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.

 

 

Jamaica

Strawberry Hills Swimming Pool
Strawberry Hills Swimming Pool

On April 6 we flew to Jamaica and began a fascinating 8-day adventure by car. We traveled with old friends, W and B. W was born and raised in Trinidad. Almost 50 years ago W and I taught chem and math in the same secondary school in southeast Trinidad. We go back. Lots of stories and laughs then and since. Continue reading “Jamaica”

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”

South America Trip.1

TheOriginalEight
The Original Eight: L to R: Ron, Meridale, Bill, Joyce, jackie, Bob, Mary Jo and Marlene

OK I lied. We’re not technically in South America yet. This was taken at Mayaro Beach in Trinidad in 1967, the last year that the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. I’m in the white shorts.

Trinidad is less than 30 miles from Venezuela, though. Does that count as South America? This is our group of Canadian teachers who got on Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s North Star plane in September 1965. A couple of Canadians named Bill McWhinney and Terry Glavin had had a big part in forming Canadian University Service Overseas, an organization of people with varied skills who were prepared to go all over the world to do their thing. CUSO (still going; one of Canada’s best kept secrets) was only a few years old when they sent this exuberant group to Trinidad. We were the first group to go there. We happened to be all teachers. This meant, in those young and early days of CUSO, all you needed was a degree or a technical skill you could teach. A couple of us had their Bachelor of Education already. I was one month shy of my 21st birthday when I got on that plane in Ottawa and the only teacher training I had was two weeks of orientation with over 300 other worldwide destined volunteers at York University’s beautiful Glendon Campus in Toronto, Ontario. In that two week period we were also taught valuable things like how not to bite a snake and how to eat roti with your fingers. They put me in charge of organizing activities for the West Indies bound contingent outside of orientation. Among other things we went to the West Indies Federation Club for a dinner (curry goat – yum) and a local Torontonian named Anne took us to then hippie (now expensive shoppie) Yorkville for some quality folk music and cheap beer.

I remember the guitars. The ubiquitous guitars. It was, after all, the sixties. I had never sung or played guitar in public before. I clammed up at the age of 6 when my teacher called my parents, Lou and Angel, telling them that I had a beautiful voice. In Grade One we used to stand in a double line somewhere in the hall and sing hymns like Immaculate Mary. I hated to be singled out and was incredibly shy. So, whenever the teacher passed by I would just mouth the words. At least she didn’t hit me like she did when I innocently sat on my heels while practicing how to kneel at the communion rail for our upcoming First Communions.

In my teen years I developed a love for all the Hit Parade music and would once in a while attempt something like Ray Charles’ What’d I Say while walking to the local deli for french fries and a cherry coke after school. My Lachine, Quebec friends weren’t impressed and let me know. Cruel, perhaps honest, times. I also loved Frank Sinatra. Many a night I sang myself (quietly) to sleep doing one or more of his classy hits, like Nice and Easy. I had purchased a used Harmony dreadnought acoustic guitar at 12 years old and knew the basic nut position chords. The strings were so far from the fretboard on that thing that exploration beyond nut position was impossible. Those elementary skills were the basic musical tools I possessed when I took the train to Toronto from Montreal in 1965.

Orientation in Toronto was my first public performance. The atmosphere in that group was welcoming and non-threatening. I borrowed someone’s guitar in the lounge one evening and played a song I loved: Dona Dona. Here’s the version by Joan Baez I first heard. I hereby confess to a permanent love for her pure voice. After that I was never afraid or shy to sing.

Trinidadians love music. At a community meeting it was not unusual for a person to randomly get up at the end and sing a song. Regardless of the quality of the performance, the audience was warm and accepting. While there I bought myself a cheap guitar and learned to sing and play calypso and soca tunes. I started to listen carefully to bass lines, arrangement and harmony. My favorite calypsonian was then, and still is, The Mighty Sparrow. His songs were funny, frequently aimed at politicians and, more than occasionally, just plain smutty. Here is one of my favorite Sparrow songs, full of double entente and verve: Congo Man. I saw him perform it in his prime in 1966 at Naparima Bowl in San Fernando and he blew the place away.

Who said I couldn't paint?
Who said I couldn’t paint?

In August 1967 I got home to Montreal from my two years in Trinidad and two months in South America – just in time to spend a couple of weeks at Expo 67. Later I painted this map on Bristol board and took a 35 mm slide of it so that I could show people the Caribbean islands in my slide shows. Trinidad and its sister island, Tobago, are at the bottom close to big, brown Venezuela. The Orinoco River is also shown. Jamaica is the big, pink island at the top. To give you an idea of scale: Kingston is 1133 miles from Port of Spain. Don’t ask me which are the Windward and which the Leeward Islands. I never got that right.

Oh yeah, this post is supposed to be about South America. Maybe one more on Trinidad first…

Travels In South America

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Machu Picchu: A place I will likely revisit this autumn after 46 years. I was 22 when snapped by a Peace Corps friend while checking my watch against this sundial at the wonderful Inca site, of whose magnificent existence the pillaging Spaniards fortunately never learned.

Continue reading “Travels In South America”

Christmas Day Parang

Our impromptu parang side
Our impromptu parang side

It is always  better than good to get together with family and friends and feast at Christmas. We had nine for dinner and Avril had nine. The two groups combined later at our place for more partying and an impromptu, extremely lively, parang. Parang is a custom coming from the time when Trinidad was a colony of Spain. It is sung mostly in six-eight time and in Spanish. Often the parang deviates into calypso, Trini folk songs and lively, Trinified versions of traditional English language carols. We had two visitors from St. Maarten. Rose’s daughter-in-law and grandson. Having so many musical Trinis in one place made the parang, I now realize, inevitable…

Off topic, but very worthwhile: This amazing, colourful version of Handel’s Halleluja Chorus by The Lydians, a well known Trinidad musical company.

I now know that using the “three photo” option with the 10 second time delay can encourage a lot of frivolity, even amongst adults.  Out of nine photos this was the best – with 94% of the group actually on task. It was obvious that fun was had by all.

The CBC – “My Precious”

The CBC, especially radio, for me – is air. Not simply “on the air.” It is for my mind what air is for my body. It is what keeps Canada sensitive to human kindness and cooperation. It brings quality broadcasting to isolated communities in the far north of our vast and sparsely populated country – something that would never happen if it had to make a profit. It is as important an organ to Canada as the heart is to any human.

I can’t remember whether I listened to CBC radio much while growing up in Lachine, Québec, near Montreal. CJAD was a private station that my parents listened to primarily. My aunt, Helen, worked for CJAD. As a teenager I listened to the hit parade mostly on CKGM. Ray Charles was my favorite. Continue reading “The CBC – “My Precious””