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Child bride, police sergeant and blind catfish at The Normandie

Published: 
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Barbara Lalla, left, Philip Nanton and Sharon Millar, feature readers at An Evening of Tea and Readings hosted by Paper Based Bookshop, The Normandie, on January 31. Photo: ANDRE ALEXANDER

At Tea and Readings, an event hosted once every other month by Joan Dayal and the team of Paper Based bookshop at The Normandie hotel, you’re as likely to hear an established prize-winning writer as an emerging one, a poet as a calypsonian, a spoken work artist as a serious academic. 

The first of this year’s Tea and Readings, held on the last Saturday in January, was no exception. Guardian books writer Shivanee Ramlochan presented a trio of stellar writers: Barbara Lalla, Sharon Millar and Philip Nanton.

Millar, winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2012 Small Axe Short Fiction Award, read two extracts from her short story Spelunking. In a valley in the Northern Range where limestone deposits colour the waterfall rocks green and dissolved iron seeps through the water like blood, Ella, a young woman working on her PhD thesis, sets up a year-long camp to observe the blind catfish that inhabit the pools of the Cumaca caves. 

That she is pregnant, the child conceived and born during her forest sojourn, adds another dimension to this story, in which the perilous sport of cave exploration is used as a metaphor for Ella’s own seemingly reckless venture into unknown territory where catfish lose their sight and people their ability to see things as they really are.

This beautifully-told, richly-described, layered story incorporates history, folklore, ancient superstitions, scientific investigation, feminine mystique, transformative landscapes, a plane crash of long ago, and mysterious present-day goings-on. Spelunking appears in Millar’s debut short story collection The Whale House (Peepal Tree Press, 2015).

Uncle Brother, Barbara Lalla’s third novel, also set in Trinidad, is a time and a world away from Millar’s. In her two selections, Lalla hooked listeners with the tempting bait of the child bride, Samdai, following her trembling departure from her home in the wide, bright, open cane fields of early 20th-century Couva, to her unpromising new life with her young husband, Jai, and his family, in the more shadowy world of the cocoa estate. The second extract tells of the enormous sacrifice that the eponymous Uncle Brother, son of the young couple, now a man, makes to secure the future success of his younger siblings, fearing that, “If I even shifted my eye away from you, you would all simply disappear.” 

Peppered with Bhojpuri and imbued with keen sensitivity to time, person and place, this absorbing multi-voiced, multi-generational epic of endurance, internecine conflict and self-sacrificing devotion is told with the skill and nuance we have come to expect from this writer whose professional life is as professor emerita of language and literature at UWI, St Augustine. Uncle Brother is published by UWI Press, 2015.

Philip Nanton, veteran storyteller, put his BBC-radio-honed raconteur skills to excellent use, sending listeners into gales of laughter with a series of humorous vignettes, some new and some from his Island Voices, about characters and situations in everyday life in St Christopher and the Barracudas, a location that is very likely a stand-in for his native St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Among the tales are a letter sent by a sergeant (ag) to his higher officer, railing about being sidelined for elevation to inspector; a heated exchange in the No Three van whose Rasta driver insists on playing his country and western music to the annoyance and rage of two passengers, identified as Blue Shirt and KFC, who refuse to pay their fare unless the driver changes the music and when put out of the van tell the driver, “Rastaman, you aint got no identity”; a householder’s dismay at the disappearance of his prized, hoarded smoked salmon, after a workman, told to help himself to what’s in the fridge, casually consumes it as nothing more special than “red saltfish”.

Although there was disappointment that Brother Valentino, who was billed to appear, couldn’t make it, the appreciative audience was delighted to be treated to another reading by Sharon Millar. Over wine, tea, coffee, juice, quiche, filled croissants and cake, guests mingled and engaged one another and the readers in critical discussion and ole talk.

Books mentioned here are available at Paper Based bookshop, home to the widest range of Caribbean and diasporic writing for adults, young adults and chuldren.

​​The next Tea and Readings is carded for March. Check the Paper Based Bookshop facebook page for updates on this and other events. on.fb.me/1xkAm6b

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