Literature of Belangini
- Sasenarine Persaud (Author)
Canada Geese and Apple Chatney: Stories. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Djanet Sears (Author)
Harlem Duet. Scirocco Drama (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kwame Dawes (Editor)
Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Clara Joseph
Kwame Dawes is from ... err ... Ghana, Jamaica, Canada, the United States,... Africa. This singer-critic-professor-poet (and more) has undertaken the challenging task of editing a collection of poems that are musical and political and that demonstrate, according to the editor, a "reggae aesthetic." Not all poems in the "anthology" (a much debated term in the preface) are set to reggae rhythms, but, while some indeed are one hundred percent reggae, others strive, occasionally a bit too hard, for its spirit.
Wheel and Come Again is a collection of "reggae" poems written by writers from the Islands, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States The reggae lingua "wheel and come again," an invocation to the audience to join in and repeat, reappears in Dawes’s own Trickster poem in the collection. The anthology contains poems by well-known poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Kamau Brathwaite as well as by lesser known and younger poets.
The majority of the poems profoundly communicate rhythm, feeling and thought. While Rasta and race are repeated themes in these poems, Bob Marley is also celebrated often for both style and sense. Several poems dedicated to Marley capture the main events in his life and bear witness to his immense influence on the poets; Marley is "you new bridge" in a hostile world when faced with the terrible reality that "the sea does not divide for us to cross / we have to swim and cut our path." Many poems are about "riddim an’ hardtimes" in reggae mode. A poem such as "Ethiopia Unda a Jamaican Mango Tree" captures at once humour and pathos most effectively. The coping methods of "sufferers" are simultaneously touching and threatening, perhaps best exemplified in the movement from "the stone that killed me" to "I am the stone that killed me." The poems are a way of p(l)aying back. The lament "take mi home / to de place, where I belang" is at once a haunting response to racist attacks of "why don’t you go back where you came from?" and an exhausting search for home. Several poems testify to the spiritual strength of reggae. Reggae’s hypnotic jerky pulse, its choppiness, sustains the poet in more than one way: "me take de radio / an mi push i up eena mi belly / fi keep de baby company." The poem tells us what it means to be black, woman, poor, and immigrant—all in one. There are not only rhythms here but also revelations.
Set to reggae rhythm, the patois and "dread talk" are to be intuitively understood and interpreted, enjoyed best when read aloud as with dub poetry. Some of the unorthodox spellings: "slave shipppppppp" and "lawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwd" (the latter more ’law’ than ’lord’)—startle the complacent reader. Unorthodox verse styles, such as the multiple column poems of Brian Meeks and the prose eulogy for reggae by Vijay Steede, make their own statement of difference and comradeship. Dawes’s introduction is an excellent standalone piece of reggae criticism that makes one want to read his new book Natural Mysticism: Towards A Reggae Aesthetic. His argument that reggae is the so-far missing voice of the working class and that it "crosses cultural, racial and class divides" feels convincing when presented with the anthology.
Sasenaraine Persaud is a novelist, poet and short story writer of Indian descent. He was born in Guyana, and he migrated to Canada and now lives in the United States. Canada Geese and Apple Chatney is a collection of his short stories with narrators and protagonists who seem very Indian.
The Indianness is both a strength and a hindrance in these stories. In the first story, "The Dog," Indian culture is conflated with Brahmin, and is used by the narrator to explain concepts of cleanliness that require him to keep his dog at arms length. The story starts in essay form, with lessons on where a dog lives and when it would retire, and becomes interesting as the dog becomes a harbinger of bad tidings. The "brahmin" aspects of the dog, however, are problematic, especially when the dog receives holy prasad and accompanies the narrator around his father’s pyre: both of these acts are highly sacrilegious, unbrahminic. Naming the second dog "Shiva" is tantamount to a Catholic priest’s mother naming her cat "The Blessed Virgin Mary." Persaud’s repeated allusions to Hindu mythology are informative but sometimes seem contrived, if not irresponsible, as when a character who remarks on a certain race not being able to run a "cake shop" let alone a country is blithely compared to Krishna, Buddha, or Mahavira.
"My Girl, This Indianness" is a fast-paced and intricate story that achieves a balance between disturbing political memories and a relaxing, if shaky, romance. Dr. Cheddi Jagan comes up as a name with which the narrator is automatically associated, more because of a common Indian ancestry than any political (communist) allegiance. Meanwhile, says the narrator, a certain woman’s round, brown eyes "set my heart going like the older of the two Massey-Ferguson tractors we had back home on the Coretyne Const" The narrator of this and other stories feels close to India because of movies such as Hathi Mere Sathi, Mother India, Bobby, and, of course, Sholay, all films that represent a romanticized and heroic nation.
Persaud’s depiction of characters, especially women characters, is intriguing. In "Dookie" the female narrator’s sex is identified a bit too late in the story, resulting in some confusion. The woman, who is a Muslim, is lectured on Hindu feminism by her Hindu husband. The husband, tellingly, picks the story of Mira (and not of Sita or Sati) to drive home his point. In some of the stories Persaud represents a young woman in the pose of blessing a young man. This is a highly unlikely scene, specifically within the Brahmin culture where the privilege to bless belongs solely to men and sometimes to elderly women (usually a mother or someone in a similar position). "When Men Speak This Way" can be considered an exposé of sexism among certain men who tell bawdy jokes aimed at women including the Queen and the Virgin Mother. Yet, one wonders why the memory of women’s painted eyebrows invokes in the narrator the image of "trees." The association between woman and nature is disturbingly devoid of irony.
The Sam Selvon-like pidgin English in which Persaud indulges is effective because it captures the rhythm of the speech. Standard English, a rendering of the Canadian accent, Hindu Wes’ Indian speech, Muslim Wes’ Indian speech, rasta talk, all combine to make exciting stories. The editing, however, could have been better. "Your in 23 N," "that he a was a ’town bai,’" and "one of Selvon’s great-grandmother" are a few phrases that cry out for better proof-reading. Still, readers will especially look forward to the series of ’Writerji stories’ that form Part II of the collection.
Djanet Sears, another writer of African descent, has won the 1998 Governor General’s Award for Drama, the 1998 Chalmers Award and a couple of Dora Mavor Moore Awards—all for Harlem Duet. Sears, who came to Canada from England at the age of fifteen, resides in Toronto and is a singer, actor, director and playwright. She says that she writes to survive racism.
In Harlem Duet, Harlem’s distant past (the 1860s), near past (1920s), and present meet at the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards so that race and gender are caught at the intersection of "the dream" and "the nightmare"—a space that is intensely personal and political. The play is about (Shakespeare’s) Othello’s first love, Billie, a black woman, whom he jilts in order to marry the white (Desde)Mona. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, in Sears’s play there is hope within all the pain, and this hope is suggested in the naming of the main characters as well as in the ending where a comforting new father-daughter relationship is found. The characters named HIM/HER in the distant past move from grammatical object to grammatical subject in the near past as HE/SHE and to their proper identities as OTHELLO/BILLIE in the present.
The voices of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and a few others variously inaugurate each act and scene and reinforce the complexity and elusiveness of so-called "blackness" while linking the public with the private. Blues music creates tension between the blackness and the whiteness. In the mode of Frantz Fanon, Billie’s father, Canada, wonders from where he learnt to do the "Harlem walk" even as he stepped into Harlem for the very first time; Billie’s landlady, Magi, speaks of "white minds parading around inside of Black bodies"; Billie interprets her own dream—"She could only see my questions through her blue eyes"—and also asks, "Did you ever consider what hundreds of years of slavery did to the African American psyche?" The solidarity that Billie (like the playwright) feels with her people has nothing to do with the stereotype of "blackness," which she declares is not the colour of her skin. She slides easily from references to "Black faces" to "brown faces."
The motif of Othello’s handkerchief is complicated by another motif, that of a human zygote supposedly frozen and stored in Billie’s fridge. The high-point of the play is the curse that Billie pronounces on the black man who has betrayed her for a white woman. Billie’s curse invokes an entire cultural past of racial suffering and victimization to which she adds her own. The play has its moments of romance and humour as well. Passages in the first act especially are highly sensuous: "Do you let her sip nectar kisses from a cup of jade studded bronze from your immortal parts?" This lyrical strain, however, is disrupted by a brief question: "Is she White?" The audience also learns how and why you margarine a man’s backside.
Those who insist on stereotypes may find some of Sears’s characters unconvincing. Magi, who is often a mouth-piece of her author, makes conversation too smoothly on such varied topics as magic, man, baseball, archeology and the unconscious. The studied non-linearity of the scenes that throws the audience into the distant past, present, and the near past at random offers an uncomfortable, jaunty ride that, strangely enough, one enjoys. This play ends in its second act, leaving the majority of its acts to the audience for their thought and action in the world stage.
- Dancing in the Mud by Shane Rhodes
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- Cadence, Country, Voice by Nicholas Bradley
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- Inside Scaffoldings by Keith Wilkinson
Books reviewed: Interference with the Hydrangea by Mari-Lou Rowley, Origins by George Whipple, and On Order and Things by Antonio D'Alfonso and Stefan Psenak
- Voicing Constraint by Ian Rae
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- Body & Soul by Wilhelm Emilsson
Books reviewed: Herbarium of Souls by Vladimir Tasic and The Sensualist by Barbara Hodgson
MLA: Joseph, Clara. Literature of Belangini. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 133 - 136)
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