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Connecting into the Caribbean: 3 Books that Bridge the Distances

Connecting into the Caribbean: 3 Books that Bridge the Distances

Even in the most challenging of human times, when real travel becomes its own challenge, there remains one avenue of connection we can still rely on in the medium of the book.  The worlds that unfold between its covers can often have that power to transport and even remind us of our own resilience in these days.

In three very different recent books of 2021, writers of the Caribbean each take the reader on three distinct journeys — from the remembered innocence of a child’s early years with his dog, to the darker complexities of island life and survival, to an historic account of the graphic arts which reveal much of an island’s early identity and evolution.  Each journey in its own way provides its reader with a level of engagement that transports, informs, and somehow reconnects us into the Caribbean.

How the One-Armed Woman Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones (February 2021, Little Brown)

“Extremes of anything are bad, and the two extremes of possession – deprivation and deluge – are especially crippling to the soul”.  This observation by the narrator early on in Cherie Jones’s novel  summarizes the outer and inner worlds of this remarkable tale of generational and individual tragedies played out along and near the coast of Barbados in the late twentieth century. 

One-Armed Sister is all about the precarious paths taken at both these extremes by the novel’s main characters, and those key moments in which their trajectories intersect, collide, or tear apart.  The itself refers back to an island legend of a young girl who ventures too closely into the sinister mouth of the shoreline caves said to be inhabited by deadly creatures.  Somehow, she must live out the rest of her life with just one arm.  This allegory of damage and survival reflects the story of the most central character, Lala, another girl inflicted with real enough family dysfunctions.  Lala’s journey becomes conjoined not only with the dark dealings of her husband Adan, but also with Adan’s partner in dubious dealings, Tone, and then with the other woman also affected by Adan’s psychotic violence, Mira Whalen.  Lala’s circumstances will lead her into adult choices that become as deadly in their own way as that of the one-armed sister.

Author Cherie Jones. Photo Credit: Brooks La Touche

What Cherie Jones also does so well, along with this central drama and interplay, is to provide an equally vivid canvas of the wider landscape of Barbados through which her main characters move.  Those social dynamics, the class stratifications, and the struggles of daily living all provide the vital components that bring this story into full perspective.  Altogether, it makes One-Armed Sister a reading experience that is engrossing and unforgettable, sweeping the reader along at a pace, depth and style  that marks it as a powerful piece of new Caribbean fiction.

Picturing Cuba: Art, Culture, and Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora, ed. Jorge Duany (March 2021 – U. of Florida Press)

The Caribbean’s largest island with its huge landscape from rural to urban life and a turbulent history from the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries has presented a rich landscape of images, situations and events for the interpretation of its native visual artists of all kinds.  In centuries during which the graphic depiction of a place, person or event also served as the primary visual conveyor of those realities not only to the immediate environments and cultures portrayed but also to the much wider world, what was shown and what was hidden became the central gateway for the wider and even global perception of that island reality.

Picturing Cuba: Art, Culture, and Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora is a fascinating collection of essays encompassing the visual artistic journeys of an island in over two centuries and their impact and influence both on the Cuban consciousness and the world beyond. One way to approach the book, rather than a conventional read from first to final chapter, is to treat each separate chapter and author for what they are: individual accounts of distinct periods and issues within the internal and external spectrums of Cuban art history. 

One chapter which discusses this fundamental dynamic of representation of island social and cultural awareness is “Between Civilization and Barbarism”, by E. Carmen Rios.  Reviewing various pieces in the wider body of work produced by major lithographer of the later 19th century Cuban caricaturist, painter and publisher Victor Patricio de Landaluze, Rios describes exactly how the representation of Cuban ethnicity and status by Landaluze were often conscious attempts to rewrite or reposition the realities that were unfolding at a critical juncture of Cuban history.  How Landaluze’s paintings during Cuba’s Ten Years War (1868-1878) depicted contemporary life and labor on plantations, for example, and were often a visual reaction and denial of the changes underway during this early revolutionary period, is fascinating.  These diverse essays within Picturing Cuba are the thoughtful and incisive but still accessible accounts of distinct periods in Cuba’s visual arts journey across centuries, provided largely from relevant academics and distinguished intellectuals.  Editor Jorge Duany provides a helpful introductory chapter called “Cuba: A Moveable Nation” – a title which alludes well to an island and people never less than complex and engaging, while his final closing chapter on shifting cultural relations summarizes much of recent artistic change and interchange both on and off-island. 

My Dog Romeo by Ziggy Marley (May 2021, Akashic Books)

Who better to describe a childhood best friend than a musical artist who can express memory and love in words as well as tunes?  This small book is the latest of a collection of three from Jamaica’s Ziggy Marley that feature a lyrical account of a dog called Romeo who once played his own distinct role in a young boy’s island life. 

Author Marley is no doubt best known as a Grammy Award-winning musical artist, and one whose children’s album Family Time included a song also called “My Dog Romeo”.  Recreating this period of his life in word and image, My Dog Romeo delivers its own collection of early years and early companions – an easy narration of connected memories of a time, place and the irrepressible dog called Romeo. 

Musician and author, Ziggy Marley. Photo Credit: Kii Arens

Here is an account that children will immediately understand, all about music and play and the daily presence of the faithful Romeo. The simple years of childhood recalled and the love present within it with the companionship of Romeo is a good moment to share with any young person – and even a good moment to reconnect back into your own earliest years with a special friend you also knew.

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