Greener pastures

By Lisa Allen-Agostini

Who’s Your Daddy? and Other Stories, by Geoffrey Philp
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230777, 161 pp

There’s something about a diaspora writer. They tip between “home” and “here,” wherever home and here happen to be, always negotiating the teetering seesaw’s balance in language, theme, structure, striving to be both local and foreign. Most of our writers live outside the Caribbean for reasons of financial or social necessity — it’s damned hard to make a living as a writer anywhere, but within the Caribbean there are few systems in place to allow writers to write without resorting to teaching, PR, or some other potboiler work.

Even those livings are hard to come by for some in the Caribbean, and so our writers, many of them, leave to seek the proverbial greener pastures — and grant and publishing opportunities — in “foreign.” Lorna Goodison is in Michigan, and Olive Senior is in Canada; Walcott is in Boston and Brathwaite is in New York; in Britain there are the young Kei Miller and that venerable curmudgeon Sir Vidia. What happens when your literature is written in exile?

We all know the story, how Hollywood lured the writers away from New York and set them to work writing talkies.

As they brought New York back to life in the pages of their scripts, the writers could almost feel the warm air and lush landscape outside their windows being replaced by the cool, crisp Manhattan light, the distant bustle of horns and traffic breaking the sunstruck silence of Southern California. To write a picture set in New York was, in a sense, to “live” there for a few hours at a time . . .

Yet the city they were creating was not just the one they were remembering, however romantically. The writers were, after all, professional imaginers, and it was an imaginary city they were bringing into being. It would be animated not only by the memory of what once had happened there, but by all the things that could have happened, or should have happened. To memory was added imagination, and it would be these two potent faculties that would animate the dream city and give it special force and flavour.

(From Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, by James Sanders)

Geoffrey Philp is one such writer, and his latest book, Who’s Your Daddy? and Other Stories, demonstrates the balancing act perfectly. The twenty stories in this collection toggle between Jamaica and Miami in location and state of mind, now revelling in the reverence for family and roots of the one, now swilling in the nihilistic survivalism of the other, and sometimes swiveling the paradigm by 180 degrees so all that is turned on its head. Geography comes to stand for character, but these stories remind us that globalism has dissolved some borders, and Miami has bled into Kingston, and vice versa.

What the stories have in common is a good handful of Philps’s sinuous characters. They are sometimes a nasty piece of work, sometimes not the kind of person you’d want to meet on a dark night, but they are mostly intriguing and often well drawn in a few oblique strokes. Take for instance the avaricious Angie, star of “A Survivor’s Tale”. All we know is that she’s a brown ex-pat with one eye on her dying husband’s heart rate monitor and the other eye on his bank account, but we have a complete portrait of a recognisable figure in this compact and entertaining short short. Philps feeds you a characterisation in sips which, before you realise it, constitute a mouthful.

My favourite story in the collection is “First Love”. On the one hand, it’s a shockingly brutal story, but on the other hand it’s familiar and predictable: two boys at a prestigious Jamaican high school struggle with their homosexual urges and one must pay the ultimate price for his sexuality. What’s best about the story is how it is by turns tender and harrowing, with its sensuous imagery of the sweaty locker room and the manly world of “the beautiful game” which Mark and Patrick inhabit. Mark’s open-eyed betrayal of his love and his lover is awful, but you knew he had no choice: “In third form, they had all heard the story of how some of the prefects had caught and beaten ‘a Chinee batty boy’. The boy had been injured so badly he had to be rushed to the emergency room. He never came back to the school.”

In a way it’s the same sense of brutal implacability that exists in Philps’s Miami, but the savagery exists on a different plane. The soul-destroying isolation the characters face twists relationships so that friendship is tainted, love is impure, and innocence is drowned, as Michael in the title story shows in this encounter with his guidance counsellor:

“Did you mean what you said about mailing anthrax to your classmates? I don’t know if you know this, but it’s a federal offence to joke about something like that out loud, much less threaten someone. But I know you’re a good boy. You really didn’t mean it, did you?”

I didn’t answer her. She didn’t deserve an answer. She’s just collecting her paycheck every two weeks and then goes home to her fat, loser husband; they have fat, loser sex, and pretty soon they’ll have fat, loser kids like those that surround me in this fat, loser school. Besides, she seems to think that I don’t know that I’m a genius.

But that morning, as I made my way though the gauntlet of white kids to the back of the bus, they started teasing me again, “He showed you who was the man. He showed you, you Bill Gates wannabe.” I didn’t want a fight that morning so all I could do was hold my book bag close to my body and slump into my seat for what seemed like an eternity.

Philps, the author of one other book of short stories, a novel, and five collections of poems, is a sure-footed writer. When this works, his stories are lovely and fluent, like the vignette “Sunday Morning, Coming Down”, a tiny, delightful glimpse into the dilemma of the immigrant who feels he is losing his son to Miami’s sinful wiles. When it doesn’t work, the showing is too scant and the telling feels mechanical and dull.

When his mother died, leaving him only his name, he ran away from home, vowing he’d never go back to the island until he could show everyone how successful he’d become — without their help. Everyone in Mount Airy thought he was mad. How would an eighteen-year-old boy survive in America? But he did. He courted an American college girl, married and divorced her to get his papers, and then he was free to get any job he wanted.

(“Joseph’s Dream”)

Fortunately there are more instances of the former than the latter in Who’s Your Daddy?, and the book is an entertaining addition to the canon of Caribbean works by exiles, viewing us through a glass, darkly.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She co-edited the anthology Trinidad Noir (2008), and is the author of a young adult novel, The Chalice Project (2009). She writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian.