975 and 1983, Kincaid produced dozens of brief essays on a motley assortment of incidents and events in her adopted city. Within the tacit but unmistakable limits of the Talk story — no swearing, sex, violence, or overly predictable topics — she developed her distinctive style, exercising her sharp eye, and sharper pen, on subjects ranging from cocktail parties to the American Museum of Natural History and Boy George. Seventy-seven of these unsigned pieces are collected here chronologically, the potted record of a remarkable apprenticeship. As Kincaid grows bolder, the pieces become more experimental: one takes the form of an expense account, another is a questionnaire, and several drift in the direction of fiction. Consistently entertaining and frequently hilarious, Talk Stories offers the opportunity to observe a powerful writer finding her voice; in other words, finding herself as a writer. (NL)

HISTORY

The Slave Ship 

Fredensborg Leif Svalesen, trans. Pat Shaw & Selena Wisnes (Ian Randle Publishers 2000, 244 pp, ISBN 976-637-016-8)

In June 1767, the Danish frigate Fredensborg sailed from Copenhagen, bound for West Africa’s Gold Coast and then for St Croix in the Danish West Indies, following the standard triangular route. She was a slave ship. What distinguishes her from thousands of others is that, thanks to a conjunction of historical accident and historical curiosity, her final voyage has been painstakingly reconstructed. On her return to Europe in 1768, the Fredensborg sank off the coast of Norway. In 1974, Leif Svalesen, diver and amateur historian, located her wreck, salvaging dozens of artifacts. Determined to better understand his discovery, he turned to the Danish National Archives and read more than 2,000 pages of journals, inventories and other documents. The fruit of this research is an almost day-by-day account of the 18-month voyage, supplemented by lists of crewmen, provisions, equipment and rules. The story is not a pleasant one. Two hundred and sixty-five “assorted slaves” were taken on board in West Africa; 30 did not survive the journey; nor did 15 of the original crew of 40. “It paid to carry as many slaves as possible. An estimated space of 180 x 40 x 70 cm for each slave was normal.” Danish Guinea Company regulations stipulated that the slaves’ decks be washed down thrice daily, and thrice weekly fumigated with juniper. “It is hardly worth speculating whether this formulation was prompted by humane or economic motives.” Svalesen’s major achievement here, the sheer extent of his research aside, is to quietly and consistently demonstrate that the brutalities of the Middle Passage were the product not of spectacularly deliberate evil but of business decisions, corporate policies and profit margins. Eric Williams made this point nearly 60 years ago. It still startles. (NL)

 

EDUCATION

Higher Education in the Caribbean: Past, Present and Future Directions 

Ed. Glenford D. Howe (University of the West Indies Press 2000, 372 pp, ISBN 976-640-079-2)

While this collection of essays is not, strictly speaking, about the University of the West Indies, its dominant presence makes the book effectively a look at the University’s impact on the region over the past half-century. UWI was born in the post-war era of decolonisation, and has followed the path of West Indian political and intellectual development since then: self-governance and independence in the 1950s and early 1960s, post-independence radicalism in the late 60s into the 70s, and economic difficulties, austerity and adjustment in the 80s. A nostalgia for the 60s, especially, is evident; this was when the University came into its own legally (obtaining its Royal Charter in 1963), administratively (Sir Arthur Lewis became the first West Indian Vice Chancellor), and intellectually (the New World group formed, its members becoming leading radical critics of Western theory). This reveals itself especially in contrast to the pressures of the present: to expand student numbers, do more with fewer resources, get along with regional governments. This suggests a University not yet sure of where it is going in a changing Caribbean environment. (DS)

MUSIC

Wake The Town And Tell The People: Dancehall Culture In Jamaica 

Norman Stolzoff (Duke University Press 2000, 298pp, ISBN 0-8223-2514-4)

This fascinating and well-researched book examines Jamaica’s vibrant dancehall scene. Stolzoff is an American cultural anthropologist and dancehall enthusiast who spent 18 months in Jamaica hanging out with Killimanjaro sound system, getting a first-hand glimpse of young DJs struggling to break out of the Kingston yards. His involvement with the characters and love for the music give the book an edge of reality that most academic treatments lack, and his style is always approachable and never condescending. Stolzoff also makes an effort to explain how the dancehall has always been the central place of cultural expression on the island, and his blow-by-blow account of a sound system clash between Killimanjaro and Stone Love captures all the excitement and glory of the event. There are a few minor historical blunders, and the odd questionable assertion, but Stolzoff’s argument is generally well presented, and he manages to get down to the complex political nitty-gritty lurking behind dancehall culture. (DK)

ANTHOLOGY

Bearing Witness: The Best of the Observer Arts Magazine 2000 

Ed. Wayne Brown (The Jamaica Observer 2000, 206 pp, ISBN 976-610-332-1)

Despite the sorrowful state of the literary periodical in the English-speaking Caribbean — usually blamed on a dearth of talent and the lack of a market — the Jamaica Observer since 1998 has published a successful literary section, called The Arts, edited by Trinidadian Wayne Brown. In Bearing Witness, Brown collects the best stories and poems published in his magazine in 2000. The ages and abilities of the 43 writers vary, though at the least they are all proficiently entertaining. The best work, unsurprisingly, is by the best-known names: Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Brown himself. Among the relative newcomers Billson Hainsley, with a story called Death in the Market, is most striking. There is no scent otherwise of major new talent, and the “civilising effect” Brown claims for his magazine is a pleasant theory threatened by the facts of contemporary Jamaica; but the continued success of The Arts, read weekly by 119,000 Jamaicans, must not be underestimated. It calls not just for congratulation but for emulation. (NL)


Reviews by Robert Clarke, David Katz, Nicholas Laughlin, Damien Smith. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin