Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.

In memory of VS Naipaul, one of the world’s and Trinidad’s greatest writers

The world lost one of the greatest contemporary English-language writers last Saturday (11th) when VS Naipaul passed away at 85 in his home in London. The Nobel Literature laureate and Booker Prize-winner was a formidable and fearless writer who pulled no punches in his writing, which included both novels and non-fiction that mostly focused on the developing world. Africa, India, and the Caribbean, including his native Trinidad, were all harshly criticized by him in various books, which struck some people as racist and an apologist for colonialism. Naipaul was also open about the racism he experienced in England, where he went to university at 18 after graduating from high school in Trinidad on a scholarship and lived from then on. As great a writer as he was, as a person, he had some serious flaws such as a strong sense of arrogance, and cruelty towards his first wife and his mistress.

For me, it was his non-fiction books on India (India: A Million Mutinies Now) and the Islamic world that were the most memorable. Besides the scope of his books, it was the bluntness and validity of Naipaul’s critiques of those countries that struck me. Maybe partly because of the fact he was not white and was from a developing country himself, but Naipaul wrote things about the developing world that hardly any other Western writer would dare to. That he wrote a trilogy of non-fiction books about India, where his ancestors came from, that were unsympathetic and unsparing in their criticism of poverty, squalor, and disorder, was a testament to his fearlessness and lack of fear in expressing his thoughts and opinions.  Besides the Caribbean, Africa, and India, Naipaul also wrote about the Islamic world in his non-fiction book Beyond Belief, visiting countries like Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan, which he was, not surprisingly, critical of. While some people saw this as mocking and contemptuous of the third world, I feel that Naipaul’s blunt opinions were driven not by arrogance or a superiority complex, but a sense of disappointment and a desire for the developing world to improve.

As someone who is also from Trinidad, I know that Naipaul was not very well liked by many locals because they felt that he was out of hand in his criticisms. But I think he was right in a lot of his criticisms, such as how as a society Trinidad has failed to progress, and I think deep down, many of his critics probably agree with Naipaul.

Naipaul was involved in a few public feuds, including one with the poet Derek Walcott, another Caribbean literary giant and Nobel Literary Prize laureate that saw the latter write a very malicious poem about Naipaul. Another was with American writer Paul Theroux, who was wounded enough when Naipaul suddenly ended their decades-long friendship to write an entire book about his friendship and falling out with Naipaul called Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

A lot of testimonies have been written about Naipaul and none fail to mention both his greatness and his conflicting legacy. Whatever one thinks of his personality or work, it can’t be denied that there might never be another like Va Naipaul.


Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.

Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).

Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.

Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.

The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.
As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.

While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.

I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.

As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.

Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.

I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a great holiday season. I hope you have a good, festive time with family, friends, and have lots of things to be thankful for. It may have a tough year for some of us, but thankfully it’s coming to a close.
Meanwhile, enjoy these photos of a couple of great mall Christmas decorations from a recent trip I made to Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. The towering Christmas tree in Toronto’s Eaton Centre was so nice I had to post it twice. Actually I’ve never seen such a big Christmas tree before (its base is in the basement, which is two floors below where I’m taking it) and it was so tall it was almost scary. The other Christmas decoration is in Long Circular mall in Trinidad, the country where I’m from.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow- book review

The country of Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is a tiny pair of islands in the Caribbean with a population of 1.3 million. Many people have never heard of it, especially in Asia, but Trinidad is renowned for a handful of reasons. One would be its Carnival festival and steelpan instrument, another would be star athletes like Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen, and then there is VS Naipaul, the writer who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2001. Naipaul was born and grew up in Trinidad, but he left for England to attend Oxford and since then, has lived there. He has never been shy to criticize where he came from and there are many in Trinidad who feel he has turned his backs on them and would just say good riddance to him.

Naipaul’s critical views towards Trinidad is not unique because he has also been heavily critical, even dismissive, of Africa, India and the Islamic world, all of where he traveled to and wrote books about. In short, he is not a man who cares too much about who he offends and who is afraid to voice his true thoughts, as haughty, arrogant or contemptuous as they might sound. As a person, Naipaul is not much different, having been well-known for mistreating his own first wife and for various incidents at public functions as well as spats with fellow writers. One of these spats was famously with Paul Theroux, another famous writer, who for a long time considered himself a protege and friend of Naipaul’s. They had met in Uganda in 1967 where Theroux was teaching a local university and Naipaul was a visiting writer. Theroux was still struggling to launch his writing career while Naipaul, nine years older, was an established name. A friendship flourished that lasted through decades and continents, until suddenly Naipaul ended it.

Theroux was so affected by their falling out that he wrote a book about their long friendship. The result is Sir Vidia’s Shadow – A Friendship Across Five Continents, a compelling piece of work that lays bare their relationship and sheds more light on Naipaul, who could be perplexing and arrogant, than on the author.

The book is interesting but it did not make me feel sympathetic towards Naipaul and I came away wondering how Theroux could have been so deferential for such a long time. Theroux himself says almost the same thing, explaining how eager and pleased he was to get Naipaul’s praise and respect. He also recounts what he hears concerning Naipaul’s boorish behavior towards the public or to fellow writers. There is also the callous manner in which Naipaul treats his faithful first wife, Pat, who Theroux gets along well with, having affairs and then later courting his second wife while Pat is dying of cancer.

On the one hand, it is understandable why Theroux valued their relationship so much. Naipaul was already a published award-winning renowned writer when they met. Naipaul gives Theroux blunt advice and sparing praise, of which Theroux treasures every last bit. Theroux is wounded when the break-up occurs, and it is only then in the book he makes some intense criticisms of Naipaul, for whom up to that point he had only affection and reverence. While the book is not petty or harsh, Theroux’s recounting of their relationship seems to hint at a change in Naipaul’s personality in becoming more callous and bitter as time goes by over the years.

Naipaul may be the Nobel laureate, but I have more respect for Theroux than Naipaul, both of whose books I’ve read, though not that many. I’ve found Naipaul’s writing, especially his non-fiction to be spare and blunt in tone, though not necessarily always wrong. Theroux is also cantankerous and blunt, though less haughty and, as a white American, certainly not pro-Western and unreservably dismissive of the Third World like Naipaul.

The break-up of their friendship happened after a joint appearance at a 1998 book festival in Wales, but Theroux is not aware of it until he realizes Naipaul has not contacted him in over a year after it. Eventually, the two met again in 2011, which Theroux describes in the postscript. It ends somewhat positively and there is a sense of closure.

Travel cancellation

So I will be leaving Beijing soon this month, much earlier than planned. As I mentioned previously, I was going to do some traveling in the summer but my foot started acting up badly last month. It was a really rude surprise, since for the last few months I’d been fine. I went on short trips to Jinan and Datong in the mainland, and Hong Kong, in April and May. On each trip, I did a fair bit of walking, plus a small hike on a HK island. As a result of nixing my summer travel plans, I had to return my train tickets for Shanghai plus my first intended trip to the Northeast, all 11 of them. Luckily I was able to get back 90% of the ticket costs at Beijing Rail Station, but it was a waste of a month’s planning in which I’d looked through train routes and maps for the itinerary. I was also thinking of going to the far west such as Gansu and Qinghai provinces in August. But in truth, I was not that upset or sad. Over the past year, I’d gradually realized I had lost all my support, empathy and attachment for China. Some of my blog posts about China in the past year might have provided a clue as the tone became more negative. Simply put, I have come to dislike the government and society here more and more. This might also have impacted me a couple of months ago when even as I was planning my travel, I had no enthusiasm for that or anything else in my life. I was still able to go to work and continue writing, but I felt irritable and had no joy about the fact I was leaving my job soon (I’d given notice about 6 weeks in advance and had decided on it much earlier). For these last two weeks, I’ve basically done nothing but rest at home, clean things up a bit, and do errands, yet I’ve felt better than in the previous month. It might be because I’ve had to come to grips with how I harbored stupid thoughts and misled myself for such a long time about China. It wasn’t like I suddenly realized the Chinese government does bad things or that society here is full of rudeness and frustration. I’d heard of and expected these things before I had even come to China. But somehow I had naive thoughts about China and had expected the country was progressing. Indeed it is getting better in some ways, but not as much as it should be, or at least what I thought. I also learnt to be comfortable with the idea that I am not Chinese, except ethnically, nor should I expect to be. I am a HK-born Trinidadian who is also part Taiwanese with Chinese ancestry. I mean I always knew culturally I was not Chinese, but I had cultivated this sense of an inter-Chinese identity that comprised China, Taiwan, HK while being overseas Chinese. It was a vague concept that did not have much concrete links to bind it together other than my family background, but it was also comforting and unique. I’ve slowly shed this sense of identity in the last few months and perhaps it had a huge impact on how I viewed living here. In the end, it might be a good thing that I had to cancel my summer travel plans within China. I may not have enjoyed it given the lack of enthusiasm I had had for it and I might have even risked injuring my foot more. And plus, not not being able to travel because of a bad foot is kind of tough, but if it means I can come to grips with my China disappointment, then it might even be worth it. IMAG5254_1 Eight paper tickets, representing two separate trips, that I had to return at the train station. I had also bought 3 online which I refunded from the website too.