By Emeritus Professor Frank Birbalsingh
N.D. Williams, Julie Mango, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2004, pp. 269 ISBN 1 900715 77 5; First published by Xlibris Corporation in U.S.A., 2000.
The nine stories in Julie Mango, N.D. Williams’s fifth work of fiction, roam from one Caribbean territory to the next, and from these territories to popular destinations of Caribbean migration such as Britain and, especially in recent years, the US. No doubt these stories also stem directly from the experience of an author who was born in Guyana (in 1942) and who lived in various Caribbean islands during the 1960s and 70s, before settling in the US.
At any rate, as well as outward physical dislocation, the stories project a prevailing sense of inward disconnection in characters who appear mostly as wayfaring wanderers, bereft of any solid notion either of who they are, where they have come from, or where they are going.
The title story “Julie Mango: Or, Yu see Har Dere?” is the first in the volume. The fruit – Julie mango – which is regarded as a special delicacy in Jamaica, hints at the stunning sexual appeal of the story’s heroine, Julie, a nurse who was born on a Caribbean island that is as nameless as islands in other stories in Williams’s volume.
So rampant is Julie’s sexuality that it inspires both her affair with an English doctor on her island, and salacious gossip from fellow islanders; and all this we are told by the narrator, a garrulous rum shop proprietor who acknowledges the orality of his island culture with conspiratorial charm: “Much gossip, scandal and intrigue” prevail, and conversation is sometimes: “like an open sewer running down the middle of the street” (p.11).
Julie ends her affair with her English lover when he fails to rescue her during a hurricane. She then goes off to England from where we get news of her consorting with male members of the aristocracy, before joining a photojournalist assigned to an African country in the middle of a civil war. Julie’s successful sexual seductiveness and appetite for reckless adventure seem boundless.
Desirable and daring as she might be, however, the positive effect of these qualities is dispersed if not negated by her restless movement and general extravagance. The question mark in the title of her story surely arouses our puzzlement, doubt, perhaps even distress about her.
If Julie’s conduct appears distressing, the relationship between the unnamed narrator of “Trinculo Walks the Dog” and his Caribbean homeland is no more comforting. His homeland can be readily identified as Guyana from descriptions such as: “a pocket-size republic,” (p.32) “shores washed by muddy waters of the Atlantic,” (p.32) and other geographical markers.
The narrator has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University while his father is a dentist in Guyana and his brother a dental student in Canada; but eventually the entire family settle in Canada.
Dispersal of the narrator’s family illustrates a process of political corruption and national economic decline: “something rotten and deeply worrying, undermining the fabric of our family lives” (p.35) that eventually drives Guyanese and other Caribbean people away from their homeland.
Another story, “Your Slip is Showing Comrade,” presents a similarly stark portrait of fear and corruption in Burnham’s Guyana although, as already hinted, there is no explicit mention of the names of politicians or Caribbean countries in any story.
“Light of the World” is perhaps the centre piece of Julie Mango. Its title is also the title of a poem by Derek Walcott (in his 1987 collection The Arkansas Testament). In the poem, while riding on a taxi in the town of Castries, the St. Lucian birthplace of Walcott, the persona observes an old woman with two heavy baskets hobbling in desperation to catch the taxi, and pleading with the driver: “’Pas quittez moi a terre’ / which is, in her patois ’Don’t leave me stranded’/ which is, in her history and that of her people: / ‘Don’t leave me on earth.’” This quotation serves as the first of two epigraphs to Julie Mango.
As the persona also observes, the old woman’s sense of abandonment is part and parcel of Caribbean history: “Abandonment was something they [Caribbean people] had grown used to.” [Arkansas Testament p.50]
At the same time, the persona is captivated by the beauty of a local black woman passenger who moves him to confess: “O Beauty, you are the light of the world;” [ Arkansas Testament p.48] and the total effect of this woman’s beauty, the desperate plight of the old woman, and the taxi driver’s blaring music of Bob Marley, one of whose verses forms the second epitaph to Julie Mango, stirs up such turbulent feelings of “great love” and “pity” in the persona, that when he later leaves the taxi, he cannot help turning away in an effort to conceal his tears.
As mentioned in the beginning, feelings of disconnection, dislocation or abandonment appear in most stories in Julie Mango. For example, in “Monkey Wrenching Snaps,” Hunter Michael Valcin, son of a Magistrate on a Caribbean island, teaches at a New York university and compares his life to a spaceship built by NASA technicians who, like his teachers, have launched him: “spinning weightlessly around the planet, void of purpose, with no connection to mission control anywhere” (p.125). Not that agonising over identity is new to Caribbean literature: it is probably the most popular theme in the early work of Brathwaite and Walcott, Selvon and Naipaul, more than half a century ago, when Independence was anticipated with eager hope and promise.
But this theme is now updated in Williams’s fiction, in a post-Independence era when anticipation has turned into lamentation, hope almost into despair, and all is aimless wayfaring and wandering, inwardly as well as outwardly. Through his use of original, contemporary images, and remarkable technical skills that dexterously shift gears from first person to third person, or from one narrator to the other, Williams sheds new light on old themes, and updates us with alarming candour on the disturbing condition of West Indian civilisation in the twenty-first century.
N.D. Williams was born in Guyana and now lives in New York. His first novel, Ikael Torass, won the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1976.
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