I have highlighted cultural touchstones and place names in my writing here before –Devil’s Bridge which features in Amelia at Devil’s Bridge, for instance – but, of course, these aren’t the only ones. Whether described, passingly referenced, playing a key role (Pasture Bay where the turtles nest in Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, for example), or used figuratively the places referenced ground a lot of my writing specifically in Antigua and Barbuda. I recently dug up some examples.
‘He inclined his head towards her, then with a little smile. “Anywhere, anything. ‘Cross to Barbuda, if you like, go down to the caves go look for the blind shrimp.”
“You paint a seductive picture,” Nikki admitted.
– from Oh Gad! this references the cave formations in Barbuda and specifically Dark Cave located in the Highlands of Barbuda, about four hundred feet down into the earth, according to Desmond Nicholson’s Heritage Treasures of Antigua and Barbuda (P. 4) He reported the shrimp, Typhlatya monae, as being in one of the five freshwater pools found there in the darkness.
Barbuda features fairly prominently in Oh Gad! as one of the initial proposed development sites, before it hit a snag which suggests the communal ownership of the land and the will of the people.
‘“Wait til you see Barbuda,” Hensen continued, Nikki marvelling at the ease with which he was able to switch gears. “There’s nowhere else like it in the world. Natural, quiet, some good eco-tourism spots like the caves and the bird sanctuary. We don’t want to lose that, but at the same time, it could do with some building up. You get an investor like Cam – who surprisingly don’t have no substantial tourism investment to speak of – you can make things happen. But Barbudans are a different breed to Antiguans; if they not behind a project, they will shut it down. No two ways about it. With force if they have to. They forever at loggerheads with central government. They determined, and determined that their land mustn’t end up in foreign hands.”’
There are two references in Oh Gad! to the historical naval fortifications known as Nelson’s Dockyard. First,
“When Terry had returned – buzzing about the loping bus ride through country villages, long stretches of winding greenery broken up by colourful homes and wandering livestock, to Nelson’s Dockyard, a well preserved Georgian naval port and still bustling yachting mecca – it had been to a dressed and ready-to-go Nikki.”
‘…a hilltop liming spot and former naval fortification over looking Nelson’s Dockyard, white sails gaily blowing in the breeze. While tourists imbibed rum punch and danced, badly, to the music of Halcyon Steel Orchestra, Nikki and Jazz wondered how they were going to get the clunker all the way back to town. They got a jump from one of the tour operators, and kept their fingers crossed all the way to Fanso’s house.’
Nelson’s Dockyard, located in Antigua and Barbuda’s southwest is now a World Heritage site.
In Musical Youth, there are several references to St. John’s main (only, barely) garden, the Botanical Gardens, as a meeting place for the teen sweethearts Shaka and Zahara.
“A few days later, she finally played for him, singing along, albeit very, very softly, with the guitar. They were sitting again on the roots of the ficus in the Botanical Gardens. He thought she sounded like Sade or like the honey and rum mixture Pappy had once given him when his throat was scratchy from a cold.”
It’s not really possible to sit on the roots though as a wooden deck now skirts the tree.
Fig Tree Drive and Wallings show up in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, when Michael is still wooing Selena.
‘They drove through Fig Tree Drive and he noticed how she looked around as though she’d never seen any of it before, which, come to think of it, she probably hadn’t.
“Nice isn’t it?” he asked. This was his favourite bit of the country and he wanted her to like it too. “I find this part of the island to be Antigua as I know it and love it, remember it growing up. The people not in so much of a hurry like you find in town. They real friendly. Hell, even the landscape out here look innocent. All green. It’s just nice.” She smiled in what he took to be silent agreement.
They stopped at Wallings, where they had to climb uphill a bit to the old dam and the closest thing Antigua had to a rain forest. They walked a while in silence, then he promised that they’d come back here some time and go camping. He earned a look from her for that.’
In the story Country Club Kids which was originally published in The Caribbean Writer and has since been re-published in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings, the historical Fort James Beach shows up, sort of…
“My hand tightens a little bit in Chacha’s and, since I know she kind of likes the attention, the glare she shoots the huddle of boys is all for me; and I’m grateful. For all the good it does. The minute we’re a few steps away, their laughter hits our backs like the heavy waves sprinting up the beach at Fort James, rocking you a bit even when you’re braced for them.”
While Fort’s popularity as a place for people to park and sit, and eat and other things, is referenced in this tableau in the Dancing novella,
“They were sitting at Fort James: she, Michael and the baby. He had borrowed a friend’s car and taken them for a drive. And she had to admit it was beautiful. They had stopped first at Paradise View and looked out over the island at all the lights. Then they had stopped to get some chicken and had pulled up on the beach at Fort James where they placed a sleeping Silvano in the back seat and ate.”
There’s a couple of other mentions, but that Fort James is special to locals is referenced when Michael notes that that’s where he and his Uncle Wellie reason,
“Sitting in the ruins of Fort James looking out at the sea, one of their favourite thinking and talking spots, Michael smiled to himself at this.”
In Oh Gad! another beloved beach and fortification combo, Deep Bay and Fort Barrington are mentioned,
“It was Sunday. Nikki had stopped by to drop the kids off after their semi-regular Sunday romp at Deep Bay. She’d even managed to coax the kids to scale Goat Hill with her, though not into long abandoned, eerie Fort Barrington. Carlene, happy and small in the water below, had waved up at them.”
Several historical villages and spaces are mentioned (or hinted at in the case of Orange Valley, here renamed Blackman’s Valley) in this diary entry from researcher Winston’s journal in Oh Gad!
“Winston Baltimore, Antigua Journal, First Entry
It was one of several possible research sites. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it, at first. In fact, there were other, stronger prospects:
All Saints, because it was the meeting point of three parishes – St. John’s, St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s – hence the name.
Liberta because it was one of the first free villages, beginning shortly after Emancipation in 1834.
Otto’s, which, I’ve found, is full of history, including the execution of conspirators of a failed 1736 anti-slavery insurrection in Otto’s Pasture.
Parham… once the center of activity, the town, before being eclipsed by St. John’s in the 1700’s.
The slave dungeon at Parson Maule’s lends some appeal to the area of Seaton’s, a coastal village and one time port town like Parham.
But then, there’s also a dungeon at Blackman’s Valley. The etymology of the name remains obscure, but the land there is fertile and is used to good effect by farmers from neighboring villages. There was some appeal in focusing the study on this point of convergence.
…But it is Sea View Farm, ultimately, that compels, and, I’ve come to acknowledge, not for strictly anthropological reasons. Though as a cultural touchstone, it is a community worthy of note. This is a village, after all, that grew up around the unique cottage industry of pottery making in the post-emancipation era, the craft surviving, much in tact to this day. There’s the dynamic of the matriarchal nature of Caribbean culture, and how the structures of slave society and now village life both perpetuate and reflect that. Of the villages considered, nowhere is this more evident to me than in Sea View Farm where the women are the backbone of this cottage industry, and mothers and fathers of their households. And there are other sub-plots related to this tale… the link to pre-Columbian Antigua, as, according to the lore, knowledge of the locations of clay deposits was handed down to the enslaved Africans by the Caribs… the links to home, as the enslaved, in turn, drew on skills brought from Africa in crafting something uniquely Creole. Here, too, are the seeds of entrepreneurship, as commercial enterprise bloomed in the face of the demand for household utensils due to the post-slavery rise of free villages. Sea View Farm and these remarkable women were at the center of it.
I want to study the process, and the rhythms of their life, and how the past and present connect. Connect the dots.
Everybody said ‘check Mama Vi’.”
These references are instinctive as my characters move about this space they occupy called Antigua and Barbuda. My reflection on this was prompted by a question the publisher for With Grace asked me the other day, if the hill, with every tropical fruit ever referenced, was anywhere in particular. The answer, not really, though there was a view I had in mind when I thought of them looking out over the sea, that hill has no fruits, and the Christian Valley area which has plenty fruits and leads up to Mount Obama, formerly Boggy Peak, could be taken as a point of reference but not directly, especially as it’s more inland. Who even knows if the fruits referenced in the book can grow so tastily so close to the sea – it’s magic! But the places my feet have touched are always my reference point when I’m writing so it’s not impossible that some hybrid of reality and imagination created the hilltop in With Grace. But imagine it as you will.
To check out the books referenced, visit the Books page.