Book reviews (January/February 2008)

Reviews of a wide variety of new Caribbean books

  • Lise Winer. Photograph by Marlon Rouse
  • Four Taxis Facing North
  • Under The Fiddlewood Tree
  • World Class Trinidad & Tobago: An Area of Abundance Profiles of Performance. Photograph courtesy Sekani Publications

Badjohns, Bhaaji & Banknote Blue:
Essays on the Social History of Language in Trinidad and Tobago

Lise Winer
(School of Continuing Studies, UWI, St Augustine, ISBN 987-976-622-016-6, 450pp)

One of the most important cultural events of the past two decades, hungrily anticipated by those few in the know, will be the publication this year of Canadian lexicographer Lise Winer’s Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago.

Containing around 8,000 entries in well over 1,000 pages, with citations, historical quotes and explanations of word origins, this door-stopper promises to do what James Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language did for England and the US respectively. That is, provide the country with an intellectual framework for every form of cultural nationalism.

And, as with any self-respecting soon-to-be-seen blockbuster, the dictionary has a trailer, or rather, a teaser: Badjohns, Bhaaji & Banknote Blue: Essays on the Social History of Language in Trinidad and Tobago.

The 18 essays contained in this teaser were all previously published in scholarly journals or presented at academic conferences. This makes for unnecessary repetition. Several times we are given potted histories of Trinidad and told in introductions to essays of the many influences on the language. An editor was sorely missed.

Furthermore, her prose belies her subject. Academic writing is language goosestepping, whereas Winer’s natural speech and her subject are both full of wit and grace: language dancing. How sad, then, that much of the laughter and playfulness of Trini talk, to be studied by academics, must be trussed up for display like specimens.

There are exceptions. The introductory essay, Trini Talk: Learning English Creole as a second language, about miscomprehension, is animated by the spirit of the vernacular:

Trini: That fish smellin fresh?
Winer: (cleaning fish in the kitchen) Oh yes.
Trini: Then why yuh buy it?

More importantly, Winer’s scholarship transcends the academic. It goes way beyond the painstaking and approaches the obsessiveness of love. Sheer detail makes every essay a treasure trove in which anyone with an interest in the language or culture of Trinidad and Tobago can find gems of knowledge.

Did you know, for instance, that the generic term badjohn (“a man willing to use violence and who likes being known as a dangerous person”) derived from one “Bad John” Archer, an early-20th-century criminal?

According to the Port of Spain Gazette of November 26, 1907: “Archer alias Bad John was charged by Johnston with being armed with a weapon… for the purpose of committing a felony… [Archer’s] record is so well known that is was not asked for.”

The essay (written with Hans Boos) on marble pitching recreates the arcane and elaborate sub-culture of pre-adolescent boys, and its wider linguistic contributions. “Raff,” for instance, meaning “to steal, snatch, grab” from the French rafler: to “sweep off, carry off.” The piece on Indian words in our language shows that manj, the ground glass and glue coated on kite string to cut other kites, comes from India.

Reading that the word I used as a child for breadfruit, pembwa, which no one else seemed to know, did indeed exist, as a patois contraction of the French pain de bois, felt like a personal validation. And so too with the pleasures of Badjohns, Bhaaji and Banknote Blue: they are intensely personal because, after all, it’s language which makes us individually and collectively what we are.

Kim Johnson

Four Taxis Facing North

Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw
(Flambard Press, ISBN 978-1-873226-91-9, 191pp)

“It is not easy to write about the West Indian middle class,” VS Naipaul commented in The Middle Passage, his infamous excoriation of Caribbean society. Naipaul’s argument, essentially, was that the existence of a middle class in a place with a unique colonial past would mean having to write about that middle class in a unique way. And he concluded: “Whether an honest exploration of this class will ever be attempted is doubtful.”

Four Taxis Facing North, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s debut work of fiction, is a collection of short stories set chiefly in the world of Trinidad’s middle class. It is a world of affluence and privilege, of culture and refinement. It is also a world of subtle prejudice, where the shading of your skin and the texture of your hair are as closely considered as your educational attainments. And not least, it is a world within a world, a larger, menacing landscape where poverty, disaffection and the threat of physical violence are never far away.

The central characters of these stories are, for the most part, young women, often frustrated and lonely in their circumscribed lives. Yet they are not tragic figures, neither poor little rich girls, simply women who have been brought up with certain expectations and to fulfil certain roles—faithful wife, good mother—women who get a rude reality check through domestic disappointment and the harsh truth of the society they live in. They seek more for themselves, and desire an escape that they can never truly achieve; ultimately, all they can do is get dressed and go to the party, or make some coffee and remind themselves to pick up the dry cleaning.

Never less than sympathetic towards her hapless heroines, Walcott-Hackshaw tells their stories with assured delicacy and a generous compassion. In her perception of their circumstances, her undermining of the fantasy of their lives, she is admirably unsentimental, and, yes, honest. And there is a similar honesty and authenticity in the remaining stories of the collection, stories of people living on the other side of the social divide (there is even a story, perhaps a little too obvious in its intentions, split between the two sides).

Walcott-Hackshaw is a lecturer in francophone Caribbean literature at the St Augustine, Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies. Her first short story, the author’s bio tells us, was published 20 years ago; what it does not tell us is that her father is poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. So in considering why it has taken so long for this collection to surface, one could speculate that the anxiety about the influence of their literary forebears that we’re told writers to experience has been, perhaps, a bit stronger in Walcott-Hackshaw’s case. She needn’t have worried. No talk of a literary dynasty or any such thing; all that needs to be said is that Four Taxis Facing North is a serious and substantial achievement. Let’s hope there’s more to come.

Jonathan Ali

The African Origins of UFOs

Anthony Joseph
(Salt Publishing ISBN 13-978-1-84771-272-4, 137 pp)

Anthony Joseph might be the Ishmael Reed of our region and our generation. The poet, whose first novel, The African Origins of UFOs, was released in 2006 by Salt Publishing of the UK, has turned a corner with this latest effort. Part memoir, part sci-fi story and part poem, this book is a delightful but difficult treat for readers who aren’t afraid of a little excitement.

African Origins is based on the premise that a legendary African brought to Trinidad in the colonial past was able to walk back to Africa. From there Joseph spins a three-stranded rope in which chapters alternate between talking of historical Trinidad, contemporary Trinidad through the eyes of a returning exile, and a futuristic Trinidadian society transplanted to a planet called Kunu Supia.

The strongest aspect of the book is its musical pacing: Joseph’s a poet and his rhythms in this book swing from jazz to hip hop and a Spiritual Baptist “doption” (the sound of inhalation and exhalation used as a musical beat, almost like a human beat box).

The weakest point is that it is so tied into Trinidad’s culture and geography that it would be almost indecipherable to the non-Trinidadian. However, if you’re willing to go with the flow, feel the music and treat Arouca as a place as imaginary as Kunu Supia.

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Shouts from the Outfield: The ArtsEtc Cricket Anthology

Eds Linda M Deane and Robert Edison Sandiford
(AE Books, ISBN 13: 978-976-95183-0-8, 250pp)

As two self-proclaimed cricket novices, the editors of Shouts from the Outfield:The ArtsEtc Anthology could be described as either courageous or foolhardy. Nothing arouses more intense passion and contention in the former island colonies of the Caribbean than the game of cricket.

In Shouts, their first foray as publishers, Linda M Deane and Robert Edison Sandiford have knitted together 22 works of highly readable journalism and fiction from a variety of onlookers in the pavilion. Winston Farrell’s wonderfully kinetic riddim poem, The Wicket, sets an appropriate tone, preparing readers for the chapters to follow. Though the contributors are in the main from the land of flying fish (Barbados), one can also find commentary from as far afield as India, Canada, Trinidad, Jamaica and Canada. The “selectors” (former staffers at the Nation newspaper in Barbados and award-winning fiction and poetry writers in their own right) have assembled a fairly impressive line-up of talented writers to suit a variety of readers.

Take Paul Keens-Douglas, for example. His classic Fete Match wears as well on the page as it does when the boss comedian is on stage. In a mere 12 pages, interspersed with inimitable wit and humour, Keens-Douglas successfully telescopes West Indian politics, social mores and sporting performance.

World-beating Bajan cricket journalist Tony Cozier carries us down memory lane with nuggets of insight into Kensington Oval’s fascinating history. For those seeking higher-level socio-political and historical analysis into the game, Ikael Tafari’s The Drama of Cricket is a must-read. In this vein, Albert Brandford’s Cricket Politics of the Caribbean offers powerful insights.

But fiction takes pride of place in this compendium. An excerpt from celebrated Bajan-Canadian writer Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe is showcased alongside the skilful narrative technician James Carmichael, who contributes Not Enough, demonstrating the once-inescapable roles of social class and skin colour as determinants of who played the game at competitive levels in the Caribbean.

This anthology deserves to be taken seriously. In the best West Indian cricket writing tradition established by no less than CLR James and Orlando Patterson, the many authors shine the arc lights on the multifaceted nature of the game, and more importantly, the West Indies cricket team, spotlighting its storied glories and its glaring shortcomings.

John Stevenson

Under the Fiddlewood Tree: Joe Hadeed—A Life in Racing

Marlon Miller
(Lexicon Trinidad, ISBN 976-631-046-7, 145pp)

Every morning for 25 years, Trinidadian racehorse trainer Joe Hadeed could be found in the middle of the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain, under a fiddlewood tree.

From there, in the lyrical words of Marlon Miller, “he would watch his thoroughbred charges go through their paces, from the cool of dawn’s early light, when the turf was wet with tropical dew, until mid-morning, after the sun had come up over the Laventille Hills.”

In those days the Savannah was the home of local racing, and Miller echoes the feelings and the style of Derek Walcott, who wrote of watching “the sweat darken a colt’s flank when the sky over Laventille is losing its rose,” and compared the view—“grass, horses, men and the low hills”—with classically lovely scenes by Degas.

Miller’s nostalgic account is filled with a more workaday romance, but romance none the less. Hadeed wasn’t under his tree alone, of course, horseracing being, by this account at any rate, a most sociable sport. Under that particular tree was where Trinidad’s racing piongs—aficionados, devotees, fanatics—sat to watch the horses exercise and to swap news, jokes, tips and gossip.

“The majority of those gathered there,” remembers Miller, “the true salt of the earth, were renowned for their skill as raconteurs, especially Hadeed, who would colourfully embellish any tale. It was a wonderful place to be, a location that set the tone for your day, so that when the drudgery of the office got to you later on, you could just remember one of the priceless anecdotes told ‘under the tree’ that morning.”

So Under the Fiddlewood Tree is the perfect title for Miller’s book, which is the story not only of Hadeed’s career, but also of the sport that became his life. Miller, the sports editor of the Trinidad Express, is a born storyteller, and this book is full of stories. This is largely an oral history, and many of his tales are told in his subject’s voice, which is full of a gentle humour, a deep knowledge of horses, the tireless memory of the sporting man, and an old-fashioned courtesy that makes Hadeed describe just about everyone who crossed his path—jockey, trainer, owner, groom—as one of the finest gentlemen he ever knew. Nevertheless, Miller relates some of the incidents of crookedness and corruption that are bound to creep into a sport where such strong passions and large sums of money are at stake.

Miller and Hadeed also pay tribute to Hadeed’s wife Myrna, who allowed her husband to name her sons after horses, washed 60 sets of jockeys’ silks every week, and let Joe lend the airconditioning unit from their own bedroom to a horse—a Derby entrant, El Camino, who repaid their generosity by winning.

Other horses too feature among the huge cast of characters, Hadeed recalling decades later that, for instance, General Council was “an awful two-year-old with very crooked legs,” while “Ocean Spark was a flat, gnashy, unattractive horse who I did not think had much ability.” There are jokes about baseball-playing horses, anecdotes about cockfighting and trade unions, an expensive, imported racing pigeon that ended up walking home from a race, pundits asked to remove evil spirits from a losing horse.

As if he was there with Hadeed through every one of those years under the fiddlewood tree, Miller listened appreciatively to it all and has sifted and shaped his stories with patience, love and skill.

Judy Raymond

This Body

Tessa McWatt
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-1-4050-9406-1, 339pp)

Victoria is a Guyanese woman living in London, trying to adjust to the arrival of her dead sister’s eight-year-old son, Derek, after more than three decades of living abroad. Victoria carries the memory of a lost Kenyan lover like a daily multivitamin, using it to charge her ageing body and insulate her from life’s adversities. She has worked comfortably with a baker who loves her, filling her needs for companionship with him when it suits her, but maintaining an independent distance that frustrates him.

When Derek arrives, he somehow feels responsible for the road accident that killed his mother. He forms a friendship with Kendra, forcing Victoria to interact with her father, Alexander, who quickly falls in love with her. The resulting complications tease out the truths about her loves, past and present, and force her to take a hard look at her future.

The tone is calm and measured, lending a reflective air that suits the plot, which travels to Kenya, Guyana, Canada and France, with a quick stopover in Barbados.

The author stretches the baking motif to include general cooking and throws in some recipes unexpectedly, like a lagniappe that makes you want to step into the kitchen and “try your hand” too.

Vaneisa Baksh

World Class Trinidad & Tobago: An Area of Abundance
Profiles of Performance

Elliot Bastien and Sandra Bernard-Bastien
(Sekani Publications, ISBN 978-976-8193-73-5, 259pp)

“That Trinidad has produced a disproportionate number of unusual men is a truism, that so many of them have been forgotten is a scandal.” This statement, attributed to Henry Sylvester Williams, founder of the Pan African Movement, holds true to this day. It is sad that it has taken this long to highlight in one book the individuals who have contributed to making Trinidad and Tobago a household name.

World Class Trinidad & Tobago imparts just a fraction of the country’s history in digestible, short pieces on over 100 people in fields from sports to science. The book is divided into five sections: a short introduction; “profiles of performance”; culture; a look at its petrochemical industry, economy, and history; and geography and ecology,

It’s only possible to enjoy it, however, if you’re willing to overlook the numerous errors throughout—both typographical and factual. Of concern also are the methods used by the authors to gather their information. They don’t give any credits to indicate whether the sources were interviews with the subjects, friends or family, which would have validated the information in the profiles.

The book briefly profiles notables such as Heather Headley, who portrayed the title character of Aïda in the hit Broadway musical, for which she won a Tony Award; Brian Lara, the first man to score 400 runs in a Test match; Wendy Fitzwilliam, the second Miss Universe Trinidad and Tobago has produced; VS Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001; and Hasely Crawford, who became Trinidad and Tobago’s first Olympic gold medallist in the 100 metres.

Then there are those who may be obscure to the average reader, like Allastair Karmody, who pioneered in-situ vein bypass surgery; Emmanuel Ciprian Amoroso, who gave birth to modern obstetrics and gynaecology; Michel Jean Cazabon, the 19th-century painter; and Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, who held the world record for aviation endurance with a non-stop, non-refuelling flight of 84 hours and 33 minutes in 1931.

This is a must-read book, particularly for citizens in the diaspora, so that they and their children will not lose sight of the great things Trinidadians and Tobagonians can accomplish.

Mirissa De Four

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.