Book of the month: Pepperpot

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I wrote in my last post about the nervous wait to hear whether or not my forthcoming book will be published in the US. What I didn’t say was that of course I was incredibly fortunate to be in a position to have my work considered by publishers in the first place: for writers in many parts of the world just getting your work onto an editor’s desk can be a struggle because there simply aren’t the publishing networks in place to foster, promote and sell much new material.

The Caribbean is one such place. With hundreds of small islands dotted over more than a million square miles of ocean, the region faces big challenges when it comes to moving goods around – and books are no exception. When you tot up the cost of editing, printing and shipping titles, it’s hard to see how a publisher in the region could make any money. People in the industry seem to agree because, apart from a few hardy enterprises in bigger nations like Jamaica, there are very few publishing houses in the region – in fact one of the most famous companies that deals in Caribbean literature, Peepal Tree Press, operates out of Leeds in Yorkshire, England, thousands of miles away.

Add to this the relatively young literary culture of the islands (until a generation or two ago most books taught in schools were by British and American authors) and the lack of literary agents and, until recently, support programmes for Caribbean writers, and you begin to wonder how an aspiring wordsmith in a place like Barbados could hope to get his or her stories out. So when Antiguan writer and blogger Joanne C. Hillhouse tipped me off about an anthology made up of the best Caribbean entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (for which I was privileged to act as a longlister late last year), I was keen to take a look.

Bringing together work by writers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Belize and more, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean aims to broadcast the region’s literature to a wider audience. It is the first title published under the name Peekash Press, a collaboration between Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books set up to publish works by writers living in the Caribbean – as opposed to those in the diaspora, who make up the majority of these publishers’ lists.

Just as the collection seeks to bring new work to the wider world, so it also opens up fresh perspectives. If you thought that an anthology of short stories written in the Caribbean might reflect back at you all those tempting clichés of white-sand beaches, piña coladas and long, sleepy afternoons, you can think again. Packed with drama, many of the tales throb with a violent energy and deal with the very darkest human impulses. We read of gang violence, dead children, beatings, abuse and robbery.

Indeed, if you want a masterclass in how to start your stories with a bang, this is the book for you. Memorable first lines abound, perhaps the most striking being the opening of Sharon Leach’s ‘All the Secret Things No One Ever Knows’: ‘Ten years ago, I found out that I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend.’

There’s also humour. I particularly liked Barbara Jenkins’ ‘A Good Friday’ for this, with its loveable-rogue narrator who gets more than he bargains for when a devout young woman in distress happens by his bar.

The drama and humour are heightened by robust and often very inventive language. At their best, the writers use their imagery not only to illuminate the experiences of their characters but also to share specific details about their worlds. So, for example, we read in Ivory Kelly’s ‘This Thing We Call Love’ of conversations that ‘were like boil-up, with plantains and cassava and other kinds of ground food and salted meat thrown into a pot of water, in no particular order, and boiled until the pot is a steaming, bubbling, savoury cuisine’, or in Joanne C. Hillhouse’s own ‘Amelia at Devil’s Bridge’ about rocks that ‘are sharper than a coconut vendor’s cutlass’.

Many of the stories are brought to life with equally colourful dialogue, although this poses some interesting questions. A number of the writers have chosen to represent the dialects of their characters for a Standard English-speaking reader (so that someone who uses British or American English could pronounce the words phonetically and get them to sound as the characters would say them). While there are practical reasons for this choice, it has the effect of implying a reader who comes from elsewhere, as though the literary legacy of previous generations is still present on some level. It will be interesting to see whether the region’s authors continue to write in this way in years to come.

As is inevitable with anthologies of this kind, the quality of the pieces varies. Structure is shaky in some, while others have a frustrating, unfinished feel, as though they are fragments of larger works. A few fall into the trap of telling rather than showing, or cram so much incident in that they read more like synopses for novels or (in some cases) action films than stories in their own right. There are also instances of overwriting, where tenuous metaphors and similes are heaped onto sentences too flimsy to take their weight.

Taken as a whole, however, this is an exciting and heartening book. It proves – if anyone was in any doubt – that the Caribbean has plenty of homegrown literary talent to draw upon. Congratulations to Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books for creating a platform for these authors in the shape of Peekash Press. Judging by this collection, there are thrilling things ahead.

PepperPot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash Press, 2014)

St Kitts & Nevis: deep roots

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)

Barbados: rum and water

I was very tempted to read a book by George Lamming as my Bajan choice. He’d been recommended by Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo, who I got in touch with through London-based literary organisation, Exiled Writers Ink. ‘Perhaps it’s just being from the region,’ she told me, ‘but I find some of the newer generation of Caribbean international prose writers like rum and water whereas he’s the rough spirit itself…’

This got me wondering about this next wave of Caribbean writers. Who where they and what were they writing about? Why did some of their work strike Capildeo as watered down?

While thinking about this, I stoogled (stumbled while googling – or should that be gumbled?) upon Glenville Lovell. Born and brought up in the Bajan village of Parish Land, Christ Church, this dancer-turned-writer had leapt on to the world literary scene in 1995 with his first novel Fire in the Canes to wide critical acclaim. He clearly set a lot of store by the tradition of storytelling he’d grown up with and I was intrigued to read that his performance background meant that he sometimes used music and choreography to develop his works. Perhaps I would come to regret this, but I was going to take a closer look.

Lovell’s second novel Song of Night unpicks the aftermath of a crime of passion from the perspective of the killer’s daughter. Ostracized by her small community of Bottom Rock, Cyan, or ‘Night’, must draw on her own resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. But in a society eroded by the tides of rich tourists that sweep through it, it’s difficult for a lone young woman to fend for herself without surrendering much of her pride and identity.

For all its tough subject matter – murder, prostitution, arson, drug use, domestic abuse, abortion and rape all have a part to play in the narrative – this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. Much of this comes from Lovell’s, use of imagery and fine ear for voices, which creates some taught dialogue. The text also bustles with anonymous commentators who gossip about the book’s spiralling events, conjuring a powerful sense of village life, a technique Marlon James would later use in John Crow’s Devil (my Jamaican book).

The focus of the novel is by no means parochial, though. Indeed, in many ways this is a book about the relation of Barbados to other nations and in particular the US. After decades of independence from British rule, the island seems to be sinking under another more insidious form of colonialism:

‘The once-colonized were free and willing to be colonized again by the burnt smell of suntan lotion, by the sight of broiling white flesh oozing green in the midday sun […] the businessmen and women, lonely housewives, schoolteachers, and policemen turned pleasure-seekers. They brought with them a sense of ownership, of the world belonging to them. And why not? The world spun on the edge of the American dollar.’

With this influx of rich Americans and Europeans comes the dilution of local identity, pride and purpose. Making money at any cost is the priority for many, while Bajans who aspire to more than a life of servicing the needs and desires of the world’s wealthy folk dream of emigrating to the US – although as rich African-American Koko points out, the land of the free has its own restrictions and limitations.

Nevertheless, there is no question that a lot of the richest Bajan culture now exists far from the island’s shores.  ‘All the writers live overseas,’ observes Koko, inviting the reader to look through her to Lovell, sitting in his New York apartment, writing passionately, sadly and angrily about a country he himself has left.

Playing these issues out in the plot, Lovell brings Night’s story to a gripping and bitter climax. He creates a powerful and memorable allegory for the wave of change overwhelming the island, while keeping all his characters, with the possible exception of the preacher who tries to save Night, vibrant, individual and strong. If this work feels watered down in comparison to  books by previous generations of Bajan writers, that may be precisely the point. But if that’s the case, Lamming must be strong stuff indeed.

Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Soho Press, 1998)

Grenada: a class act

As the UK and Commonwealth mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, here’s a book from one of the 16 sovereign states around the world that still count her as their constitutional monarch.

I heard about writer Merle Collins through the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival that takes place in Trinidad & Tobago, which writer Vahni Capildeo tipped me off about. Now in its second year, the event is home to the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Collins’s short story collection The Ladies are Upstairs was on the 2012 shortlist.

The characters in Collins’s stories are people caught between worlds. Whether she’s describing the elderly woman Rain, ‘still lost in a childhood she couldn’t forget’, or the young man trapped between the strange disappearance of the woman hitchhiker he picks up on a lonely road and the conclusions of his rational mind, the author delights in pitting conflicting influences against one another in the rugged terrain of the psyche.

As the title suggests, class has a considerable part to play. Several of the characters, in particular Doux, who links the majority of the stories together, run up against the limits imposed by station. ‘You Should See Them in Church with Glasses on!’, in which the young Doux is unjustly accused of stealing during her first job as a maid, is particularly memorable.

In addition, Collins’s fascination with psychogeography and the pull of the supernatural makes for several deliciously spooky tales. ‘Big Stone’, an account of a midwife’s eerie encounter with a child during a walk home at dusk, is the best of these. Telling the story exclusively through reported speech, which gives the narrative a weird and distant feel, the writer draws on the atrocities buried in the Isle of Spice’s colonial past to create a compelling and unnerving backdrop:

‘What kind of night? Well, you know how those old estate places were. Those places used to have a lot of pain and wickedness in the past, but she wanted to emphasise that they were not like that today.’

The shared cast of characters, myths and memories that tie many of the stories together, give much of the work a familiar feel, so that by the final tales you feel as though you are part of the community, with a stake in the common heritage on which they rest. This makes the last piece – in which Doux, now an old woman living in an alarmed granny flat with her daughter in the USA, contemplates her loss of independence and approaching death – particularly moving.

Seen in the context of the celebration of one woman’s 60-year stint at the head of an association of a quarter of the world’s nations, this striking yet subtle collection of stories from one of its remotest corners reveals powerful truths about the common traits that link its subjects and the rest of the world.

The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)

Antigua and Barbuda: a new departure

Migration has cropped up many times in the books I’ve read so far this year. From tension built on the disparity between regions in a single country, in works such as Ismail Kardare’s Broken April and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, to countries where emigration almost seems part of the national psyche, as in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and the Lithuanian anthology, the challenge of moving from one place to another seems to be a favourite topic for storytellers the world over.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that books that bridge several cultures are more likely to find an international audience. But it’s also true that there are few scenarios calculated to show up the fault lines in individuals and societies more clearly than the arrival of an outsider.

For all the books on the subject though you’d have to go a long way to find a pithier migration tale than Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. Following the fortunes of a 19-year-old girl who leaves her home in the Caribbean to work as an au pair in the USA, the 1990 novel looks at the rupture that relocation can cause in a life, ‘like a flow of water dividing formerly dry and solid ground’, and provides a fresh, feisty and at times alarming perspective on the land of the free and on British colonialism.

From the first, Lucy’s blunt yet humane account of life with her wealthy white employers Mariah and Lewis provides some powerful insights into the contradictions of modern life. Through Lucy, we see the blind hypocrisy of Mariah’s well-meant involvement with a nature preservation campaign — ‘I couldn’t bring myself to ask her to examine Lewis’s daily conversation with his stockbroker, to see if they bore any relation to the things she saw passing away forever before her eyes’ — and the hollowness of the idyllic nuclear family she has constructed around her, a fiction to which she clings in the face of mounting evidence of her husband’s affair with one of her friends.

More interesting still is the depiction of the gulf between Mariah and Lucy, which their contrasting experiences of freedom and colonialism have engendered and which no amount of good will on both sides can conquer completely. This is powerfully summed up in Lucy’s violent reaction to a bunch of daffodils Mariah brings home. Seeing the flowers for the first time in her life, she is reminded of being made to learn and recite a poem about them at the Queen Victoria Girls’ School when she was 10. After the anger evoked by the memory subsides, she realises that ‘nothing could change the fact that where [Mariah] saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness’.

Lucy is no passive victim, though. Irreverent, strong-willed and uninhibited, she refuses to conform to the expectations of others and is determined to seize and taste all the experience she can. This makes her both likeable and compelling as she bucks against the ties that link her to the homeland she loves and despises.

 As she comes to ‘see the sameness in things that appear to be different’, it’s impossible not to share her sadness at the compromised nature of the world. Independence it seems, whether personal or national, is infinitely more than a question of geography.

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Publisher (this edition): Plume (1991)