It belongs at the centre of the story of the modern world
In his new book, author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro explores the charm, idiosyncrasies and global importance of the Caribbean. We asked him why he thinks the region has been so unfairly overlooked, and print an exclusive extract from Island People
Q How would you sum up Island People?
Island People is at once a portrait of the modern Caribbean, a work of cultural history and a broad account of how and why these islands are so much more than nice places to go on vacation – how they belong at the centre of any story we tell ourselves about the making of the modern world.
The book is often described as a ‘travel book’: it describes my journeys through the Caribbean over the past 20 years and recounts many of the memorable experiences I’ve had, the remarkable people I’ve encountered. But this book tries to be more than a portrait. The Cuban writer Antonio Benitez-Rojo wrote that Caribbean culture has ‘expanded beyond its own sea with a vengeance’. Island People is about how and why that’s so.
Q Why the fixation with the Caribbean? What drew you to the region?
I grew up in snowy New England, which is about as far from the Caribbean as you can get! But I’ve been drawn to the region since I was a child. My first exposure was through music – I fell in love with Bob Marley. I studied Caribbean literature at university, then Caribbean history and geography for my PhD. I was determined to experience it up close. I visited Cuba for the first time when I was 18, and I’ve spent much of the past couple decades living on one of the islands, travelling between them or plotting my next trip.
Q Why did you decide to write the book?
Island People is the culmination of years of studying the Caribbean, and of my determination to convince people of all the ways the Caribbean matters. Over recent decades, the big historical drama has been the transformation of many of the Antilles from colonies of Europe to independent nations. All of the Caribbean’s countries have sought ways to develop economically; some have struggled to do so. But one result of those struggles is the huge number of emigrants from the region. Much of what we now call ‘Caribbean culture’ is created and shaped overseas as much as in the islands themselves. This also helps explain the huge influence of the Caribbean in world culture. Just think of music. From reggae to hip-hop to salsa and soca – so many of the sounds to which the world now moves come from the Caribbean. That’s fascinating to me, and a big part of why I wrote this book.
Q Does the outside world homogenise the Caribbean into one ‘country’?
Many people outside the Caribbean think of all the islands as alike – and why wouldn’t they? All the tourism adverts are the same: they show the same turquoise seas and shining sands. But of course there’s tremendous diversity between and among the islands. But what’s also interesting is what the islands do share, even when they don’t speak the same language: because there are commonalities that run through, relating to shared history.
Q In terms of world history?
Absolutely. These islands are viewed as at the edges of history, as places where nothing happens, where people go on vacation. But the Caribbean has been so central to world history – and remains so. This is where Columbus first bumped into the New World. These islands were the centre, for 300 years, of the Atlantic slave trade. They were the setting for the Haitian Revolution – the only successful slave revolution in history, and ‘the birth of modern politics’. In our era, the descendants of this history have been key, in politics and literature, in music and culture. CLR James, the great historian and writer from Trinidad, wrote in the 1950s that ‘of all the world’s formerly colonised peoples’ he felt that people from the Caribbean were best prepared, and most suited ‘to shape the future of Western civilisation’. I think he’s been proved right.
Q Tourists are fed the ‘paradise’ notion of the Caribbean. How can a visitor dig deeper?
What makes the Caribbean extraordinary isn’t its natural beauty (though there’s plenty of that). Its the people. It’s your job and your joy as a traveller to encounter people as they live, to seek to learn from their culture, to support local businesses. You’ll be better for it, and so will the places you’re visiting.
Q Have you had any reaction from people in the region?
This project was a collaboration with friends across the region. The book is in many ways a celebration of each island’s culture; it also doesn’t shirk from describing their problems. But one of my big hopes is that it helps people from across the region deepen their understanding not merely of how the islands are connected, but how truly important all of them have been to shaping world culture.
Q What were your most striking experiences researching the book?
It was my task, on every island, to find characters to write about whose lives or words really captured something essential about that place. There’s my late Trinidadian friend Jay Telfer, who helped found the Notting Hill Carnival in London in the 60s before returning home to wave the flag for Phase 2 steelband in Port-of-Spain. The man in Ponce, Puerto Rico, who raised money to build a statue of one of Ponce’s many great salsa singers, Hector Lavo. And the mighty ‘Madam Saras’ of Haiti who travel by night to the Dominican Republic, to bring back hot dogs and spaghetti to feed their people.
Q Where would you choose to retire in the Caribbean?
I’ve got affinities up and down the islands. But since I’m a lover of the English language who agrees with Derek Walcott’s view that Trinidad is a place of ‘extreme literacy’, I might have to say Port-of-Spain. I’m so smitten with the inventive wit and energy of Trinidad Carnival. If there’s a next life, I hope I come back as a Trini.
Chapter 13: A dalliance in Dominica
It’s a lot easier to reach the Kalinago Territory today than it once was. By one of the Syrian-owned department stores in Roseau, I found where the Nissan minibuses lined up to traverse Hesketh Bell’s old Imperial Road to the Atlantic coast. There, by where Dominicans buy their flip-flops and washing machines, a woman carrying a wooden box of smoked cod from Canada pointed the way.
She told me to sit tight, though, as one of the few minibuses whose older driver she knew well readied to leave. Rolling from town some minutes later, we turned up into the mountains and traced the steep switchbacks. “Alex, you know every one of these curves,” someone exclaimed to our aged driver. “I do,” he replied, “but you best hope I don’t forget any.”
He didn’t, and after a brief break so that Alex could buy bananas from a stand by Dominica’s high crossroads at Pont Cassé, we continued to its wilder coast. Winding through lush river valleys to pass the old banana estate at Rosalie, we reached the sleepy village of La Plaine. There I slept that night in a tent by the banks of the Picard River, at a little restaurant that was hard by the stony current and had the best callaloo and river bathing you could ever want.
And then, walking into La Plaine and greeting the woman with her cod who was sitting on its main street, hawking her fish in Kreyol, I found a ride back up to Pont Cassé, and from there another lift north and east to the Kalinago Territory.
As Dominica has turned to making tourism a more central part of its economy, the government has moved to secure the patronage of one subset of travellers – hikers – not much targeted by other islands. The Waitukubuli National Trail was formally opened in 2010. It’s a 100-mile trek from the island’s southern tip to its north. The trail wends over and through Dominica’s valleys and peaks, joining new trails to old footpaths first blazed by the island’s Maroons and natives. Many locals seem suspicious of whether the trail will ever attract enough hikers to stay viable. But for now its route offers a grand way to see an island whose alluring profile, as Anthony Trollope wrote when he turned up here in 1856, ‘fills one with an ardent desire to be off and rambling among those green mountains’.
I set out from the edge of the Kalinago Territory to ramble over a few miles of the trail. Skirting oceanside cliffs, the trail snaked down through fecund gullies to deposit me at rocky beaches whose grapefruit-sized stones looked as if they’d need a few more millennia of the ocean’s pummeling to become sand. This Jurassic isle’s Atlantic shore can still feel like the world’s end.
It took 40 minutes to stroll down to the rocky edge of what’s known as L’Escalier Tête Chien, the ‘Staircase of the Boa Constrictor’: a broad formation of hardened magma, ridged like stairs and emerging from the crashing Atlantic, which in Kalinago lore marks the place where a great snake came ashore, after swimming from their own ancestral home by South America’s Orinoco River, to found their first settlement here.
Today the Kalinago Territory boasts new houses built by Hugo Chávez and the Chinese, both of whom have taken an interest in the Kalinagos’ fortunes. Visitors can tour a traditional village showcasing how its inhabitants’ ancestors lived after arriving in dugout canoes from the mainland. Educational as it may be, the village bears scant resemblance to modern Kalinago life. But it’s not a place absent of people and leaders aiming for something different, as I found when I entered the village of Crayfish River and found Charles Williams, who had served as the elected chief of the territory from 2004 to 2009.
Williams runs a small guesthouse here, where I found him sitting by a rickety bookcase mostly filled with knickknacks and old newspapers but also two books, both of which he worked into an opening monologue directed at my willing ears.
“I received that book at a meeting of indigenous leaders at the Organization of American States in Washington, DC,” he said, gesturing at the worn copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. “And those three things, the guns and germs and steel, are what Europeans used to exterminate us across the continent. Here in Dominica, they also gave us blankets infected with mumps and measles. But we survived, and we still survive, and that is why we are here today. And that is why it is important to defend our rights and our integrity to this day.”
He paused. “You read about me on the internet?”
I told him I had, which made him smile.
“Then you know about what landed me in this book, too?” He pulled out the Unsung Heroes of the Caribbean, 2003-2011. I nodded. “Is it to do with when the Disney company came to Dominica to film Pirates of the Caribbean?”
“That’s right,” he said. “And you know I gave them hell.”
That film’s production had issued an open call for extras to play members of a ‘cannibal village’ afflicting Johnny Depp’s crew, at a rate of a few dollars a day. Chief Charlie led the protests. “When Columbus arrived here,” he said, “he portrayed us as cannibals. But it wasn’t true then, and it never has been. So I said: We’re not going for that.”
The production eventually opted to fly in, from the Philippines, its own extras.
Edited excerpt from the book Island People by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, copyright 2016 by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC
Joshua’s Top 4
“Trinidad has a world-class cuisine that’s never gotten its due – a good doubles (with ‘slight pepper’) is one of my favorite things to eat anywhere”
“Every island claims it’s got the best, and none are wrong! But I’ll vote for Grenada”
“Cuba – so many of the rhythms invented there have become so important to music everywhere”
Most laid-back vibe?
“Dominica – it’s hard to feel more laid-back than when soaking in a mountain stream or hot spring there”