by Larry Smith
Garth Buckner recently sent me an advance copy of his new novel (Thine is the Kingdom, Ravenna Press, 2008). But since part of Tough Call's day job is the distribution of Bahamian books (or more accurately, books on Bahamian-related subjects), I did not feel able to offer an exclusive review in this space. So I picked a selection of books at random to give readers a few ideas for holiday reading (a complete list can be found at www.bahamasmedia.com).
Buckner's 235-page novel opens with a real slice of island life - this particular island, in fact, and this particular life. A comical traffic confrontation with a boat trailer at the infamous Montagu ramp, where our hero is regarded as an undesirable interloper by white and black Bahamians alike.
We soon learn precisely why he deserved such derision. His father was an American expat who married a white Bahamian. Ergo, our hero was never afforded the luxuries of Bahamian citizenship.
As he explains: "I fancy people of the government ilk got great satisfaction in seeing families like mine broken up. They liked to whittle down the numbers of those they fancied did not belong, those who opposed them politically. They saw no distinction between nationality and their nationalist party. Everyone else was suspect."
A pretty accurate description of Bahamian attitudes during the Pindling era. Attitudes that have only lately ameliorated. Buckner throws in lots of charming vernacular phrases to back this up like: "foreign bitches should carry they stink ass".
Aside from the cultural cameos such as diving conch, killing snakes, spearing crawfish, mutton fishing, drinking, market brawling and burglar chasing, the story is all about our hero's quest for legitimacy - as in citizenship papers: "You better bribe someone quick before they lose your file," a friend knowingly advises. "That's how it is...When you're straight you tell them to carry their ass. But you, you need to grease that wheel. That's all them cocksuckers understand - power and money. And they trade the first for the last."
There's even a subplot to burn the market at the Montagu ramp: "This is the right thing to do," our hero is told. "These people have no business license...they never pay a cent in tax, this market is a health hazard: all those fish guts and conch slop sitting out in the hot sun at low tide and then getting carried down to the bathing beach. What kind of bacteria do you think's in there? Look, there's no running water...where do you think these guys go to the toilet?...It's a public health hazard and a blot on the environment."
All sentiments we can easily agree with. But eventually, because by some peculiar twist of fate our hero is the legitimate son of a foreign father and a Bahamian mother, he pays his immigration bribe and is suddenly transformed into a person worthy of politeness and attention, who is commended to have "a blessed day."
This book is a series of cultural vignettes that most Bahamians will find familiar and entertaining, if not always agreeable. Buckner no doubt draws on his childhood in this regard. Born in London, he came to Nassau at the age of six in 1977 and is now a citizen who serves on the board of the Bahamas Telecommunications Company.
"I wanted to write a novel about Nassau...the colour, the seascapes, the architecture, the history, the music," he told Tough Call. "There is a lot that is beautiful and of value. But there is a darker side, one of lawlessness and a disrespect for others."
Educated in Boston and New York, Buckner has an undergraduate degree in politics and a graduate degree in land development and finance, which puts him in good stead as a realtor. He works for Sandyport, a gated community which his father, Hugh Buckner, developed out west.
"By the time I moved to New York I was trying to write," he told me. "I met Gordon Lish, a former Esquire and Knopf editor, who had been known as 'Captain Fiction' in the 70s and 80s. Lish took me under his wing and taught me the craft of writing. Through him I met some of the New York literary set. I went on to publish a few short stories in leading literary journals and Lish championed my first novel, The Origins of Solitude. After it was rejected by the big publishing houses, he found me a home with the small but respected Ravenna Press."
According to Buckner, the hero of his new novel is "forced by circumstances to make a choice he would rather not make. The novel is the story of how he comes to this juncture and how his choice changes him...the book is really about a very basic human conflict and could be set anywhere. But by grounding it in a real place that I know, I hope to better to show these things."
Bahamian novelists are a rare breed (even when we use the term very loosely). In addition to Buckner they include Peter Barratt, a British-born architect who came here in 1964 and helped design Freeport, becoming a founder of the Lucayan National Park. His 2003 novel, Bahama Saga, was revised and republished this year by AuthorHouse.
Barratt wrote the definitive history of Grand Bahama (which carries the same name) but his 340-page novel covers the full sweep of Bahamian history from Lucayan Indian occupation to the present day, following two families of different race over a dozen generations to give a human dimension to the story.
According to historian Sandra Riley (author of Homeward Bound and The Lucayans), "Bahama Saga is richly textured with historical detail and human motivation....For those who like their history fictionalised and thir fiction historicalised, this is the book to choose....For the modern period Barratt heightens the narrative by presenting real-life characters in thinly-veiled disguise."
God's Angry Babies
College of the Bahamas English lecturer Ian Strachan wrote this autobiographic coming-of-age novel published by Lynne Rienner in 1997. It is described by one reviewer as "a 'journey within' in both a personal and political sense. In following the rites of passage of Tree Bodie, Strachan provides the reader with the internal struggles, pleasures, and pain of growing up in the Bahamas."
Bahamas-based Trini lawyer Joseph Ledee published this historical novel (Media Enterprises, 1999) and followed it up with a compendium of short stories and creative writings called Hydracote (Media Enterprises, 2001). Cleolamae is described as a fable of Bahamian life that "highlights the history and culture of the Bahamian people, with whom the author has spent most of his life."
Folk Tales of Andros Island, Bahamas
If you want real folk tales from Andros, look no further than this historic reprint by Elsi Clews Parsons. Originally published in 1918 by the American Folklore Society it was reissued by Kessinger Publishing as a 168-page paperback. It features an introduction and list of informants that will be of interest to anyone of Androsian descent, together with over a hundred charming stories from our childhood's childhood.
"Resemblances between the Bahamas and the Cape Verde Islands tales, not only in patterns but in many minor details, I found startling," Parsons says. "Whatever may have been the provenance of the tales in Africa, Portuguese or other, I have no doubt that by far the greater number of the Bahama tales were learned there...in Africa."
Island Boy & Who Killed Sir Harry
Popular songwriter Eric Minns also has the distinction of having published two novels. The first (Island Boy, Loric Publishers, 1981, 214 pages) is semi-autobiographical, all about a Bahamian who returns home to reassert his island heritage after years living abroad.
The second (Who Killed Sir Harry, Loric Publishers, 2005, 293 pages) offers a fictionalised version of the endlessly entertaining murder of Sir Harry Oakes in Nassau in 1943, with a built-in CD of the song he wrote by the same name. Minns has also recently compiled a songbook with music, lyrics and chords of dozens of Bahamian folktunes - including many of his own.
A Shift in the Light
Former COB lecturer Patricia Glinton-Meicholas' 2001 novel, A Shift in the Light (Guanima Press, 347 pages), is an expression of cultural nationalism, offering a chronology of a Bahamian family and a socio-political history spanning the last half century. According to reviewer Marjorie Brooks-Jones, the novel "instantiates the modulation from an unqualified assertion of nation to a more complex representation and interrogation of nation and nationalism." Ahem.
The Island Airman
For lighter fare, turn to this well-written autobiography by former airline pilot Paul Aranha (Media Enterprises, 2006). This 243-page paperback covers the period from 1936 to the 1970s. It is a tale that wanders through the history and geography of the Bahamas. Aranha obtained his pilot's license at the age of 17 and never looked back - logging 16,000 hours in over 50 years of flying, and eventually coming to own the largest air taxi service in the Bahamas, Trans Island Airways.
Pirates of the Bahamas
This colourfully illustrated and easily read book (Media Enterprises, 2008, 64 pages) was written by David Cook, a British-born teacher who spent years in the Bahamian school system and is now retired on Grand Bahama. "This book is about piracy in the Bahamas," he says in the preface, "and in it I shall try to explain why these islands played such an important role and how piracy was ended here, only for the romantic view of piracy to emergy afresh in the 21st century." The book summarises everything you need to know about pirates, concluding with an account of the filming of Pirates of the caribbean on Grand Bahama. The author, as it turns out, played a bit part as a double for Bootstrap Jack.
Harbour Island Story
Here's another trip down nostalgia lane. Written by the late Paul Albury's daughter, Anne, and her husband, Jim Lawlor, this 308-page book (Macmillan caribbean, 2008) covers the breadth of Harbour Island's development.
Dunmore Town once ranked as the country's most important settlement, and today its Loyalist architecture and pink sand beach support a lucrative upscale tourism and second home sector. In fact, the island is a victim of its own success - perched on a tipping point of social breakdown and environmental disaster. This book, gives some insight into how this predicament evolved.
According to a foreword by Gail Saunders, 'it is written in a free-flowing style and chapters on shipbuilding, wrecking and hurricanes are particularly enjoyable, incprporating some of Dr Paul Albury's wonderful stories." It is described as a significant addition to Bahamian historiography, even though my 85-year-old father (who was posted to the island during the second world war) insists that no American troops ever set foot there, as the authors suggest.
New Negroes from Africa
This is the intriguing title of a book (Indiana University Press, 2006) by Rosanne Marion Adderley on free African settlement in the Bahamas and Trinidad during the 19th century. The author (who is none other than Paul Adderley's daughter) is an associate professor of history at Tulane University in Louisiana. Her 338-page book describes the encounter between English-speaking colonists and the new African immigrants taken from captured slave ships after the British abolished the slave trade.
Adderley points out how these "new negroes from Africa" created distinctive cultural spaces in their new homes. Over 5,000 liberated Africans settled in the Bahamas between 1807 and 1861, with many arriving before Emancipation. They had a significant impact in shaping the culture of the colony and are credited with adding new or renewed African influences.
The following statement by a group of prominent white Bahamians in 1816 is instructive: "Africans introduced into the colony under indentures from condemned slave ships constitute the most worthless and troublesome class of black people in the town of Nassau."
A-Z of Bahamas Heritage
This 416-page compendium (Macmillan caribbean, 2007) of facts and background was written by that venerable Canadian curator of Bahamian history, Michael Craton. It is targeted at all who have an interest in the heritage and culture of the country - including adults, students and visitors.
Craton defines heritage as "everything which renders (a people) distinctively different from any other in the world". Accordingly, this book is about as diverse an account of the Bahamian experience as you are likely to find, sharing the features of a gazeteer, a who's who, a natural history and a cultural survey. "Overall," Craton says, "it is the widest-ranging of all books yet written on the Bahamas - completely original in its form and array of information."