Friday, January 28, 2011

Book 47, Grenada: “Pynter Bender” by Jacob Ross

I’ve just touched down in London, where I’ll be promoting my book GASPP (come to my events!) The past week’s been mad, but being compulsive about this whole project, I did manage to polish off this 452-page tome before I left.

It’s a weird book. It’s got the standard tropes of a Caribbean postcolonial novel: dialect, voodoo, politics, an intelligent young person, strong mothers and absent fathers. And yet it’s utterly unlike them in terms of style – it’s dreamlike, rather, giving you the impression that you’re observing events from a great, unfathomable distance while being quite intimately connected with everything that’s going on.

Pynter Bender’s the smart kid in question, and he excels in school and is brave in the resistance and is handsome enough to have any girl he likes of course, but his secret talent is hard to pin down – born blind but with sight restored via Santay’s healing magic, he perceives things before anyone else does, they call him Jumblie Boy, but that’s hardly all there is to it. He’s filled with an undying anger towards the world; he’s utterly unafraid; he has none of the human weaknesses that should make a character tender.

He’s intense. And yet he has no real idea where he’s going. The setting’s similarly uncertain – not sure if it’s really Grenada or some made-up isle, since I can’t find the villages of Old Hope or the town of San Andrews on Google; the argot contains words from French and Spanish as well as English; don’t know what civil war’s going on, surely the American military intervention should’ve been mentioned; I’ve read Audre Lorde describing its devastating effects in her essay Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

And the family – the society, really – it’s a matriarchal dystopia. The women don’t expect their husbands to stick around for life. And sure they support and feed each other, but they also hurt one another, they make attempts on each other’s life, they go mad and have to send each other to the asylum.

And the bucolic landscape is also the oppressive canefields which the women work in, bearing heavy loads, never mind if they’re pregnant. Which is also the source of beautiful sugar water for the manufacture of rum.

Okay, enough of all that. Need a nap to get over my jetlag and sniffles.

Representative quote:
He stood on the water’s edge and shouted down the long leaf gloom, shouted Birdie’s name and then his Uncle Michael’s. He said everything he wanted to say to Deeka Bender, including what a bad-minded, wicked so-an’-so she was. He called John Seegal Bender a son-a-va-biiitch and liked the sound of it so much he said it eight more times. And still he wasn’t satisfied, so he told John Seegal what a foolish fool he was to walk, and lose ‘imself in swamp mud, and leave his wimmen with so much don’-know-what-they-want-to-do confusion. He’d cackled at the dark ahead of him and stuck his tongue out at Old Hope, danced and stomped on the riverbank and dared the soft, wet mud to suck him in. then he’d called his father’s name and felt himself go quiet.

Next book: V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, from Trinidad and Tobago.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book 46, Barbados: "The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy" by Edward Kamau Brathwaite

Rather amazing that Brathwaite and Derek Walcott are of the same generation (seriously, they're born four months apart in 1930), yet they have such radically different strategies for excavating and mythologising their cultural heritage in their most famous books.

In Omeros, Walcott's all lofty and epic with his terza rima and bombast, yet specifically ties everything back to the island of Saint Lucia; but here Brathwaite uses the language of the common man, bordering on slam lyrics, but dwells far longer on the pre-modern African settlements of Axum and Timbuktu and Volta and the emigrant communities in Brixton and Chicago and Paris than on Barbados itself.

It's a great book, though: in fact, I really dig the first two sections of the trilogy, Rights of Passage and Masks, surveying the grand scope of black heritage from drum-making to sweating in sugar and cotton plantations to standing in the shipyards and airports waiting to migrate. Less wild about the third section, Islands, which deals a little more specifically with Caribbean problems of robber politicians who sell their homelands to casino landlords and hotel magnates and cruise companies. But perhaps it was just my poetry fatigue?

Couple more notes. It's cute that all the poet's Afrocentrism only pushed him to change his name from Edward to Kamau after his trilogy's ultimate compilation in 1973 (and possibly after my edition was printed in 1981). And it's intriguing how the recurrent motif in the volume is Uncle Tom, of all figures.

Also, the Yoruba glossary at the back is woefully inadequate. What the hell's a poe? Who's Asase Yaa? What's bambalula bambalulai?

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote:

Drown the screams, shore
cool the lashed sore,
keep the dream pure

for we who have achieved nothing
who have not built
who have forgotten all
and dare to remember

the paths we shall never remember
agan: Atumpan talking and the harvest branch-
es, all the tribes of Ashanti dreaming the dream
of Tutu, Anokye and the Golden Stool, built
in Heaven for our nation by the work
of lightning and the brilliant adze: and now


Next book: Jacob Ross's Pynter Bender, from Grenada.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Long-lost brothers?

Incidentally, Derek Walcott and Gabriel García Márquez look uncannily alike.

They're born just three years apart: Walcott in 1930, Gabo in 1927. It's a plot twist worthy of a telenovela!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book 45, St Lucia: “Omeros” by Derek Walcott

Epic poem FTW!

Oddly enough, I think I’ve heard Omeros being talked about more as a novel in verse, like Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, rather than a Homeric epic as its title obviously suggests.

Methinks the epic title is much more justly deserved: after all, the narrative line here is constellated and mysterious as only the laws of poetry would allow. The characters are humble in profession but are based on figures from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the poet insistently claims these ebony descendants of slaves are the equals of the marmoreal Hellenes, and indeed they undergo spirit quests and epiphanies and ritual battles and are the most beautiful women in the world all the same.

(Yeah, we’ve had a stretch of boring covers these past few weeks.)

Truth is, I can’t quite match every character to its corresponding figure in Greek Myth: Achille, Hector, Philoctete and Helen are easy, of course, and Ma Kilman must be Circe and Maud Plunkett Penelope because of their witchery and quilting respectively.

But Ulysses corresponds to Seven Seas, Major Plunkett and the narrator himself, each of whom are wanderers of the globe: yes, Walcott intrudes in first-person, expounding on racism in Concord and imperialism in London before making it back to St Lucia to attend one of his own characters’ funerals. Good of him to intrude, really: not quite the self-indulgence you get in Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, but instead a kind of humility, recognizing the artificiality of him, a Dante-spouting globalised academic, daring to represent the subaltern mackerel fishers in their pirogues and village huts.

Oh, and the American tourists are the parasitical suitors of Penelope in Ithaca. Took me a while to figure that out.

Warning to those of you who’ll pick it up yourselves: the beginning’s mighty confusing, so give it time. You’ll be rolling with the maritime illogic of the poem in a few dozen pages.

And how nice that Walcott specifically sets his story in St Lucia, with all its geographical features intact, never mind that no-one’s heard of Castries and Gros-Îlet and Soufrière. Somehow the way a few other writers set their tales in generic or fictional localities depresses me a little. We citizens of small countries find it difficult to take pride in where we come from sometimes.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

And ah, he makes metered slant rhyme look so easy.

Representative quote:

I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity –
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.

Next book: Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, from Barbados.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book 44, Martinique: "Black Skin, White Masks" by Frantz Fanon

I also had to read extracts from Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in college. But I remember nothing from it, except that he was angry.

Black Skin, White Masks was his first work: in fact, it was supposed to be his doctoral thesis while he was studying psychology in Lyon, but of course it got rejected and ignored till maybe the '80s when it became an important text on racial liberation worldwide.

The title's actually misleading. Sure, some of it's about black folks trying to appear white. But really, it's about the entire caboodle of fucked-up psychology that's emerged in the world due to the interaction of black and white people after colonialism: something few psychologists cared to consider before then.

Fanon's alarmed by how the popular unconscious has ended up swallowing a particular negative image of the black person: the Negro = the genital, the Negro = everything base and deadly and evil when it appears in your dreams. He documents cases where white folks suffer from such neuroses, rape phobias/fantasies and tormenting delusions of tom-tom drums; images of cannibals and Bushmen in the Pathé documentaries; barbarians and faithful servants in comic books. Then he talks about how these images have twisted even the colonised Antillean peoples, who have no alternative mythology: they dream of themselves as white, as young people it is with a rude shock that they realise they are black and thus forever the shit of the earth.

Obvious stuff, you may think. Maybe it was original when he wrote it back in 1952, but today we know all this stuff: we've read in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink how insidiously racial types have imprinted even the most well-meaning of us, causing even black students to do worse in standardised tests if they're reminded of their race beforehand.

And yet Fanon says it with such passion, such anguish, and such poetry, in between his overloaded Freud-and-Lacan-quoting academese that it's different: it does awaken insights once again to the slippages of race that happen even today, even for me as a majority race Chinese Anglophone in a successful Asian technocracy.

Which brings me to three bizarre things:

1) According to Wikipedia, Black Skin, White Masks has been hugely influential even among Tamils and Palestinians. And yet Fanon clearly states that he wrote the book specifically with the Antillean black person in mind, and the educated, upper-class Antillean black person in particular, one with the wherewithal to actually go to France and make a fool of himself trying to fit in.

Antilleans aren't prototypical blacks, he notes: they see themselves as far whiter than, say, the fearsome Senegalese soldiers, and thus feel superior. Which is of course nonsense, but that's how colonisation's warped everyone's minds.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

2) The book is surprisingly sexy. Chapters Two and Three are all about the cultural clashes that result when black women shack up with white men, and black men shack up with white women: the desire to whiten oneself through sexual conquest and/or codependency. But of course, the delusions work the other way, too: Fanon reports the case of a French prostitute who would experience an orgasm at the very thought of making love to a black man, until she actually started to have sex to black men, and discovered them to be pretty much the same as white men.

He ultimately concludes that the archetypal equation of the black race with sexuality means that all white women who fear black men ( as well as all white men who hate black men) secretly want to snog them. He doesn't approve of homosexuality much, by the way. Product of his times.

3) The book is surprisingly literary. As evidence for his described neuroses, Fanon quotes at length not just from psychiatrists but also from Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas and Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Orphée Noir and even autobiographies by hack writers.

Is this good science? Maybe not. But it's also through the literary language of spiritual liberation that he voices the courage necessary for the black man to discover selfhood and dignity in the closing chapters. Really beautiful stuff: maybe I should've reread Césaire's Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal for this country segment after all.

Representative quote: I, the man of color, want only this:

That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.

The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.

Next book: Derek Walcott's Omeros, from St Lucia.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Book 43, Dominica: "Sleep It Off, Lady" by Jean Rhys

Do I know why the Singapore National Library has a first edition of Jean Rhys's last work before her death? No I do not.

But I'm glad all the same, because this is a lovely book - arguably more beautiful than her more famous novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which I only liked on a second read.

There's a distant, interior style, characteristic of an earlier, more genteel age - I kept thinking of Eudora Welty - and indeed, Rhys (it's pronounced Rees) began writing in Paris in the '20s, soaking up the culture of refined Modernism while never quite shedding her Caribbean roots and accent.

Another thing I love is how this series of fictions carries us through the line of Rhys's life, from her childhood in Dominica to her boarding school blues in rural England to her London musical-hall and Parisian demimondaine days, up till her senescence, retirement (and afterlife). The cover sleeve claims the stories are based on her own life, and indeed there are tales narrated in first person, and little mysterious details that cohere more with the randomness of true living than with the ideal contours of plot.

But the truth is, most of the female characters (often mildly to wildly neurotic) have names of their own: the molested Phoebe, the spiteful Daisie, the untouchable Margaret, the obsessive Audrey and the pathetic Miss Verney. So their lives are cut short as each story ends, and we're left with that beautiful sense of mystery as we move into another woman's life.

It's also pretty refreshing to see the tropics portrayed so coolly and dispassionately, by one for whom the experience of snowy England was far more bizarre than a land of rainforests and volcanoes. Sure, there's voodoo and murders and miscegenation, but that was part of the course of life as they viewed through the distant windows of childhood.

Quite different from most colonial narratives. She even makes fun of the exoticisation of the Indies in "The Insect World", which ends up comparing sandflies to London subway passengers in the war, to the ticking biological clock of a single woman in a city about to swallow her whole.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote: Well there was one thing. Now she felt very wise, very grown-up, she could forget these childish worries. She could hardly believe that only a few weeks ago she, like all the others, had secretly made lists of her trousseau, decided on the names of her three children. Jack. Marcus. And Rose.

Now goodbye Marcus. Goodbye Rose. The prospect before her might be difficult and uncertain but it was far more exciting.

Next book: Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks", from Martinique.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Congrats to Shelbi!

Shelbi from Around the World in 80 Books has finished her year-long challenge! While pregnant, working, and caring for her toddler too!

Here's a map of her epic journey, from the Channel Islands to Zimbabwe to Kiribati to Brazil to Canada:

View Around the World in 80 Books! in a larger map

恭喜, felicitaciones, வாழ்த்துகள், поздравляю, مبروك, tahniah, おめでとうございます und wir gratulieren dir, Leserin-Königin. We're eagerly awaiting your next endeavour.