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Monday, January 25, 2010

A reshaping of shadows

SAMBO. Nigger. Nig-nog. Golliwog. These epithets, and others, cast long shadows over my childhood and I have kept safe and unsafe distances from them ever since.

But in her latest collection of poetry, Ship Shape (Peepal Tree, 2008), Dorothea Smartt forces a bridging of distances by boldly reimagining the story behind one of those names. And if ArtsEtc offered prizes for forceful bridging and bold reimagination (hey, and maybe we should!) then one would go to this Brit-born Bajan international, as Kamau has dubbed her.

Dorothea Smartt
at the launch
of Ship Shape.

Samboo (the spelling Smartt opts for) is reintroduced to us as ‘Bilal’, an eight year-old slave boy. In one telling poem, we meet him in Barbados, frightened and alone, contemplating his fate and a lunar eclipse on the eve of his ship’s departure. If the hurt of names hurled across school playgrounds estranged me from the truths behind them, and from other dark aspects of slave and racial heritage, then Smartt’s poem had me racing back, arms wide in a protective, even maternal, embrace towards Bilal.

The poems evolved from Smartt’s own research: a commissioned delving into the real history of an African named Samboo, who died shortly after his arrival in 18th century Lancaster, England, and is buried there. The book is split into two: Bilal’s story counter-weighed by, but also loosely connected to a second part dealing with contemporary themes of Caribbean families and migration.

The Barbados launch of Ship Shape was held at the Waterfront CafĂ© (left) in January, with Smartt sharing her stage with local writers Philip Nanton, Linda M. Deane and recent Colly winner, Karen Lord. — LMD

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