Deep travel: 5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?

TRINI (3)

 

Think again.

As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers.  Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.

 “I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.

Mimic Men

“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”

“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of  it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”

“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”

A Way in the World

“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank…We were just there, floating.” 

“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”

The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and postcolonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”

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37 thoughts on “Deep travel: 5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

  1. Love the list! When I traveled in South America, I also read 1 book about each of the country I visited… found that it was an amazing way to learn more profoundly about the countries and the culture! Will be sure to check out some of these books when I visit the Caribbean.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I love marquez too, read some of his books in high school.
        I read “Invisible Mountain” for Uruguay
        “The boys from brazil” for brazil
        and “the life of eva peron” for argentina 🙂

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  2. Wide Sargasso Sea is one of my favourite books – even reading that quote gave me chills. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is also great and I recommended it to a book club (Happy to report it was a hit!) I would also recommend adding ‘Annie John’ by by Jamaica Kincaid.

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  3. I just want to say a huge thank you for this post because you’ve inspired me to write my own one about Mexico. I’ll of course be linking to yours! I LOVE to read and I especially love to read in the language of the country I’m in where possible, and you’re totally right that many people only see the superficial side to a country when travelling. Such a great post idea!

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  4. Loved reading this post! The West Indies are closer to our hearts because of cricket. Do you by any chance watch cricket haha? And Nathan, my partner has a good friend from Jameica as well! I so need to sit down and read Wide Sargasso Sea. I did Jane Eyre for high school literature. Although it’s not one of my favorite books, the excerpt from Wide Sargasso Sea just made we want to read it. I’m curious. And curiouer.

    Zinara xx

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    1. Hey Zinara, it’s sad to say but I don’t follow cricket. 😦 But I’m so glad you’re inspired to read Jean Rhys. Can you recommend any Sri Lankan authors I can check out for an authentic portrayal of your country?

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  5. I am a huge fan of reading before you go!! I use books to help kids learn about the upcoming adventure and also get in the spirit. This is a great list for grown up travelers. Thank you so much!

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  6. I love the idea of trying to read books about where you are. I read Shantaram in India and Marching Powder when I was in South America which was just a beautiful way to experience a place I think. In the few weeks we spend in places while we travel, it can seem like we get a really good feel for a place when in reality we’ve barely scratched the surface. Books can help us with that I think. I’m hoping to see more of the Caribbean so thanks – I’ll keep these in mind for when I do. I always have a kindle full of stories!

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    1. I also read Shantaram, but after I visited India. I’m really sorry to say this but I didn’t like it. 😦 If you like Indian literature, check out superb Indian authors who write in English like Anita Desai, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Arundhati Roy.

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  7. Now I want to buy all these books and read them. I love reading and I think it is an amazing idea to suggest books to understand a country better. And how amazing is this quote: “For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.” Wonderful post idea

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  8. I love Jane Eyre so will definitely have to add Wild Sargasso Sea to my to-be-read list! I’ve also had The White Woman on the Green Bicycle recommended to me before, so seeing it again on this list must be fate. Other than a brief emergency landing in the Bahamas I’ve never visited anywhere in the Caribbean but would really love to!! So for now I guess I’ll just have to read some of these books instead.

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  9. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey for me seems to be the most interesting. It’s interesting how foreigners are perceived by locals, even laughed at. Another way to understand the Caribbean would be to watch Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I think it was filmed on Dominica, Caribbean.

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    1. Good choice! However, I have to disagree with you about that Disney movie. You cannot really understand the West Indies by watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Even though it was filmed in different locations in the Caribbean, it presents an exoticized and erroneous portrayal of the region’s history and culture.

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  10. These are wonderful book suggestions. You have good taste. I like that they all sound so poetic. I have been to quite a few Caribbean countries. The locals are hospitable and friendly. I am sure that there is so much more that I need to know. I would try to read one of these books.

    Iza c/o Kathy James (Walk About Wanderer)

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