A masterwork of travel literature and of history: voyaging from Cuba to Jamaica, Puerto Rico to Trinidad, Haiti to Barbados, and islands in between, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of each society, its culture and politics, connecting this region’s common heritage to its fierce grip on the world’s imagination.
From the moment Columbus gazed out from the Santa María's deck in 1492 at what he mistook for an island off Asia, the Caribbean has been subjected to the misunderstandings and fantasies of outsiders. Running roughshod over the place, they have viewed these islands and their inhabitants as exotic allure to be consumed or conquered. The Caribbean stood at the center of the transatlantic slave trade for more than three hundred years, with societies shaped by mass migrations and forced labor. But its people, scattered across a vast archipelago and separated by the languages of their colonizers, have nonetheless together helped make the modern world—its politics, religion, economics, music, and culture. Jelly-Schapiro gives a sweeping account of how these islands’ inhabitants have searched and fought for better lives. With wit and erudition, he chronicles this “place where globalization began,” and introduces us to its forty million people who continue to decisively shape our world.
“Many have tried this before—to get hold of, in its entirety, the volatile, beautiful, relentlessly shifting Caribbean. Nobody has succeeded as dazzlingly as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.”—Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings and winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize
“Joshua Jelly-Schapiro possesses both a humanist’s irrepressible empathy and a journalist’s necessary skepticism. He reports carefully, researches exhaustively, cares deeply, and writes beautifully.”—Dave Eggers, author of Heroes of the Frontier
“The Caribbean—the supposed ‘American lake’—has always been the sea of stories and of dreams, a phantasmagorical realm of the beautiful, the fantastical, and the not-quite believable. Since Columbus and the Haitian Revolution these scattered lands of miracles and wonders have shaped the history of our world, and for decades they have cried out for a revivified history by a chronicler—in the wake of C.L.R. James and Naipaul and Wolcott—equal to the task. And now here is Island People, precisely that marvel of a book, given to us by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, a superb young writer who brings to this sea of dreams a scholar’s authority, a novelist’s way with character, and an ace reporter’s talent for stumbling into exactly that tale, however improbable and fantastic, that most needs telling.”—Mark Danner, author of Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War
“Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's grand book on the Caribbean is so striking in form and vision that it amounts to something new--a constant surprise. Even as Jelly-Schapiro combines reportage, cultural analysis, and history to superb effect, this important book filled with many truths defines and gives new meaning to that lovely phrase, sui generis.”—Hilton Als, author of White Girls
“Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is one of those rare writers who bridges worlds—between deep scholarship and lively and accessible writing, between islands and mainlands, between big ideas and precise details, between history and possibility.”—Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays
“Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s book illuminates, like no other I’ve read, the startling history and the complex present of the nations of the Caribbean. Written with passion and joyful music in the prose, Island People will become an indispensable companion for anybody traveling to the Caribbean—or dreaming of doing so. Accessible and well-informed, Island People is the best book about the Caribbean since V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage—and in significant ways, it is a better book.”—Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Taxi drivers. You meet a lot them when traveling. Especially when visiting small places lacking public transit. You end up, when exploring such places, absorbing more from people who drive cars for a living than from people engaged in any other occupation. There’s a reason much “travel literature” and reportage, about such places, can leave the impression that cabbies comprise the majority populace or represent a majority view—that their purpose in life, mirroring their place in reporters’ notebooks, is to issue bits of eccentric insight to inquisitive scribes.
Guilty as charged.
But if the figure of the taxi driver in the traveler’s tale can be turned into a kind of peak-capped archetype, so too does the figure of the “client”—generally, in the Caribbean, a tourist—blend into what amounts less to a kind of person, for drivers freighting them about for a living, than a generic flow of inputs. The daily stream of pink-faced vacationers disgorged on the curb by the V. C. Bird airport in Antigua, or alighting from cruise ships by its Heritage Quay like melting snowpack in winter, or slowing to a trickle in spring, grow akin, for the cabbies taking their bags, to widgets on a conveyor belt—animate objects to whom they’re supposed to offer a bright “Welcome to Antigua!” as they come off the line.
In St. John’s the taxi stand by the cruise port abuts a parking lot behind the Heritage Hotel just down from where members of the Antigua Hair-Braiders Association sit on milk crates to plait hair. The taxi stand, like the hair braiders’ booth, has a large sign listing a set schedule of fees to common destinations. The men and a few women who gather around it park rattly Toyotas or newer Nissans nearby, and all wear the standard-issue shirt of the Antigua Taxi-Drivers Association. Their pale peach button-downs are embroidered at the breast with the logo of a syndicate they’ve joined to have the privilege of waiting here, each day, for dazed visitors to amble off the boats looking for a ride to Jolly Harbour’s marina or the tourist beach by Dickinson Bay.
On a few mornings I brought my bad hotel coffee to the wharf, where the association’s cabbies gather by 8 a.m. with their own Styrofoam cups. They wait, as does the steel band that sets up on the quay, wheeling their drums onto the wharf, to meet the boats. These boats arrive here after an overnight sail from Martinique or St. Thomas, at around 9. In a place whose economy’s main good is tourists, access to that industry’s low end is controlled through a union. Most of the drivers had begun paying dues to the association, both figurative and real, many years before. Some had belonged for decades. A few had managed to join its ranks after coming here from less-touristed islands nearby and putting in a few years of friend making. One, a man who went by his nickname, Sprat, had come six years before from Dominica. He delighted in reminiscing about a nice man we both knew in the sleepy village of Calabishie, on that mellow island’s north shore, and had affixed a warning on his van’s front door in what amounted to two languages—“PLEASE DON’T SLAM,” and “NUH SLAM UM”—to ensure that, as he said, “all persons know what I mean.” A woman driver with olive skin and the corpulence of many people the world over whose working lives involve sitting in place, said her name was Ms. Vieira. She pulled at the gearshift by her van’s steering column with calm authority. “I did come here from St. Kitts when I married an Antigua man,” she told me. “He was shrewd with the financials, and we did have children, but it didn’t last. You know how it go.” Ms. Vieira smiled patiently as she told me that many people moved between St. Kitts and here. “All this talk about the new Caribbean community, CARICOM and so— we’ve been moving among these islands since time. My grandfather was one of thirteen Portuguese brothers, from Madeira. I’ve got cousins, from where the brothers settled, all across the Leewards; Windies, too.” Sprat and Ms. Vieira, though, were the exceptions. Most of the association’s members had spent their whole lives on Antigua.
One such drove me across the island to Willikies and furnished a running commentary as we went, in his island’s Victorian-sounding AngloAntillean patwa, on how slaves in Antigua’s scorched-dry fields once drank a beverage, made from brown sugar and water, that they called brebitch; on how sour sop fruits mature (“When it ripe, it could hard”) but may also cure cancer (“It may slow, but it does work”); and on how eating mangoes in excess can make you “defecate and so—change your body language.” He also explained how, though he’d never traveled farther from Antigua than St. Kitts, his son, who had neurofibromatosis, was now living all the way up in Maryland, where he was to get treated, and from where his father was sure “he gon get out, in the process of time.” We paused where some friends of his were playing, and then arguing, over the stones-in-a-wooden-tray backgammon-like game that’s called mancala in Africa but “warra” here. When we passed Antigua’s big cricket ground—the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium looks big enough to hold all the island’s people—he admonished me that as great a batsman as Viv Richards was, “you can’t forget that man Roberts: he took five wickets.” I had no idea what long-ago match he was referring to. The sticker on his car’s bumper, though, perhaps offered a clue: it commemorated a test between the West Indies and England, back from the era when the West Indies beat all comers, with the phrase “WE v. THEM.” When I complimented the sticker, he said, “It’s a West Indies thing. We like to go big, one time!”
On one of my last days in town, I met the Antigua Taxi-Drivers Association’s head. He had won his position by dint of seniority, and he gave his name as “Benjamin, Desmond Theophilus Benjamin.” He said he’d been driving a cab for fifty years. “Five-zero, since 1963,” he said for emphasis. Desmond Theophilus Benjamin had the responsibility of keeping tabs, in his head and with the help of a marble-covered notebook he kept on the passenger seat of his aged Corolla, on all three hundred of the association’s members. “Those that don’t go out today,” he explained, “must be first to queue tomorrow.” When I asked his age he said, “I have seven-eight years. But my birthday is U.S.A. tax day—April 15. So soon I’ll have seven-nine.” When he was young he’d worked cutting sugarcane from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., each day, he said, for six shillings a day. Then he’d turned to driving a cab. In those days everyone here drove Plymouths, American cars. Now he drove a Japanese one, like most every driver here. In Antigua, people drive on the left, as in England. But since he’d learned to drive in an American car, his Toyota was still a left-hand drive, as in the States. Not that he’d ever left Antigua. (Not even for St. Kitts? Never.) Desmond Theophilus Benjamin was still working, and had no plans to retire, “because young people today does wear inch-long fingernails, and trousers way below they waist. They don’t want to work.” His one-line exegesis of Antiguan history was this: “Once we worked for sugar, now we work for you.”
I asked Desmond, which is what he told me to call him after we talked for a while, to take me to a place that wasn’t on the association’s list of standard fares. The place was just several blocks from the taxi stand, up Market Street, past Drake and on the edge of town. Desmond knew how to get to the Princess Margaret School before I told him the address that I’d found for it. “I know plenty attended Princess Margaret,” he said with a half smile that betrayed nothing of the stories behind it except that they were there. We pulled up to a low white building, visible across a drainage ditch. Its front lawn needed mowing. The school’s motto was painted on a sign outside: “The World Is in Need of Good Men and Women.”
I’d wanted to visit the Princess Margaret School because a woman who went there in the 1950s went on to become as fine a writer of English prose as emerged from the West Indies, or from anywhere, in the last decades of the twentieth century. Desmond wasn’t familiar with Princess Margaret’s most famous alumna, either from when she was called Elaine Potter Richardson, which was her name when she lived here, or from the books she wrote after leaving Antigua and changing her name later on. But he was glad to wait bemusedly by the car, waving to passing friends, as I took a couple of pictures.
Jamaica Kincaid’s first published work, in the magazine where she made her name, was not credited either to her Christian name or to the new moniker she gave herself after leaving St. John’s for New York. The work appeared in the September 30, 1974, issue of The New Yorker. It was a brief notice about the annual West Indian Labor Day Carnival in Brooklyn, in the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section. It ran without a byline, as was customary for “Talk” pieces at the time, and began by employing a royal pronoun also common to these pieces then. “Speeding across the Manhattan Bridge with our sassy Antiguan friend,” the piece began, before then describing “a few of the things one ought to know” about the sights on display on Eastern Parkway that afternoon: the difference between Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener; Jumping Up (“key West Indian concept”); White People who go to Carnival (“many looked as if they were doing fieldwork for an extension course in Intercultural Interaction: the Folk Experience”); and Shabazz Bean Pies (“the number one third world dessert”).37 The column may have run without a byline, but its author was in fact the same sassy Antiguan friend whose views had recently begun to appear in “Talk” pieces penned by the section’s lead writer, George W. S. Trow. Jamaica Kincaid was a real-life friend of Trow’s whom Trow had begun taking along to the art parties and society dinners that he covered. She was a tall young woman with eccentric style (she favored jodhpurs, short blond hair, and bright red lipstick) who had arrived in New York from Antigua as an au pair a few years before, but had recently determined to become a writer instead, and had given herself a new name to do so. That September, she’d shared with Trow some notes about the Brooklyn carnival they’d attended together. Trow had shown them to The New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn, who decided to publish them unchanged. Over the next decade, she contributed dozens of pieces to the magazine whose staff she soon joined.
Her first piece for The New Yorker was one of the only ones that dealt explicitly with the city’s West Indians. But the presence of her voice and vantages in the famously WASP-y magazine signaled the larger role of Caribbean people in its eponymous city: as its most notorious new “ethnic” presence in the postwar era. By the 1970s they had not merely seen their Tower Island Patties gain the metropolitan status Kincaid described in that “Talk” piece—“You know an ethnic group has made it when you can get its foods at the local grocer’s”—but they had built an annual carnival that still draws over a million revelers each Labor Day weekend from across the Manhattan Bridge, and beyond, to Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway.
Once she also began writing books a decade later, Kincaid marked crucial trails for the wealth of writers, in our new century, who’ve made the voices and stories of browner immigrants in Manhattan’s outer orbit “matter”—in new ways—to its publishers and prize committees. But if New York provided the necessary stage and launching pad for her career as a reporter, it was her sad childhood in Antigua, and a hard relationship with the emotively distant woman who raised her, that comprised the well she drew from to write sterling novels like Annie John and Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother. Kincaid’s fiction, set on the little British island where she grew up, was unique for the devotion it attracted both from literal-minded critics of colonialism and from literary critics who built her earned repute as one of her generation’s most subtly inventive stylists.
But it was in her first book of nonfiction—an essay that got its start as a piece rejected by The New Yorker’s then editor, Robert Gottlieb, for being “too angry”—that Kincaid described the weed-choked little school, outside of which I now stood with Desmond Theophilus Benjamin. It wasn’t long before she became a student at the Princess Margaret School there, she wrote, that it began to accept students who’d been born outside of marriage (“In Antigua it had never dawned on anyone,” she explained, “that this was a way of keeping black children out of this school”).38 When she was a student here, skipping to class from her mum’s home on Nelson Street, down Hawkins to Drake and past other byways named for English criminals, the school hired a new headmistress, sent by the colonial office:
This woman was twenty-six years old, not too long out of university, from Northern Ireland, and she told these girls over and over again to stop behaving as if they were monkeys just out of trees.
The book where Kincaid recalled the Princess Margaret School, and that new headmistress, was called A Small Place. It described her first trip back to Antigua after nearly twenty years away. The book’s tone may have been stinging, but its sentences’ timbre was far less “angry” than matter-of-fact. They parsed the particular wounds of a colonial youth to approach more general failures, of the corrupted leaders and people of an island sometimes called “postcolonial,” to salve those wounds’ legacies in an iniquitous world. It described returning to a kind of jail whose cell bars were this school’s untruths. It recorded the experience of “walking through my inheritance, an island of villages and rivers and mountains and people who began and ended with murder and theft and not very much love.”
It involved being reminded of what life in a small place, where “not only is the event turned into everyday but the everyday is turned into an event,” was like.41 Of returning to a place where
[o]n a Saturday, at market, two people who, as far as they know, have never met before,collide by accident; this accidental collision leads to an enormous quarrel—a drama, really —in which the two people stand at opposite ends of a street and shout insults at each other at the top of their lungs. This event soon becomes everyday, for every time these two people meet each other again, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, the shouting and the insults begin.
[t]he people in a small place can have no interest in the exact, or in completeness, for that would demand a careful weighing, careful consideration, careful judging, careful questioning. It would demand the invention of a silence, inside of which these things could be done. It would demand a reconsideration, an adjustment, in the way they understand the existence of Time. To the people in a small place, the division of Time into the Past, the Present, and the Future does not exist.
Walking the streets of her girlhood, all those alleys named after criminals, Kincaid despaired of how, though Antigua may have changed from a colony into a country (and a country, no less, that would soon change some of those street names to honor black cricketers rather than white pirates), it still remained a place where “all the ways there are to acquire large sums of money are bad ways.”44 She tried to visit the lovely old library whose books provided her, when she was a girl, with a Way Out; but she found it sitting empty and shut with a sign out front reading “THIS BUILDING WAS DAMAGED IN THE EARTHQUAKE OF 1974. REPAIRS ARE PENDING.” This was the 1980s. She wrote of how the problems of Antigua were the problems of a place where “eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way,” and where “eventually the slaves were freed, in a kind of way,” but also of how they were the problems of a place where these slaves’ descendants, the people now in charge, were having to contend with the troublesome truth, vis-à-vis those who once owned them, that “once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to.”45 And similarly, the enslaved who by simple dint of being enslaved, were held up as noble, had reached a new role, too. “Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.”
She reflected on how, long after leaving this school, she had learned more of the princess for whom it was named:
Years and years later, I read somewhere that this Princess made her tour of the West Indies (which included Antigua, and on that tour she dedicated my school) because she had fallen in love with a married man, and since she was not allowed to marry a divorced man she was sent to visit us to get over her affair with him. How well I remember that all of Antigua turned out to see this Princess person, how every building that she would enter was repaired and painted so that it looked brand-new, how every beach she would sun herself on had to look as if no one had ever sunned there before (I wonder now what they did about the poor sea? I mean, can a sea be made to look brand-new?), and how everybody she met was the best Antiguan body to meet, and no one told us that this person we were putting ourselves out for on such a big scale, this person we were getting worked up about as if she were God Himself, was in our midst because of something so common, so everyday: her life was not working out the way she had hoped, her life was one big mess.
There had certainly been changes since the era she’d grown up here, in a place where “I met the world through England, and if the world wanted to meet me it would have to do so through England.” Now when she went to an event called a “Teenage Pageant,” in St. John’s, she found teenagers “parading around a stage singing a hideous song called ‘The Greatest Love.’ ” While her generation’s young people “were familiar with the rubbish of England,” these were kids for whom “the rubbish of North America” was secondhand.49 But what preoccupied Kincaid most of all, as she flew to Antigua from the prosperous American city where she now lived, and to whom she addressed her essay, were the people from her adoptive home, her fellow passengers on the plane down, whose flight to this small place comprised not a daunting trip to a bygone home, but an escape. To those people, the salient features of her small place were soft sand and three-hundred-plus days of sun per year, three to seven of which, they hoped, would coincide with their holiday—a holiday on which few would be interested in hearing what Kincaid had enough respect for them to tell them plain: “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.”
Not that the tourist, she hastened to add, was an ugly human being all of the time; “you may be a very nice person,” she assured him or her, this tourist. “You may be a person of whom it’s true to say,” in the place where you’re from, that “all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do.”51 But when you become a tourist, when you step into that role off an airplane, an ugly person is what you become. You become an ugly person because you hope for some of the very things— like sunny heat, every day—that people in this place, those trying to grow food in a desert, don’t. Because on the taxi ride to your resort,
You see yourself taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you). You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself...
You see yourself. You see yourself. You also see yourself—if you pay attention and look behind the playacting of those who depend on your presence here for a living, or some approximation thereof—to be a sort of person, here, who isn’t much liked. And why should you be? Kincaid does the generous thing of telling you this, too:
That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
Of course, there’s also this: even in a small place, even in an encounter between a person who’s never left that small place, and one who’s just visiting, there’s also always the prospect, the possibility, of just being human beings. And there’s even the reality of that, too, in the moments when Desmond Theophilus Benjamin and I, observing my inability to grasp the rules of cricket or his misadventures in chasing Princess Margaret girls in his youth, made each other laugh. But as we rolled away from the school and back down Market Street toward Drake, all the history shaping how he spent his days and how I was spending mine, was hovering in the car and between us as well, as it always does: our appointed roles here, in this small place, whose strictures could be transcended but where subversion might never feel total. Recalling Kincaid’s words on all this, on how it all plays out, I wondered: Has anyone said it better? I thought not.