Book reviews (May/June 2008)

Reviews of the latest Caribbean-related books

  • Book Cover
  • Colin Woodard. Photograph courtesy Harcourt/J Strohn Woodard
  • Sanelle Dempster. Photograph courtesy Robert Taylor
  • Kisses (2005). Photograph courtesy MacMillan Caribbean

An enchanted garden

It is perhaps too obvious to mention journeys in connection with Caribbean experience, but a series of paintings by the St Lucian artist Llewellyn Xavier entitled Journeys is anything but clichéd. It shows Xavier’s work at its best—inventive, bold, symbolic, richly coloured and textured.

The series dates from 2001 and features in Llewellyn Xavier: His Life and Work, a glossy retrospective on an artist whose work deserves recognition far beyond the boundaries of his island home. In a long and energetic career he has shown an ability to continually reinvent himself.

Xavier’s first important—and radical—piece of work was his “mail art,” first exhibited when the artist was making a mark in London in the early 1970s. These works, inspired by the prison writings of the American George Jackson, consist of images as envelopes, and were sent not just to Jackson but to other radicals of the time such as James Baldwin and John Lennon. Xavier asked the recipient to send the image back to him: that process—with its accumulated stamps, official marks and so on—represents, among other things, the personal act triumphant over a repressive establishment. These fascinating emblems of a more radical age show Xavier’s creative ability to catch the moment.

Thirty years later, Xavier was at a new cutting edge: investigating another form of interactive art in a series entitled “Environment Fragile.” This consists of pieces of recycled cardboard (to represent the earth and destruction of the forests) and commercial paint (for finality of resources) embedded with shards of 24-carat gold (for the preciousness of the environment). These Xavier sent to art galleries around the world, suggesting they could arrange the pieces themselves to create their own collages.

Xavier has for many years seen his art as a statement about the destruction of the environment. After some years in Canada, where he studied, painted and briefly spent time in a Benedictine monastery, he returned to St Lucia in 1988, and was struck by its fragility. Thus began his loftily entitled series, Global Council for Restoration of the Earth’s Environment (1992). These retain some elements of mail art, but are essentially beautifully conceived collages using printed ephemera featuring the natural world, and the triangle, the symbol of St Lucia’s twin peaks, the Pitons.

A thoughtful introduction by the Jamaican-born critic Edward Lucie-Smith provides biographical details (as well as an examination of Xavier’s influences such as the American abstract expressionists). The book also contains photographs by Jenny Palmer—of Xavier’s studio and home on Cap estate, St Lucia—which reveal the artist as a collector. It shows too how his need to understand colour and light is reflected in his tools—brushes, mixing jars, palette—all blazing with colour.

The Caribbean’s art world sometimes seems parochial and tourist-driven; the result is that an artist like Xavier from a “small” island finds himself on the margins of international consideration. This book goes a considerable way to redress such neglect.

Llewellyn Xavier: His Life and Work
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-1-4050-8649-3, 224pp)

Polly Pattullo


Giving a voice to calypso queens

Women in Calypso Part 2 is a rare look at the contribution of the women of Trinidad and Tobago to calypso music. Calypso enthusiast Rudolph Ottley has updated the second part of his series, first published in 1998. The book offers a brief history of women in calypso from the 1880s to the present, with the main focus on women who have contributed to the art form since the 1980s.

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The information is presented in a question-and-answer format, which makes this a useful tool for research. Ottley’s self-published book is a ready reference book that includes a list of national calypso queen winners from 1969–2007. Finalists and their songs are listed from a number of other important calypso contests as well. Almost half the book is dedicated to charts that feature the calypso monarch finalists since 1939. It is evident from these lists to what extent women were excluded from the national competition.

Most of the women featured have been crowned calypso queens. Ottley interviews national calypso monarch Singing Sandra and road march queen Sanelle Dempster. He also includes Marilyn Williams, a former backup singer in Kitchener’s Revue and Spektakula, who explored other musical formats outside the calypso arena, and calypso judge Joslynne Carr Sealey.

Calypso connoisseurs have long lamented the dearth of books on the topic. In the few books that do exist, women’s role has barely been documented. Ottley’s book gives nine women a long overdue voice in the annals of calypso.

Women in Calypso Part 2
Rudolph Ottley
(ISBN: 978-976-821-48-4, 154pp)

Debbie Jacob

A master of the Creole canon

In Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica-based writer and critic Annie Paul presides over a wide-ranging collection of scholars and a smattering of poets as they discourse on the work of seminal Barbadian poet and scholar Brathwaite. In 22 essays on topics that vary from dancehall and misogyny to migration, creolisation and identity, these writers draw from Brathwaite’s oeuvre a depth of understanding of the Caribbean and Diasporic soul.

Though the 32-page introduction by Nadi Edwards might be hard going for the layman, with its sociology and literary jargon, the book itself is written in a wider variety of registers, though it leans heavily to the academic. Edwards is a lecturer in literatures in English at UWI, Mona, and conveys the importance of Brathwaite’s position in the West Indian literary canon when he writes that his “poetic output and his critical essays have had enormous impact on younger Caribbean writers and critics, who have found in his work an exemplary model of a Caribbean aesthetic…[Brathwaite’s] concept of creolisation…has had a significant impact on Caribbean historiography and cultural studies, and Verene Shepherd and Glen Richards note that it ‘is now undeniably the dominant intellectual construct in the fields of Caribbean and Atlantic World history and informs all the historical presumptions of the leading historians in these fields today.’”

The book is divided into seven sections: Ceremonies of the Word; Jah Music and Dub Elegy: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite and Mikey Smith; The Sea is History: Tidalectics, Middle Passages and Migrant Crossings; Creolisation, Historiography and Subalternity; Resurrecting the Human Face from the Archive; Creole Bodies, Dancehall Style: Gender, Sexuality and Representation in Jamaican Popular Culture; and Jamaican Identities and Globalisation; Citizenship, Subalternity and Cyberspace.

Contributors to the book include (in no particular order): J Edward Chamberlain, Kofi Anyidoho, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Maureen Warner-Lewis, Verne Shepherd, Glen Richards, Paul Lovejoy, Bernard Jankee, Robert Carr and Donna P Hope.

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Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite
Ed: Annie Paul
(University of the West Indies Press, ISBN: 978-976-640-150-4, 439pp)

Lisa Allen-Agostini


When Blackbeard ruled the waves

Tales of swashbuckling pirates and black-rigged galleons occupy a beloved place in the fantasy genre. For everyone who has nursed a secret pirate dream and yearned to take up the free-and-easy life on the ocean wave, this book is required reading. Move over Disney: there are some cases where life is stranger than fiction. Colin Woodard has produced a rollicking, gangplank-swaying read of a book in The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man who Brought Them Down.

The section on the Golden Age of Piracy chronicles the rise and fall of an extraordinary empire in a world being divvied up by colonial powers. Vivid descriptions of an almost unrecognisable Caribbean paint the scene for the social and political climate of piracy. For many young mariners, runaway slaves and ambitious booty hunters, piracy was a ticket to a better life. Woodard has a clear understanding of the mechanisms of business and his descriptions of the wheeling and dealing corruption that permeated all ranks of the colonial hierarchy add to the Robin Hood flair of our pirate kings. Lest the reader slip into sentimentality, acts of horror and barbarity are laid at the feet of these pirate empires but by the same token, so too are acts of kindness and egalitarianism.

Woodward identifies three key pirate captains and tracks not just their ascent but also familial and social backgrounds. Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch and Charles Vane ruled the colonial seas, striking terror into the hearts and holds of all legitimate cargo-carrying vessels. The man who would bring an end to this Golden Age, Woodes Rogers, is also fleshed out in extraordinary detail.

Set against this backdrop are the practical day-to-day snippets that give an uncommon insight into life in the early 1700s. Successful pirate heads had to be savvy strategists and we are privy to the unspoken rules of democracy that dictated everything from the division of plunder to the maintenance of the pirate galleons. The image of the majestic, tattered ships pulling into the many hidden coves and bays to be careened and serviced while their crews rested and recouped is just one that gives an idea of how the average pirate spent his day. Descriptions of Blackbeard’s understanding of the power of the illusion of terror give an insight into tactical strategy that remains relevant even today.

Setting the scene for the reign of piracy is the political climate in Europe. War, a collapsing feudal system, and widespread disease present a Europe reliant on the plunder of her overseas colonies for survival. Woodard peppers his narrative with appearances by characters such as the Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk is “discovered” living on an island among feral cats and goats. This scrupulously researched book strikes a balance of human interest, romance, drama, war and historical fact—all key ingredients for an excellent read.

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story
of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man who Brought Them Down Colin Woodard
(Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-15-101302-9, 400pp)

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Sharon Millar


Birds in the hand 

Richard ffrench’s seminal work A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago (first published in 1973) has long been considered the bible for birdwatchers visiting the country. However, with the publication of Birds of Trinidad & Tobago by Martyn Kenefick, Robin Restall and Floyd Hayes, that status might be about to change.

The authors point out that their book is a different animal from ffrench’s, in that it is specifically a field guide designed for species identification, rather than a volume dedicated to more in-depth appraisals of each bird. In this respect, though, it is without parallel.

It contains colour illustrations of all 470 or so species found on the islands, including occasional visitors, with many shown both in flight and at rest. Plumage variation, such as that found between juveniles and adult birds, or those in first, second and third winter coats, breeding and non-breeding, and other commonly-observed variants, are also shown. Specific identifying marks, such as wing flashes or a particular banding pattern, are highlighted on the illustrations with an arrow.

Distinct from many guides, more generally, the descriptions of each bird (including its status, call and other species with which it might be confused) sit alongside the accompanying illustration. This means precious seconds won’t be lost in the field in scrambling between pages of text and plates, during which time that elusive sighting may have slipped away.

Also distinct from many field guides, this book is actually small enough to be taken out into the field.

Its practical size, but comprehensive nature, stem from the expertise and experience of the authors. The bulk of the text, including a section on popular birdwatching sites in Trinidad and Tobago, is provided by Martyn Kenefick. An avid birder for over 40 years, he is both the honorary secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Rare Bird Committee and the website co-ordinator of South-East Caribbean Bird Alert. Kenefick, who has lived in Trinidad for nine years, has taken part in birdwatching tours all around the world, and now leads his own in T&T.

Floyd Hayes, a university lecturer in northern California specialising in natural sciences, provides a number of introductory segments, including those on the geography, climate and habitats of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as one on the taxonomy and nomenclature of birds.

Robin Restall’s beautiful artwork is taken from the two-volume Birds of Northern South America and, where necessary, modified to take account of local variations.

Birdwatchers from across the globe have been travelling to experience Trinidad and Tobago’s rich avifauna for decades and this is the field guide many have been waiting for. It will become an invaluable companion for birders of all levels.

Helm Guides have a well-respected tradition in this sphere and Birds of Trinidad & Tobago looks to be another successful addition to their stable.

Birds of Trinidad & Tobago by Martyn Kenefick, Robin Restall and Floyd Hayes
(Helm Field Guides, A&C Black Publishers, ISBN 978-0-7136-8544-2, 256pp)

James Fuller