Caribbean Review of Books: Doing most things right
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
March 20, 2005
...the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
So spoke the 'monster' Caliban in his most lyrical moment in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. It is the same Caliban who claims that the only good he has gained from learning language is that he can use it to curse.
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.
The Tempest has often been advanced as the perfect meta-phor for conquest, colonization and slavery with Prospero and Caliban as archetypes of the master-slave relationship in the Caribbean. Then, continuing the same plot, learning to curse the master in his own language has been a favourite metaphor for the history and development of not only West Indian literature, but of post-colonial literature as a whole. In this vein, West Indian and post-colonial writers, whether they are in Britain, Canada, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean or the continent of Africa, have represented both attitudes of Caliban. There have been those who regard English as a colonial imposition fit for writing back against the empire, and there are those who value and even praise it, appropriating it as a vehicle for the most lyrical statements in their own cause.
Leaders in the second group have been among the best and the most radical of our writers. George Lamming's famous remark is that "English is a West Indian lndian language." Derek Walcott has always regarded it as a priceless asset, as "the English tongue I love" and as a means of cursing "the drunken officer of British rule." Many others, like Kamau Brathwaite, have articulated Caliban's efforts to learn the language as development into consciousness of an identity and as an act of liberation. West Indian writers today have no quarrel with the language which they regard as a creative asset and which they explore in all its varieties, including various forms of Creole, to place themselves among the leaders of post-colonial literature.
Already, since its re-emergence in 2004, the new Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) has been achieving the exceedingly effective function of keeping readers in touch with this very prominent and still growing literature. The November 2004 issue of this journal, edited by Nicholas Laughlin and published in Port of Spain by Jeremy Taylor, exhibits the many dimensions of the quality of this coverage.
Several new titles and several reprints of old classics are being produced in the UK, Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere. The CRB keeps track of this outpouring of books in their disparate locations, while its well-informed reviews provide useful evaluation as well as an excellent feel of the essential qualities, the form and flavour of each work.
In its endeavour to capture the essence of the books in this way, CRB November 2004 employs a collection of titles for the reviews which are no doubt designed to incite reader interest. But they also have a motif that attracts minor curiosity in their use of titles that are borrowed from other works of literature. This oft-used device gives readers hints of content, theme, or form of the book being reviewed by appropriating quotations, near quotes or puns on quotes and other titles.
For example, Colin Channer's new book of short stories Passing Through is reviewed by Annie Paul, editor of Social and Economic Studies and closely associated with other journals as Small Axe and the original Caribbean Review of Books (1991-1994). The review's title Isle Full of Noises recalls Caliban's words "the isle is full of noises." It takes off on Channer's own habit of borrowing titles, which Paul uses to launch her analysis. Channer's novels Waiting in Vain and Satisfy My Soul take their titles from Bob Marley, which Paul attributes to the major influence of Jamaican music on Channer. Then, these new stories are set on a fictitious but thinly disguised island, which Annie Paul makes out is full of stories in the same way the Caribbean isles are full of music and tales.
The noises that abound in Caliban's island are musical and they inspire Caliban to his most eloquent, lyrical and endearing use of the language he curses. This makes him human. In similar fashion, Caribbean writers have taken this language to the heights of its literary and lyrical glory, placing the region and its diaspora on the world literary map as a collection of isles full of stories. The effective exploration of linguistic possibilities has been a hallmark of the new West Indian literature. In fact, this is an important observation in Paul's assessment of Channer's achievement and importance. Although "local critics worry that his texts are not 'literature,'" she rates his stories as "the most ambitious and far reaching by a Jamaican in recent years." They represent "a formidable new generation of Caribbean writing" that bereaches "the gap between the high modern and the popular."
The borrowings from Marley go over into Kellie Magnus's assessment of the autobiographical account No Woman No Cry by Rita Marley with Hetty Jones. Magnus's title Waiting in Vain echoes the legend himself in expressing her view that the narrative is commercial and hastily produced. Then Nicholas Laughlin discusses James Christopher Aboud's book of Lagahoo Poems and Vahni Capildeo's poetry No Traveller Returns under the title Here Be Monsters. This recalls Guyanese poet Martin Carter's line "Here be dragons, and bitter/cups made of wood" in his poem Bitter Wood. Laughlin is exploring Aboud's employment of the Trinidadian demonic folklore character the lagahoo, also known as lagaroo in the Eastern Caribbean (European loupgarou); a shapeshifter who can change himself from man to murderous beast.
Another Life? is Jeremy Taylor's review of David Dabydeen's latest novel, Our Lady of Demerara. Taylor borrows from Walcott's autobiographical long poem Another Life in order to dissect and make sense of Dabydeen's complex and ambitious narrative of a small-town Coventry theatre reviewer who journeys to Guyana to adopt another life. Then Anu Lakhan's Defining the Boundary draws on CLR James's trend-setting Beyond A Boundary for his discussion of books on West Indies cricket.
Titles from the past are brought back in another way as well. Macmillan has reprinted Roger Mais's Brother Man on the novel's 50th anniversary, and The Humming Bird Tree by Ian McDonald. The latter is the subject of another incisive brief review by Jane Bryce, practitioner and instructor of creative writing, literary and film critic of UWI.
Something seems to have gone wrong in the binding of the November issue since some vital pages are missing while others are repeated. But in its reproduction of an excerpt from Commonwealth prizewinner Austin Clarke's fiction work The Prime Minister to give a first-hand sample of the literature it covers through reviews, CRB is otherwise doing most things right.