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Post-colonial blues: books about the Caribbean

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Posted by Mary Ann

Wow. What a book “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is. I read in the acknowledgements that James was having a hard time making sense of the material he had gathered for a novel he was considering writing about the Jamaican musician Bob Marley, and it didn’t click for him until someone suggested he go back and look at William Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying,” which is also written in multiple voices. “A novel that would be driven only by voice,” he writes.

This book is certainly it – many voices, all compelling. James’ best-known novel (before this one, which was made several best-books of 2014 lists) was “The Book of Night Women.” It is a harrowing story of a young Jamaican woman caught up in a 19th century slave revolt. The main character looks for a way out of the violence and repression of her every day life by considering joining a young group of women who are planning an uprising. But Lilith, the main character, is not entirely a heroine – her father was a white man, and she thinks her green eyes and lighter coloring will help her rise into a better life. You can probably guess how this turns out.

This novel won the Dayton Peace Prize, as did another novel that “A Brief History of Seven Killings” reminds me of — “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” by Bob Shacochis. Shacochis’ book brilliantly reconstructs the history of Haiti, another very troubled Caribbean nation. Both these books work brilliantly at forcing you to see the plight of a region that is still trying to climb out of the pit of its colonial past.

Of course, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is also about Bob Marley, the charismatic singer and public figure who grew up on the streets of Jamaica and called it his lifelong home. I have heard great things about “Catch a Fire: A Life of Bob Marley” by Timothy White. This book came out in 1983, but it has gone through four editions, which means the publisher keeps reprinting it and updating it.

White, who was the editor of Billboard magazine, died too young in 2002 at age 50. But this book got raves when it came out; the San Francisco Chronicle called it “probably the finest biography ever written about a popular musician.” James drew on this book for the political background of this story. During Marley’s life two of Jamaica’s rival political parties — the right-wing Jamaican Labor Party (J.L.P.), thought by many to have ties to the C.I.A., and the left-wing People’s National Party (P.N.P.), which had friendly relations with Castro’s Cuba — both employed gangsters to look after their interests. As tensions mounted in the run-up to a general election in 1976, Marley found himself caught dangerously in the middle.

Another nonfiction book that promises an understanding of what goes on in Jamaica is The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica” by Ian Thomson, a London-based writer. It won a number of awards, including the Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year. The title refers to the Jamaican tradition of celebrating a loved ones’ death – at length. When someone dies, those who loved him or her gather around the dead person’s house for a wake that can last as long as nine days, sort of a reggae version of a New Orleans wake.

Thompson chronicled all the strata of Jamaican society, from white Jamaicans, beneficiaries of fortunes built on slave labor, to Rastafarians to the musicians and producers who have exported Jamaican music all over the globe. He chronicles Jamaica’s three centuries of English colonial rule, and its troubled present; its problems with violence and its very low literacy rate (eight out of 10 Jamaican children are born to unmarried mothers, he writes). His portrayal of the country was grim enough that a number of Jamaican bookstores declined to stock it. This book has been criticized for its lack of hopefulness – one critic said Thomson didn’t give enough voice to younger people who are trying to do things differently on the island. But it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle.

Here’s another book about a prominent Jamaican: “Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey” by Colin Grant. This fascinating biography chronicles the life of Garvey, who started life out being an admirer of all things British (much as India’s Gandhi did in the beginning). Educated in London (as was Gandhi), he wanted to return to his country to help it, at first considering an agricultural revolution in the Booker T. Washington tradition. But Garvey fell out of love with the British, partially because of the treatment of Jamaican soldiers in World War I. Garvey eventually moved to Harlem and formed a very influential organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He eventually came to believe that the solution for the black man was nothing less than a return to and reconquest of Africa, which led to some strange political alliances with white groups who wanted to see black people leave America, too. Garvey eventually fell on hard times, but his life story is amazing.

Finally, for an overall look at the Caribbean, check out “Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day” by Carrie Gibson. Published just last year, it’s a panoramic history of this tumultuous region. Londoner Gibson got her PhD from Cambridge – her area of specialty was the Spanish Caribbean in the era of the Haitian revolution.

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