Credit Photograph by Christian Heeb/laif/Redux
When I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands after college, for a job at a local newspaper, everyone I met told me that I had to read Herman Wouks Dont Stop the Carnival. It was the best novel ever set in the Virgin Islands. The funniest. Wouk, people said, gets island life exactly right. Never mind that no one north of the eighteenth parallel had heard of the book. You could find copies for sale in virtually every gift shop and bookstore from Tortola to Grenada. I found a tattered hardcover in the newspapers office and finished it in a day or two. It was dated, but a fun read.
Wouk, the author of The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar, lived on St. Thomas from 1958 until 1964. (He is now ninety-nine.) He moved to the island to escape the distractions of New York City. While there, in his big house on a hill, he started writing The Winds of War, a major novel about the Second World War. He also made time to write something lighter. Dont Stop the Carnival, published in 1965, is a zippy farce about a Broadway press agent and self-described good New York liberal, Norman Paperman, who sees an ad in The New Yorker listing a funky Caribbean hotel for sale, flies south, and buys it. A large cast of eccentrics surrounds Paperman and drives the mostly slapstick narrative. His vision of paradise (green hills, snowy sand, azure sea) is soon crowded off the page by baroque catastrophe (scheming contractor, bursting cistern, island bureaucracy). Racism, intolerance, imperialism, cronyism, and alcoholism become the leitmotifs. Characters start getting killed. Paperman sells the hotel as quickly as he bought it and flees back to New York.
For Tiphanie Yanique, who is from St. Thomas, Dont Stop the Carnival was not a fun read. Her dbut novel, Land of Love and Drowning, which came out this summer, was written partly as an answer to Wouk. As she said in a recent interview, Virgin Islanders dont really give the book much thought. We dont think its a good representation of who we are. And yet this was the book being marketed as a credible anthropological text. The Virgin Islanders in the book are buffoons. I wanted to write something that people would say, If youre going to read the Herman Wouk, you have to also read the Yanique. For a writer from the Virgin Islands, there was, apparently, no escaping the shadow cast by Wouks beach umbrella.
Land of Love and Drowning is a completely different type of novel. Its a multigenerational saga about an island family, dramatizing historical events and salted with magical realism: one woman has hooves for feet, another has glittering silver pubic hair. But Yanique takes characters and settings from Wouks book and subversively reimagines them. A hotel cook, Sheila, gets a last name and an inner life. A talented but violent handyman named Hippolyte reappears, now more the holy fool, less the dangerous lunatic. The hotel itself gets a major moral facelift. It is now the touchstone for Yaniques characters jaundiced views of land development on their islands, and of the obnoxious, greedy, and debauched continentals who arrive in ever larger numbers. As far as we could see, thats all the Americans seemed to dodrink rum and buy up land, Anette Bradshaw, a history teacher, observes.
The two novels converge on the same incidents, from opposite angles. At the hotelcalled, in both books, the Gull Reef Clubone of Papermans recurring headaches involves negotiations over the immigration status of his employees. A bureaucrat threatens to deport his best chambermaid. Yanique uses this Woukian plot thread to show the new form of racism that Virgin Islanders increasingly confronted when continentals showed up and built houses, hotels, and golf courses across St. Thomas. Anette Bradshaw is walking home from the airport with her children. A big car full of Americans pulls up, with a white man and a white woman in the front seat. The driver says that he owns the Gull Reef Club. Were looking for a chambermaid. Ours, it seems, has just been deported back to Antigua or Anguilla or somewhere. You can imagine were in a bind. If youre free, we could take you right now, tykes and all. If Anette was not at present in mourning she might have done the fiery thing reach over the driver, and slap the woman in the face. A woman should have known better than to allow such an insult in front of the children.
Land of Love and Drowning is also, according to an authors note, a response to a soft-porn film called Girls Are for Loving, which was shot in the Virgin Islands in the nineteen-seventies. The film crew employed local people as extras, Yanique writes, but did not inform them of the films sexual content. In the novel, the films local scenes, primarily dancing, are shot at the Gull Reef Club. Anette and her husband, Franky, are among the extras. Anette senses that something is amiss, but ignores the signs. Months later, when Girls Are for Loving premires on the island, she and Franky dress up and join an excited crowd of islanders at the local theater. In the film, they see their own faces, and Anettes red skirt flying, accompanied by African drumming, intercut with shots of a white couple kissing and, soon enough, copulating. The audience is horrified. Then the pastors wife scream in the theater like she bout to dead. And all the people in the theater start to flood out. We spill out into the street but cant look at each other. This how we get put on the map in America? This me and my husband debut to the island and the nation? Is what they call pornographic. You hearing me.
We do hear Anette, loud and clear. She narrates some of the novels best passages in a dialect that is both inventive and fluid. Describing the day in 1917 when the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix were transferred from Danish to American rule, she says, Denmark decide it dont want we. America decide it do. One find we unnecessary because they way up in Europe. The next find we absolutely necessary because they backside sitting on the Caribbean. I wish Yanique had written more of the novel in that voice. Instead, she jumps erratically from one characters mind to the next, in a way that can feel unbalanced. Perhaps that was her aim. Yanique makes it clear from the beginning that she is not interested in the framing and cornicing of realism. History is a kind of magic I doing here, Anette says. Yanique, meanwhile, brings the natural world of the Virgin Islands into high relief, with similes that seem to erupt effortlessly from the lushness of her prose. Boys will stick to the younger sister like the slick of mango juice. A trinity of men will feel the love of her like casha bush burring their scalp in sleep.
I lived on St. John. It was a small island, very beautiful, quite segregated. Soon after I arrived, there was a rash of violent crimesassault, vandalism, alleged rape, arsonwith a toxic racial element. A white furniture-store owner known as Bali Bob ended up going to prison for assault and battery. Our little newspaper struggled to cover these stories. There was nothing slapstick about any of it. For an outsider, it was impossible to know much about the long, gnarled, local history of racial insult, stratification, and conflicta history kept largely through oral transmission by island families. Yanique brings reams of this spoken lore to the page. The ladys right: if youre going to read the Wouk, you also have to read the Yanique.
Read the original here:
The Virgin Islands, Rewritten