Uncle Brother – A Novel

Barbara Lalla’s 2014 novel, Uncle Brother, published by The University of the West Indies Press, is a wise, culturally faithful and very funny tribute to heroism and loving personal sacrifice in family life. This third novel focuses on the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural and historical richness of the people of the Caribbean Island of Trinidad. Her first two novels, Cascade and Arch of Fire, focused on her native Jamaica, where she grew up, studied, and fell in love with a gifted young Trinidadian also at UWI in Mona. Her subsequent decades in Trinidad, where she lives, teaches and writes, have made possible this faithful and brilliant tribute that begins in the 19th century and ends in 2010, a decade into the twenty-first.

The book’s central character of “Nathan” found inspiration in a real person from a bustling rural town in southern Trinidad. Nathan is the fictional main “author” of his family’s story, put together from a treasure trove of notes and documents in English, including one in French and one in Hindi he has written or collected and saved through eight decades. Members of his family and friends also contribute their memories to the story. Both sides of the precocious Nathan’s family came from India in the 19th century when they were brought to Trinidad as indentured labourers after slavery from Africa had been “abolished.” The complexity of feelings produced by this continental uprooting is just one aspect of the history of Trinidad’s people that Lalla presents with great sensitivity and insight.

The scope of the story has enabled talented, perceptive, and poetically memorable reflections on both intensely personal and broader 21st century political issues. It describes the struggles of the folk on a small, multi-cultural, “multi-continental” island to endure a final century of colonial government and later govern themselves during over half a century of self-government after independence from Britain on 1 August, 1962.

One unforgettable example: Nathan’s 12-year-old sister, Judith, who often helped her mother in her “vegetable” garden, asks him about the descriptions of beautiful gardens by great English authors he has given her to read: “How could karaile and pumpkin and all the other things that grew in a garden like Ma’s be pretty?” Nathan soon after took her on a journey to Port of Spain to see the Royal Botanical Gardens. Judith reflects: “It made him still more godlike in my eyes, for although he had not made the garden he had placed me in it however briefly and it in me forever… ”

The story includes playful and often hilarious dialogue in Trinidad “English,” a combination of English and Creole French with the languages of other cultures, like Spanish, Hindi and Amerindian that have interacted over the centuries since Columbus arrived in 1498. A massive 12,000-entry testimony to the seductive pull of Trini-talk is Dictionary of the English Creole of Trinidad and Tobago by Canadian editor Lise Winer who has devoted many years to collecting and referencing a language that makes English itself richer.

This inspiring, captivating story is also a thriller that includes some violence and, toward the end, some vitally important suspense. It is a wonderful, mature tour-de-force by a sophisticated story-teller that combines many laugh-out-loud moments with a complex worldview and a deep understanding of the human psyche.




South America Trip.2

OK. Still not about South America yet, but I warned you last time. Anyway – if I hadn’t gone to teach in Trinidad in 1965, I probably wouldn’t have done the two month South America trip in 1967. So kindly bear with me, or, if not, feel free to skip to the end of this post or go elsewhere with my good wishes and abject apologies.
Boarding The Plane in September 1965 Boarding The Plane in September 1965

Our West Indies CUSO volunteer contingent (young adults with university degrees or special skills who had selected to serve in the sunny Caribbean over more distant sunny places like Malaysia, India or Tanzania – about two dozen of us in all) assembled at Ottawa’s international airport on a very chilly morning in early September, 1965. We climbed an outside ladder, waved to our loved ones and entered Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s Canadair North Star. This was not a jet, but a plane powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin propeller engines. They were proudly termed “turbo-props,” whatever enhancements that meant. Still slow and noisy compared to modern jet planes. Simpler times. It took us 19 hours of island hopping before our 8-member Trinidad contingent arrived at Piarco Airport in Port of Spain, the North Star’s last stop. Continue reading “South America Trip.2”

Snow Say, “Look Meh!”

The BBQ is off limits
The BBQ is off limits

I tend to be oblivious to some things at times, but yesterday’s snowfall had to be an “in your face” kind of event. A Trinidadian friend I have known since 1965, when we we taught Sciences and Math together in a small town government secondary school in the island’s southeast, likes to use phrases like the above title about extreme weather. On a very hot day he would exclaim,

Sun say, “Look meh!”

Translation: The sun says “Look at me! Pay attention!”

I shoveled enough yesterday morning to get the car onto the road so that I could drive my youngest daughter to the airport. I got help from my neighbours, Gord and Marilyn, which was much appreciated because the one thing my cardiologist forbade me to do after two heart attacks a week apart  in February 2000 was – shovel. Fortunately the first attack did only about 10% damage and the second did none, since it occurred when I was still in ICU recovering from the first.

Neither attack came while shoveling snow, which I do slowly and never get chest pain while shoveling. I have done upper body exercises ever since, and am careful not to overdo it when I shovel. Get a snow blower? No. Considering the small amounts of snow we usually get here it’s not a necessity.

Actually the first sign of the oncoming attack, angina, happened while I was sitting right here at my desk on a previous desktop computer typing up a quiz for my new, semester two senior chemistry class. It was a new sensation for me, so I tested my condition by doing 20 pushups. Since this experiment did not cause a recurrence I went to school. The attack came at the end of first period, so I did a rare thing: let my students go early.

I lay on the couch in the science office and an ambulance was called. Picture my mortification being wheeled around the entire second floor of the school to the opposite corner where the elevator was. Students came to the doorways to view what all the excitement was about.

I guess my Trini friend would have expressed what happened that day this way:

Heart say, “Look Meh!”

Ever since then, I’ve paid attention to my heart and listened to my body’s feedback. Not to mention regular exercise and as close to zero trans fats as possible, apart from an annual cherry pie on my birthday. Only 8 1/2  more months to wait…

Anyway, I went out again last night after the snow finally stopped just to clear the sidewalk – my duty as a citizen, and then did a little more. My neighbour on the other side, Graham, and a friend of his were shoveling at the same time. They came over and shoveled the driveway and our path to the house with me, doing the lion’s share of the work. Neighbours like we are blessed with – virtually everyone on the street – are a reason to stay even in a house that has become bigger than we empty-nesters need.

This morning I shoveled a path to the bird feeder so that I could put sunflower seeds out for the cardinals, nuthatches, juncos, chickadees, goldfinches, sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers who still feast on the stairway to our deck. Rarer now, for some reason are the blue jays. Some used to stay all winter; now we see them mostly while they are migrating.

Then I went to the front to remove the snow dune the plow left at at the bottom of our driveway and was aided again by Graham and Gord. Many thanks to these kind people.

A path to the bird feeder.
A path to the bird feeder.