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Tucson Weekly Caribbean Splash

Oonya Kempadoo's Debut Novel Offers A Vivid Evocation Of Caribbean Community Life.

By Randall Holdridge

JUNE 21, 1999: 

Buxton Spice, by Oonya Kempadoo (Dutton). Cloth, $21.95.

BUXTON SPICE IS the first book by Oonya Kempadoo, a London-born black woman who grew up in Guyana on the Caribbean coast of South America. She lives now in Grenada. Although it's called a novel, Buxton Spice is really a series of roughly autobiographical vignettes which offer a charming, and often frankly erotic, picture of Kempadoo's Guyanese girlhood.

The narrator is Lula, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a racially mixed marriage. Lula is a shrewd observer of her neighborhood in Tamarind Grove, a lush tropical township near the capital of Georgetown. She's also acutely sensitive to her burgeoning sexuality.

Tamarind Grove's carefully selected cross-section of inhabitants provides glimpses into the social, economic, racial, religious and political currents of post-colonial life in the Caribbean. But the incidents of Buxton Spice are far too intimate, and the characters far too involved in their domestic affairs, for the book to become any kind of anthropological tract. Indeed, it's generally light in tone, and the family dramas it portrays are mostly comic. Lula has the honest curiosity of an intelligent child, and the result is an innocent self-absorption which allows an easy detachment from even the most traumatic incidents.

Lula and her chums Judy, Sammy and Rachel are busy studying their own (and each other's) bodies and sexual responses, checking out boys, and thinking about the differences between men and women. In one delightful scene they go to the street market to buy their first bras: "For two weeks, we had eyed the shining white pointed cups of various sizes and the cardboard price tags. This was something we had to do together...how to choose the right one? The Indian boy had laid them out since early. All the cones in glistening snowy white rows. From mountains at the back to eggshells at the front." Their choice is complicated by the fact that here there is no such thing as a fitting room. The purchase accomplished, they are ebullient:

First we had to get rid of all the Saturday-morning dust and the dirt from all the hands that had touched them. Watch them drying in the sun on the line, swinging in the breeze, so new. And then at last to walk down the road with a brassiere on. Strapped-up and stiff like a harness, but not much to put in it. Racehorses, prancy like. No feeling of shirt on your nipples, a hot space there instead. Looking down and seeing sharp points sticking the shirt out. And before that, the new figure in the mirror. Looked best with a loose white T-shirt with sleeves rolled up. Casual. We galloped around on the road all the evening, checking each other's chests when we faced the wind.

Lula is most interesting when considering the ways in which individuals negotiate the question of gender identity. Each person, she notices, has a distinctive "man-self" or "she-self," and as she mimics others, trying on a variety of styles, she comes to believe that this matter of manner and body carriage is a window on a person's soul.

Kempadoo has said that, "To most people, the Caribbean means a honeymoon or fancy vacation, but what I enjoy most living here is the language, characters and spontaneity." She has a keen ear, and renders the patois of Creole English with exactitude; however, she is judicious in the use of dialect, so as to highlight the originality of her characters rather than stereotype them. She succeeds in her hope of capturing what she has called "the ever-present bawdy sense of humor and everyday vulgarity...."

Just as Lula's reports on her neighborhood are a vivid evocation of Caribbean community life, her awareness of animals, plants (especially trees) and foods are enormously atmospheric. With deft strokes she creates a sense of place. Her child's perspective allows the exploration of backyards, of secret paths and hiding places, which are always the most absolute signifiers of locality.

In a statement about her own writing, Kempadoo has expressed ambitions larger than this canvas, however: "I don't support any group, organization or gathering for the sake of it being black this or women's that or Caribbean everything--life is bigger than that. I think that language is universal and once it is written or recorded people can make of it what they want." Buxton Spice is a promising debut. It remains to be seen whether Kempadoo will find themes wider than her childhood memories, but she's made a flying start.

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