A penchant for sexual mischief Bookshelf
by Frank Birbalsingh
(Oonya Kempadoo, Tide Running (Picador: London, 2001))
Stabroek News
February 17, 2002

If Oonya Kempadoo's first novel Buxton Spice (1999) is remembered for outrageous and provocative sexual escapades accurately recounted in the true idiom of demotic Guyanese speech, her second novel Tide Running may be seen to follow the same pattern, confirming what seems to be a penchant in the author for the rude and raunchy combination of sexual mischief with coarse, Caribbean, creole English. The main difference is that Tide Running is set on the island of Tobago rather than a Guyanese village, as in Buxton Spice, where raw and raucous village manners are disembowelled and the blood and gore exposed to public view. The iconoclastic, exuberant satire of such brawling and unblushing exposure is what ensures success for Buxton Spice.

This second novel arouses similar expectations.

Brimming with intimate and exultant memories evidently deriving from the author's childhood in rural Guyana, the convincingness of Buxton Spice is unshakeable. Not that the fictional background of Tide Running is unconvincing, but the very nature of a tourist culture in Tobago implies foreignness, imitation, mimicry, which tends to dilute local authenticity; and the diluting impact of this foreign element on local manners supplies the main theme of the novel.

In Tide Running, in conditions where local, black males are hungrily sought by white, female tourists, Peter, a white, expatriate businessman and his mixed blood wife Bella fall in with two young men from a family of poor, black Tobagonians. The mother of the family is too busy scraping a living together to worry about her sons, Ossi and Cliff, while her daughter Lynette, already burdened by anxieties of premature, single parenthood, also has to take on the burden of running the family home, such as it is.

The central relationship, between Peter, Bella and Cliff, serves mainly as a vehicle both for clandestine, vaguely mischievous sex, and reflections on the more public, but equally wicked consequences of tourism on Tobago. While there is some erotic appeal in the sexual romps and risque conversations of Cliff with Peter and Bella, their basic relationship is highly unusual to say the least. SC, a local friend of Peter and Bella, considers their contact with Cliff "preposterous" in conditions where whites, by virtue of their race and colour, have historically been economically and socially dominant. As members of a dominant group Peter and Bella are, by definition, targets for resentment from the impoverished and underprivileged black masses. SC warns them of their vulnerability to the black crime and violence that emanate directly from poverty and exploitation; and, not surprisingly, she is proved right when Cliff is eventually jailed for stealing from Peter and Bella.

So entrenched is the gulf between white, tourist, expatriate affluence and black, local poverty, and so threatening its potential for violence that Peter and Bella get off relatively lightly as victims of mere theft. For, true to form, Tide Running is concerned more with the vagaries and permutations of sexual exploitation rather than its more sinister underpinning in the political or economic history of Tobago and the Caribbean as a whole. Thus it is through the grotesquely exaggerated enthusiasm of Peter and Bella mainly for the sexual delights of Tobago that the novel satirically exposes their shallow self indulgence and cruel, if blind exploitation of an artificial, tourist culture that locks Tobagonians into a cycle of persistent and apparently permanent poverty.

As if to justify their relationship with Cliff, Bella reflects that, in the shower, he looks as beautiful as a black sculpture made by an expatriate German on the island. With equal hypocrisy, Peter claims Cliff as an "acquaintance, friend" based simply on the fact that Cliff and Ossi are "reasonable, young people." Not only is Peter's claim hypocritical, it is ignorant and patronising. Much that Peter and Bella say about Cliff smacks of Rousseauesque verbiage about the noble savage, and can be taken merely as an excuse for their perverse delight in deviant sexual experimentation. The author's satirical insight into the hypocrisy of Peter and Bella is matched by the gratuitous vulgarity of their friend whose initials "SC" stand provocatively for her name "Small Clit."

If satire effectively demolishes the blinkered self indulgence of Peter and Bella, it also exposes the cultural and technological mimicry of Tobagonians who formerly relied on Britain when they were British colonial subjects, and now depend on North America since they are currently subject to North American economic and cultural power through tourism. Tide Running abounds with references to American television soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful or Days of our Lives, not to mention the celebrated, black TV talk show host "Oprey Winfree". Such TV derived manners and life styles encourage fantasies about what Cliff calls "foreign" a land of pre packaged luxury, push button comfort, tranquillity, relaxation and limitless ease. This Hollywood packaged fantasy is confirmed when we discover that, according to Cliff, Peter and Bella live in a "Flim style House."

Satire even more vehemently exposes the psychological disfigurement produced by fantasy, for example, when Cliff eulogises the naturalness and spontaneity of his life style, thereby betraying his moral deformity which is every bit as Rousseauesque as Peter's or Bella's. Perhaps Cliff's worst deformity is his belief that he is responding to historical forces as natural as tides at sea when, in truth, his life style is the tragic and unnatural product of centuries of oppression by slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean.

Still, despite the illumination of its satire, Tide Running, like Buxton Spice, is less notable for thematic interest than for its prodigal, linguistic innovation and originality. Verbs are turned into nouns, and nouns into both adjectives and verbs. Idioms are altered, for example, "heffing and puffing," and coinages invented, for instance, "excort, cravorting, bubbilicious girls, the sweet skin night, goodnight sky." Ms Kempadoo's resourcefulness with language is really quite striking. It is much the best part of her writing, and it tends to set her two novels apart from the fiction produced nowadays by other Caribbean writers.