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)

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)

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