Draw him, colour him, dress up as him—I think every kid remembers the first superhero he created. Not that first ideas are always the best. My concept, at age eight or nine, was awful. The character was wealthy Reginald Van Buren. His sidekick was his muscular manservant—whose name I can’t recall—and very British. Their alter egos: Black Butterfly and Brown Derby.
Years ago, on safari, Van Buren discovered a giant black pearl that gave him, when rubbed, the powers of a butterfly, including wings. I hadn’t fleshed out an origin for Brown Derby, whose name came from the kind of hat he wore. (As I said, first ideas.) I got two or three pages of very rough colour pencils done in a blue Hilroy exercise book before I moved on to my next comics project: Lieutenant Laser Eyes!
These dreams of a grade-school comics creator were derivative, built on conventions of the genre: wealthy hero, faithful and able sidekick, fateful adventure, mysterious powers. The ideas behind the characters needed converting or embellishing. Where the characters had true merit was in my aspirations: all the lead heroes mentioned above were black, with traits and speech drawn from people I knew, people who looked, sounded and acted like me in Montreal’s West Indian community, my immediate community at the time.
Throughout high school and university, this trend/inclination/artistic choice (I’m not sure what to call it since I wasn’t conscious of it back then) continued. My character Bobcat, leader of a Canadian superhero team, was black. Safeguard of the North—my answer to Captain Canuck and Guardian and Northguard—was black; or at least not as white as the great frozen country he represented might expect him to be. Despite buying comics where the main heroes were usually white—or maybe because of this—it never occurred to me how unusual my choice was. I was a black boy creating black heroes. What was so unusual about that? Seeing myself in them was about making reality more real, more complex and complete. But it was somewhat unusual, and a decision I could not take for granted when writing my novel And Sometimes They Fly about a trio of would-be heroes from the Caribbean whose time it is to rise up.
The people that you meet
For nearly twenty years, I’ve taught research methods and research-paper writing to BFA Graphic Design and Studio Art students at Barbados Community College. A number of the students are into graphic novels. They read them and write them and draw them in their spare time or as part of their major and minor graduation exhibition projects. According to current statistics, approximately ninety percent of Barbados’ population is of African descent, with the rest being of mixed European and Asian ancestry. My students’ environment is, therefore, visibly black. When these students enter the programme, however, many of them show work that is heavily inflected by Japanese anime and manga; their panels are not populated by characters who look like them or the people they are most likely to meet in their neighbourhood.
One of my students shared a story in class about creating a character in high school that was a protector of Barbados. The hero’s familiar was a water dragon. When one of his teachers asked him why his hero wasn’t black, or why the character didn’t reflect his creator’s own culture in other ways, he told her these thoughts had not occurred to him. At all. Another student in the class, one of my best and brightest and also an aspiring graphic novelist, said he could never find the epic in Caribbean stories, that spark to fire great works. The cartoons from Japan he and his classmates watched, the comics from that country they read, seemed more resonant than anything their history or reality might make possible.
The crime—let’s call it that—wasn’t that too many of my students couldn’t see the epic in their own people’s stories, which included vast kingdoms and empires, ancient knowledge and fables, the middle passage, slavery, colonialism, Independence movements, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, indigenous mythology and folklore. The crime was—is—that they had never thought to fan the fire themselves: to create what was missing, to suggest what was possible, to write the stories about their own people that they wanted to read.
Part of the problem was the social engineering they had undergone as Barbadians, which I examine in And Sometimes They Fly. My students and many Barbadians like them were raised to believe other people’s heroes saved the world, not their own. Who would these worthy men and women be anyway? Their politicians didn’t call in the good guys when the going got tough; they considered themselves the good guys, and had put commemorative plaques on buildings and open spaces all around the island that essentially said so. Coupled with a decline in oral storytelling not redressed by a more active publishing industry, this belief in the outside hero has spelt the demise of the fantastic in much of Barbadian Literature.
Beyond the analogous
Not entirely, of course. Barbadians—and their stories—are more tenacious than my students might think: more entertaining, more epic, more idealistic, and hence more enduring. Try, as Bajan or world critic, to dismiss writers like Kamau Brathwaite, Geoffrey Drayton, Paule Marshall, and Timonthy Callender. You’d be missing out if you weren’t aware of others like Glenville Lovell, Ronald A. Williams, Karen Lord, and Matthew Clarke. It takes cultural consciousness to resist the drag of negative foreign incursion; the kind of cultural consciousness that can conceive of anything, including a black Superman.
But not a black Superman. Despite successful renderings of, say, a black Green Lantern or a Latino Spiderman, I never wanted coloured analogues of my favourite heroes. I wanted originals of my own, fighting battles people rather like me would fight.
When I came to write And Sometimes They Fly about twenty years ago, it was not as a literary or fantasy novel but as a superhero comic about a group of young people who fought to save the world. At some point over the years, I decided to tell the story in prose instead, yet I, too, was still missing that sense of the epic: Who were these young people, meaning where did they come from, and whose world were they fighting to save? The tragedies of 9/11, which seemed to touch on everyone’s life everywhere on this planet, provided the necessary perspective, as metaphor for cataclysmic conflict, and moment for godlike redemptive intervention…if one so chose.
Yet it was the folklore of the Caribbean, of Barbados specifically, that provided contemporary context, the proper symbols and an ongoing socio-historical discourse out of which the story could emerge. Barbados has ten national heroes, all revolutionaries, one of them—a sports icon—still living. Apart from village, community and city characters who are legend for their colour and brilliance or ingenuity, the country has a lively mythology of Anansi (a cunning, storytelling man-spider), baccous (wicked or mischievous spirits made flesh), heartman (the bloody scourge of hard-ears children who stay out too late), and djablèses (a very Caribbean kind of succubi).
Heroes and villains abound in our culture. The epic in any work comes from the writer’s understanding of his (or her) people and their place in history, what we might call Time, here, even if his people are embodied in an individual or their place is no larger than a village. His people, regardless of their number, race, faith or colour, are inevitably humanity itself, or his conception of it. Events in Egypt or Syria can have magic or tragic consequences for a family or woman in Barbados or Trinidad. The epic reveals the possibilities of a grander world, one made up of the worlds we already know and of others we still struggle to explain. To imagine ourselves onto that boundless landscape, as writers and readers, is no privilege, nor should it be viewed as a burden. It is merely our right, and our responsibility.
by Keith Henderson
Fiction – Social Issues 236 Pages
Reviewed on 03/31/2017
Reviewed by Charles Remington for Readers’ Favorite
Suzanna Ricci’s marriage is on the rocks, leaving her feeling a failure. In Acqua Sacra by Keith Henderson, she is charged by her mother with the renovation of the old family house in Acqua Sacra, a small village in the Abruzzo region of Italy. She is grateful to escape Montreal and the accusing eyes of her family, to leave behind the legal minutiae of divorce and attend to the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged house. There she faces a different set of problems: Italian bureaucracy, a helpless architect, and feckless builders. But while attending a family wedding in Rome, she meets the senior partner of a Montreal law firm who, prompted by her ex-husband, invites her to join his organisation in a junior capacity. Initially suspicious of the motives involved, she nevertheless accepts the invitation and quickly finds she is enjoying her new job.
The work in Acqua Sacra, however, grinds to a halt with builders defaulting on contracts, disappearing from site and demanding additional payments to cover unforeseen difficulties. When she is offered the chance to undertake a small project in the Abruzzo region for her new employers, she is at first grateful for the opportunity and hopes the visit will also allow her some time to revive the renovation of her family home. But as the reality of her assignment becomes clear, she begins to realise that she is involved in no simple task and is in real danger. Forced to act for the Canadian security services in a plot involving the Mafia and the Libyan regime, struggling to deal with the machinations of her employers and the demands of her ex-husband, and dealing with Italian architects and builders, can she possibly survive the seething maelstrom in which she has become embroiled?
Acqua Sacra is a compelling book, dealing with both personal and family issues, and more broadly political and commercial issues. Keith Henderson has created a pacey narrative written in the style of a good thriller, which takes in the harrowing effects of divorce, the feelings of failure and their effects on the family, along with Mafia involvement in the Canadian construction industry and all levels of Italian politics and commerce. It deals with corruption at every level and the difficulties of being an honest, caring individual in a world seemingly rotten to the core. An interesting, though sometimes worrying book for anyone who cares about our planet. I thoroughly enjoyed Acqua Sacra and do not hesitate to recommend it.
by Keith Henderson
Fiction – Social Issues 236 Pages
Reviewed on 03/31/2017
At the invitation of the AELAQ (Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec), Kenneth Radu and Montreal writer-translator Licia Canton passed a pleasant hour chatting about the literary life in Montreal and Quebec. Held in the Atwater Library, their conversation was taped for a future podcast, part of a series of writers talking about their writing hosted by the AELAQ. Many thanks to Anna Leventhal and Merrianne Couture for their kind invitation and arrangements.
A French translation of Kenneth Radu’s story The Pretender from his collection Earthboundwill appear in an anthology of short stories by English Canadian authors, slated for publication by Éditions Prise de Parole. To quote the publisher: “The resulting collection will not only sketch a panoramic portrait of literary translation in Canada today, but will also showcase a series of contemporary authors writing in the short story.”
What Robert Edison Sandiford gives us in his latest short story collection, Fairfield, is the apparent restoration and enhancement of stories that were bound and concealed in a stationery box belonging to a deceased Barbadian-born author. Sandiford brings thirteen of these “Last Sad Stories of G. Brandon Sisnett” (the collection’s subtitle) to us in a seemingly random way which propels us to create an order out of seeming disorder.
Death, loss and memory permeate this collection, and what Sandiford shows us is that there is nothing orderly about any of these things. The book starts where, chronologically speaking, it should end; but we all know that sometimes it takes a specific experience, person or even a word to cause a memory to resurface.
It is because of this reality that, in the “Big O,” Ed needs to hear the news of Orville’s death to prompt the memories that follow in the stories “Michel” and “Funk.” Even though these three stories are the only stories where the characters recur, they are spaced out across the collection, mixed among a web of other people’s memories united by one thing—loss.
It is Orville’s prevalence in the collection and his inability to overcome loss that makes him one of the most compelling characters in Fairfield. Orville Sobers, known to most as The Big O and much like Sisnett, has suffered from the grief of losing a child, the dissolution of a marriage, and facing death in his forties. It is because the two mirror each other that I find it very striking that Sisnett didn’t use Orville’s character as a voice to express his own grief; instead, he puts Ed, Orville’s best friend’s brother, someone who only knew Orville by association, to tell Orville’s story. It is as though Sisnett moved himself as far away as possible from this mirroring character because (perhaps) he, like Orville, could not overcome his own losses. In the book’s (fictional) “Foreword,” Sandiford, as Sisnett’s “editor,” believes it is Sisnett’s biography that makes his themes more understandable to the reader, and I fully agree.
Orville isn’t the only recurring aspect of the collection; another is the word “Fairfield.” In “They Build Houses Here Now,” the ex-US Airforce pilot, whose remorse stems from his experiences “serving” his country, was stationed at a base in Fairfield. Fairfield is also the name of the house of a suicide in “The Hours In-Between” as well as the name of the particular bus that a little girl leaps head first into in “Jumbie Tribe.” Every time Fairfield is mentioned, some aspect of loss is present to the point that Fairfield becomes synonymous with loss and, by extension, death.
Even though the other stories aren’t so concretely connected, we see stories of mass killings that lead to stories of political unrest. We see the name Michael used as inspiration in one story then used to propel us into a story entitled “Michel” about a young boy subjected to bullying and prejudice. We see a story about a man’s unexpected suicide precede the story of an abused child’s suicide. Fairfield makes us dive further into the stories no matter how much we like to stay on the sidelines. It implores us to piece together the fragments of memory and their dichotomies as well—of home and elsewhere, suicide and natural death, heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
Here, memories become physical. In “Massiah,” one powerful head of a political party etches hers on her skin. Memories, like our pains and the people we love, eventually fade away. The difference here is that there is something more durable about them once written down or passed on. Just like the contents of Massiah’s skin, these memories refuse to be done away with.
Fairfield is a layered collection of stories. Thematically melancholy, the book is knitted together with invigorating aspects of Barbadian and Canadian culture that create a contemplative read.