Dear readers:
For our sixth anniversary in May 2010, The Caribbean Review of Books has launched a new website at www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com. Antilles has now moved to www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/antilles — please update your bookmarks and RSS feed. If you link to Antilles from your own blog or website, please update that too!

Friday, 28 November 2008

A judge's journal: part four

I've come to recognise the special engine-hum of the DHL delivery van, and the driver must wonder why so many heavy boxes--for books are heavy--are suddenly being shipped to my house. It's been more than a month since I last updated my Commonwealth Writers' Prize "judge's journal", but it's not because I've stopped reading. The opposite: I'm reading frantically, fuelled by tea, late into the night, and failing to keep up with the flood of books entered for next year's prize.

I've just unpacked the last batch, and added them to my log. Now the books join the perilously tall piles on my bedroom floor--I do most of my reading in bed, and I like to have them close to hand. Terrifyingly, there is over a month remaining till the final entry deadline, and I've come to dread the appearance of the DHL van. So far--if my ever-shaky arithmetic can be relied upon--eighty-two books have arrived. Some are polite, slim short story collections, and these can be knocked off in a day. Others--so many!--are vast tomes, wrist-strainers, epic sagas, the kind that take a month to read under normal circumstances.

Is there some cosmic court I can lobby to have an extra three months inserted between now and year-end?

More seriously: I'm enjoying much of what I'm reading, and so far I'm impressed by what the Canadian publishing industry in particular has produced over the last year. But there's been one big disappointment for me in this whole prize-reading exercise, and it's something I've discussed before. Surprisingly and alarmingly few of the books I've received so far are by Caribbean or Caribbean-born writers. Merely a tenth of them, in fact.

Now, books are entered for the CWP by their publishers, and there is a limit to the number each house can enter. So you might blame the shortage of Caribbean books in my bedside stack on publishers who don't bother to enter the Caribbean titles on their lists. But: parallel to the CWP entries, there's another steady stream of books that flows into my office, of review copies sent to the CRB. As it happens, many of the CWP-entered titles are ones that previously arrived for the magazine, and then were sent out for review. I keep a log of those as well. And I must say I haven't noticed any important works of Caribbean fiction sent to the CRB that weren't also entered for the CWP.

What's my conclusion here? I'm not sure. Maybe just a general anxiety about the state of Caribbean fiction. Are there good writers out there who aren't being published? Is it just a low-output year? Are good writers from the Caribbean working in other forms and genres than the novel or the short story?

A statistical tidbit to close. I've been struck by the number of books by Canadian authors of south Asian ancestry that have arrived among the CWP entries. Many more, in fact, than by Caribbean-born writers. And many of them are really good. Keep an eye on the literary south Asian diaspora in Canada. I think they're on their way to redefining the "Indian" novel.

Dancehall nostalgia

Gregory Isaacs in front of his African Museum store on Chancery Lane, Kingston; photo by Beth Lesser, from her book Dancehall

American Beth Lesser of Reggae Quarterly visited Jamaica several times in the 1980s, interviewing and photographing some of the leading musicians of the day. Soul Jazz Records has just published a compilation of her photos and text documenting the evolving sound of the period: Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture. The UK Observer has posted an online gallery of Lesser's images, including remarkable portraits of musicians from Gregory Isaacs (above) to Wayne Smith to Bobby Melody. And Steve Yates reviewed Lesser's book in the Observer a few months ago, and so did Ian Burrell, more recently, in the Independent.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

"A Dead Journals Society"

As a writer, I write in the presence of all the languages of the world, even if I only know one. Humanities today are developing a practical, divining sense of languages, and are using a far higher proportion of the capacities of the human brain. Multilingualism should not be boiled down to the development of the quantities of languages; it refers not only to a situation, but also to a new awareness, related to the way I frequent the poetry of the world. In this context, translation is indispensable, is increasingly a new genre among literary and artistic genres....

-- From "Cultural journals and Europe", a short essay by Édouard Glissant, published in Eurozine. I found this portion of his text particularly poignant:

... the memory of a body of journals is important so as to consider the way these instruments of more or less topical focus may develop. Particularly, I am thinking of the innumerable journals that have only produced one or two editions and disappeared for various reasons that can be enumerated.... a number of these journals with only one or two editions have occupied a very important position in the sensitivity and knowledge of their field of activity, however ephemeral it is, and I could provide a number of examples. The life expectancy of a journal does not always accord with their appearance. A Dead Journals Society would help understand the continuity of those journals that have survived.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Times notables

The New York Times has released its annual list of the year's "notable" books. Three Caribbean-related titles have made their cut: John Edgar Wideman's novel Fanon; Tom Gjelten's Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba; and Patrick French's Naipaul biography The World Is What It Is. No books actually written by Caribbean authors, however.

Saxophone and oboe

The Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy writes of the two voices in Kipling, which have been called the saxophone and the oboe. The first is the hard, militaristic, imperialist writer, and the second is the Kipling infused with Indianness, with admiration for the subcontinent’s cultures. Naipaul has a saxophone and an oboe, too, a hard sound and a softer one. These two sides could be called the Wounder and the Wounded.

-- From James Wood's review--one of the most intelligent and substantial so far--of The World Is What It Is, in this week's New Yorker. Wood includes an insightful and unexpected comparison of Naipaul to Frantz Fanon:

Fanon believed in violent revolution, but Naipaul’s radical pessimism meets Fanon’s radical optimism at that point where the cut of colonial guilt, angrily resisted by both men, is converted into the wound of colonial shame--“a kind of curse.” Fanon had argued, “The colonist is an exhibitionist. His safety concerns lead him to remind the colonized out loud: ‘Here I am the master.’ The colonist keeps the colonized in a state of rage, which he prevents from boiling over.” And the title novella of “In a Free State” is practically a working demonstration--spare, bleak, and burning--of that argument.

Meanwhile, Judy Bachrach of Vanity Fair writes an angry dissent to all the glowing reviews of Patrick French's book.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Book of the week: Jamaican Food, by B.W. Higman

Part cultural history, part anthropological study, part encyclopedia of flora and fauna, B.W. Higman's Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture is a comprehensive survey of "food practices" in Jamaica, from the time of the pre-Columbian Taino to the present. It's also the Antilles book of the week.

From the publisher's website:

The author examines the shift in Jamaican food practices over time, from the Tainos’ use of bitter cassava to the Maroons’ introduction of jerk pork, and the population’s love affair with the fruits of the island such as paw paw, guava, star apple, and avocado pear. In this well-written and accessible study, the author traces how endemic animals, delicacies such as the turtle, ringtail pigeon, black land crab and mountain mullet, barely retained their popular status into the early twentieth century and are now almost completely forgotten, their populations dramatically depleted, often endangered.

Among this volume's most pleasing features are the full-colour reproductions, in sections of plates, of a series of late eighteenth-century watercolours by the Rev. John Lindsay, depicting various edible plants and animals of Jamaica.

Higman categorises possible food sources into three sections: plants, animals, and inorganic matter. Some are obvious: cassava, breadfruit, rice, cow. Some less so: cactus? pelican? For each item he offers biological notes, historical references, bits of folklore, nutritional data, occasionally even summaries of recipes. Jamaican Food is a scholarly text, but one full enough of interesting and surprising information to make entertaining reading for gourmands and trivia-lovers also.

Still more Naipaul

And still they come, the reviews of The World Is What It Is, Patrick French's Naipaul biography. Three interesting ones this weekend:

- Scott Sherman, in The Nation:

Patrick French conveys a better sense of the man than the work. Focused on the life, he for the most part neglects the books. French devotes just several hundred words of tepid analysis to a description of A House for Mr. Biswas, and his assessment of Naipaul's best-known work is wan: "The novel...is universal in the way that the work of Dickens or Tolstoy is universal." French seems to assume that his readers have digested Naipaul's oeuvre, and so, with certain exceptions, like A Way in the World, he does not describe or analyze the books in any serious detail.

(He also thinks there's too much sex.)

- Alexander (brother of Paul) Theroux in the Boston Globe:

I met him once at Wheeler's over dinner, which I shared with him and my brother Paul, in London in 1969. Naipaul questioned me on why in the light of Vietnam I would accept from the US government a Fulbright grant, like some sort of craven, low-brow mendicant. At that time, I had no money at all. He, on the other hand, had just received £3,500 from the British Arts Council bursary, taken a grant from the Farfield Foundation to teach at Makerere University, in Uganda, and basically taken every bit of free money he could get. And did I mention that at that dinner, Paul (who later had a public falling-out with Naipaul) paid the bill?

- And George Packer in the New York Times Book Review:

Naipaul’s code of accountability lies in facing the truth, but it’s a limited truth, with no sense of agency. He cannot begin to see himself as his biographer or reader sees him, for the pain of others always reverts back to his own. And yet this bottomless narcissism, together with the uncompromising intensity of his vision, holds the key to Naipaul’s literary power. He had the capacity in his writing to pro­ject himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.

Lagniappe: Packer also writes about Naipaul in a short personal essay, "The Artist as Monster", posted at his New Yorker blog:

I started reading V. S. Naipaul when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, in a little village in Togo, West Africa, in the early eighties. Those were not happy years. The human-rights experts are correct: solitary confinement is a form of torture. I became all-too-acquainted with the labyrinths of my own thinking, which are recorded somewhere in notebooks that I haven’t dared to open for the past quarter century.

Somehow, Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River” fell into my hands....