Across the Caribbean: West Indian Short Stories is a compilation of 16 stories, selected in a 2009-2010 competition organised by novelist Lyndon Baptist of Potbake Productions. It is an eclectic exposition of storytelling, meant to be uniquely “Caribbean.” But is it?
The stories are staggering, subtly touching on the vagaries of life, many in a haunting fashion. Gone is the breezy, laissez faire intonation of West Indian life. Instead, we are offered tenebrous snapshots of those wounded by the coldness of nature, if not God. In many ways, Across the Caribbean parades as a shrouded warning of life’s inimical intent, screaming at readers for attention.
“Life is no bed of roses,” it sings with an uncompromising clarion.
Author after author march to the podium, outdoing each other with incisive duty—serving reminders, no less of life’s wretchedness.
Caribbean Stories proves discursive, very much universal in appeal. Each writer is impressive, bringing a unique style to Caribbean literature, with island vernacular bleeding through nearly every page. “Wuh about we breadfruit?” “Y’all gine put me in the pot?” “Wuh y’all up tuh?” we read in Big Rock Soup. Typical West Indian stuff. But the writers swerve from this path, hedging their bet on unearthing the innermost chamber of the readers’ subconscious —the place where shadows dwell. In Crazy Mary and Tears for My Mother, the tinderbox we call the mind is laid bare with frightening precision. And the hauntings never abate.
From the raw simplicity of Nathifa Swan’s Accepted, to the bohemian and urbane sophistication of Raymond Yusef’s The Only Man, Caribbean Stories is bereft of an ounce of humour. So it seems. Even Merisa Robert’s Village Story, which has all the trappings of West Indian jocularity, is laden with tales of domestic hardships and a duplicitous love affair. In the wistful and transcendental musings of Tara Ramsingh in The Beach Awaits, death is again served, albeit on a more sanitised platter. And Jumbie Boy comes to a sinister end—a far cry from the sardonic twist of fantastical tales. Social issues meander through many of the themes. The hot button topic of bullying is draped in the mythological leanings of Lovingly Mischievous. Here, the writer Schaunne Badloo exhorts victims to stand their ground and assert their worth. In Troubles Bourne, the perennial subject of abortion is delivered with a wrenching pain, a pain that forces readers to revisit the overriding psychological implications of the act.
“I can hardly remember the few weeks of my pregnancy. The scars on my wrist, though serve to remind me of what happened afterward, the pain that wouldn’t go away,” the protagonist moans. And the vexing problem of vehicular manslaughter is ruefully explored in The Beach Awaits and the Muddy Shoes. Regrettably, Across the Caribbean does not offer a template of life on the islands. From the opening salvo, readers are embroiled in a high voltage purview of personal struggles on a pyrrhic scale—hardly a bargain—at least at the outset. Slowly, though, the narrative grows more predictable, less disconcerting—assuming its own counsel—as though the writers figured out the formulae to grab the readers’ attention. And they do. In the end, this showcase of Caribbean literary talent becomes an extension of the readers’ own phobias, apprehensions, triumphs, and disappointments. On this very existential level, Across the Caribbean scores with its driving redemptive quality.
• Dr Glenville Ashby is a New York author and journalist
Across the Caribbean: West Indian Short Stories
Potbake Productions, 2010, Trincity, Trinidad West Indies
Ratings: ***: Recommended