Books: Snapshots of the Caribbean’s troubled cultures

Written By: Mike Parker
Published: April 21, 2017 Last modified: April 21, 2017

Island People:?The Caribbean and the World
by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Canongates £22

Perhaps the title of Jelly-Schapiro’s book leads the reader to expect a little more than it delivers. This is not a wide-ranging survey of the Caribbean’s political, social and economic standing in the 21st century. While touching on current events – in particular in the tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic – his ‘island people’ are a select few, often chosen as a direct result of his particular interest in music and the literary and cultural influences that were the source of his early fascination with the region.

That’s not a criticism. Whole volumes could (and have been) written about the individual islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles and the economic and colonial exploitation that has left many of them politically dysfunctional. Jelly-Schapiro’s literary snapshots are rather more in the style of a less dyspeptic, less politically detached Paul Theroux. His affection for the islands and respect for the disparate characters that people them and have shaped their history shines through, despite the clear-sighted awareness of their dysfunction one would expect from an alumnus of Yale and Berkeley and contributor to the NY Review of Books and The Nation, among others.

Inevitably, as with any examination of Caribbean culture, the ghost of CLR James – one of Jelly-Schapiro’s inspirations – looms large across most of the islands, not just James’ birthplace of Trinidad, as well as this book. Many of the author’s subjects here have been influenced by the cricket-loving Marxist polymath, and by the example of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the revolutionary who, inspired by Napoleon, and later destroyed by him, led the great slave rebellion on Hispaniola, and was rescued from historical obscurity by James’ book The Black Jacobins.

But it’s in that influence, rather than any in-depth examination of the man and his work, that James is present, particularly in the chapters on Hispaniola. L’Ouverture may be a familiar name now, but Jelly-Schapiro provides a fascinating account of the revolt and it’s aftermath, and the important but lesser known characters who contributed to a series of events both inspiring and tragic. Part of that tragedy is the continuing sorry state of the island – the poverty of Haiti after its apparently endless series of political and natural catastrophes, and the threat from that poverty perceived by its neighbour the Dominican Republic, a country not much better off, economically.

This, in a sense, is the core of the book, and its most serious section – both in the historical account of the slave revolts and its examination of the contemporary situation. Its weakness, however, is in its failure to examine in more depth the later 20th century inter­ventions in the DR by the US, and the record there of the United Fruit Company.

Elsewhere, Jamaica is defined too closely by its reggae and rasta culture (like many fans, Jelly-Schapiro ascribes just a little more influence to their favoured musical genres than is perhaps deserved). Politics is touched upon, particularly the violence fuelled by the Gairy versus Manley rivalry of the 60s and 70s, from which the country has still not properly recovered, but the music is the author’s prime interest. On Cuba, too, music takes pride of place, though there are some acute social insights. The chapter on Puerto Rico is more interesting because – perhaps due to its close association with the US – the world generally shows it much less interest.

Jelly-Schapiro cherry picks the Lesser Antilles, but in informative and entertaining fashion. The sections on Martinique and Dominica are especially good, though best of all is Trinidad, another island, like Jamaica, which suffers problems with crime and violence, but which has produced some of the Carib­bean’s greatest cultural icons – James, Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul among them. Jelly-Schapiro, however, finds and befriends Jay Telfer, turban-wearing, spliff-toting former London club owner and pioneer of the Notting Hill carnival. His portrait of this great character is touching, and a fine way to conclude the book.

Island People has some faults. There are no illustrations, and the only map is an indistinct and almost indecipherable antique. There is no index, either – a mistake if you are striving for something with more depth than a travel tome. On the whole, though, this is an entertaining, informative and insightful work.

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker is Literary Editor and Production Editor of Tribune