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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Something is happening with the Bajan novel...

ArtsEtc co-editor Robert Edison Sandiford and Redemption in Indigo author Karen Lord at her book launch in August. (Launch photograph courtesy Days Books.)

OVER the last decade in Barbados, we’ve seen the publication of novels by Thomas Armstrong, Nicole Blades, Austin Clarke, Alvin Cummins, Nailah Folami Imojah, Margaret Knight, Glenville Lovell, Arnold Ward, to name a few of our more familiar writers in this form. This summer, Karen Lord’s name was added to that not-so-short list. Something, it seems, is happening again with the Barbadian novel, and her Redemption in Indigo, recently released from Small Beer Press, is very much part of that event.

What the books by these writers have in common is an attempt to reinterpret the situation of a people, namely Caribbean, and remind them of the significance of their experience, of its value and currency, to them and their wider community. Where Redemption in Indigo stands somewhat apart is in its use of fantasy to tell its tale, and, to a lesser extent, in its own preoccupations with the nature of choice, free will, fate, and chance.

One of the many pleasures of Lord’s debut novel is its protagonists: we watch both Paama (the girl married to a fatally licorish husband) and the indigo lord (the man with the magic coucou stick) grow in strength and humility and understanding of their humanity. Karen’s commitment to the redemptive powers of storytelling, and to the hope our stories can inspire, is uncompromising, fierce. This is from the end of the book:

“…there are those who utterly, utterly fear the dreaded Moral of a Story. They consider it an affront to their sensibilities and a painful presumption on the part of the storyteller. They are put off by the idea that a story might have anything useful to say and, as a result, all the other joys a tale has to offer them are immediately soured. I save my most scathing remarks for them. Do you go through life with your eyes blindfolded and your ears stopped? Everything teaches, everyone preaches, all have a gospel to sell! Better the one who is honest and open in declaring an agenda than the one who fools you into believing that they are only spinning a pretty fancy for beauty’s sake.”

Let me repeat: there is something happening in Barbadian arts. It’s as if our writers—on the page, stage and in film—are attempting to reboot our literature. Lamming’s last novel was Natives of My Person in 1972. Austin Clarke’s been producing, but there has been a sense of overworking old themes in recent, award-winning novels. In-between, Timothy Callender gave us How Music Came to the Ainchan People; that was in 1979…. The markers are a little arbitrary, but you get the drift.

Whatever’s happening, it’s easy to be part of it: by buying Redemption in Indigo, reading it, talking about it, passing it on, and then checking out all the other authors mentioned above (and those not) from our canon. There’s a vision our writers have of us, or for us, that’s once more emerging: one that encompasses Barbados yesterday, today and especially tomorrow.

Robert Edison Sandiford (Adapted from opening remarks made at the launch of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo at Ocean Spray, Barbados, August 6, 2010. This blog entry is part of ArtsEtc’s series on literature and literacy for September, Literacy Awareness Month.)

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