Books in brief

Jeremy Taylor on recent books by Erna Brodber, John Mendes, Nalo Hopkinson, Lawrence Scott, and others


Issue No. 1 – August 2004

My father who fathered me

Standing Tall: Affirmations of the Jamaican Male by Erna Brodber (Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, ISBN 976-40-0059-2, 236 pp)
Are Jamaican men irresponsible, shiftless creatures with multiple partners and a virile distaste for domestic life and family support? That’s a stereotype, says novelist and sociologist Erna Brodber; real Jamaican males have been “silenced” by history and “caricatured” in fiction. Her predecessor Edith Clarke is fingered, not so much for the content of her famous study of Jamaican families, My Mother Who Fathered Me, but for its memorable title (a quote from Lamming). Standing Tall seeks to redress the balance. It contains 24 “self-portraits” — also termed “affirmations” and “testimonies” — from men born around 1900 and interviewed between 1973 and 1975. They are ordinary village Jamaicans, from postman and yardboy to carpenter and tourist guide; not exactly saints, but men with dignity and pride, and committed providers (the late George Beckford, in his introduction, notes approvingly that every one of them can account for all his children). The narratives are transcribed as spoken, their language and voice preserved, though a few are “translated” into “standard” English in an appendix. Brodber makes her point. Whether future studies of men born in 1940 or 1980 will produce similarly virtuous results — in Jamaica or anywhere else in the Caribbean — remains of course to be seen.

How you call it

Cote Ci Cote La: Trinidad and Tobago Dictionary by John Mendes (Medianet, ISBN 976-8194-06-5, 296 pp)

John Mendes’s romp through the creole language of Trinidad and Tobago has been a seller since it first appeared in 1986. This expanded “New Millennium” edition is spruced up with the author’s own paintings, drawings, and cartoons, Noel Norton photographs, and illustrations by designer Wayne Berkeley. The material has also been rearranged into sections — a main dictionary, a carnival dictionary, French-influenced words, onomatopoeic words (wattap!). Derivations are sometimes given, but this is more of an entertainment than an academic exercise. Local place-names and words from old French patois jostle with foreign words and sayings that have been sucked into the language and creolised. Phonetic spellings of standard words, local names of animals and plants and fruits, Indian words and folklore characters, legendary jokes and mispronunciations (“flim”, “cripsy”, “yuh t’ink it sof’?”), are all tossed into the pot. The result is a product of the “We is somet’ing else!” school of culture, appealing as much to locals who crave validation of their language as to visitors in need of enlightenment. But with the Queen’s English on the run in today’s post-colonial environment, perhaps this is the basis of a dictionary of the future?

Man piaba, woman piaba

LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Herbs & Medicinal Plants and Their Uses compiled by L. Mike Henry and Kevin S. Harris (LMH Publishing, ISBN 976-8184-33-7, 79 pp)
Sassafras for measles, passionflowers for menopause, marigold for haemorrhoids, dandelion to purify the blood. Plant basil by the door to keep evil vibrations away; keep some mandrake root next to your wallet and you’ll never go broke. Like the other Caribbean islands, Jamaica is full of traditional remedies based on natural herbs, and in this slim pocket-sized book LMH Publishing has set out to document them. It’s one of a series of “LMH official dictionaries” covering Jamaican and Caribbean culture. The back cover even promises a volume on “Sex — Island Style”. The book lists specific Jamaican herbs with their scientific and local names, their medicinal and other uses, and any interesting snippets of information associated with them. Given the special usage of “herb” in Jamaica, it’s useful to note that cannabis is properly used as a treatment for scalp disorders, a seasoning for soups, or as a liniment or poultice for sores, ulcers, sprains, boils, and swellings. A descriptive rather than prescriptive approach is advisable, since it is not always clear whether herbs are to be cooked, swallowed, smoked, or applied to the person. And certain beliefs should not be tested by the inexperienced, e.g. if a young man beats his male member on the trunk of a papaya tree, it will grow large when he gets older.

Tell it on the mountain

LeRoy Clarke: Of Flesh & Salt & Wind & Current: A Retrospective compiled by Caroline C. Ravello (National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago, ISBN 976-8194-05-7, 184 pp)
Given LeRoy Clarke’s achievement as an artist, anyone with the remotest interest in Caribbean painting will need this coffee-table book. It is not a biography of Clarke, or a methodical survey and explication of his work — all that is still (perhaps?) to come. It simply celebrates what he had achieved by the time a major retrospective was mounted in Port of Spain in 1998, the year Clarke reached 60 and became an “elder”. The focus is on the canvasses shown at that retrospective (a few later pieces have been added), supported by essays and other material — many originally published in newspapers and journals over the years — to contextualise the work. Contributors range from Pat Bishop and Ken Crichlow to Lloyd Best and Clarke himself.
The sheer scale and complexity of Clarke’s output is truly extraordinary. He has turned his work into a lifelong epic, rooted in African consciousness, Orisha, and Trinidadian folklore. The douen — the lost spirit of the unbaptised child, his feet turned backwards so he always looks in one direction but moves in another — gave Clarke the image he needed to rebuke Trinidadian society; El Tucuche, that dramatic Northern Range summit, gave him a mystic symbol of spiritual ascent. This book begins to document what lies between.

The journey now start

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson (Warner Books, ISBN 0-446-53302-5, 394 pp)

Nalo Hopkinson is a Caribbean writer transplanted to Canada, where she is making quite a name for herself. Her first two novels, Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber, improbably combined a science-fiction format with an Afro-Caribbean folk consciousness. The Salt Roads is even more ambitious, moving across 1,500 years and several continents to conjure up long-forgotten African echoes. There’s the sexy half-African dancer called Jeanne Duval, lover and inspirer of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. There’s the Nubian slave-prostitute Thais, who is transformed into St Mary of Egypt, the “dusky saint”. There are African slaves on a Haitian plantation, trying and failing to overthrow the blancs, but foreshadowing the later triumphant revolution under Toussaint. And there are African spirits like Ezili, taking a keen and critical interest in human lives and progress. Spirit, rebellion, assertion, and defiance help to bind these elements together and create a truly unusual novel.

If the nun could play

Night Calypso by Lawrence Scott (Alison & Busby, ISBN 0-74900-663-3, 418 pp)
Lawrence Scott’s previous novel, Aelred’s Sin, was set in an English monastery, where a Caribbean novice’s homosexuality leads to tragedy. In Night Calypso, the setting is a small island leper colony just off wartime Trinidad (the names are disguised). Thérèse is a young French nun who takes the island’s French Creole doctor as her lover, a two-page seduction in the boathouse accomplishing a swift abandonment of vows, decorum, and conditioning. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Theo, who is living with the doctor, gets up at night in a trance and gabbles stories about his past and the hurt that has made him unmanageable.
This is another excursion into the guilty world of Catholicism and sexuality. The back cover blurb proposes a comparison with Michael Ondaatje, but Night Calypso is a long way from that. The implausibility of the main storylines are a problem; Theo’s “night calypso” is such an adult outpouring for a damaged teenager, even one with extraordinary gifts of memory and mimicry and the benefits of special clerical vocabulary lessons. The theological imagery is relentless. Scott is an enormously sincere and serious writer, but Night Calypso is bogged down in wordiness and the futile struggle to reconcile Catholicism with sexuality, the white creole with the black society.