Caribbean Beat Magazine

Books in brief

Jeremy Taylor and Jane King on recent books by Ron Ramdin, David Howard, Yvonne Bobb-Smith, and others


Issue No. 3 – February 2005

Jeremy Taylor and Jane King on recent books by Ron Ramdin, David Howard, Yvonne Bobb-Smith, and others

Across the kala pani
Rama’s Voyage by Ron Ramdin (Chakra Publishing House, ISBN 976-95049-4-7, 280 pp)

Several writers in recent years have focused on “the other middle passage”, the hundred-day voyages which brought indentured workers from India to the Caribbean, across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape, and across the Atlantic. Long overshadowed by the earlier brutalities of the African slavers, these Indian voyages, which lasted well into the 20th century, had their own peculiar horrors — the recruits often had no idea what awaited them at the end of the voyage, or how they would be treated at sea, and the death rate on some of the ships was astonishing. Until now, Ron Ramdin has focused on history and biography (the latter including books on Martin Luther King, Jr, and Paul Robeson), but here he turns to fiction for the first time, to dramatise the experience of crossing the kala pani, the dark sea. The story unfolds clearly enough; but fictional treatment requires a radical creative shift which Ramdin does not manage. The writing is pedestrian, and there is particular difficulty with dialogue (“Vee tink dah mishan-naries vill help,” says one young Indian boy in Calcutta. “My sister worry, worry. She need mo’ protek-shan”). The heart is in the right place here, but much else is not.

Jeremy Taylor

Imagining Kingston
Kingston: a Literary and Cultural History by David Howard (Signal Books/Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 1-902669-37-1/976-637-053-2, 261 pp)

“Cities of the Imagination” is an enterprising series of city profiles from Signal Books in the UK. Kingston is the second Caribbean city to feature in the series (the first was the Cuban capital Havana). The books take you around their subject cities well enough, with maps and some attractive illustrations (in this volume, by Wendy Skinner Smith). But what gives the series its own niche in a crowded market is its sense of the literary and cultural past and present, and the way it draws on current writers and the work of travellers who have passed through in years gone by. Thus, in the first few pages, Jamaican writers such as Michelle Cliff, Anthony Winkler, Rachel Manley, and Orlando Patterson give immediate depth and authenticity to the narrative, while Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ian Fleming, Alex Waugh, and Anthony Trollope give the description an extra dimension and reference point (Trollope thought Kingston was “not a handsome city” but nevertheless had “an eternal fascination”). David Howard, who teaches human geography at the University of Edinburgh and has known Kingston since 1998, brings a sharp and sympathetic outsider’s eye to this complex city and its many underworlds.


Woman to woman
I Know Who I Am: A Caribbean Woman’s Identity in Canada by Yvonne Bobb-Smith (Women’s Press, ISBN 0-88961-414-8, 250 pp)

When a Caribbean woman becomes an expatriate in North America, certain experiences can be counted on. Racism, for example, sexism, stereotyping as an “immigrant woman”, some degree of struggle for survival. Yvonne Bobb-Smith teaches Caribbean Studies at Ryerson and the University of Toronto; her purpose in this book is to show how Caribbean women in Canada have responded to these challenges by drawing on their roots to find resources of empowerment, assertion, defiance, and resistance. “This is a noisy text,” warns the poet Ramabai Espinet, introducing it: and so it is, since extensive interviews with 45 very different women form the raw material of the argument. This material is deployed over nine chapters dealing with different areas of experience (forms of activism, an alternative women’s movement, re-imagining “home”, etc), all woven in with the author’s own journey and commentary. Although the purpose here is academic, the text is surprisingly readable, because these authentic voices constantly break through, creating a handbook on how to adapt to a cold country whose arms are not exactly open wide in welcome.


Keys to the palace
Exploring the Palace of the Peacock: Essays on Wilson Harris by Joyce Sparer Adler, ed. Irving Adler (University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 976-640-140-3, 106 pp)

The books of Wilson Harris have defeated many a reader. But Joyce Sparer Adler — a New Yorker (1915–1999) who was a founding member of the University of Guyana and became a leading scholar of both Herman Melville and Wilson Harris — here sets out to elucidate them. The novels, she concedes, are “reputed to be forbiddingly difficult, demanding the greatest, most concentrated effort”. But the key to them is not effort: it is “the most open receptiveness, going along with the current”, and letting each book or section shed light on other books and sections. Harris’s work amounts to a huge single project, she argues, with unity as one of its major themes. Joyce Sparer Adler is persuasive, and may just send some readers back to Harris’s texts. Her writing is largely free of the academic jargon that turns off so many readers, and the nine essays collected here each contribute something useful to an understanding of what Harris was about. The collection is introduced by Janet Jagan, former president of Guyana, and includes an autobiographical essay by Harris himself.


Another Jamaica
Spanish Jamaica by Francisco Morales Padrón, trans. Patrick E. Bryan (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-146-6, 375 pp)

Jamaica was “Spanish” from the arrival of Columbus in 1494 until its capture by the English in 1655. This was a much shorter period than Trinidad’s “Spanish” phase, but Jamaica had a much greater strategic significance as a base for penetrating mainland America. This is a period that has been poorly covered by historians, even in Jamaica. Francisco Morales Padrón’s history is itself 53 years old: it appeared in Seville in 1952, at the beginning of its author’s distinguished academic career in Spain. Do not expect, therefore, a model of post-colonial political correctness: this is how things appeared to the Spanish academic establishment half a century ago, ten years before Jamaica’s independence from Britain. But it is solid, professional history nonetheless, and Ian Randle Publishers deserve appreciation for republishing the text in a new translation by Professor Patrick Bryan of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. It provides crucial insights into conditions in Jamaica during the Spanish occupation, the largely buried Spanish contribution to Jamaican heritage, and how the Spanish thought of Jamaica in strategic terms —?failing, Morales Padrón thinks, to press home their advantage.


Remembrance of things past
Ginger Lily by Margaret Knight (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1364-8, 164 pp)

A glance at the 145th page may give you all the information you need. We are told that we are to be regaled with “an amusing incident” — in case, presumably, we fail to notice. A scruffy young white strikes a brave blow for Bajan independence by giving “the two-finger sign” to an old “Limey” who has dared to question whether the young man is a member of the “revered Yacht Club”. The rest of the page considers the membership policies of the Club. “Black-balled” whites do not “belly-ache”, but “[t]he same cannot be said for blacks.” It seems that black people who apply for membership (and, after reading this book, I cannot understand why they should be so misguided) simply fail to understand that they are turned down not because of race, but because of class. “We’re not going to have the cook’s son or daughter — regardless of what school he or she went to,” quotes the narrative voice, adding, in yet another attempt to establish political correctness, that the Yacht Club will change eventually.

This book is a relic. The author refers obliquely to Freud when considering the possible foundations of her protagonist’s not-quite-white father’s racism, but apart from this, all recent theoretical development, literary and political, seems to have passed it by. Perhaps Macmillan wishes to provide archival material for scholars in need of delving into the remnants of colonial thinking still to be found, sadly, lurking among the Barbadian off-white upper classes?

Jane King