Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reading Down Babylon



Caribbean culture brims with nuance. A rural Jamaican patois sounds flatter than a Kingston accent, which doesn't sound as British as a Trinidadian one. Bajan rice and peas typically boast coconut milk, which you'll never find in the same staple prepared in St. Croix. These details never quite translate to the broad, mostly off key caricatures that fill American media. There's a whole lot more to the region than smiling faces, jerk chicken and ganja. Trust me. If you can't travel to the Caribbean and experience the complexities, the next best thing is to read Caribbean literature that captures the richness of a specific island. Geoffrey Philp's Who's Your Daddy and Other Stories not only conjures up the sounds and images of rural Jamaica, it also reflects the Jamaican community in Miami, which is an element that I've never seen portrayed quite so vividly.

I found myself enmeshed in the layers of Cuban and Jamaican politics with the riveting story, Joseph's Dream. Joseph has clawed his way up from rural Jamaica to the head of a Miami daycare empire. Along the way, he meets Silvio, A Cuban immigrant who prides himself in the honor of his family name. Silvio rails against the perception that all Cubans are corrupt. Joseph rails against the stereotype of all Jamaicans being drug dealers. They eat arroz con pollo together and join forces. Silvio heads the Hialeah branch of the daycare and builds a tight connection with the local Cuban community. When Silvio needs help, he hires his cousin Caridad,who represents the new Latin women with looks, charm and degrees. But all is not as it appears, as Betty, Joseph's homespun Jamaican secretary observes, "sorry for mawga dawg, mawga dawg turn round and bite you." (Mawga means scrawny.) It's an old Jamaican saying popularized by a Peter Tosh tune that basically means that many will bite the hand that feeds them. Caridad turns on Silvio and Joseph, tearing down their shining Jamaican and Cuban partnership. The story reveals a lot about the tensions between the two groups and the possibilities for true community.

Another story, I Want To Disturb My Neighbor explores the spiritual and religious aspects of rural Jamaica. I enjoyed the tale because it gives an authentic picture of the struggle between mainstream religion and Rastafari. Contrary to popular belief, Rastafarianism, which holds that the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is Jesus Christ returned, has never won widespread acceptance anywhere in the Caribbean. Most practitioners were regularly persecuted until very recently. In the story, Courtneigh, an adolescent boy, is sent by his mother to tell their rasta neighbor Jah Mick, to turn his reggae music down so she can lead a bible study. Humorous and direct, Courtneigh boasts a colorful voice that dissects the real issues behind the adults problems. "Jah Mick had gone up as Michael, what society people like my mother used to call "a decent boy." But he'd come back six months ago with a new name and a new flex, a beard and long dreads-a "boogooyagga." You don't need no translation. So it mean, so it sound. Say it, "Boo-goo-yagga, Boo-goo-yagga." It sound bad, eh?"

A poet, playwright and English professor, Geoffrey Philp fills his stories with the lyricism of Jamaican speech as well as engaging characters. There are quite a few married playboys with "outside children," a closeted and torn gay teen, a first person tale of Geoffrey using his hypnotic Jamaican dialect to sweet talk an unreliable refrigerator and even a dread-locked vampire. The collection's 20 stories serve as an inventive display of the many nuances of Jamaican culture. Check out more of Geoffrey's writing on his popular blog.



12 comments:

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Dear FarSighted FlyGirl,

Give thanks for this. I'm glad that you liked the stories and could see many of the things that others have been unable to see.

1Love,
Geoffrey

Fly Girl said...

Geoffrey, it was defintely the highlight of my summer reading!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A great post that was worth reading.

Ibou said...

I will order this book now.

Fly Girl said...

Jean- Luc, thanks.

Ibou, That's wonderful! Let me know what you think!

Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

~Sounds like some terrifically engaging reading. I'm bookmarking Geoffrey's site and will look for the book once I get through my bedside stack.

Stephen Bess said...

This is a wonderful review for a great collection of short stories. I loved it and learned and thing or two. Thanks for the history. Peace~

Fly Girl said...

Heather, it really is! I had to put this book on top of my stach which never seems to get smaller.

Stephen, Thanks! Geoffrey really pulls you in to an intriguing world.

Catherine said...

Thanks for this recommendation.. this is a new writer for me and I look forward to checking it out..

Fly Girl said...

Catherine, I really think you'll enjoy it!

kristine said...

hmmm, sounds very interesting indeed. may have to put this on my To Read list. Never having been anywhere near the caribbean until very recently, it has been a very interesting experience for me, learning about all the nuance that exists....and not least about the various steeotypes that caribbean islanders have about each other! I am starting to be able to reognize the different accents too - i must be getting somewhere! Thanks for the recommendations.

Fly Girl said...

Kristine, The sterotypes that Caribbean people have about each other are a whole other story!