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News and Views by Dionne Jackson Miller

pointed commentary on current affairs in Jamaica and the Caribbean

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Book Reviews

Book Review – Huracan by Diana McCaulay

 

 

ImageHuracan is an ambitious work by Diana McCaulay inspired by stories of her own family, that unfolds in Jamaica in three different time periods, the twentieth, nineteenth and eighteenth centuries.

 

 

 

In some ways, Huracan is very different from McCaulay’s debut “Dog-Heart” which was set entirely in contemporary Jamaica,  but one senses in both novels the author’s deep interest in exploring issues relating to class and colour. Huracan is a fascinating vehicle for that exploration, providing as it does, a showcase for close examination of class and colour prejudice  in Jamaica over the centuries and the abuse of power generally at the expense of poor, black Jamaicans constituting the majority of the population.

 

 

 

The book opens with Leigh McCaulay, a white Jamaican, returning to the island after her mother’s death to be immediately greeted by the inevitable “White gal!” a description which forms the backdrop of her re-discovery of Jamaica of the 1980s,  which she remembers from the privileged childhood vantage point of the small, closed circles inhabited by rich white Jamaicans. Her choice, this time, to live and work in an entirely different socio-cultural environment is all too obviously, just that, a choice which she can leave behind her at will, in contrast to the people around her.

 

 

 

English: Cane cutters in Jamaica. 1880s. Franç...
English: Cane cutters in Jamaica. 1880s. Français : Des coupeurs de canne en Jamaïque, dans les années 1880. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Then there is the world of 1786, where slavery is still legal, and where Zachary Macaulay has arrived from Scotland to make something of himself, as a bookkeeper on  a sugar plantation. The setting then shifts to

 

 

 

 

 

 

1885 post-Emancipation Jamaica where Pastor John Macaulay has just arrived from Scotland with dreams of ministering to his black flock.

 

 

 

The descriptions  of life in Jamaica are vividly drawn with occasional  tongue in cheek observations of contemporary Jamaica in particular – note the depiction of the household worker who comes to work and changes into a blue uniform with an apron and spends the day cooking, cleaning and serving but is not to be called a “maid,” nomenclature which became politically incorrect in post-Independence Jamaica, and the portraits of deliberately unhelpful service providers, as well as  the exaggerated bonhomie of tourist workers trying to earn their share of the mighty US dollar.

 

 

 

One scene I found particularly interesting was that describing the passage of a hurricane on the slave plantation. While the hurricane lashes the Great House, the black house slaves:

 

 

 

 “stood like sentries. Everyone else sat on chairs or on the floor…animals and machinery had been stored in the hurricane house but there had not been enough room for the over four hundred slaves of Bonnie Valley and many had faced the storm unsheltered.”

 

One can only imagine the thoughts and feelings of those house slaves knowing their families and friends were facing the hurricane in flimsy huts, and finding their bodies in the mud after the storm.

 

 

Ultimately this is a story about exploration – of self, of society and of country. McCaulay has created a cast of believable characters in three compelling stories which leave you wondering why Jamaica hasn’t progressed further and faster.

 

 

A very good read – highly recommended.

 

 

 

Book Review: Black Meteors – the Caribbean in International Track and Field

Verdict: Excellent read

If the performances of gold medalists Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica, Kirani James of

English: Shelly-Ann Fraser and Kerron Stewart ...
English: Shelly-Ann Fraser and Kerron Stewart at the World Championship Athletics 2009 in Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grenada and Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago in the London Olympics excited your interest in Caribbean athletics, or if you have been a long-time fan, you really should check out Black Meteors – The Caribbean in International Track and Field.

Black Meteors is published by Ian Randle Publishers, and written by Basil Ince, a former athlete and administrator, diplomat and academic, who marries his interests in this thoroughly attractive and engaging book about Caribbean sportsmen and women.

The layout and format of the book are excellent, with easy-to-read text, and a large number of photographs of athletes ranging from the pioneers like Lennox Miller and Arthur Wint of Jamaica, to more recent athletes such as Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago and Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, and current stars like Yohan Blake and superstar sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica, among many, many more.

English: Kirani James during 2011 World champi...
English: Kirani James during 2011 World championships Athletics in Daegu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And therein lies one of the biggest and most welcome differences between this book and many others. The author states that:

“throughout the book the word Caribbean refers to all Caribbean peoples, English speaking and non-English speaking.”

Ince approaches that issue of what is a “Caribbean” athlete in an entirely natural way, that makes not just geographical sense, given the breadth of talent displayed throughout the region, but also allows the author to introduce readers to some athletes who may not as well known to them as others.

The other important aspect of Ince’s approach to the book was the effortless story-telling which brings to life, not just the athletes and their successes, but the socio-political backdrop to their sporting careers.

One example is his discussion of the evolution of women’s participation in the Olympics, from the days when women were not allowed to participate at all, to the performances of the great Merlene Ottey of Jamaica (who is still competing at over 50 years old) and Deon Hemmings, the first Caribbean woman to win Olympic gold in 1996.

Another example is the exploration of the impact of the Cuban revolution on the performance of Cuban athletes, which laid the groundwork for athletes like Alberto Juantorena, winner of the 800 m and 400m  gold medals in Montreal, and the struggles of the track and field programme given the US economic embargo of the

World Athletics Championships 2007 in Osaka - ...
World Athletics Championships 2007 in Osaka – Alberto Juantorena (right), gold medal winner over 400 and 800 metres at the 1976 Olympics, while assisting at a victory ceremony at the 2007 world championships (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

island.

But Ince also spends time discussing current issues and athletes, including Jamaica’s success in Beijing.

If you have any interest at all in track and field, this will be an excellent addition to your library.

Highly Recommended

Book Review – “And Still I Rise – Seeking Justice for Stephen”

Cover of "And Still I Rise"
Cover of And Still I Rise

This is the compelling story of the Stephen Lawrence case told by his mother Doreen. Stephen was an 18-year-old British teenager of Jamaican parents, who was stabbed to death by a group of white youths in a vicious, unprovoked attack, on the night of April 22, 1993, while he was waiting at a bus stop with a friend.

The book begins with the words:

Two lives ended one chilly April night thirteen years ago. One was the life of my elder son…He was murdered by a gang of violent, racist boys, and they got away with it. They remain unpunished to this day. The second life that ended was the life I thought was mine.

Doreen Lawrence’s story, for it is her story as much as it is Stephen’s, is told in a direct, conversational style that is very easy to read, and at the same time very moving.

She traces her early years in Jamaica, starting with her comfortable, protected life with loving grandparents. She  went to live with an uncaring aunt after her grandmother’s death, and then migrated to England at the age of nine to live with a distant mother with whom she was never able to establish any real relationship.

Lawrence describes her marriage, which she says made her feel “needed and valued” for the first time since her grandmother’s death and also chronicles the years before Stephen’s killing with her husband, Neville, and her three children.

But the bulk of the book, of course, is given over to Stephen’s brutal murder, and the family’s determination to get justice for him.

Even if you have been following this case, the book will probably give you a new perspective. It exposes in detail the true depth of the indifference, negligence and racism of the police force, the courage and determination it clearly took for a working-class, immigrant, black family to challenge the largely white and powerful establishment in the way they did, and the dedication of the lawyers who worked with them throughout the years.

Here are some highlights:

1.The police were not short on intelligence. There were dozens of tip-offs in the first couple of days, many repeating the same names. One man walked into the police station less than a day after the killing and named three of the killers and told the police their address.

2. The killers named were known trouble-makers who had already attacked several other people.

3. It wasn’t until three days after the murder that the police sent a photographer and a policeman to carry out surveillance of the house at which the murderers were staying. The photographer took pictures of two of the youths leaving the house with appeared to be bags of clothes. The policeman couldn’t follow them as he had no car, and couldn’t call anyone because he had no cell phone. In the meantime, the full surveillance team was shadowing a black youth suspected of “theft from the person.”

4. The Lawrences were able to meet with Nelson Mandela two weeks after the murder, and Mandela’s

Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993.
Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

public condemnation of the killing helped to raise its profile in the media.

5. While the campaign for justice was heating up, one senior police officer wrote another stating that  “…our patience is wearing thin, not only with the Lawrence family and their representatives, but also with self-appointed public and media commentators.”

6. On February 14, 1997 based on the information that came out in the inquest,  the Daily Mail took the unprecedented step of naming the five white youths as murderers in a banner headline and challenging them to sue for defamation.

7. The family initially objected to the appointment of retired Justice Sir William MacPherson to head the landmark public enquiry into the matter because of his record of being severe on immigrants and asylum-seekers. The MacPherson Report turned out to be highly critical of the police force which Sir William  accused of  “institutional racism.”

(photo credit – BBC)

8. The Lawrences’ marriage crumbled under the weight of their grief and depression.

Two of the murderers were, in January, convicted as a result of advances in forensic science, and also because of a momentous 2003 amendment to the criminal law which abolished the double jeopardy rule which stated that no one could be tried twice for the same crime. This had been one of the recommendations in the MacPherson report and was critical to the convictions as the family had mounted an unsuccessful  private prosecution against the youths.

Named for the Maya Angelou poem from which Doreen Lawrence says she draws strength, And Still I Rise is not just a good read, it is a poignant account of an ordinary woman thrust into circumstances she never would have chosen, and in the process, accomplishing extraordinary things.

Highly recommended.

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