THE CARIBBEAN ALTERNATIVE

THE CARIBBEAN ALTERNATIVE

an article by George Lear, PureFiction.com, 1999

Faber’s new Caribbean series of books has bought together authors who write in four languages, harnessing a growing interest in the area as a distinct and homogeneous cultural region. Bill Clinton, himself a native of the Southern United States, has even declared his belief that there is a strand of literature which runs from Faulkner to Marquez (who appears in the Faber series), with its links enshrouded in a mist of Creole and centuries old trading contacts as well as geographic proximity. It is an exciting series which has brought several books into the English language for the first time.

So, three authors met in a plush room at the back of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to discuss the series, and their own books. Caryl Phillips, the well-established English based writer chaired the meeting. First up, Frank Martinus Arion began with an explosive poem, recited/rapped in both English and Papiamento, the language of his native Island, Curacao. Curacao was a former Dutch colony and much of Arion’s work has been written in Dutch. He is well established on the Dutch literary scene, where Doubleplay, the novel issued as part of the Faber series, first appeared to critical acclaim, in 1975. It seems crazy that English speakers have had to wait so long for a translation. The passage he read immediately endeared Arion to the audience and the book is a great one.

Centered around a marathon game of domino’s that lasts from dawn to dusk and concerning the four men who play the game and their partners, the book branches out to examine the very political and social nature of the Island and the wider Caribbean community. Doubleplay manages to mix this huge subject matter with a very keen sense of comedy which always keeps the book warm and readable. The Island is described vividly and one quickly becomes part of the reader’s life as the book travels with them. The tensions that mount as the game proceeds mirror the complex social web that has entwined itself amongst the four friends and the book is a tender ode to a changing time with a fierce streak of a desire for justice making it a memorable book. There is a real sense of the importance of grabbing The Time permeating throughout.

In contrast to Arion, Robert Antoni, a Trinidadian bought up in Bermuda and now living in Miami, appeared tired and lethargic – maybe still jet lagged or falling victim to the constant wine and champagne he has been plied as the Caribbean series make the rounds of literary London. His novel, Blessed is the Fruit is an intense and sometimes difficult look at the lives of two women; a white landowner and a black servant as they live on a rundown estate, deserted by men. Writing in Creole, it attempts to brings together two extremes of Caribbean life, both harrowing, through the eyes of these women. At times it is magical, at times it is a bit of a trudge as stories go in cycles, leaving nothing to chance. It is a book to be read slowly appreciated. The language and Antoni’s power of description is sometimes painfully brilliant.

Central to the discussion that followed the readings was the factor which linked them above all, the position of women in a Caribbean society which is still rigidly masculine. Doubleplay is dedicated simply ‘to women with courage’ while Blessed is the Fruit centres on the struggle of women cast adrift in a mans world. Both writers see a world where women have attained a position of much greater influence as being vital for the development of the Caribbean Islands they write about. Indeed, since Double Play was written, Curacao has seen a w omen take up the reigns of political power in the Island, although Arion declared that she was a very different women to Solema, the western educated political activist in his book.

The idea of the language of the writers was also a interesting point as the four main languages of the Caribbean; English, Spanish, Dutch and French were imposed by colonists. Frank Martinus Arion said that he is very heavily involved in advocating the wider use of the Papiamento as a language while Robert Antoni said that only when he began writing in the Creole dialect did he really feel he had ‘found his voice’.

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