Saturday, 17 December 2016

BOOK OF THE MOMENT: Brathwaite delivers poems of wisdom, elegance and brave humour in Strange Fruit

NATIVE SON: The Barbadian legend is hailed as a central figure in the decolonization of C'bean lit.

Any conversation about the elder statesmen of West Indian literature must include Earl Lovelace, Sam Selvon, V.S. Naipaul and, of course, Derek Walcott. Add to that list Edward Kamau Brathwaite, the legendary Barbadian poet and author who, at 86 years old, continues to produce literary magic at the height of his creative powers. Now comes his latest poetry collection, Strange Fruit, being published this month by Peepal Tree Press. 

According to the noted publishing house, Strange Fruit is classic Brathwaite - "a collection of beauties of form, phrase and sound... You hear [his] distinctive Bajan nation-voice, his alter-native voice and encounter the presence of such icons as Madela, Bedward and Louis Armstrong." 

Apparently, the bulk of these poems sprang from a place of pain and deep reflection because, by Brathwaite's own admission, the anthology was largely inspired by the persecution that drove him from his New York home to resettlement in his native Barbados. No wonder he selected a title that riffs on an ugly chapter of history, pointing to "the enigma of beauty created out of the experience of cultural lynching." Even so, we are told, these are poems of "urgency, elegance, wisdom and brave humour." 

[Take a listen to Nina Simone's haunting rendition of "Strange Fruit."]. 

Born in Barbados in 1930, Brathwaite read history at Cambridge University from 1950 to 53, before going on to earn his PhD at the University of Sussex in 1968. He's taught at New York University, edited and published the groundbreaking arts-and-culture journal Savacou and won a slew of prestigious awards and academic honours. 

Hailed as a central figure in the decolonization of Caribbean lit, the master wordsmith's seminal works include 1967's Rights of Passage and The Arrivants, published in 1973 - both of which are required reading for any serious student of West Indian lit. 

In his writing, as much as in his life, Brathwaite is anchored by firm Caribbean roots, but his outlook and concerns are both timeless and global. Strange Fruit, by all accounts, makes a worthy addition to his splendid oeuvre. "[He acknowledges] the pain of loss," one reviewer notes, "but also the fear that the world is a becoming worse not better place, and the satisfactions to be found in knowing that one has resisted."

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