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Writings / Reviews: George Elliot Clarke

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Fiction, Poetry and Art Reviews

And Sometimes They Fly
by Robert Edison Sandiford
Montreal, QC: DC Books, 2013
$19. PP. 186

Robert Edison Sandiford is a rare Canadian writer, for he writes in self-chosen exile, as an expatriate journalist in Barbados, the homeland of his parents. An African-Canadian writer, Sandiford was born in Quebec and raised in a Montreal suburb. He is, then, a child of Pierre Trudeau — bilingual, multicultural, intellectual, liberal. Indeed, when Sandiford isn’t writing journalism or fiction, he keeps his ink frothy by penning naughty scripts for adult-only cartoon strips, as well as short stories exploring the psychology of intimacy.

Twice a recipient of Barbados’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts, Sandiford is a gifted writer, and so he sets himself the task, in his first novel, of drafting a tale that unleashes creatures from Caribbean folklore like destructive Greek gods to terrorize 21st-century Barbadians (Bajans). That verb, “terrorize,” is critical to Sandiford’s debut novel, And Sometimes They Fly, for it begins with a scene of Bajans in a Bridgetown bar, watching the Sept. 11, 2001, aerial terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., unfold on a local TV station accepting a feed from the United States. Not only does this spectacular violence devastate two American cities and stun the world, it also resurrects Caribbean terrors (not mere terrorists), such as baccous and soucouyan and duppies, supernatural beings that wrought unholy, ungodly destruction. In Sandiford’s Caribbean mythology, 9-11 is a “Cataclysm” that opens a portal for demonic beings to invade even such a sugarcane-green and rum-peaceful isle as Barbados.

Fans of African-Canadian novelists Nalo Hopkinson, David Chariandy and André Alexis, in particular, will see Sandiford follow in their footsteps by applying to Canadian and Barbadian settings the same folkloric beings that show up in fiction by this trio of authors. But there’s also a connection here between Sandiford’s crafting of superbly thoughtful and playful erotica and his imaginative evocation of a world of diabolical thingamajigs and their heroic opponents. Essentially, the novel — like the shorter fiction — explores passions and the passions that violate scruples, morals and boundaries.

And Sometimes They Fly can also be thought a strange mashup of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1976) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1960). In Morrison’s tale, some African-Americans possess the ability to fly; in Achebe’s tale, taboos and gremlins, indicative of cancerous fears and passions, corrupt the state. Luckily, in Sandiford’s romance, a trio of Elect (angelic) beings, guided by an Elder, intervene to save Barbados and, by extension, the world.

In this narrative, the characters David can fly, even to the moon (though he does find space “chilly;”);  Marsha is super strong (a Bajan bionic woman); and Franck has no excuse for not paying his bills on time, for he is, well, super fast. But even if Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash (so to speak) want to ward off the monster invasion, they are limited by the Elders: Milton, who is Miltonic, and Mackie, who is Machiavellian. Three Witches, reminiscent of Macbeth’s fortunetellers, also impede the would-be do-gooders.

I’ve reviewed Sandiford before, and I find his past successes repeated in And Sometimes They Fly. A cross between Joe Conrad and V.S. Naipaul, Sandiford is breathtakingly clear in his prose, and this commitment to realism serves him well in writing a story that could easily be a Twilight Zone episode:

“And a boy and a girl, fresh into their teens, kissed for the first time in the sea.”
“Hospitals in the Caribbean, like hospitals in the movies, all looked the same … as dingy as their Hollywood counterparts were scoured; as open-air as those onscreen were shut-off.”

Sandiford also turns in fine aphorisms:  “If you don’t have a plan … then the only plan you have is to fail.” And Sometimes They Fly is an adventure tale, a sort of Caribbean novelization of The Odyssey.
If you’ve not read Sandiford before, this novel is a good place to start.

Voices from Kibuli Country
by Dannabang Kuwabong
Toronto, ON: TSAR, 2013
$20, pp. 96

Dannabang Kuwabong is a Ghanaian-Canadian poet , who keeps a home in Hamilton (ON), but teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, and globetrots the Caribbean and Africa, tracing the invisible Trail of Tears that is the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Kuwabong’s fifth—and newest book—is Voices from Kibuli Country , which extends the concerns visible in his fourth book, Caribbean Blues & Love’s Genealogy ( TSAR, 2008): to address the haunting of the contemporary world by the ghosts of African Diasporic history.

Kuwabong takes up Malcolm X’s command: “Remember.” Indeed, if Martin Luther King, Jr., may be interpreted as saying, “Forgive”; X may be interpreted as having said, “Never forget.” So, Voices from Kibuli Country (the title refers to The Commonwealth of Dominica) is a chronicle of journeys, out of the claustrophobic, occasionally Negrophobic, immigrant headspace of urban Canada to, not sight-seeing, but insight-seeking, in Ohio, Puerto Rico, St. Croix (all U.S. territories), St. Maarten/St. Martin, and Dominica. Hamilton—Steeltown—is “a smoky downtown” and bellies “Hungry for crispy cold salad and sweaty Labatt”; it is also the memory of ex-UN peacekeepers, “who saved our dreams in our wallets to purchase our escape / when news came of coups and counter-soups.” But the Canuck city is also full of folks, “Sputtering their interrogations of my origins on Concession Street.” Kuwabong is bitter about being asked, “Where ya from,” for that question, when addressed to Canadians of colour, is heard as a subtle questioning of (our) citizenship.

Kuwabong’s English can sound stilted at times, as if it is a foreign language (“anguish” says Black Canuck bard M. Nourbese Philip) that he has absorbed fitfully—as more Latinate and abstract than it is grounded and earthy. So, he can rattle out lines like “We all one and sundry receive our desired bags of absolution and penance,” but also—to my ears—preferable phrases like “squishy bag of guts,” or a line in phonetic Ghanaian pronunciation: “So derfor we no get eni problem egen for wan wik for os” (So therefore we no get any problem again for one week for us.)

Certainly, when Kuwabong echoes the great Afro-Martiniquan poet, Aimé Césaire and less the too-stultified style of Anglo-Saxons like Auden and Eliot, he is magnificent. So, one reads pithy, robust phrases: “i fired invectives / i shout them down / i pushed them out.” Or one is spellbound by Kuwabong’s use of repetition: “Power: It is not in us to create / Power: it is not in us to transform / Power: it is not in us to donate,” etc. Consider also these lines: “A woman named Hetty, my property / A likely BLACK NEGRO woman, my property…. / She carried away with her my property / In the form of a child she bore for me, my property….” Or spy the effective repetition here: “but they died, the Caribs died / they died so we might know death… / death of our tongue / death of our culture / death of self to self.”

Kuwabong’s content is best when he is spewing discontent: “Scars are disgusting on the skin… / Scars are scary but sublime… / Scars unveil your body’s lies / Scars complete your humanity.” When he is committed to scribing History’s raw wounds, the imagery itself scars: “My poem will be a badly restored mashed-up sawn cartilage… // My poem … will not discriminate between fresh flesh and rotten meat.” Thinking of the Haitian earthquake, Kuwabong confronts the red “blood for destruction,” “black for salvation,” and “blue for forgiveness”; in St. Croix, he recalls slaves suffering “whip lash and chain fire / broken shoulders on hot boulders,” but also the European conquistadors and imperialists who “defeated their fear of beauty in a bottle of rum.”

Kuwabong is a bard of fine talent, though I’d like him to edit more and editorialize less, to strip the poems of rhetoric so as to accent raw power. When his persona says, “I have come because I want to be angry at history,” I’d like him to spit fire and pull down “the bastilles of consumption,” and make sure “no treacle is squeezed out here.” Plenty of time later to let “the flood waters of our love [snuff] out the fires of hate.”

In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry
edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam
Toronto, ON: TSAR, 2014
$24, pp. 200

When the Pan-Am games occurred in Toronto in July 2015, was I the only Torontonian irritated by the media’s failure to notice that “panam” is a Tamil word meaning, “essential things”—like money or milk? Well, let us read, In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry. This volume of English translations of Tamil-language poets from Sri Lanka, India, and world-wide (including Canada) introduces a corpus of literary gems. But it’s also an exemplary study of how beautiful poetry emerges—despite painful politics.

The book is the brainchild of Prof. Dr. Chelva Kanaganayakam, FRSC, who passed away, last November 22, 2014, on the very day of his induction into the Royal Society of Canada, a laurel honouring his stellar contributions to the study of post-colonial literature and the translation of Tamil works. Tamil himself, Dr Kanaganayakam also embraced a Canadian identity, resulting in an apolitical attentiveness to—and ecumenical acceptance of—poetry by Tamils of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian background. The rewards of editor Kanaganayakam’s cosmopolitan approach are richly evident in this text, midwifed into being by translators Anushiya Ramaswamy, Maithili Thayanithy, and M.L. Thangappa.

In his intro, Dr. Kanaganayakam tells us “Tamils have endured, suffered, and flourished in a translated world.” He finds, “it is not time but space that shapes consciousness for Sri Lankan poets.” In this sense, Tamil poets resemble Canadian poets: More concerned with geography, with locating a Just Society, than with historical givens. However, this collection suggests that Tamil poets are less interested in metaphor than are most Anglo-Canadian poets, and more interested in rhetoric, which is often, wrongly, given a bad rap because of the term’s description of the hot-air speech of politicos. Yet, poetry is, classically, a branch of rhetoric, and so it remains a pillar of the art—along with imagery (metaphor) and musicality (cadence and/or rhythm).

Tamil poets remind us of the awesome vitality of rhetoric—the linguistic texture of philosophy. See, for instance, the last stanza of Alari’s poem: “…when someone is killed / what’s the big deal? / Apart from the fact that / Someone else will be murdered.” The strength of the poem is not in metaphor, but in juxtaposition. When Tamil poets use metaphors, they do so sparingly, to stress ideas immanent in a poem’s syntax: “When the lover became my wife / and children appeared / time, now a gale, swept me asunder / like fish out of water….”

Mu. Ponnambalam’s grammar reveals, with compact force, the storm of time that overtakes us, once autobiography becomes the fount of genealogy. One poem that conjoins metaphor and rhetoric to great affect is Solaikkili’s “A Baby in Cap and Boots”: “”There will be a time / when babies will leap / out of wombs wearing … / Military caps, trousers, boots, moustaches / A knife at the hips.” Moreover, “coconut trees will bear / bombs in bunches….  // If you planted watermelon / land mines will sprout.” An apocalyptic vision of civil war and/or official oppression is given pastoral expression. Isai’s philosophical verse exists as rhetoric—or vice versa: “Hunger is widely accepted / as sorrow number one…. / It is the conflict between / one sorrow and another / we call history.” Strangely—or not, Tamil verse has the same blunt elegance that constitutes classical Greek drama: “my brother stepped on [father’s corpse] / to reach for the light-switch.” Kalapria also says—shades of Euripides and Sophocles, “It was convenient for mother. / She hid the money she had earned / in the lap of the corpse.”

Leena Manimekalai’s feminist poem is a pithy, but universal condemnation of misogyny: “Maybe I was ten / when I first heard the word / whore. / I had no breasts then…. // When I returned late from school …, / when there was too much eyeshadow / on my eyes, / when in love I acquiesced / or rejected, / … when I became older, / many reasons / to be called a whore. / And now I am a whore / for writing poetry.” The other side of rhetoric is wit, and Tamil poets have such in spades. See Mukunth Nagarajan’s lyric, “Children Playing,” which, despite its title, is not child’s play, but adult-oriented. Anthologies and translations enlarge the availability of good poets and poems. Dr. Kanaganayakam’s fine florilegium accomplishes this aim.

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