Also noted

Other new and recent books

The Almond Leaf, by Earl McKenzie (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230128, 68 pp), a second collection of poems by the Jamaican author of Against Linearity and two books of fiction. Dreamy love poems alternate with intimations of mortality, and delicate glimpses of the natural world with snatches of remembered music — Bach, Verdi, Coltrane. “A bird stands on the electric wire / and sings. / This is the story of our lives,” McKenzie writes. “Perched on things that can kill us / we sing our human songs.” In another poem: “There is divinity, surely, / in jazz and birdsong.”

Poemas of the Caribbean Sun, by Jude Patrong (ISBN 9789768211149, 52 pp), the third volume of poems by a Trinidadian poet who describes himself as “a child of the universe.” Drawing on miscellaneous myths and on Patrong’s first-hand observations of nature, these verses comment on “social and spiritual issues.” “The landscape becomes a frontier,” he says. “It is being downtrodden by mass crime.”

Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana, by A.R.F. Webber (Guyana Heritage Society, no ISBN, 432 pp), a reprint of an important early history of Guyana (first published in 1931). Webber, who was born in Tobago and migrated to British Guiana when he was twenty, was a businessman, journalist, politician, and the author of the novel Those That Be in Bondage (1917). His History — commemorating the anniversary of the unification of the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice in 1831 — is valuable both for Webber’s extensive research among the colony’s archives and as a document of its time (the author’s reformist stance is nowhere more evident than in his pessimistic final paragraphs). This edition, like the original, includes a statistic-filled appendix compiled by H.P. Christiani, colour reproductions of six watercolours by R.G. Sharples, and even facsimiles of the advertisements inserted by the first publisher.

Immigration and Politics in the Caribbean: Japanese and Other Immigrants in the Dominican Republic, by Valentina Peguero (Caribbean Studies Press, ISBN 9781584324829, 310 pp), a study of one of the more obscure communities in the multicultural Caribbean, the Japanese who immigrated to the Dominican Republic in the 1950s. Peguero situates this small wave of migration — 1,320 Japanese between 1956 and 1959 — within the wider immigration policy of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who barred non-white migrants. She describes daily life in the agricultural “colonies” where the Japanese migrants were settled — strategically located near the border with Haiti, to create a “buffer zone” — the difficulties of assimilation and acculturation, and the anti-Japanese violence that broke out after Trujillo’s death in 1961. “Many chose to leave because of this hostile environment.” Of those who decided to stay, however, Peguero concludes: “the personal, economic, and cultural connections that they have made tie them more to the present than to their ancestral past.”

Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back: The Jamaican Story, 1972–2007, by Kent Gammon (Pelican Publishers, ISBN 9769518859, 258 pp), an examination of recent Jamaican politics that attempts, in the author’s words, “to gain a clearer understanding of Edward Seaga and his part as a leading politician,” and to suggest “the reasons this author feels have contributed to Jamaica not achieving the level of economic and political power we once had all promise of attaining.” Gammon, an attorney, does not disguise his sympathy for the Jamaica Labour Party, led by Seaga from 1974 to 2005, nor his disdain for the People’s National Party, led during that time by Michael Manley and P.J. Patterson. His tract, obviously written during the JLP’s long term in opposition, is basically a passionate extended argument for returning the party to power; which the Jamaican electorate did, by a slim majority, in September 2007.

From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History Since 1492, by Reinaldo Funes Monzote, trans. Alex Martin (University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 9780807858585, 357 pp), an important study of the human-induced evolution of the Cuban landscape since the arrival of Columbus, which in its original Spanish edition, published in 2004, won a UNESCO Book Prize for Caribbean Thought. Cuba was once mostly covered by lush forest. For the island’s first three centuries under Spanish rule, logging was carefully controlled by the royal navy, while sugar planters argued that cutting the forests opened fertile land for growing cane. In 1815, the crown finally allowed landowners “complete freedom to fell trees on their land . . . Although the environmental consequences quickly became evident, nothing could stop clear-cutting of land for sugarcane until the damage had been done.” The effect was dramatic, and not just for Cuba’s extraordinary biodiversity; Funes Monzote argues that “the way Cuba became the world’s principal exporter of sugar . . . became a permanent mortgage on the island’s future.”

Identity, Memory, and Diaspora: Voices of Cuban-American Artists, Writers, and Philosophers, ed. Jorge J.E. Gracia, Lynette M.F. Bosch, and Isabel Alvarez Borland (State University of New York Press, ISBN 978791473177, 284 pp), a collection of interviews with nineteen intellectuals of the Cuban diaspora in the Unites States, including, among the better-known, Carlos Eire, Virgil Suárez, and Ana Menéndez. “Who are we, so-called Cuban Americans?” this volume asks. “Are we still Cuban in some sense? Have we become fully American?” In a pleasing innovation, each interview is paired with a sample of the subject’s work: stories and poems from the writers, essays from the philosophers, and a section of colour plates (if only there were more) for the artists. The issues they discuss — language, the notion of home, the burdens of history and the freedoms of being in a new place — are resonant within the evolving concept of a transnational Caribbean.

The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City, by César Miguel Rondón, trans. Frances R. Aparicio and Jackie White (University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 9780807858592, 340 pp), a long-overdue translation of a celebrated text of Caribbean musicology. Rondón’s Libro de salsa, originally published in 1980, argues that salsa was created in New York City in the 1960s by Caribbean migrants, especially Cubans and Puerto Ricans. He addresses the debate over whether salsa is really a re-packaged version of traditional Cuban son, warns Cuba-centric scholars not to ignore the musical traditions of other Caribbean territories, and shows that Venezuela was an important centre for the evolution of salsa in the late 1970s (Rondón himself is Venezuelan). And he reminds us that salsa is rooted in “the marginalised barrio.” “This was music produced not for the luxurious ballroom but for hard life on the street.” A new final chapter written for this edition summarises developments in the twenty-five years since Rondón’s book first appeared, ending with the death of Celia Cruz, the “queen of salsa,” in 2003.

Bermuda, by Donald Nussbaum (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 9781405094870, 184 pp), the latest in a series of island-by-island pictorial surveys of the Caribbean — this time, of a island not geographically within the Caribbean, and culturally ambivalent about the connection. Nussbaum — whose photographs have appeared in other Macmillan volumes — offers up the expected scenes of beaches, frolicking holiday-makers, and native dress (in this case, two middle-aged gentlemen in jackets, ties, and crimson Bermuda shorts), and he pays special attention to Bermuda’s historic architecture. The book does not let us forget what we have to thank for these building’s excellent state of preservation: tourism.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008