Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book 42, Guadeloupe: "Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?" by Maryse Condé

This is a brilliant page-turner - a tale of bad-ass supernatural revenge from one of head honchas of postcolonial literature. Ripping stuff.

I chose it over Victoire: My Mother's Mother, which came out this year, because that's a family memoir just like Mr Potter, and anyway the first few pages of Celanire pretty much grab you by the throat.

I'd read about it on the Net before: it's inspired by a piece of news the author heard in her childhood, about the discovery of an infant with her throat slashed in the street: how she decided to take this horrific news and turn it into an almost burlesque thriller, by no means denying the oppression of Afro-Caribbean history but also venturing into the realms of aristocracy and early 20th century international travel: there's episodes that take place on Côte D'Ivoire and Montserrat and French Guiana and Peru as well as Guadeloupe. (Paralleling Condé's own international meanderings, may I add.)

And oh, what a wonder of a character Celanire is - yes, she evokes pity as the sacrificed infant, and she grows up to be a brilliant and beautiful (and bisexual!) educated and enlightened woman who seduces white fascist Governors and reduces them to Africanist opium sots; plus she has utterly contemporary ideas about liberated sexuality and women's education and infibulation bans. (Even quotes that Klingon saying about revenge being a dish best served cold.)

But she's also the vehicle for demons: just watch how she executes her revenge and rains down doom on whoever wronged her, however innocuous they may be.

Very much recommended. In other news, my good friend Shelbi only has two books left to go till she completes her reading challenge for the year! Go Shelbi!

Also, I have way too much translation and journalism work I should be doing, so I'd better stop distracting myself. Toodle-oo.

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Representative quote: In the meantime, Amarante stared at the dark curtain of trees beyond the illuminated podium. Darkness had locked the palace in its grip and would not let go fro some time. Not until throngs of seabirds, messengers of dawn, had begun to flock across the sky. Darling little Celanire, darling little Celanire. That evening she had been revealed to her, and her beauty struck her like the flash of a frigate bird. Svelte yet strong. Good-humoured yet serene. Knowing what she wanted in life and determined to get it. The glow in her eyes betrayed the passion burning deep down. Was it so that they could meet that fate had brought Celanire back to Guadeloupe?

Next book: Jean Rhys's Sleep It Off Lady, from Dominica.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book 41, Montserrat: "The Three Suitors of Fred Belair" by E. A. Markham

Yeah, I'm done with this book now. Don't read it.

Not that it's entirely unenjoyable. But it's basically the rather autobiographical scribblings of an old, very erudite, very privileged man making his way through an international academic world: Dublin and Paris and London and Boston and Amherst and DC, a few memories of the south of France.

The main character's a poet called Pewter (who somehow morphs into the author himself by the end of the book, with a eulogy to his brother etc). Bits about sestinas and Pliny the Elder. Not entirely uninteresting but he supplies very little reason for us to care about him. Pfah. The eponymous Winifred Belair appears at the beginning, a 40-something bachelorette French teacher who's lived in Martinique and Paris who puts ads in literary journals to meet some serious suitors: there's some nice fictional high-jinks involving strong, spirited women at the beginning, but then we're in the world of intellectual aristocrats again. Yawn.

(We never even hear what happened to her in the end, after she's held hostage in Martinique by her family when she announces her desire to adopt an African child. Really, you'd think this should have been resolved? But then Markham died a year before the book was published, so maybe this is just a scrap-heap of a volume?

I might have been much better off with his other volume, Meet Me in Mozambique, which seems to include a little more time in the West Indies, and actually precedes the events of this book. But then I didn't like the opening pages, so.)

Ah, something interesting: I couldn't tell what race Pewter and Fred Belair were for a lot of the book: they're just incredibly *white* in terms of their education and family status: tweed and hors d'oeurvres and quiet senescent neurosis and only the odd comment about Henry Louis Gates Jr or Ayaan Hirsi Ali thrown in. But they're black; that's made quite clear by the end. Odd that we're still at a point in our culture that we can't quite reconcile the image of the black man and the stuffy old fogey of a writer.

Also interesting, of course, is the fate of the fictional island of St Caesare, where Fred Belair lives. It's based on what happened in Montserrat: the capital was utterly destroyed in 1995, buried under volcanic ash, people evacuated to five continents and only returning in fits and starts, newly cosmopolitanised: a tale of international alienation happening on a not entirely developed tropical island in the Caribbean.

No tropical idylls here. Just post-apocalyptic exile and meanderings towards death.

And I don't mean that in a sexy way. Seriously. The book's not worth it.

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Representative quote: She still had friends, of course; from the good time that was pre-volcano. Now - well, now, was it something in the air; was it the volcanic ash that was addling their brains? Was it the sense that suddenly so much that you valued was taken from you, and you not exactly living in a war zone, you not being subject to some brutal human dictator with the sexual habits of a prophet? Suddenly, you had to reassess your life lived above the ash.

Next book: Maryse Condé's Who Slashed Celanire's Throat, from Guadeloupe. Next five authors are all world-famous literary heavyweights. It's gonna be good. :)

Monday, December 20, 2010

I'm back from Indonesia.

And I'm not going to finish my Montserrat book in time. Thought I might, but it's less easy reading than I thought.

On the topic of that, I've learned from experience that the following books are not easy reading when you're suffering from inexplicable diarrhoea in Yogyakarta:

1. Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
- His last full-length work, and the one he was proudest of. But not funny at all. Not even trying to be. He wrote it more or less as a hagiography dedicated to his daughter, who died at the age of 17.

2. Naomi Wolf's The Shock Doctrine
- Rather sensationalistically, Wolf pairs torture policies with destructive economic corporatist policies. But reading about the CIA's sadistic psych experiments on Canadian citizens is not gonna soothe your tummy.

3. Isabella Bird's The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither
- Fairly innocent stuff, but it gets dull after a while. And laughing at 19th century racial perspectives is less fun when you're sick and your Indian boyfriend is actually hurt by any sharings of said anecdotes of "the statuesque Klings".

Luckily, the 1001 Malam Hotel had a selection of books, so I eventually resolved on spending my time in the loo reading Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, which my sister recommended to me ages ago. (The movie didn't feature the bit in which he sexually experiments with himself as a 15 year-old. Obviously, an extended cut must be made.)

Still not feeling that great, but the obvious symptoms have gone. Back to work.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book 40, Antigua and Barbuda: "Mr Potter" by Jamaica Kincaid

Surprise! I finished this book just before I left Singapore, leaving me with just three hours' sleep before I took the plane to Indonesia. But I'm glad I pushed through: a book like this is too good to break into two sittings.

(Yeah, it's a lousy scan from elsewhere on the Net. When I get home I'll make a better one.)

Anyway! We're out slavery now, and into the realm of the contemporary in several senses of the word: Mr Potter himself lived from 1922 to 1992 and yes he really existed because he's Jamaica Kincaid's father; an absent father as his father was before him, scattering girl-children throughout the land but never even registering recognition when they stop him in the street and plead for money for textbooks. Not to say that he's cast as the prototypical bastard, though, because he's fundamentally a loser: no love in his life, no prospects, no wisdom: he didn't even know how to read.

(Also, he didn't leave Kincaid's mother. She left him, and stole all the money he'd saved up to buy a car of his own so he could set himself up with an independent business. I'd deep-six you too if you did that to me.)

Kincaid barely knew him, but she's created this creative non-fiction metanarrative based on this weird gap that lies between them, opening like a semi-traditional narrative on an average day in his working life around the time he met her mother, but spun only from the loose bits of oral history and conjecture she's gathered from family stories and interviews with folks on Antigua: the same details returned to over and over again, the way thoughts spin washing machine-style in your brain. Lovely prose, but how many new writers would get away with it?

Reads like a notebook, a rough draft of an unfinishable memoir more than the well-made novel, and that is the way it must be and it is good. It's like Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein in the Caribbean: entering and stepping back from/into other people's minds and her own: Mr Shoul, his Lebanese employer; Dr Weizenberger, the dentist he ferried back and forth in his car; his own mother who walked into the sea forever when he was five.

And of course the sorrow/angst/emptiness of being cut off from this logical part of your heritage: the same but different way so many of us Singaporeans are cut off from our own.

Didn't expect quite this from the author of the much more traditional (but still engagingly alienating) novel Lucy. Of course, that's about coming to America: coming home is always more bizarre.

And what fun not to be there for a while!

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Representative quote:
And Mr Potter died, so simple a thing, he died and will never be heard from again, except through me, for I can read and I can write my own name, which includes his name also, Elaine Cynthia Potter, and like him and his own father before him, I have a line drawn through me, a line has been drawn through me.

Next book:
E A Markham's The Three Suitors of Fred Belair, from Montserrat.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book 39, St Kitts and Nevis: "Cambridge" by Caryl Phillips

We might have a bit of a gap for a while, since I'm going to Jakarta/Bandung/Yogjakarta for a week come Friday, and I don't really feel like lugging my hardcovers with me. East Indies is East Indies and West Indies is West Indies, and never the twain shall meet.

And really, "Indies" is a good term to use in the case of this book, since Kittitian-British author Caryl Phillips never names the island where it takes place - it's some fictional spot in the Caribbean, in the mid to late 19th century, between the abolition of the slave trade and the actual abolition of slavery itself.

The truly awesome thing about this book, however, is that it's not just a historical novel: it's a historical novel written with the distinctive style of the documents of that era with astonishing verisimilitude of language and style. Sorry, Jean Heyn, this guy blows you out of the water.

Part One's told from the viewpoint of Emily Cartwright, the 29 year-old plantation owner's daughter who makes the sea crossing to manage her father's property, both in terms of land and human livestock. She fancies herself an intellectual: her diary records her anthropological observations of the slaves and their overseers - not unlike Isabella Bird's travel narratives, which I'm reading on my iPhone - and it's lengthy and verbose and flowery and terribly coloured by prejudice, but in the complacent, well-intentioned manner of a person who cannot fathom the idea of a black person as an equal: no demonstrations of excessive hatred, and observations objective enough that damn the slave community as uncivilised in our eyes. It makes us uncomfortable: we want to hate this woman as an oppressor, she even has thoughts of a future lecture tour around the British Isles defending slavery. But we can understand her discomfort and her inability to peer beyond the limits of her class and era.

Then Part Two - better put up a [SPOILER ALERT] sign, because we now find out the unfathomable truth behind a rather minor character, the old slave Cambridge. His section's written in the style of the old slave narratives: think Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince: eloquent and demonstrative of intellect, but brief, summarising everything from his abuction in Guinea as a child to the present in a tiny pamphlet-sized section - but what a story it is! As a young man he becomes a slave in abolitionist England, learns to read and write and converts to Christianity, gains his master's respect, his freedom on his master's death, and gets married to his fellow servant, a white woman, becomes an abolitionist preacher - all the while mingling with the wide array of 19th century black British society, beggars and fops and doxies and merchantmen, barely conceivable to us except that we know that this historical research has been done, that there've been peoples of African descent in the British Isles since the Romans.

And then, when he's kidnapped and sold back into slavery in the Indies, it's his damnable Christian values and principles of propriety that prevent him from being the true rabble-rouser and rebel that the whites believe he is - reading this section we're screaming, don't be a dumbfuck, just kill your master, or at least tell everyone how educated you are, what happened to you! - but no.

And because of that, the tragic ending occurs without Emily even understanding the remarkable figure who's been at her side, who could have knocked some sense into her brain if they'd only talked for more than five minutes. [SPOILERS END]

There's a Section Three as well, but I won't bore you.

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Representative quote:
O lucky Isabella that she never lived to see these shores, never lived to witness the treachery of the negro that some would set free to wreak havoc upon our persons. Their lying subservience, their sly pilfering, their murderous violence, mark them out as very like the Irish, but of an even more childish character. If this overworked land possesses a soul it has indeed been profoundly abused and made to endure much that is evil.

Next book:
Jamaica Kincaid's Mr Potter, from Antigua and Barbuda.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book 38, US Virgin Islands: "The Governor-General's Lady" by Jean Heyn

I'm a little tired, so I'll give this book a speedy review. It's a lightweight historical romance novel by an obscure American author; not really the kind of thing I'd have picked up if I'd understood what it was properly before reserving it at NLB, nor the kind of thing I'd have checked out if there'd been any better options.

Still, it is informative: it's based on the life of real-life 19th century Virgin Islander icon Anna Heegaard, a descendant of slaves and Danish colonists who passed through the hands of many men before ending up with a comfortable fortune of property and the love of Governor-General Peter von Scholten (of course he had a wife and kids back in Copenhagen, though, so he couldn't actually marry her).

Scholten also ended up emancipating the slaves of the entire island, providing the thrust of the story after Anna's well set up for herself. I'd had no idea of how tricky the business of freeing the unfree was: the different stages in history as slaves began to buy (or whore) themselves out of bondage, some reaching middle-class status on par with the whites, while being forced to carry letters proving their free status for generations in case they were stopped in the street; first a ban on the import of new slaves, then a proclamation that all those newly born to slaves would be free, and the institution of slavery falling in neighbouring island after island, with petition after petition by the Governor to the Danish crown before the proper rebellion broke out, birthing the declaration of freedom.

It's pretty entertaining, too: some bodice-ripping sex scenes, even as Anna and Scholten age into their fifties, and lush descriptions of architecture and clothing, jalousies and coral earrings, and a bit of native dialect too. But it's not truly well written - there's amateurish adverbs and excessively painstaking narration of historical fact in between the saintly portrayal of Ms Heegaard herself as a paragon of history.

Ambitious stuff, nonetheless. Pulp isn't necessarily easy to do. Would that I could write something as sensational.

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Representative quote: His voice suddenly grew soft and sinister. "These are perilous times, Madam, when accidents easily occur. I swear to you that one way or another, if he sides with the blacks, you will find yourself alone on your hilltop, your home in ruins. And what will you be then? I ask you. Not the respected widow of a Virgin Islands governor. No indeed. You'll be nothing but an elderly black whore! I suggest you use your influence."

Anna clenched her fists in outrage. Her voice was icy cold and carefully controlled as she answered him. "You were quite right, Mr Grimes, when you said your visit need not be long. I suggest you leave at once. Good day, Sir." She turned her back on him. With head held high she walked toward her villa. Not once did she deign to look back.

Next book: Caryl Phillips's Cambridge, from St Kitts and Nevis.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Call for submissions for ASYMPTOTE: a new international journal of literary translation

Here's another segue: my friend's setting up a new journal of translation called Asymptote! (Yeah, I was originally drama editor, but I couldn't commit the time. It's still an important effort.)

It's founded by multi-genre polyglot Singaporean writer Lee Yew Leong, but we've got other editors based in Germany and the USA. Our first issue is coming out in Jan 2011.

If you're a writer in a non-English language or a translator of non-English literature into English, we'd love to see your work. The deadline for submissions is 20 December 2010 and the guidelines are here.

Ooh, and get a load of our landing page, here: http://asymptotejournal.com

Some very cool international writers have already agreed to be featured in the Jan 2011 edition. We'll be featuring:

- a dispatch from Afghanistan about the plight of women in the context of the ongoing war
- an essay from Japan comparing "Literature and Mathematics" (which we thought apropos for the launch issue of a magazine called Asymptote)
- a group of poems by Melih Cevdet Anday, writing in the manner of a famous 17th century folk poet, translated from the Turkish by Sidney Wade and Efe Murad
- an interview with the award-winning lyricist who not only brought the 2010 World Cup song into Mandarin but has done some amazing (literary) things across Mandarin and Cantonese as well.
-excerpts from Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa'at's "Nadirah", last year's prizewinning script at the Life! Theatre Awards.

Hope to read your stuff on the site soon!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book 37, St Maarten: W. R. Groman's "Oasis of the Sea: Sint Maarten Sonnets"

Blogger has stats now, so I know what countries my readers come from (Singapore=453; USA=425; Brazil=22; UAE=13), and that my all-time most popular page is my review of the unknown, younger-than-me, just-published-this-year-on-Kindle-author Ze Lin Xiao from American Samoa.

Who'd've thunk? But now I'm gearing up for another hitstorm, because I'm reviewing another unknown, younger-than-me, just-published-this-year-on-Kindle-author, W.R. Groman from... well, I don't know where he's from, really.

He has a poetry blog, where he writes in both English and Spanish. He's one degree of separation from me via Facebook, so I know he's Brown '04 and Harvard grad school. But that's it in terms of biography. I could assume he's American, but who knows for sure? Ze Lin's Samoan, and she's at Stamford.

His poems are verbose, cerebral and weirdly archaic (they're Shakespearean sonnets after all; slant-rhymed, but still!). None of the expected paeans to the sun and the sea; instead we've got lizards and satyrs and dusty streets with discordant jazz music, but not in a social realist style either - no, the true nation of the 28 sonnets in this chapbook is Groman's head. He occasionally lights on a theme directly related to the setting: oil slicks, orange blossoms, Spanish vocabulary, black boatmen - but certain sonnets are simply about his mind wandering, trying to find its place in the universe between flesh and ether and "the panorama/of sand and lizards and children and streets/washed over by the goats' glaze and drama".

Honestly, I'm not engaged. There's no hook - the language is unexpected but not fresh, obscure but not musical, not magical. I can't find a good reason to follow him on his quest for truth.

Structurally, the poems are rather fine, of course: this isn't a Creative Writing 101 emo-fest, but real products of skill. Plus, I rather like the fact that he's dwelling on grunge rather than rose-tinted tourist brochure shots.

(What's rather odd is that he does pepper the text with rose-tinted tourist brochure shots of the beaches and landscapes of St Maarten. Very odd effect. It's like throwing in photos of the Lake District or Guilin into the folder notes of a Nine Inch Nails album. This is one of the clues that makes me think he's not an actual native of St Maarten... but who knows, really? Maybe he's estranged.)

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Small grumble, though: if I'd been thinking properly when I read A Trip to the Beach, I would've realised that only the southern half of this island is the Dutch country of Sint Maarten, part of the former Netherlands Antilles; the upper half is the French collectivity of Saint Martin, administered by Guadeloupe.

So by coming directly here from Anguilla, I'm actually violating one of my own rules about crossing other nations on the way between stops. Bugger. The god of literary blogging will forgive me, I'm sure.

I'm including one of the few poems in the the chapbook that I really like. I know the fair use claim is iffy here, so I'll take it down if he asks me.

Representative quote:

The rain has softened into fresh linen,
but these bloodshot eyes still remember,
on this island of goats, fruit and venom,
in this month six months before December:
the porch was on fire, the hammock singed
down, and the lovely light green almost grayed
away into nothing - a light bulb binged
and purged on its own power and sprayed:
This whole island is purgation, vomit-
even the waves spew forth firewaters,
and certain hooves dance on tails and dumb it
down, and the lights leak lies made of fathers:
This must be the oasis of the seas,
where sand and salt and steel forge reveries.

Next book: Jean Heyn's The Governor-General's Lady, from the US Virgin Islands.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book 36, Anguilla: "A Trip to the Beach" by Melinda and Robert Blanchard

Back south again to the Leeward Islands now! This book's another chance discovery: I was convinced the library didn't have any books on Anguilla for the longest time, simply because I kept misspelling it like the Arabic surname, Angullia.

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Discovered the error of my ways and settled down with the Blanchards' self-help book Live What You Love: Notes from a Passionate Life, which I was fully prepared to hate, since it's a about them being an American power couple fulfilling their dreams by opening their own restaurant on a Caribbean island and thus inspiring others to live out their aspirations too; something I suspected I'd find infuriatingly kyriarchical after reading a 19th century Bermudan slave narrative.

Not so. I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit. I'm sure another reader would find it seething with unexamined privilege, but I guess I needed that shot of positivity and gung-ho-ness; I appreciated the levels to which they really showed love for their Anguillian staff, flying them all the way to Vermont to ski with their friends; and of course I was drawn in by the descriptions of the food: from Belgian waffles and devilled eggs to jerk chicken and endless Caribbean lobsters.

What bugged me was that there wasn't much about the experience of living of Anguilla itself. Not the Blanchards' fault, though. More the National Library's fault for not having copies of their original memoir, describing how they'd set up their resto to begin with.

What's a bibliovore to do? BUY THE FLIPPIN' BOOK OVER AMAZON KINDLE STORE, that's what.

And yes, I'm glad I spent the US$9.29, because this book hits the spot: descriptions of gorgeous floury sand, turquoise beaches, a workable alternative political and economic system (allowing for far fewer social problems than the casino and crime-ridden neighbouring islands nearby), boat races, hurricane devastation, and loads and loads of talk about FOOD.

Conch chowder, calf's foot stew, guava and passionfruit ice cream, barbecued ribs, johnnycakes, baby green beans, fried plantains, cornmeal pap, Thai red snapper, mahimahi, banana bread, salt fish, portobello mushrooms, dorado, crayfish, veal chops, sweet potato wrapped in sea grape leaves, tuna steaks with coconut rice cakes, ginips, wahoo, gumbo, mango, rum: yum.

Yet at the same time the memoir reveals how simplistic it is to read their story as a "follow your dream" narrative, because the tale includes all the anguish the couple go through when things go wrong - everything's more expensive for a non-Anguillian to rent, customs is a bitch, everything but the seafood has to be airflown in from St Martin or Miami (seriously, the carbon footprint of a gourmet meal at Blanchard's must be horrendous), and Melinda keeps on crying. Seriously.

But the writing's casual, with everything described from Mel's point of view, so it's pretty bizarre how this weeping never leads to soul-crushing depression the way it would for me and many of my friends. Just a glance at the gorgeous palm trees or a fat lady shopkeeper friend makes everything better.

(Was going to write "fat black lady shopkeeper", but that just throws in a bunch of weird racial tension into this mix which isn't really there. The way the Blanchards tell it, they're pretty damn integrated into the island's society, and treat folks as equals, though they themselves are rather richer equals, who get to fly back and forth between Vermont and Anguilla willy-nilly.)

(And really, the most fascinating postcolonial reading of the book lies in Anguilla itself. It's a laid-back hick country that's scared of losing its exclusive charm and native economic benefits, and it's willing to make sacrifices to keep its way of life at the expense of huge tourist and tech investments. This isn't a lazy native inheritance but a system engineered by a generation of revolutionary founding fathers in the sixties, one of which dies in the book, refusing to let the island be sidelined by the political administration out of St Kitts and Nevis. And meanwhile the people are happy and healthy and live to the age of 85 with the bodies of bronzed thirty year-olds. An alternative utopia, indeed. Or so they say.)

Gah, this writeup's going all over the place. Bottom-line is: this book's a good read. Don't take it as literal fact, though: the authors admit that they condensed the stories of ten years and two restaurants into the space of maybe 24 months and a single shack on Mead's Bay. Caveat lector.

Representative quote: Anguillians had watched St. Martin lose its innocence. Over twenty short years, the arrival of giant resorts and casinos combined with a poorly managed immigration department had made it a haven for unemployment, crime, and a population that had lost control over its own destiny. "Not in Anguilla," Joshua always told me. "Daughter, we will never let that happen here," he would say. "Never."

Next book: W. R. Groman's Oasis of the Sea: Sint Maarten Sonnets, from St Martin.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book 35, Bermuda: "The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave" by Mary Prince

Surprise! I decided to skip the US Virgin Islands for the time being and instead head north, to a country that's Caribbean only in the loosest sense of the word.

Wasn't gonna do it at first, since the only books I could find about Bermuda were snorkeling manuals, scuba detective novels and Bermuda triangle conspiracy screeds. (Incidentally, there've been no disappearances in the Bermuda triangle since they invited GPS. Guess we finally outwitted the Cthulhu-worshipping aliens. Score one for science!)

But then, while surfing the Kindle store, I discovered this:

It's the world's first slave narrative by a woman - and the UK's first autobiography of a black woman. It was published in 1831, before Frederick Douglass, before Hannah Crafts, before Harriet Jacobs (and of course before Harriet Beecher Stowe). It's a canonical text in Black History and Diasporic African Literature. And its author, Mary Prince, was born and raised in Bermuda.

It's a great read. Not just because it's short, and not just because its publication was actually instrumental in drumming up local support for the UK's Anti-Slavery Society. No, what moves me is the graphic brutality of the abuses that Prince describes - nothing quite like this in the more genteel Douglass and Jacobs - floggings with cowskin whips, suspensions in the air while the master's son pierces your foot with a bayonet, being forced to work in the salt ponds of Turks and Caicos Islands causing blisters on your legs, wounds eating your flesh to the bone, full of maggots.

And all in this eloquent, measured 19th century English - "To be free is very sweet," she says. To be sure, she didn't write the whole text herself, being partially literate, but it was copied down almost verbatim, so the Anti-Slavery Society says, putting in footnotes to explain what she means when she calls white folks Buckras.

And here's the other thing. It's also moving to skim the editor's supplement to her own narrative, showing how much work the Buckras of the Anti-Slavery Society put in to prove Prince's credibility as a witness, arguing eloquently against the slander of her former master whom she left (he'd brought her to London despite slavery being outlawed in the UK itself, expecting that she'd never have the will to run away).

God bless these white folks who recognised the horrors of 19th century capitalism, and who worked so hard to end them. God bless Thomas Pringle, the author of the supplement and her subsequent employer; God bless her friend Susanna Strickland, who transcribed her story; God bless also the white washerwomen who took pity on her and helped her with her chores when they saw how sick she had fallen under her master's abuses.

And God damn *us*, for daring to live in a world where there are more slaves than in any other period in history, and doing so little about it.

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Representative quote: Oh the horrors of slavery!--How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave--I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.

Next book:
by Robert and Melinda Blanchard's Live What You Love, from Anguilla.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book 34, British Virgin Islands: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I made fun of Shelbi for doing Dracula for her Romanian book, and now I, too, am interpreting a country through the Victorian fantasy thereof. What to do? I scoured the library and Kindle catalogues and couldn’t find a single writer who was a British Virgin Islander him/herself.

Stevenson never actually visited the Caribbean, but he based the story off his mariner uncle's tales of Norman Island and Charles Kingsley's memoir, At Last: Christmas in the West Indies. So it kinda counts. And anyway, I’ve never read me this classic. The only film version I’ve seen is Disney’s Treasure Planet (haven’t even seen the Muppet Treasure Island!). And this is ur-text for pirate lore itself: the fount of peglegs, parrots yelling pieces of eight and yohoho and a bottle of rum.

It’s a marvelous distraction, surprisingly better toilet reading than New Malaysian Essays 2 (although maybe it’s the Kindle that makes it so convenient to dip into), and man do I love all that archaic language and elevated, unself-conscious prose - after all, it's narrated by the virtuous yet bad-assedly heroic teenage boy Jim Hawkins, with occasional interjections by the Doctor Livesey, both of whom believe ardently in the virtuous of good Christian faith and the damnededness of rum.

Of course, having watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, you do have to give some leeway for the fact that in this book swashbuckling hadn't yet been pushed to its psychedelic, octopus-bearded limits. I mean, all the pirates get spooked out about on Skeleton Island is a single skeleton and the voice of the half-idiotic Ben Gunn (ah, the wild man archetype!). On the other hand, the book presses home the fact that it is by no means easy for Long John Silver to get about as a middle-aged man on a wooden leg - he stumbles on uneven ground and roars at the Captain when he refuses to give him a hand up when they're both sitting on the sand - a touch of realism which isn't quite grit, but which makes bloody sense.

Another thing about Long John Silver. He's perhaps the only really Caribbean character of the lot, given that it's mentioned that his wife is "a woman of colour". (I'd thought this was perhaps an idiom of the time for a scolding wife, a woman of choler, as it were, but later on Jim says "I dare say he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot] Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small."

There really is very little mention of Caribbean culture in the book, other than the name of the ship (HISPANIOLA) and a stopover in Spanish America, where young Jim is "immediately surrounded by shore boats full of Negroes and Mexican Indians and half-bloods selling fruits and vegetables and offering to dive for bits of money. The sight of so many good-humoured faces (especially the blacks), the taste of the tropical fruits, and above all the lights that began to shine in the town made a most charming contrast to our dark and bloody sojourn on the island." They take on a few hands there, but the ones we meet on the journey are all Englishmen, picked up on the docks themselves.

On the other hand, there is that old ruse of the dangers of the tropics - the pirates' great misstep is camping out in a malarial bog, after all. Bah, not completely inclined to do an entire post-colonial reading of the book. Though it does bear mentioning that this is the same guy who wrote, in A Child's Garden of Verses:

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
O! Don’t you wish that you were me?

The poem's deliberately ironic. Let's the embrace hipster culture and love it for being so.

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Representative quote: "The score!" he burst out. "Three goes o'rum! Why, shiver me timbers, if I hadn't forgotten my score!"

And falling on a bench, he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. I could not help joining, and we laughed together, peal after peal, until the tavern rang again.

"Why, what a precious old sea-calf I am!" he said at last, wiping his cheeks. "You and me should get on well, Hawkins, for I'll take my davy I should be rated ship's boy. But come now, stand by to go about. This won't do. Dooty is dooty, messmates."

Next book: Jean Heyn's The Governor-General's Lady, from the US Virgin Islands.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Google tells me it's Robert Louis Stevenson's 160th birthday.

Ain't that a coincidence, given that I'm reading Treasure Island right now?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book 33, Puerto Rico: “Macho Camacho’s Beat” by Luis Rafael Sánchez

Back to some genuine World Literature now: this is one of those novels that that takes the tropes of European modernism and makes them groove (with shocking success) to a more equatorial, phantasmagorical beat.

Written stream-of-conscious style with internal rhyme after rhyme, block repetitions and neologisms and multiple points of view over a single day, by author Sánchez, alias Wico, all to the tune of a genuine musicial guaracha beat. Shame upon shame that they had to alter the original title: La Guaracha de Macho Camacho, which really condenses the rhythms of this wonderful book into a single utterance.

Even though the character of Macho Camacho never appears: he’s merely the author of the song that permeates the airwaves in the story, his rhythms infecting every other character from whose perspective we view life in the brokedown American semicolony of Puerto Rico; neurotic figures like the nymphomaniac megalomaniac Senator Vicente Reinosa (Vince is a prince and his ideas convince); his Donald Duck-tantrum wife Graciela Alcántara y López de Montefrío; their good-for-nothing Ferrari-sexual son Benny; the wise woman cooking tripe on her stove Doña Chon; and of course the idiot boy The Kid, normal at birth but something went wrong, who gets spat on and abused by the other kids, the symbol of Puerto Rico herself.

Once again, as in the case of so many texts in this series, I say: I want to write like this. (Or at the very least, translate like this. Gawd, Gregory Rabassa, how did you do it? Such an epic smoosh of Gabo and Joyce and Spike Lee, hey-prestoed from island dialect to Anglophone noise. Qué padre!)

Many thanks to the Puerto Rican poet Jorge Acevedo for recommending this book to me out of all the Puerto Rican books in the National Library: sorry that we don’t stock Luis Palés Matos’s Selected Poems/Poesía Selecta, which you similarly lauded.

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That’s it for the Greater Antilles, though: now we progress to the Lesser. Slower progress down the chain of islands.

Representative quote: “The sun like an onion will beg your pardon and do its best to give you a hard-on,” said the Mother: conclusively, going to the door, letting Macho Camacho’s guaracha take up residence in her waist, twisting and twisty, guarachose and triumphant in imaginary cabarets, surrounded by a focus of lights that made the imprecise lines of her vivid makeup precise, guarachose and triumphant and trapped by waves of applause: life is a phenomenal thing, giving the microphone to the MC.

Next book: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, (sort of) from the British Virgin Islands.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book 32, Curaçao: "The Other Side of Blue" by Valerie O. Patterson

Yay for Curaçao, which is as of last month officially a country! (Turns out they actually have a larger population than Aruba.) Again, I'm afraid I couldn't find a work by a native Curaçoan (?), but this book will do just fine.

It's shelved under young people's fiction, which I generally eschew for the purposes of this project. But since I'm considering writing for young people, this is terribly useful: it points out to me that I don't have to write like JK Rowling to make it to the market, because you can even succeed with a first-person, present-tense coming-of-age-and-angst story from the viewpoint of an overweight 14 year-old daughter of a successful artist mother.

Yeah, it's pretty cool. Quite different from everything I've been reading: strangely earnest, coming from the viewpoint of someone so young, communicating the utter discomfort in one's body that so many young girls face. Paired together with the descriptions of the sea-and-sand-swept landscape, yummy Caribbean food and a mystery story about the death of the girl's dad.

What's a little annoying is the way the theme of "blue" keeps on being pushed - from the mother's tubes of ultramarine and Prussian blue paints to the protagonist's name, Cyan, and the name of their villa, Blauwe Huis, to the Curaçao liqueur and the blue taxis and the Casa Azul restaurant and the sea, always the sea.

(But I love the way the mother's so distant, and that competition with the daughter of the mother's fiancé - how one's own mother can turn into a wicked stepmother during remarriage. So 21st century, the erasure of traditional birth relationships.)

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I can't quite write something like this, though: it's too dependent on an understanding of the vulnerability and complexity of being a girl. Us guys are a little more thick-skulled. (Ooh, and those are the ABC islands up above - Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire. We won't be stopping in Bonaire, even though it's the only one of the three anyone I know has visited: namely my sister, last year.)

Representative quote: From the studio windows, I notice the sea is the color of tumbled blue-green glass, roiled and unsettled. Last June after Dad died, his seat between Mother and me on the plane going home sat empty until just before takeoff, when a red-faced, sweating tourist weaved her way down the aisle and claimed it. She stuffed an oversized tote bag under the seat in front of her, leaving me to huddle against the window. As our plane rose into the sky, I couldn't take my eyes off the sea. I thought the color of the water might change with the light, but it didn't. It appeared deep blue, almost black, and dense as oil. No light penetrated the surface; we were left with the dark skin of the sea and no answers.

Next book: Luis Rafael Sanchez's Macho Camacho's Beat, from Puerto Rico.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book 31, Aruba: "An Island Away" by Daniel Putkowski

Yep, we're doing a detour from the Greater Antilles to the former Netherlands Antilles! And I say former, because regardless of what FIFA codes and World Wide Web drop-down forms indicate, the Netherlands Antilles no longer exist: on 10 October they were dissolved into the countries of Curacao and St Maarten, as well as the municipalities of Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius.

So I've decided to cover a few of these countries on my tour. Aruba kind of qualifies because it was once part of the Netherlands Antilles (gosh, it's irritating typing that out over and over again) but gained autonomy back in 1986.

And honestly, I'm rather glad I made this detour. Although it's written by an American author whose politics I find both ludicrous and dangerous (look at the Universal Healthcare horror novel he published last year), it's a thoroughly good read.

Though it's got loads of scenes from the viewpoints of guys drinking themselves silly in bars, and the expected snapshots of tourists and luxury hotels and gorgeous beaches, the heart of the tale is the rake's progress of Luz, a Colombian prostitute trying to get by a sanely and classily as she can in the red-light district of Rembrandtstraat. Hawser Press claims that the book reveals how prostitution cannot be called a victimless crime, but of course it's more complex than that - the women in the story are abused by some, but use their intelligence to survive and even prosper, coming out with far more dignity and power than their pious sisters and mothers sitting at home in Bogotá, praying to be rescued by their wayward menfolk.

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Great characters too: the young shipwrecked American tugboat captain Beck, the hard-partying fifty-something Sam, the rotten-toothed but polyglot beggar Frankie, the evil procuress Marcela and the backstabbing whore Inez. But be forewarned: the book's thick. Didn't quite register for me at first 'cos I bought the Kindle version.

Representative quote: "You know what some of the Americans say?" Inez asked as if Luz had a dozen American friends. "They say the only thing better than Colombian cocaine is Colombian pussy. That's what they think of us. Coca y cuca."

Next book: Valerie O. Patterson's The Other Side of Blue, from Curaçao.

P.S. And yes, I changed the template of the blog. Realised the old pattern wasn't very easy on the eyes. Like this one much better - I'm riding on the waves from nation to nation, looking through the window literature. Something liddat.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book 30, Dominican Republic: "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez

You know what? I'm just not that impressed by this book. I know it's a best-seller and is included in loads of high school syllabi (something that's not too likely to happen to myself), but after reading truly fresh, epic voices like Janet Frame and Albert Wendt and even Alvarez's fellow refugee-American Carlos Eire, I can't get excited by the writing here.

True, it's structurally interesting: it's divided into three sections, tracing the lives of the four daughters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia, from 1989-1972 (adult life), then 1970-1960 (adolescence in America), then 1960-1956 (childhood in Santo Domingo). Each section's further divided into stories focussing on episodes in the girls' (or an individual girl's) life/ves. We creep back further and further into history, through the immigrant experience and the trouble with the dictator Rafael Trujillo, kinda like psychoanalytic regression, or the movie Memento, though there are no grand dénouements, as I'd hoped.

And some of the stories are good - the world seen through the eyes of a child (or a psycho lady) is generally pretty interesting. I liked Yoyo's tale of the WASP college boy named Rudy Elmenhurst III, and Sandi's perspective on going to a floor show in a Spanish restaurant in NYC, one year after fleeing the regime.

But the whole doesn't cohere. So what? Yes, Latin America is a bizarre place, and ethnic assimilation is hard. I get it. Was this really not talked about very much when the book made its splash in 1999?

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It's good, but I'm generally spoiled for quality on this tour. You could read better. I'm sure as hell gonna.

Representative quote:
Probably, if she had thought a moment about it, she would not have done what she did next. She would have realized her father had lost brothers and friends to the dictator Trujillo. For the rest of his life, he would be haunted by blood in the streets and late night disappearances. Even after all these years, he cringed if a black Volkswagen passed him on the street. He feared anyone in uniform: the meter maid giving out parking tickets, a museum guard approaching to tell him not to get too close to his favourite Goya.
On her knees, Yoyo thought of the worst thing she could say to her father. She gathered a handful of scraps, stood up, and hurled them in his face. In a low, ugly whisper, she pronounced Trujillo's hated nickname: "Chapita! You're just another Chapita!"

Next book:
Daniel Putkowski's An Island Away, from Aruba.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book 29, Haiti: “Heading South” by Dany Laferrière

Whoo! Another chance to clear out my stash of not-yet-read books!

I received Heading South from Laferrière last year, when we were both guests at the Ubud Writers and Readers’ Festival - he arrived late and jetlagged at a party in a white raja's mansion where no-one recognised him, including me, but I was feeling lonely and was eager to practise my bad French with someone else who wasn't fitting into the whole partay groove. (As I recall, Fatima Bhutto, Marco Calvani and Hari Kunzru were really cuttin' a rug on the dance floor.)

Hélas, mon ami Jean-François, this book doesn't have as provocative a title as Comment faire amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. But not to worry: it's just as pornographic.

It's another one of those lovely short story collections that add up to a novel: all these disperse characters living their own lives around Port-au-Prince who end up intersecting, often sexually. You see, one of the big themes of the book is the strange powers of attraction that (usually younger) black Haitian men have on (usually older) white women from France or the United States or Canada, married WASPs and intellectual Jewish harridans who end up having their worlds turned upside-down when they enter the sultry climes of Hispaniola and discover the core of their womanhood, erupting in desire at the sight of a beautiful black lad of seventeen.

Oh yes, it's ridiculous, and probably misogynist and reversely racist, definitely perversely so, shades of Mustafa wanting to colonise Europe with his penis in Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. But it's bloody good reading; thrilling erotica; strangely affirming in the light of all our knowledge of restavek child slavery and post-earthquake anarchy; and to think all these expatriate ladies in the country for sex tourism or to live with their one true ebony loves are there during the '70s, during the regime of the murderous Papa Doc Duvalier: there are throwaway lines by the young men noting how they're not scared of the tyrant's tonton-macoute squads, amidst all the miscegenous revels at the Bellevue Circle and the jazz clubs and the bedroom.

It's not just black boys and white women, though. It's black girls with older white men, including the American consul; and black girls doing it with black boys, and black girls doing it with each other. Laferrière does not run out of imagination when it comes to the libido. (And it's harder than you'd think to write a sex scene without feeling clichéd. Try it!)

Really, this book went by in a flash. A joy to read. Not sure if you'd enjoy it as much if you were a white man or a black woman, though.

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Representative quote: Charlie dips his tongue into the juiciest bit of fruit in Port-au-Prince. Missie never tires of this exotic but exquisitely executed caress. Especially towards the end of the afternoon. She is always the one who insists on it. Missie's sweet, pulpy body.. Her sex exhales an odour of ripened fruit. She may be European on the outside, but inside she is pure Caribbean. Her slit smells of guava; her stomach tightens and lifts at the same time, inviting Charlie's tongue to resume its exploratory probe.

Next book: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Álvarez, from the Dominican Republic.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book 28, Jamaica: “Two Can Play” and “School’s Out” by Trevor Rhone

I’m just back from Kuala Lumpur, and man, I should tell you about the harvest of books I got from Silverfish Bookstore. Plays, essays, and fiction, translated and untranslated from our neighbour/separated sibling up north: A. Samad Said, Amir Muhammad, Zakaria Ariffin, Ouyang Wenfeng, Charlene Rajendran, Farish Noor…

But instead, I’m going to babble a bit about the old book of Jamaican drama I managed to get out of the National Library Repostiory when I got back. No worries: it’s good stuff too.

These two plays are early pieces by Rhone, who was educated in drama in the UK but came back and started his own theatre company, playing with the vernacular, commenting on politics while capturing the real human side of Jamaican life at the same time.

School’s Out (first perf 1976) is ostensibly about a dysfunctional church school where the teachers bicker all the time about the disorder of things, their mutual incompetence and the absence of the headmaster and the impossibility of getting the stinking staff toilet fixed – only to rise against the new teacher, Russ Dacre, who has the moral willpower and chutzpah to try and fix things. It’s terribly specific and believable (triggering mental echoes of Haresh Sharma’s Those Who Can’t Teach, but it also functions as an allegory for the failed state, where the oligarchs rebel against the real reformers. (Weirdly enough, Russ’s pushy, Messianic character has a few things in common with Singapore’s own reformist autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew.)

Two Can Play, (first perf 1982) is less heavy-handed - in fact, it's quite amazing how Rhone manages to blend the stories of the personal and the political here, all within the framework of a realist, mobile production of only two actors. A middle-aged couple, Jim and Gloria, have sent their kids away to the US as illegal immigrants, convinced that Jamaica is no place for them to earn a living. When Jim's father dies, there's nothing to keep them from going after their kids anymore - and this is when chauvinist, cowardly Jim ends up pushing Gloria to get papers to fly to the States, becoming a citizen through a fake marriage, only to discover that this process has pushed her into selfhood, so she now refuses to put up with his crap any longer. Just like Ibsen's A Doll's House, only with a happy ending: they reconcile, Jim's ready to change, and they're ready to believe in Jamaica again.

I have a lot to learn from this guy. If only it was a little easier to find Caribbean drama in this country. And it's a little tricky even to find a known writer from Jamaica who actually stayed in Jamaica: Claude McKay was an émigré, and Marlon James didn't even live in the country...

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Representative Quote:
ROSCO: Discipline! [Hiss.] You see all the boy mi run out of the class, is only one way to deal with that sort of discipline problem. I wish they would make me Headmaster. I know exactly what I would do do. I would construct a Gun Court in the middle of the play field; and come Monday morning, right after Chapel, I would make the whole school gather right round the wire fence, then I would catch the boy and let the parson administer the last rites. Then I would tie up the boy and call the cadets with the long guns and - bang, bang, bang! Then you would see a little discipline in the school. Boy, I wish they would make me the Headmaster!

Next Book: Dany Laferrière’s Heading South, from Haiti.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Oh noes! Shelbi's catching up!

To be precise, the author of a much more readable blog with the same name as mine has just covered Singapore. She did Hwee Hwee Tan's Foreign Bodies, at my suggestion. (Yes, I also suggested Isa Kamari, but that hasn't made it to her library yet. I'm amazed that Foreign Bodies did.)

She reads faster than me and she doesn't have the same rule about reading adjacent countries. Plus, she's actually on a real deadline to cover the world by the end of the year. So she'll probably be in South America and the Caribbean in no time flat.

Pretty soon we'll be neck in neck, and I'll be reading the same things she's been...

(Yes, I know this isn't a contest. But I have weird automatic impulses. And I'm male; I think we're automatically competitive.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book 27, Cuba: “Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire

What a joy to be reading English again!

Waiting for Snow in Havana was actually written in English, you see: the author was airlifted out of Cuba at the age of eleven in 1962 in the wake of Castro’s revolution. Thirty-eight years later, as a professor of history and religion at Yale (where my sister picked up this copy), he suddenly began writing down his memories of those years and the family history behind them.

And boy oh boy, I wish had a memory like Mr Eire. The stuff he can recall: the dirty pranks they used to play on the neighbours, the infernal threats of the Dominican monk schoolmasters, the chimpanzee in lederhosen who was kept as a pet next door, the rich kid who had his own working miniature sports car, the Chinatown man who sold them deadly firecrackers, and his family’s incredible antique collection, amassed due to his father’s conviction that he was the reincarnation of Louis XVI and his wife was Marie Antoinette.

And of course the post-revolutionary days: the parade where he saw Yuri Gagarin and Castro himself, and his own shock when exiled as a child to America: reduced to being a poor penniless spic washing dishes at night after school, after all those years of privilege in the Cuban aristocracy.

I’d heard the stories before in the abstract, which made me utterly unsympathetic to the plight of the Cuban-Americans, upholding the ancient blockade because their moneyed families were expelled during Communism, boohoo. But I’d never grasped till now the profound shame of this downfall, how these kids who grew up knowing they’d be multimillionaires ended up as good-for-nothing problem minority layabouts in the land they once worshipped for its Hollywood movies and cowboys and Coca Cola, soon banned by Castro of course.

And Eire writes so well: with irony, understanding the poetic justice of his being reduced to the state of those black kids he used to get to dive for pennies in shark-infested waters; and with mad eccentricity, jumping from year to year in his life based on free associations, returning to the same moments based on weird leitmotifs in his head: lizards, swimming pools, cases of molest, the icons of Jesus and the Empress Maria Theresa that used to haunt his dreams, and the philosopher he loathes most of all on this earth, Immanuel Kant.

It gives me faith in the potential richness of creative non-fiction. But such a memory, and such a voice! Such things are not provided to most of us mortals.

I do feel a little bad for not reading Alejo Carpentier’s Conversation in a Cathedral or the diaries of Che for this segment, but I’ve definitely had a great time – sped through this 387-page tome in no time at all, and felt culturally richer for it. You should try it too.

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Representative quote: In the past thirty-eight years I’ve seen eight thousand nine hundred and seventeen clouds in shape of the island of Cuba. I know this because I keep count, and the number is always etched accurately in my brain and in my heart. When I die, feel free to saw open my skull and paw through my brain. I bet you’ll find a spot that looks like a cloud in the shape of Cuba. Feel free to open my chest, too. I bet you’ll also find a scar on my heart that looks like a Cuba cloud.

Next book: Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play and School's Out, from Jamaica.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book 26, Mexico: "El laberinto de la soledad" by Octavio Paz

Gracias a Dios! After half a month, I’ve finally finished this damned book – Paz’s essay El laberinto de la soledad, his postscript including the beautiful Crítica de la pirámide, and his interview with Calude Fell, Vuelta a “El laberinto de la soledad”. (I spared myself the lengthy intro and the essays on Mexico and the United States that had been added on, though. Not quite part of the same set of documents.)

I’ve read Paz’s poems before – didn’t find them too memorable – but I chose him because I feel like I’ve read a number of canonical Mexican texts and authors already: Sor Juana, Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel and Carmen Boullosa – plus I had this volume lying around in my library, bought during my student days when I was sure I was going to carry on with Latin American studies in a private capacity.

(As you can see, my copy has suffered under my care.)

But really, this is an odd book. It was tough going for me, with my rusty Spanish: Paz psychoanalyses the whole of Mexican culture and history, pre-Colombian, colonial and revolutionary, specifically outlining why he feels the intelligentsia has been inadequate, why the ideology of positivism was oppressive and the Zapatista movement was revolutionary by dint of its return to the roots of pre-Hispanic culture, and why there needs to be more international cooperation between the countries of the third world.

Jésucristo. And all I’d heard about the text before was its identification of La Malinche (Cortés’s translator-cum-lover) as La Chingada, the “fucked” or “raped” one, as well as the affirmation of Mexican identity as based in Euro-indigenous syncretism.

Y’know, it starts out very comprehensibly, and with a whole lotta poetry: a contrast between Mexicans (including Mexican-Americans) with white North Americans, settling on the image of the brutish pachuco as their iconic representative; then a dwelling on the nature of the unending festivals of the land and the notion of the ever-present Mexican mask (who knew that Mexicans were inscrutable?). A little heavy-handed with its constant reiterations of the condition of solitude, and kinda Mexicentric (seriously, women all over the world are oppressed by the virgin-whore binary, not just mexicanas), but still very beautifully written.

It’s when Paz starts tackling the subject formally through a chronological survey that things get wearisome. Still, it’s fascinating the little insights and stories you get even here: his clear respect for the Baroque writing of the 17th century nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the last of the Spanish Golden Age writers, superior even to the poet Luís de Góngora because she plainly found it joyous to seek for knowledge. Also his concern for the naming of Mexico after the capital of the Aztec empire, México-Tenochtitlán – for the Aztecs were cruel and oppressive towards all the other indigenous cultures; they didn’t even represent Mesoamerican civilization at its peak (that was the 10th century theocracies, e.g. the Maya) – yet they’re now venerated as victims and evidence of the glory of pre-European Mexico. And also his insight that each of the dictators of Mexican history seem to be incarnations of the triumphant conqueror Tezcatlipoca, from Cortés to Porfirio Diáz…

It occurs to me that this will mean nothing to the vast majority of my readers, since they’re mostly from Singapore. Beg pardon. Still, I recommend this book: just read it in your own mother tongue, so you’ll have an easier time than I did. Paz calls it an “exercise of the critical imagination” rather than a philosophical essay, noting that criticism is a compromise for him between poetry and activism. Pretty trenchant thought there.

And then there’s the universality of it: the intellectuals of all the developing world are usually lost in a similar labyrinth of solitude, searching for communion. From what I understand, the remedy is either a revolution or a street festival. Singapore government, please take note: we need more parties.

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Representative quote: El mexicano se esconde bajo muchas máscaras, que luego arroja un día de fiesta o de duelo, del mismo modo que la nación ha desgarrado todas las formas que la asfixiaban. Pero no hemos encontrado aún esa que reconcilie nuestra libertad con el orden, la palabra con el acto y ambos con una evidencia que ya no será sobrenatural, sino humana: la de nuestros mismos.

Next book: Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana! Yep, I'm finally venturing forth into the Caribbean!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hey! Mario Vargas Llosa just won the Nobel Prize for Literature!

First time Peru's won it, too. Click here for the news, and here for my reaction to his first novel,The Time of the Hero.

Still slogging away at fellow Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz... and at the layouts of my latest book, GASPP!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pimp My Library

As suspected, I haven't been able to finish El laberinto de la soledad on time. Even gave myself a 25-page a day quota. Utterly disrupted by: a) my friend Don's all-night 30th birthday, b) theft of my iPhone under really bizarre circumstances, c) fact that I had to finish reading a book about Steve Jobs to write an article about him for ten year-olds.

So, I'm killing time by considering a certain bit of news my friend has imparted. Basically, the National Library has no idea what books to buy! There's a lady whose job it is to spend X number of dollars per month on new books, and she has no idea what the reading public wants, so she's eager for people to make suggestions.

And given my reliance on the National Library for this project, I've got a small list of books I wouldn't mind them adding to their collection. (This isn't even counting the ones banned or semi-banned in Singapore.)

1. Janet Frame’s “Owls Do Cry” (New Zealand)
2. Tayeb Salih’s “The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories” (the Sudan)
3. Tao Lin’s "Shoplifting from American Apparel" (USA)
4. "Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna" (Iraq)*
5. Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks" (Martinique) **
6. Tiffany Murray's "Happy Accidents" (Wales)

* This is especially cool, since Enheduanna (2285 BC - 2250 BC) is the first named author on historical record.

** NLB actually has Fanon, but only in its reference section. What gives? They're scared it's going to trigger an anti-neocolonialist revolt?

If you're so inclined, do leave a comment about what other books you think we need stocks of.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book 25, Belize: “Beka Lamb” by Zee Edgell

This is a bit of a step down from the national epic of Asturias, but it’s a welcome step. Beka Lamb is one of those lovely interior novels that describes a nation’s culture through a single woman’s largely domestic life. In this case, the woman is year-old Beka, a black high school student keeping a wake for her dead friend Toycie in 1960s Belize - scratch that!, I mean British Honduras.

It’s a familiar setting: multi-ethnic, colonial and faintly grubby, like ‘60s Singapore, like ‘60s Malaysia, like sometime French Polynesia. Young girls here attend convent schools with strict yet empathetic nuns, counting themselves lucky to be educated rather than confined to household servitude, dreaming of golden futures as career women while the dangers of handsome boys lurk at their fertile feet.

So yes, maybe it’s a story I’ve heard before. But Edgell writes her cultural landscape so beautifully: stories of the veiled nuns arriving with the missions; the evenings harvesting and eating mangoes and cashews; the petty prejudices of the Caribs and the Mayas and the bakras and the panias; the Creole dialogue; the crash of the waves on the lighthouse dedicated to Baron Bliss, the crippled Englishman who gave his fortune to the colony; the horror stories of the Tataduhende, the thumb-stealing dwarf; the stinking canal bordering Holy Redeemer Cathedral; the great hurricane itself. It's a whole universe. Wish I had that eye for detail.

Methinks there's too much politics, though. Sure, the arguments between the father and the grandmother about independence and Governors rounding up the people for sedition have their place in history, but they don't quite fit in with the rest of the tale - or is that my chauvinism speaking? Why shouldn't politics fit into a woman's coming of age story?

But one thing there's a pleasant surfeit of is food. I revel in the casual lists of cuisine brought about by a meeting of British, Mexican and Caribbean influences: fried barracuda crayfish foot, red snappers stewed in coconut milk, peppered oranges, breadfruit, yams, honey buns, creole bread, relleno soup, red kidney beans with rice, escabeche with hot tortillas, potted meat sandwiches, calves' liver and onions, crushed avocado, salted pigtails, roasted pumpkin seeds, custard apples, craboos...

(Yes, I did compose most of this post before dinner. Why do you ask?)

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Representative Quote:
'I know. But nothin' lasts here, Beka,' her Gran answered. Her eyes looked funny. 'Things bruk down.'
'Ah wonder why?"' Beka asked, bringing the conch and minced habanero peppers to the stove.
Her gran leaned the fork carefully against the frying pan, pushed the window over the back stairs, and propped it open with a long pole. Then she said,
'I don't know why, Beka. But one time, when I was a young girl like you, a circus came to town. I can't remember where it was from, and don't ask me what happened to it afta. The circus had a fluffy polar bear - a ting Belize people never see befo'. It died up at Barracks Gren, Beka. The ice factory broke down the second day the circus was here.'
Beka's Granny Ivy was crying. Her apron tail was over her face, and she said again and again,
'It died, Beka, it died.'
The conch fritters had burned.

Next Book: Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la soledad, from Mexico. In the original Spanish, too! Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book 24, Guatemala: "Men of Maize" by Miguel Ángel Asturias

Whoa. I wanna write like this.

The dense, fructiform imagery of the prose; the recurrence of folk myths and pre-colonial iconography amidst the master's tongue; the epic consolidation of five hundred years' history into maybe twenty years' narrative time; the seamless blending of realism and magic and poetry.

And all this twenty years before One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Sorry, Gabo keeps creeping into the picture. But that was another continent, and besides, the wench is entering dementia.)

It's shocking that so few people know about Asturias, despite his Nobel Prize, despite his life of political involvement and modernismo and exile in Argentina, despite the fact that his son actually took on the name of Gaspar Ilóm, a character from Men of Maize, and became a pro-indigenous rights freedom fighter against the genocidal government during the civil war.

(I only know about him 'cos I did my Spanish immersion in Quetzaltenango, where one of my short texts was by him: a wonderful little fable about a Jesuit trying to trick a tribe out of human sacrifice by forecasting an eclipse only to end up gutted on the obsidian slab due to the fact that they'd calculated its coming centuries ago, thank you very much.)

This book reads like a post-colonial Ulysses - kudos to the translator, Gerald Martin, who's transliterated onomatopeia and resorted to weird neologisms and had to figure out all these local plant names, amate and atole and ceiba and chayote and chichita and chilacayote and chilate and copal - glossary in the back for the perplexed.

Only difference is, instead of feeling like the guy's being onanistic with the lexicon, you feel that real third-world Marxist sorrow of being removed from your cultural roots and your means of production: he keeps hammering home the same damn eponymous point that in the old days the Indians grew maize as a sacred crop for food, and they grew just what they needed, but turning it into a capitalist plantation crop just destroys the earth and makes everyone poor.

Plus this division of the book into chapters named after people who mystically disappear: Gaspar Ilóm, María Tecún, the Deer of the Seventh Fire (i.e. the curandero) and the Coyote-Postman - yes, nagualism i.e. transformation of men into their spirit animals is a huge theme in this book. From the Indian warrior fighting back the colonial planters to the Ladino postman arguing with the Chinese storekeeper over the shawl of his runaway wife. Each generation loses some connection to the past, as well as some of that thick wonderful poetry that infused the beginning, turning instead to Wild West saloon talk, which is still pretty fascinating, nonetheless.

And yet the Coyote-Postman Señor Nicho falls into the world of magic in the end, meeting the firefly wizards and the curandero who became a deer and Gaspar Ilóm himself while in animal shape/trance, and all the figures from the previous stories reappear in the flesh or in legend, María Tecúm become an etiology for the spirited rock that lures people to plummet over the edge of the mountains, the soldier who sold his soul to the devil now plagued with a hernia, hanging out with Machojón's ever-loyal fiancée who grows old waiting for his return in his reeking sombrero as she sells butchered pigmeat in her hole in the wall.

Amazing stuff. Sad thing is, the copy of this book isn't even on the shelves of the library: you've got to delve into Repository Used Reference and pay a reservation fee to get at it. That ain't right.

(Though it is cool to see the date-due stamp chop paper still on the inside. FTW!)

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Representative quote: Not even the ash of his cigar will fall. Hands of darkness brandishing daggers will force him to suicide. But it will be only his shadow, a skin of shadow among the yuccas. The bullet will burst in his temples, he will fall to the ground, but other dark hands will lift his body, they will mount him on his horse, and will begin to shrink him horse and all until he is the size of a piece of sugar candy. The close-knit throng of yuccas will wave their daggers, daggers stained red with fire right up to their hilts.

Next book: Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb, from Belize.