Seychelles: home from home

November 15, 2012

There wasn’t much out there for the Seychelles. The caretaker of the block of flats I live in had very kindly got on the case and found an interview with school counsellor and poet Stephanie Joubert, in which she describes Seychellois poetry as ‘still taking baby steps’, but in terms of prose stories I was at a loss for a long time.

Tom Slone at Masalai Press had mentioned a writer called Glynn Burridge in one of his emails. However, as he said that Burridge was English, I had discounted his work. It wasn’t until, in the absence of any other leads, I decided to contact Burridge that I realised his work might fit the bill.

As well as being a UK national, Burridge, who grew up in pre-revolutionary Iran, has Seychellois citizenship and has lived in the archipelago for more than 30 years, having spent two decades overseeing the creation of an estate for the exiled Iranian royal family on the barely inhabited D’Arros Island. His collection of short stories, Voices, draws on tales he heard and experienced during this time in the country that has become his home. If I was reading Guillermo Yuscarán for Honduras, then surely Burridge should count for the Seychelles.

Few short story collections can be more eclectic than this one. Comprising historical essays on the region, eerie tales of apparitions and ghostly legends, personal descriptions of the challenges of setting up home on an untouched island, stirring accounts of battles between man and nature on the high seas, and a novella based on an act of piracy in the time of Queen Victoria, Voices presents a nation of many characters to the reader.

At the heart of the book, is a strong sense of the Seychelles being a country of immigrants. Burridge sets this up from the first page, with his ‘Historical Sketch of the Amirantes Islands’ (the group of islands within which D’Arros sits) outlining the many visitors that have come to the islands from Asia, Europe and elsewhere over the centuries. In this country that has always been ‘welcoming to exiles’, the act of arriving and putting down roots seems, according to the author at least, to be almost part of the national culture.

Burridge combines this sense of the diversity of the influences on Seychellois society with a passionate and in-depth knowledge of island life. From the specifics of handling different sailing crafts to the crash course he had to take to enable him to become D’Arros’s only doctor and dentist, a sense of the writer working his way into the fabric of the nation through painstaking, practical experience comes through strongly. In addition, we get a powerful impression of Burridge’s love for the place, both in his intimate knowledge of it and in the descriptions of the natural world that break into the text like the sun through clouds, flooding the narrative with beauty.

Burridge’s writing is at its best when it comes to describing tense and difficult situations, usually involving the ocean. The story ‘Leviathan’, in which a group of amateur fishermen face being towed down to their deaths by a monstrously large shark, for example, is gripping, as are ‘Desnoeufs’ and ‘The Expedition’, which deal with similar scenarios. Underlying these stories and many others in the book is a sense of the fragility and perilousness of life in this isolated place, surrounded by the great, mysterious ocean. As Anna asks in ‘Leviathan’: ‘Do we possess an inventory of what’s out here in these empty places?’

There is also some lovely humour in the book. I particularly enjoyed Burridge’s account of his attempt to call his father by radio-telephone only to receive an earful of abuse – ‘all he heard, as he told me later, through a blizzard of electronic noise, was a sound he described as the universe farting, accompanied by a demonic, ear-shattering whistle, at once painful to the ear and strangely mocking in its tone’. ‘Gris-Gris’, in which a naive English hotel manager finds himself baffled by the superstitions of his staff, is great too.

Inevitably for so diverse a collection, the writing style is somewhat inconsistent. While mostly enjoyable, it occasionally verges on the florid, while the historical pieces can be a little dry and dutiful in tone. There are also some alarming jumps in perspective between the characters that leave the reader scrabbling to catch up. In addition, the mix of genres and subject matter, though often refreshing, can be baffling at times. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of the novella Sea Dogs, which sprawled oddly amid these otherwise short, pithy pieces.

As a whole, though, the collection makes for a good read. The insight into nation-building on a microcosmic scale on D’Arros Island is fascinating and there are moments where readers will find themselves laughing out loud, as well as gripping the book for fear of what might happen beyond the next page turn. If this is a preliminary sounding of the depth and breadth of stories the Seychelles has to offer, it’s high time we had some more.

Voices: Seychelles short stories by Glynn Burridge (Nighthue Publications, 2000)

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)

This was a second-hand recommendation. It was posted on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page by Michael Walkden, who said he’d recently met Natasha Soobramanien, a writer of Mauritian descent, and asked her to recommend a book for his project (intriguingly, he didn’t say what his project is – if you’re reading this, Michael, I’d love to hear more). She’d suggested Benares by writer and film director Barlen Pyamootoo and he thought he’d pass the tip on.

I was doubly grateful for the recommendation when, on researching the novel, I discovered that it was very short. So short, in fact, that in most editions it is published with another novella, In Babylon. This would certainly help to keep me on target to read one book every 1.87 days. In fact, I reckoned I could probably read the whole thing in a single journey to work.

The doors beeped shut on the East London line and I plunged into Pyamootoo’s tale of two men who set out to find a couple of prostitutes in Port Louis to bring back to their village of Benares for the night. Driven into town by trusty friend and former mill worker Jimi, the pair meander around the red-light district, paying visits to several formidable madams before finally managing to engage two women to accompany them home. As the car takes them back through the benighted landscape and the men and women sound each other out through small talk, a wider discussion opens up about identity, companionship and the loss of the old ways of life.

Pulling out of Canada Water station, I made a note in the margin about the details that bring the narrative alive: the brothel with the beds with concrete bases, the narrator’s friend Mayi’s eyes ‘rolling and blinking like a wanted man’s’, the lights of smugglers’ boats flashing out at sea.

These give Pyamootoo license to dwell on ostensibly simple and even mundane exchanges, using them to chart the minute shifts in dynamics that keep the drama and tension in the scenes. This only breaks down once – when the narrator stops the car to go into a restaurant and buy some cigarettes. Here, the flat transaction feels like an unnecessary interlude, although it may serve to point up the subtle transformation taking place in the car.

This, as I realised while changing lines at Highbury & Islington station, concerns the slow seep of the background into the foreground. While the descriptions of the billboards and buildings sites around the capital start off as almost incidental details, the development and commercialisation of much of the island at the expense of its poorest communities – as evidenced by the closure of Benares’s mill – come to underpin the novella.

Each of the characters gradually reveals vulnerabilities and insecurities that derive from the breakdown of the old structures. The only way to bridge these gaps is to tell stories, as the narrator discovers when he embarks on a wistful account of his journey to the other Benares, a sacred city in India where many Hindus go to die in the hope of attaining paradise: ‘I thought to myself that stories must be what we travel for, to have something to tell the people we love’, he reflects.

Pyamootoo’s writing about this ‘feeling of opening up to the world, of becoming part of some sort of network’ is so compelling and seductive that I finished the last 10 pages of the novella sauntering along the pavement away from King’s Cross, oblivious to the commuters shoving past me. I hadn’t expected the story to be so beautiful and so surprising. It made me sad to turn the last page. If only every journey to work could be like this.

Benares by Barlen Pyamootoo, translated from the French by Will Hobson (Canongate, 2004)

The Bahamas were looking difficult. As recommendations poured in for many other Anglophone countries, the list entry for this small but wealthy collection of more than 3,000 islands and islets remained blank.

Even when I started making inquiries, Bahamian books proved difficult to unearth. In fact, the first title recommended to me by one cultural organisation was a guidebook to the country. Close, but no cigar (although I was very tempted to take the hint and get on a plane…).

Then I stumbled across a blog post by Valentine Logar. A longstanding fan of all things Bahamian, she was on one of her regular family holidays in the country and wrote enthusiastically about the climate, culture, food and fun she was having there. I thought I could do worse than ask for her advice, so I left a comment and was delighted when she came back with several recommendations. Garth Buckner’s Thine is the Kingdom, published by small indie house Ravenna Press, was one of them.

Contrary to what the title might lead you to expect, this novel has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it chronicles the attempts of white Bahamian Gavin Blake to carve out a life for himself in the country of his birth after years of travelling round the world. Hampered by a legal technicality which dictates that Bahamian-born children take their fathers’ nationalities, penniless Blake, whose father was American, goes to work for rich yacht-owner Thesinger while he tries to apply for citizenship. But as he witnesses the rise of violent crime and social unrest on the island firsthand, he comes to realise that he is not the only one struggling to hold on to his stake in this millionaire’s playground.

Buckner writes passionately about the desire to belong and the things that put people in or out of the gang. Exploring class markers, educational background, race and linguistic habits, he reveals Gavin’s frustration and wistfulness as he tries to find acceptance from both the wealthy landowners and the feisty street traders in the country he calls home:

‘I was delivered right here in Nassau and this is the only home I knew as a boy coming up. My umbilical cord is buried in this sand. There should be something inalienable in that. But they never call me Bahamian and mean it; the word is always couched in inverted commas.’

Buckner sets this yearning against the rich backdrop of the island life he is so adept at evoking. In tough, muscular language, which breaks at times to admit moments of beauty, he conjures tropical harbour life and the perpetual influence of the weather and tides on those who live surrounded by the ocean.

The writer couples this with a talent for getting inside the minds of his characters and revealing the gusts of emotion that blow them off the course of logic into troubled waters. Whether it’s Blake’s insecurity as he struggles to remember how to clean an engine filter under the gaze of his boss’s wealthy friends or Thesinger’s anger at failing to catch any crayfish on his much-vaunted fishing trip, he excels at showing the limitations that force people to do unwise and dangerous things rather than own up to their own weaknesses.

His skill for scene-painting and empathy mean that Buckner is able to evoke a huge amount of menace as Blake struggles to defend Thesinger’s property from the tide of hostility swelling outside his gates. The scenes with various intruders and the stand-offs with the sinister Caleb and his cronies at the illegal fish market are gripping and thrilling.

If Buckner labours his message about double standards and the wealthy landowners being every bit as corrupt as the criminals they confront towards the end of the book, it feels like a small price to pay for this compelling insight into a privileged and turbulent corner of the world. I was hooked. Thanks for the tip, Valentine.

Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner (Ravenna Press 2008)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,263 other followers