Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Barbados - Laying out your clothes to dry

As part of my research for this blog, I read two novels by Bajan writers. The first, In the Castle of my Skin (1953) by George Lamming is a Bajan classic and is, no doubt, a well-established favourite on post-colonial studies reading lists the world over. The second, Song of Night (1998) by Glenville Lovell is a more modern novel, which is set in an independent Barbados, providing an interesting balance to Lamming's world.

Characters in a changing world

In the Castle of my Skin is a really important book and a record of Barbados during a period of great change for the country.  I'm sure much of the story is autobiographical and reflects Lamming's own experiences, as a young man growing up on 'the Rock'.  It's quite a heavy read, but the language is wonderfully poetic and the 'events' of the book have an almost surreal or magical quality to them.  It deals with a time of great change and political upheaval for Barbados, as the white ruling class struggled to maintain their position in an increasingly politicised society.  The book contains mixed feelings about the demise of the Empire and British control of the island.  One really powerful scene describes how a mob are about to attack and kill the white landowner, but they don't have the support of ordinary people and are held back from violence by their leader, Mr Slime.

In Song of Night, Barbados has already been through the big political changes and is facing a different kind of change, as the island's economy shifts from one based on sugar production to one based on tourism.  The changing world of Lovell's book is every bit as disconcerting as that of Lamming's and the main characters, Cyan (or Night) and Breeze, find themselves corrupted by the easy money that can be earned from (mostly US and Canadian) tourists who come to Barbados looking for exotic and sensual pleasures. 

Sense of displacement

Book covers

In both novels, the main characters also experience change in their personal circumstances and a sense of displacement or removal from the society they were born into.  In Lamming's novel, the narrator is offered an opportunity to move upwards, in terms of social class, by going to Trinidad to become an English teacher.  Even though he tries to maintain his relationship with his childhood friends and life in the village, the villagers reject him, as they recognise that he needs to move out of their world and that this is the best thing for him to do.

In Lovell's novel, it's almost the complete opposite - when Cyan's father is convicted of murder and hanged, she finds herself ostracised by the people around her and excluded from the village society that is around her.  Being as stubborn as she is, she refuses to move from the village and backs into a corner, reacting violently to the slightest provocation.  She also loses her sense of morality and does things she would never have dreamed of when her father was alive. 

The role of women in the novels

Woman in Barbados by Shardalow
Perhaps it's not surprising that the older novel, In the Castle of my Skin has a male narrator, whereas Song of Night is narrated, almost exclusively, from a female perspective.  When I was researching  Invasion of the Body Snatchers for my blog posts about Wisconsin, I noticed a similar pattern in regards to the movies that were based on the book, ie. the narrator changed from the male protagonist of the 1950's (Kevin McCarthy) to the female protagonist (Nicole Kidman) of the 2007 film version.  I wonder if this is a general trend across world literature?

Of course, there are women in Lamming's novel - the narrator's mother is an incredibly powerful character, who scares and confuses him, as she prepares his final Bajan meal before he leaves for Trinidad.  The power of white female sexuality is also felt in the novel, when the young English woman who is staying at the Landlord's house accuses some of the local boys of molesting her, to cover up the fact that she been out after dark meeting a sailor. 

Song of Night explores the world of Bajan women and Cyan (or Night) is one of the strongest female characters I've ever come across.  In Lovell's novel, the women recognise that they are in a man's world and do everything they can to assert their place in it.  Cyan takes control of her own destiny and just as quickly loses control of her life, as she refuses to listen to the advice of the women around her.  She has an incredibly strained relationship with her mother and there is a lot of tension with the other women in her life as well. 

I really loved the way that Lamming summed up the roles of men and women in Bajan society:

'The men at cricket. The children at hide and seek. The women laying out their starched clothes to dry.' 

Bajan boys on the beach by Shardalow
Darkness and Rain

Cyan is also known as 'Night' and darkness/the night is an important theme in Lovell's novel.  Cyan feels most comfortable at night and the novel opens with the scene of fireflies descending on her garden and filling her with comfort and joy.  In the Castle of my Skin opens with a rain storm on the narrator's ninth birthday.  Rain and darkness are persistent themes throughout both novels and it's an interesting contrast to the image of Barbados that we might see in tourist brochures, ie. full of light and sunshine.  Like many societies that look relaxed and happy on the surface, I guess Barbados also has a dark side?

A denial of race?

I found a great contrast in the role that race plays in both novels.  Lamming's Barbados is a society that is strictly organised along lines of race.  At the top of the social pile is the White plantation class, next down the growing black middle-class, overseers and administrators - at the bottom is the majority, who Lamming describes as 'my people'; patronised by the white plantation owners, who think that they live in some kind of idyllic native paradise; despised by the growing black middle-class as backward and powerless.  In Lamming's novel, the teachers deny that slavery was ever practised in Barbados, which seems like a terrible denial of the nation's past.

The role of race in Lovell's novel is a lot more complicated.  Cyan becomes friends with a black woman called Koko, who came to live on Barbados from the US and, in her own way, also idealises Barbados as a place where she can be fully respected, despite the colour of her skin.  Koko describes the racism she experienced in the US and tries to inspire Cyan with faith in Barbados as a more egalitarian society.  But Cyan doesn't feel it.  The issue isn't so much about race for her, as the general prejudice the villagers have towards her because of actions of her father.  For Cyan, the colour of her skin is complicated by the fact that, just as it attracts prejudice and snide remarks from the other, lighter-skinned islanders, the darkness of her skin equally attracts the attention of the white touristmen - her skin colour becomes something exotic and worth paying for.  The racial problems of the US are not something she can really relate to.

In Lamming's novel as well, one of the narrators childhood friends, Trumper, goes to work in the US and comes back radicalised and inspired by a sense of Black Pride, that people on the island find hard to understand, as though he'd come back speaking a foreign language. 

Trinidad and St Lucia

It's interesting to note the references to other neighbouring islands in both novels.  When the narrator of In the Castle of my Skin is getting ready to move to Trinidad, he gets lots of advice from neighbours and people who've been there, telling him how terrible life in Trinidad is.  Although they have a similar culture to Barbados, the Bajan characters look down their nose at life in Trinidad and see it as a corrupt version of their own culture.  As the narrator's mother puts it:

Trinidad is a nice place - but fire, fire down there

Bajan Siesta by Shardalow
St Lucia doesn't fare much better, in Song of Night.  Cyan's mother was born in the island and her mother's foreign origin is another reason why Cyan and her sister have little support from their neighbours and society, after her father is hanged.  Cyan takes no interest in her mother's culture and seems to agree with the other Bajan characters that a lot of her mother's faults stem from the fact that she was born elsewhere.  Again, St Lucia is seen as a corrupt version of Barbados.  This reminds me of any number of countries I've lived in, where neighbouring countries are often viewed with distrust and there is a general denial of the cultural commonalities that don't necessarily end at the political border!   

The skill of suspense

I enjoyed reading both novels although, perhaps due to age, In the Castle of my Skin is a much more involved read, suited to academic study.  If you want an easy way into to Bajan literature, I'd highly recommend Lovell's Song of Night - it's a beautiful story, incredibly well-written and Lovell is a master of suspense - we know from the outset that Cyan has done something wrong, but her crime isn't revealed until the very end of the novel.  I don't think the novel is widely available in the UK, but I managed to have a copy shipped over from the US and there are several US sellers on Amazon that have the novel in stock. 

Image credits:

The image of the book covers was taken by me - the cover of Song of Night is from a painting called Paradise of Anubis by Bajan artist David Gall.  David now lectures at the University of North Carolina. 

For this blog post I wanted to highlight images of Barbados that were taken by flickr member Shardalow - you can see more of Shardalow's images on their flickrstream.  Thanks for sharing these with us using the Creative Commons license.


Clare said...

Great post Michael! One of my favourite quotes from George Lamming is: "the pleasure and the paradox of my own exile is that I belong wherever I am'.

glenvillelovell said...