Saturday, January 20, 2018

Life on Long’s Island

Bukka Rennie’s ‘The Thunder of My Name’ – A review

From the opening note of his prologue, “Snow Flurries” he has you hooked and holds your interest all the way through to the prologue’s closing lines that read: “Hours before the final hurtling rush, Odinga, carver of thoughts and fashioner of consciousness, opening his eyes only occasionally to the continued swirl of cards and snowy flakes, spoke of his personal journey of being and becoming.” 

This is no simple prologue; one that, according to Marg McAlister, presents material that could very well have been worked-in during the actual story itself, or (to directly quote her) one that “does not seem to do anything” that the first chapter could not have accomplished. Not at all. This prologue works. It not only hooks all readers, giving them sufficient reason to want to keep turning page after page right through to the very end of the book, but more importantly, it presents the back-story to the main event, the saga of Billy Depestre; presents it “quickly and economically” as a point of reference: a lens through which Billy and his escapades are viewed; a framework that provides context and meaning and clarity to all of Billy’s daring, mannishness and contemptuous exploits. 

Nor is this a true back-story, one that speaks of past occurrences that may have had some deep and lasting impact on the goings on of today. Instead, this prologue speaks of happenings to come and plucks for highlight, a poignant moment in the future life of Billy. It is a moment that needs no re-telling for it resides as distant memory in the hearts and minds of many who had lived through 1970 and its lead-in months of 1969 when black Caribbean students at a well-known Canadian university staged a famous sit-in at a Computer Centre in protest over the racist behaviour of a white university professor. 

This was a moment packed tight with anger and outrage; a moment so stained with the pain of naked betrayal that the world, it would seem, could hear the students’ pointless cries of “no compromise, no cowardice, no surrender.” And although it is never actually mentioned in the novel, that moment does come near the end of Billy’s story; a story that itself explains the build-up to the moment; a story that narrates Billy’s quest: a  quest to find real meaning in this life; a quest to make good sense of seemingly pointless regulations and rules that govern behaviour, and a value system that always leaves one feigning acceptance of things that otherwise would be deemed to be unacceptable; Billy’s quest that left him constantly screaming to be somebody; hitting out savagely at every obstacle that appeared to stand in his way; and determined still to bend the world to his will; Billy’s quest that finally, in the quiet cold of Canada, left him insisting that he would never be deemed to be nobody and that anyone...anyone attempting to render him faceless, would sooner or later “be forced to come to terms with his history” and begin to know the thunder of his name. 

Bukka Rennie’s debut novel, The Thunder of My Name, tells that story. It is the story of Billy Byron Depestre, a precocious, little boy of African descent. Set on Long’s Island in the Caribbean, the story covers just about fifteen years in the life of young Billy. 

But what a story it is, packed with excitement and adventure and a determined search on Billy’s part to find and inscribe meaning in his life. It is a story that parallels his country’s troubled march to Independence: her subterranean grapple with ethnic rivalries; her frantic search for self and a carefully-constructed identity; her deliberate though cautious attempts to cast off the crippling yoke of a lingering colonialism with its built-in inequalities and vicious, racial undertones. 

We first meet Billy in the mid-1950s as a member of the Depestre clan, a black working-class family that occupied a small, two-bedroom, rented house at Mountain Sights in Eastern Long’s Island. Mountain Sights was truly representative of Long’s Island, a microcosm of the whole. Every creed and race was gathered there: the very Catholic Mrs Hassan with the private kindergarten school; the Anglican priest, Rev Southwell; the Hindu and Muslim residents of Ramdeen Lane, the Baldeos, the Mohammeds and Mulchans. 

And Billy, very early in life, experienced first-hand the conflicts, subtle rivalries, and racial under-currents that would forever plague life in Long’s Island: unspoken tugs and jealousies between the two great faiths, Anglicans and Catholics; occasional digs and subtle hostilities that threatened to mar the otherwise good relations that existed between the two main ethnic groups, the families of “African descent” and those of “Indian stock.” 

Billy was, at that time, the last of the Depestre children. Three more were to come before long. His mother, Maureen, was a seamstress who worked from home. His Papa, Rufus, as was typical of many black fathers of the day, was no slacker, but found it difficult to hold a decent job. Before he was twenty-one, he had experienced his first retrenchment and found himself labouring on his own to take “correspondence courses in bookkeeping and accounting in an effort to guarantee security of tenure” in any job that managed to come his way. He would face retrenchment two more times and find himself “thrown on the bread line” with “a family growing bigger each day.” Eventually, after much struggle, he would land a job at the beer company; one that finally offered “some sense of permanence.” 

It is this cross of being black and poor and country that Rufus wants his children to avoid. He pushes relentlessly for them to excel in their school work; monitors their home-work religiously each night; and takes a personal interest in all their goings on at school. Education, he knows, is their primary means of escape. He moves the family from Mountain Sights to Hopecrest, “a brand new residential community” further west and nearer the capital, Porto Bello. This was their own home; one that featured “inner bathrooms and toilets.” It was definitely “a move up” for the Depestres. And Billy made new friends; found new things to occupy his thoughts and his time; and above all, began attending St Agnes College, the foremost Secondary School in Porto Bello and the leading institution of learning on Long’s Island. 

St Agnes marked a new period of becoming for Billy. The more he tried to be a model student, proud of his monogram and uniform, the more, it seems, he faced the racist taunts of schoolmates and the open hostility of priest and lay teacher alike. The hostility was not reserved for him alone but was part of a general “ridiculing of the persona of anyone who looked like him.” And Billy read it correctly as a “form of dehumanisation that seemed to have been institutionalised on Long’s Island.” He tried talking to his father about it, but Rufus would not listen. He threw the blame right back at Billy. 

These things were happening because of Billy’s mannishness and non-acceptance of the rules of the place. He should just settle down and get an education. 

But this was the period of the 60s. Carnival and the steelbands around Porto Bello had captured the imagination of the youths even as the politics had threatened to divide them along ethnic lines. And Billy was intensely involved with it all even as he wrote his final Cambridge Examinations and graduated to the world of work and young adulthood. But the story does not end here. It simply segues to a different time. 

This is a story well worth telling, and Rennie tells it well. His is a rich prose that soars at times, capturing the passion and magic of each engaging moment of young Billy’s life. But his is also a language that at times can shock, for he paints stark images of pain and grief and violent anger drawn from the lives of the many silent sufferers of Long’s Island. It is the language of the street, bold and cocky and direct. But it is also the language of love, of caring: the love that exists in our strong families like the Depestres; the caring and camaraderie we feel in our communities, whether at Hopecrest or in a Computer Centre in the dreaded Canadian cold. Rennie understands this well and succeeds in revealing it all in The Thunder of My Name. And really, I should know, for I was one of “the ‘mannish’ college boys of the 60s.”