For a long time, there was only one name on the table for the tiny Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis: Caryl Phillips. The award-winning playwright and novelist had been suggested by Sue for the list, and his track record was certainly impressive. No doubt if I read one of his 10 novels (and counting), I would find much to admire.

But there was something that made me hesitate: although born to Kittian parents in St Kitts and Nevis, Phillips left the country when he was just four months old and grew up in the UK. He is now Professor of English at Yale University. Phillips’s work certainly had a claim on being considered Kittian – in much the same way that Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is linked to the Dominican Republic – but I couldn’t help wondering what else might be out there from writers who had spent more time living in the country itself.

For a while, the answer seemed to be: not a lot. Much like writing from St Vincent and the Grenadines, books from St Kitts and Nevis seemed to be thin on the ground – at least as far as works that had made into wide enough circulation to reach readers outside the country were concerned.

Then I stoogled upon an article about Bertram Roach, a senior citizen on Nevis, who published his first novel in 2008. The book by the former electrician, who spent some time in the UK as an adult but was raised, educated and trained on the island, was greeted with a great deal of local enthusiasm and government minister Hensley Daniel praised the example Roach’s achievement set for the island’s younger citizens. It sounded like just the thing I’d been looking for.

Inspired by stories heard from the villagers and labourers on the Brown and Bush Hill estates, where Roach’s father was manager in the early decades of the 20th century, Only God Can Make a Tree traces the long shadow of slavery. The narrative focuses on Adrian, the mixed-race son of an Irish immigrant and a local woman, who, because of his light skin, has a degree of social mobility not afforded to many of his peers.

The early 20th century world should be Adrian’s oyster and he gets a good job as an overseer on St Kitts. Yet he finds himself caught between the two communities and, when he starts relationships with both a local Sunday school teacher and his boss’s daughter, it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes, setting off a chain of events that will take a generation to make good.

Roach’s plain style lends itself to his subject matter. Whether he is describing the race-based hierarchy of the society, where gradations of skin colour affect job prospects and status, or the mixture of fear and fascination that leads him to jeopardise his relationship with his true love Julia for the rich and flighty Alice, the author’s clear and direct prose makes his story memorable.

This is particularly the case when it comes to his handling of local traditions and customs. From zombie dances and Easter celebrations, through to curiosities such as the saying that when the sun shines while it is raining ‘the devil is beating his wife’, Roach delights in sharing his knowledge of his country with his readers.

This sense of authenticity is clearly important to him, as he makes clear in his Prologue:

‘Non-Caribbean authors have written books after brief encounters on the islands, taking back a notebook full of local gossip. One, Island in the Sun, was a bestseller and was made into a film.

‘I grew up on a sugar plantation in St Kitts and Nevis. The stories I tell are my real stories.’

In fact, the Prologue reminded me of a piece at the beginning of Cecil Browne’s The Moon is Following Me, my choice for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At the time I read that, I thought its unusually direct and somewhat declamatory style was peculiar to Browne, but finding a similar introduction at the start of this book makes me wonder whether such pieces might be something of a literary tradition in some Caribbean nations.

Such directness, however, is not always successful in the main body of the book. At times, Roach pushes the narrative aside to expound on topics such as the unscrupulousness of obeah men and his belief that ‘class and colour are the two greatest social evils in most parts of the West Indies’. The plot is also threadbare to the point of reading more like an outline at some points, as though Roach is rattling through it in his impatience to get on to the next episode that sparks his interest.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in this book – and much to interest the non-Kittian or Nevisian reader. Roach set out to tell the stories he wanted to in his own way. And, in that sense, the book is a great success.

Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach (Athena Press, 2008)

When it comes to literature from Caribbean nations, it tends to be feast or famine. Either you find yourself overwhelmed by a plethora of books from excellent and exciting writers, as in the case of countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, or you have to look hard to come up with even one work you can read in English.

All the same, few Caribbean nations have been as tricky to find stories from as the tiny archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As writer Adam Lowe of Peepal Tree Press, which published my Grenadian pick, explained when I contacted him to ask for ideas, the literature scene on the smaller island nations is still in its infancy and there is very little support and guidance for aspiring authors. As such, while there are writers from these countries, few will have had the opportunity to develop and publish their work.

Adam might have thought he was delivering bad news, but in actual fact his email spurred me on. There were SVG writers out there, then. I just had to find them.

A bit of frantic googling (froogling, if you will) later, and I landed at the threshold of ‘Writing “D”‘, a blog by debraprovidence, a teacher with a self-confessed interest in exploring the literary landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I left a message and held my breath.

Debraprovidence replied the very next day with the names of three writers, all of whom, as far as I could make out, emigrated from SVG at a fairly young age. Of these, Cecil Browne’s short story collection The Moon is Following Me caught my eye.

The book is full of tales of longing. Whether they are hankering after sweet coconuts, a secret love or the perfect line up for a local band, Browne’s characters are all driven by a desire to achieve, prove or change something – even if they have to adopt unconventional means to do it. There is the emancipated slave-turned-hawker who challenges a rival to an eating competition in order to defend his pitch, the young man who tries to win his sweetheart’s affections by buying her a wedding dress, and the school-leaver who risks his life for a taste of his favourite fruit.

Their author, too, seems to be unafraid of breaking with tradition. Indeed, when I opened the book and found myself confronting one of the most unusual forewords I have ever read – in which the author assures the reader of his stories’ ‘universal appeal’ – I was rather taken aback. It seemed as though Browne’s query letter to his agent or publisher had somehow got mixed up with the manuscript and published with the book, and I was apprehensive about what the collection had in store.

I quickly relaxed, however, helped by Browne’s quirky humour and delight in subverting expectations. From the moody schoolboy of the title story, who spends his time wishing disaster would strike to relieve his boredom, to the prudish Mrs Goodridge in ‘Action Action’, who is thrown into a panic by the news that her husband of 12 years is finally coming home from England to live with her, Browne delights in making his characters swim against the currents of their lives.

He couples this with a deft turn of phrase and an eye for detail that makes otherwise commonplace moments sparkle. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ‘cylindrical dress, about a metre in diameter’ that Mrs Goodridge fantasizes about making for herself to ward off physical contact. In addition, the stories initiate the reader into the altered sense of scale that comes with living in a small place through incidental details such as bandleader Sister’s ambition ‘to put Fitz-Hughes on the SVG map’ in ‘First, Second, First, Third’.

That said, there are a few technical issues holding some of the early stories back. Several of them take a while to come into focus, as though Browne is casting about looking for his subject well into the second or third page. The prose is also occasionally a bit choppy, as though bits have been missed out, so that odd sentences jump from scene to scene like a scratched record. Perhaps most problematic of all is ‘Spanish Ladies’ – a story close to the author’s heart, judging by his remarks in the foreword – in which Browne seems to have allowed his emotional involvement with the events he describes to override his writing, making for an unusually flat and predictable end.

Overall, though, there is much to like here. The last two stories, ‘Action Action’ and ‘Taste for Freedom’, are particularly strong – my copy has ‘great’ and ‘nice’ scrawled in the margins throughout these. I’d be interested to see what Browne, who left SVG at the age of 13 and is now head of maths at a college in west London, writes next. And I wonder, if he’d stayed in SVG, whether he would have published these stories at all.

The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (Matador, 2010)

I’ve written before about how globally renowned literary figures from small countries can often overshadow their compatriots on the world stage, becoming the go-to writer for literature from or about their homeland while their peers struggle to achieve any kind of audience beyond the nation’s borders. But what about when you grow up with an international literary giant in your own family?

This was a challenge Vahni Capildeo, a Trinidadian poet with whom I got in touch through the London-based writers group Exiled Writers Ink, had to face. A mine of global literature information, Capildeo kindly gave me loads of book suggestions and contacts for people who might be able to help me track down work from some of the harder to reach places on the list. Then, a few emails into our exchange, she let slip that she had a manuscript of her unpublished memoirs that she could email to me if I was interested.

Normally when a writer suggests I read a book they’ve written, particularly an unpublished book, the alarm bells go off in my head. After all, such recommendations can hardly be considered impartial and, in my experience, there can often be an unfortunate inversely proportional relationship between the enthusiasm with which an author pushes their book at you and the quality of the work.

However, there were a few things that made me hesitate: firstly, Capildeo wasn’t exactly giving me the hard sell. In fact, after the first shy mention it took several months of wheedling and cajoling from me before she could be persuaded to send me the document, out of which she’d excised several sections that she did not think were ready to read. Secondly, Capildeo had published a number of poetry collections and, although the entire memoir had not made it into print, extracts of it had come out in Ian Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances. And thirdly, there was the fact that she introduced the book by saying that, among other things, it was about ‘the difficulty of being a cousin of VS Naipaul but wanting to write poetry’.

Now that was something I was intrigued to know about. And so, with an apologetic glance at the Naipaul novel waiting above my desk – not to mention the burgeoning list of young Trinidadian writers gaining international recognition thanks to initiatives such as the Bocas Lit Fest – I passed over the great man in favour of his young relative, downloaded Capildeo’s pdf on to my Kindle and began to read.

As it turned out, the Naipaul connection was only a small part of this rich and complex book. Tracing Capildeo’s childhood in Trinidad and migration to the UK in her late teens, the narrative reflects on issues as diverse as the link between creativity and mental illness – Capildeo’s father suffered from schizophrenia – attitudes to homosexuality in the Caribbean and culture shock. There are thought-provoking evocations of both Trinidad, ‘a colonial land of Ozymandias’, and the UK, where the term ‘Western’ has ‘nothing to do with physical geography’ and people marvel at Capildeo’s perfect English, oblivious to the fact that she has spoken the language all her life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background, Capildeo sees the world through books and it is this that brings out her best writing. Whether she is discussing Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear or Victorian novels, Capildeo can be relied upon to bring fresh and often startling insights to her interpretations, reminding the reader again and again that the secret of great writing and great reading is bound up with recognition. But it is when cultural barriers and laziness stymie this recognition during a discussion of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea in the UK that the full force of Capildeo’s passion for what books can do if only we will take the trouble to let them becomes clear:

‘The other readers thought “flamboyant” was a simple adjective. They did not know, and had not looked up, that it was a tree name. So for them it was just a showy tree that Jean Rhys’s Antoinette wanted to be buried under, this desire perhaps a characteristic manifestation of Creole arrogance and gaudy tropical bad taste? So people could read this passage, even read the whole book, maybe read every book about – us – and not feel, or see – My imagination filled and shook with the flamboyant’s smooth-grained rind and fiery plumage.’

The Naipaul references when they come are disarmingly frank. Capildeo makes no secret of the dislike that exists between the branches of the family and the shadow the writer’s success cast over her father as he reeled from breakdown to breakdown. However, the fact of Naipaul’s international recognition, and his publication of works that ‘looked like real books [...]: austere, with few colours, unlike “West Indian novels” marketed as such’ also proved a secret spur to the young writer: ‘(So it was possible? But I put that thought away; it was too big).’

Inevitably for an unedited manuscript written some years ago at an early stage in Capildeo’s career, the work is somewhat patchy. We get the sense at points of a young author still mapping the geography of her emotions and coming suddenly and breathlessly upon peaks and ravines that she will get the measure of more precisely as her writing develops. In addition, although often vivid, the imagery occasionally staggers under the weight of one too many adjectives.

But this is nothing that a second pass through with the benefit of a few years’ distance can’t fix. And in fact Capildeo tells me she is thinking of doing this, with a view to trying to publish the work. I hope she does: there is too much richness here to be consigned forever to the bottom drawer. The book deserves far more readers than just me.

One Scattered Skeleton by Vahni Capildeo – extracts published in London: City of Disappearances ed. Iain Sinclair (Penguin, 2006)

Look up the words ‘Saint Lucia’ in any work on world literature and you’ll find the name Derek Walcott somewhere nearby. Celebrated as one of the Caribbean’s foremost literary figures, the Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright is the go-to writer for literature from and about his island home. For my purposes, Walcott’s epic poem Omeros would technically have fitted the bill – when I set out on this quest, I planned to allow myself to include narrative poetry if prose stories were hard to find, although I have not done so as yet.

But I was curious to see what else Saint Lucia had to offer. What other literary flowers flourished in Walcott’s formidable shadow? And what prose stories might this nation famed for its poetry have to offer me?

After a few fruitless searches, I was delighted to stoogle upon an article on the website of Jako Productions, an organisation seeking to promote the artistic expression of Saint Lucian culture. Written by Modestes Downes and Anderson Reynolds, ‘A Synthesis of Three St Lucian Novels: Neg Maron: Freedom Fighters, Season of Mist, Death by Fire is essentially a potted history of Saint Lucian novel-writing. The island’s prose works are by no means as numerous or celebrated as its poetry, the article’s authors acknowledge, but they do exist. Indeed, the early 21st century apparently saw a relative explosion in Saint Lucian prose publishing, with the three novels named in the piece’s title expanding the country’s prose canon to nine works.

Of these, I decided that Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Saint Lucia’s former director of culture Michael Aubertin was the book for me. Taking place in the space of a single trip to the cinema, the novel records 19-year-old history enthusiast James’s daydream vision of the events that rocked Saint Lucia more than two centuries ago. With the British and French battling over the island and slavery rife, the only hope for the nation’s black population lies in joining the Neg Maron, a community of escaped slaves in the heart of the rainforest. But when Golang runs away to live with them, he realises that existing in secret is not enough: if his people are ever to achieve real freedom they must take back  their independence by force and with it the pride, self-esteem and dignity that have been denied them for so long.

Aubertin’s writing is best when it is passionate. This comes across most strongly in the passages where Golang realises the danger of his fellow slaves internalising false assumptions about their own inferiority and sets out to rally them. In particular, a speech in which fellow revolutionary La Croix exposes the hypocrisy of their colonial masters in light of the French Revolution fizzes with rhetoric:

‘We must challenge the veracity of their watch-words. They cannot cry “Liberté!” and have us in chains. They cannot cry “Egalité!” and feel we are not equal. They cannot cry “Fraternité!” and not realise the truth about the brotherhood of all men. The true testing ground of the revolution is not France, but right here in the colonies! They have no option but to make us free!’

In addition to such stirring speeches, Aubertin engineers several moments of great tension in the narrative. The sections where Golang hides and protects a British deserter and where the Neg Maron set out to capture the governor’s canoe are gripping.

The plotting isn’t consistently taut, however. The time shifts are awkward and Aubertin neglects to round out some of the lesser characters in his impatience to tell the story. There is also a degree of self-consciousness in the writing, which makes some of the exchanges, particularly those involving the British soldiers, rather stilted.

All in all, though, I was glad I read it. As one of nine published novels produced by this nation of fewer than 180,000 people, at least up until 2005 (if you know of any more, I’d love to hear about them), it provides a thought-provoking insight into the island’s past and how it might inform its society today. I’d be intrigued to see how the other works compare. Ah well, maybe next year…

Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Michael Aubertin (Caribbean Diaspora Press, 2000)

This book was given to me by Jimena, a Mexican woman who attended the English PEN ‘Free Speech: found in translation’ night-class course I finished a few weeks back. She looked apologetic as she got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao out of her bag and handed it over.

‘I’m not sure if you’ll want to include it,’ she said. ‘You see, he writes in English.’

A discussion ensued about whether Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an acceptable Dominican Republic choice. My classmates wanted to know where he was born (Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic), where he lived now (the US), and how much of his childhood he’d spent in the country (four years plus holiday visits to relatives from what I can make out). It seemed each one of us had slightly different criteria for judging Diaz’s pedigree.

Personally, I wasn’t sure I would include Diaz. I had several other names in the frame for the Dominican Republic and, excellent though I was sure the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was, I was intrigued to find out about them.

Then two things happened: quite by chance, our course leader Sophie Mayer referred to Diaz’s novel during the session, a coincidence which appealed to my sense of serendipity, and I discovered that the prose work of the other Dominican Republic writers on the list, including Arambilet and Pedro Mir, was by no means readily available in English. Time being of the essence, I decided to give the Diaz a go. It would be a sort of test of where that mysterious boundary line of nationality goes in literature, I thought.

Roving back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic, the novel follows Oscar, a sci-fi and fantasy nerd and son of a Dominican mother, growing up in the eighties in a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey. Overweight, lonely and desperate for attention from girls, Oscar embarks on a series of excruciating attempts to win the favours of the local beauties, watched first by his rebellious sister Lola and later his college room-mate Yunior.

But it turns out that Oscar’s misery is by no means a one-off. As he unfolds his family’s backstory, Diaz reveals an intricate tale of torture, betrayal, murder and shattered dreams that stretches all the way up to the Dominican Republic’s erstwhile dictator Trujillo and will, quite literally, blow Oscar’s mind.

It’s interesting that a discussion of nationality nearly turned me off reading this book, because the relationship of the individual to cultural identity is one of its central themes. Right from its Derek Walcott epigraph, ending ‘either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’, the novel explores how heritage informs, shapes and constrains our choices. Everything from the family fear of being under an old Fuku (curse) and the fact that ‘in Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow’, through to Lola’s fraught relationship with her mother and Oscar’s relatives’ scorn at his failure with girls can be traced back to a sense of what Dominican life is or should be.

The threads weaving together the personal and national are further tightened by a series of zestful footnotes that run through the book, giving the narrator’s personal gloss on history. Describing aspects of Trujillo’s reign of terror, ‘one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating US-backed dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and the argentinos are still appealing)’, they present a furiously witty engagement with the way politics impacts on individual lives. Feisty, shocking and only occasionally annoying, they grab the predominantly American readers Diaz clearly has in mind by the scruff of the neck and make them acknowledge what has happened, often giving them a parting jab in the ribs – ‘You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either’.

Although Jimena was worried that the fact the  novel was written in English rather than Spanish might weaken its DR claims, the language of the book is shot through with a sense of Dominican heritage. Packed with Spanish slang and even complete sentences in the language, the narrative is raucous with the richness of its cultural references and the conflicts and contradictions these create.

The result is a powerful, irreverent and thoroughly engrossing exploration of identity and how the particular time and place we are born and grow up in shape who we are. If anything, Diaz’s exposure to both US and Dominican society sharpens his perception of the DR. It is as though for both him and his characters, the transition between the two cultures is only truly possible once they have immersed themselves in, understood and made peace with their Dominican heritage. As Lola puts it, ‘you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2009)

Dominica: myth making

August 22, 2012

An unusual picture today, but I couldn’t resist showing you how colourful this book was inside. I found it after a search for a Dominican writer other than  Jean Rhys, who is far and away the most famous literary daughter the small island has produced. Her widely read classic Wide Sargasso Sea – the story of the early life of Bertha Rochester, the first wife of  Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – is rightly celebrated and studied as a work of great merit and skill. If I hadn’t already read it and several of Rhys’s other novels, I would have jumped at the chance. But I’m only reading writers I’ve never read before this year and, besides, I was curious to see what else Dominica had to offer.

My search took me to an intriguing website called the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences, which hosts a microsite dedicated to Dominican writers dotted around the world in an effort to build links and enrich the local literary scene. Several of the writers listed, all of whom, as far I could make out, no longer live in Dominica, sounded interesting.

But then I saw The Snake King of the Kalinago on the list. It was apparently a reinterpretation of one of the island’s traditional creation myths, as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica. Having heard of some other children’s writing schemes in countries where the publishing industry is still relatively small-scale, such as the Unbound Bookmaker Project in the Marshall Islands, I was intrigued to see what a book produced through one of these initiatives might be like.

Bringing together history and ancient myth, the storybook tells of an unusual relationship between Bakwa the giant snake king and the Kalinago people of the island. Having proclaimed himself guardian of the people, Bakwa stands up to the French settlers of centuries past, but his anger and the bows and arrows of the islanders are no match for the guns and swords of the Westerners. Facing defeat, Bakwa retreats to his cave to sleep, only to wake again when the world is finally at peace.

The imaginative use of everything from natural landscape features to historical events really makes the story sing. Using a rock formation on the shore that looks like a giant staircase as the setting for Bakwa’s first emergence from the sea, the myth is literally grounded in the island. This is complemented with some beautifully quirky descriptions, such as the invaders’ galleons on the horizon looking like ‘three massive fish on the sea’, and the vivid illustrations, which are taken from Yet We Survive: the Kalinago People of Dominica – Our Lives in Words and Pictures edited by Mary Walters.

Coupled with this, and giving the work a touch of childish authenticity, is that wonderful shrugging impatience children have when they are uninterested in an aspect of a story and keen to get to the main action. Bakwa, we learn, decided to make his home on Dominica simply because ‘he was no longer comfortable in the sea’. Nuff said. No doubt several of our novelists could learn a thing or two about concision from these young writers.

Nevertheless, I did find myself wondering about the process by which this book was generated. Was this story created as a group exercise orchestrated by a teacher/editor? Was it stitched together by a grown up from a series of individually written pieces? The acknowledgements shed very little light on this and I felt a little frustrated as a result. Without an understanding of the process, it seemed hard to draw conclusions about the finished book as I had no idea whether I was dealing with work primarily by children or a skilled editing job.

Still, the book made me smile. It’s certainly brightened up the shelf. And if the exercise, whatever form it took, prompts even one of those students to put more words on paper in future, it’s got to have been a good thing.

The Snake King of the Kalinago by Grade 6 of Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica (Papillote Press, 2010)

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