From one woman’s island to another …
Carin Makuz and I “met” when we both enrolled in the online Humber School for Writers Creative Writing Programme, offered by Humber College in Toronto. That was 2006 and I was living on Bequia at the time, so I was able to study online from a great distance. Carin was living just outside of Toronto. We kept in touch with each other, as many students did, and have since continued to do, in that particular class, and I eventually met Carin in person, a number of times, in fact, and even made a “whistle stop” once while taking the train back from Kingston to Toronto. Carin met me at the train station and waited with me for the connecting GO Train to arrive so I could then continue on my way. What fun that visit was! Carin also made the trip north to Minden when we held a literary salon at the home of Michael Fay. At that salon, there were several other authors in attendance: Bruce Hunter, Frank Beltrano, Timothy Phillips. I’ve promoted all of them, and Michael, as part of the Authors-Readers International series on my blog. And Carin accompanied me (drove me there, actually, after dining together in a local restaurant) to a talk and reading that was being given at the local library by none other than Gail Bowen! (Also promoted on A-RI!)
Carin as well had the absolutely brilliant idea of beginning The Litter I See Project, which I promoted on my Reading Recommendations blog. She had invited me to take part in this project and I was very pleased to be included, especially since it was all in aid of Frontier College and literacy instruction.
So we continue to chat (by email) every now and again, although we haven’t seen one another in person in a few years now. (I’m too ensconced in the trailer while in Canada during the summer months!) But what started out as a quick email conversation at the beginning of the new year – Carin had finished reading my second novel and sent me a link to the “not-a-review” she posted to her blog – turned into a discussion about island life. Then … the back and forth questions and answers began, and comparisons of our both having lived on small Caribbean islands, and comparisons of my story to other books, and, and, and … we ended up with the following piece that Carin offered to write up for me to post here; not so much a review of the novel as an explanation of what struck her as significant about her reading of my book, and why my experiences on Bequia resonated with her own living on a different small Caribbean island. (And yes, Carin, that was definitely you I was thinking about when, in the story, Tex talks about a Canadian woman whose name is spelled the same way as yours!)
I so enjoyed the book, Susan, not the least for how it tapped into my own memories of living in the Caribbean in ’91/’92. I don’t recall too much of the expat lifestyle when we were there, but I may have missed it, or maybe it wasn’t as ‘rife’ yet. P was working with one of the hotels so we got to know many of the locals (most of whom came to our wedding). We didn’t make friends with many of the other ‘imports’… I remember thinking how odd most of them seemed, like they were just there for the money and the privileged Jimmy Buffet lifestyle; they seemed to be missing the point that this opportunity could give them, to understand local customs, rather than impose their own. But no one seemed very interested in island culture, food, or getting to know the local residents. Given that, it’s easy to see how divisions would be created. Not to mention the residents resenting the fact that the best jobs were often given to (white) ‘imports’. That was one of the difficulties for me when we lived there… being seen as ‘one of those’. Once we got to know the local residents, it was better, and that stigma fell away, but not with everyone. Still a certain amount of animosity from locals, for which I don’t blame them.
You captured so well that attitude of newbies trying to change the very thing that brought them to the island in the first place. Can imagine it’s even worse now with gentrification and displacement of people’s culture as if it’s just another commodity. How can this create anything but animosity? How wonderful that you’ve been there long enough to be known for who you are, as someone who respects the island way of life.
We went back to the island a few years ago for our anniversary. I was reluctant because I had a feeling it would have changed due to gentrification, etc., and I didn’t want to see it. Turns out much was still charming and familiar, but there was a lot different too … more villas where there were none before and a totally different vibe ‘in town’, ie. the harbour shops (selling very different items than before; before being mostly basic necessities for locals and only a very few things like postcards or souvenirs). Restaurants that were casual had been renovated and were now upscale … that was a big change. Very different feeling. Can imagine there was a lot more behind the scenes that I didn’t notice, given that I was there only a week and seeing with the eyes of a visitor.
One memory from when we lived there … P was working late on xmas eve and I was sitting outside on our patio in the pitch dark, under the stars when, from the valley below, came the sound of a single trumpet playing “Silent Night” and then a few other carols. A simple strain of music, not from a party, but likely just someone sitting outside (who would have a trumpet?). Then they stopped. Not another sound all night. I thought of that when we were there a few years ago and couldn’t imagine it happening now. Too many other sounds have taken over. The energy feels different.
Anyway, all of that to say One Woman’s Island was an absolutely lovely trip back to the Caribbean in the 90’s and to how I remember it. The story is compelling on many levels, but that was certainly an added dimension for me.
I think it’s brilliant that you’re writing about all this in your novels, Susan. As you say, for people who think it’s all paradise … an eye-opener. And so much more respectful to fully embrace reality while still finding the charm within, which of course I know you do.
Thank you again, Carin! Both for understanding what I’m trying to do with this Bequia Perspectives series and for the effect that I now know my writing has had on at least one reader! This is, after all, the main reason we write … to have an effect on readers and possibly even elicit a response.
A Bequia Old Year’s Night …
An Excerpt From:
One Woman’s Island, a Bequia Perspectives novel
Dudley picked us up from the beach at the prearranged time. I was
glad to have him there, too, as both children were exhausted from the
excitement, the sun, and the swimming and were fast asleep. Dudley
had to carry them to the taxi for us.
On the trip home, Verity said, “I lets dem sleep now den wakes
dem for later.” When I asked what she planned to do to celebrate,
she replied, “What everybody does do on Bequia—we goes to de
It suddenly struck me that, other than a mention in passing when
I spoke with the Litt sisters and Tex, I hadn’t made any plans myself for
the biggest night of the year. “Do you mind if I join you?” I asked. She
grinned in agreement, so when Dudley pulled up to Verity’s house, we
arranged for him to pick us up at around eleven.
He helped carry the still-sleeping children into the house. When
Dudley and I were alone outside again, I asked him about Verity’s
mother—his mother, too. “Dey don’ talk.” And that was all I could get
out of him.
He assured me, saying, “Verity be looked after. You no worrys ’bout
her.” His expression had become a scowl. It was obvious this was a closed
subject as far as Dudley was concerned, so I didn’t push any further.
By the time he returned later that night, Dudley was back to his
old jovial self again. The children were wide-eyed, if not yet wide awake,
and Verity had changed into a slinky leopard-skin-pattern dress I had
never seen before. That and the awkward high-heeled sandals she wore
made me look even frumpier than I already felt.
Dudley dropped us off in the Harbour then quickly drove away
to pick up his next fare—he’d be working throughout the night. For
Bequia taxi drivers, Old Year’s Night is the busiest of the year, their
time to make a lot of money, if they really hustle.
Verity, the children, and I walked through the crowds in the Harbour
to the walkway along the shore that would take us to the Frangipani
Hotel, the centre of the action at midnight on Bequia. It was a sea
of people we had to wade through, too; some already drunk but most
in good spirits and out to enjoy themselves with friends and family. It
did look too as though all of Bequia, and then some, had come out to
celebrate, and everybody wanted to be as close as possible to the Frangipani
bar when the clock struck midnight. A steel band performed
on a low stage between the bar and the walkway, and their pitch and
pandemonium increased with every passing minute, the pan players
physically exhausting themselves with their drumming.
The four of us chose instead to grab a seat on the low wall by the
shoreline and watch the promenade of people as we waited for midnight.
Melanie, Dave, Al, and Suzie passed by together.
Melanie and Suzie stopped while Al and Doc pushed on ahead.
“Mariana, hello!” said Melanie. “Would you like to join us? We’re going
to try and get a drink at the bar.”
“Hello, Mel and Suzie. Happy New Year. I’m here to celebrate
with Verity and her children”—I pointed at my neighbours—“but
“Okay then. Happy New Year to you!” The two women disappeared
into the crowd.
Suddenly, a moment or two before midnight according to my
watch, sailboats in the harbour began tooting their horns, and then
the ferry boats and other large working ships sounded theirs as well.
Boat flares shot off in every direction over the water and the steel band
increased its volume as it played a decidedly Caribbean version of “Auld
Lang Syne.” Everyone was happy, greeting one another, wishing Happy
New Year to all around them. It really was a joyous and festive occasion,
possibly the best New Year’s Eve I’d ever celebrated because it was so
simple and heartfelt.
After about fifteen minutes we decided it was time to get the
children back to the house and into bed for the rest of the night. The
two of them, even Ayayla with her limited sight, had sat wonder-eyed
throughout the midnight festivities, but they were beginning to yawn.
And causing me to yawn, as well.
We were making our way back along the waterfront to the place
where we’d arranged to meet Dudley when I heard a voice call out to
Verity from the dark of the bushes. She turned her head to the sound
and immediately sucked her teeth loudly—a gesture commonly used on
this island to indicate displeasure or disgust. She picked up her pace as
best she could in those awkward sandals and pulled the children after
her. The one voice became several as I realized there were others hiding
in the shadows calling after Verity with words I couldn’t understand.
Whatever they said seemed to be derogatory.
Melanie, Dave, Al, and Suzie passed me again before I could catch
up with the children.
“We’re on our way to the New York Bar for a drink now,” Melanie
said. “You sure you won’t join us?”
Al sneered. “Yeah, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and all that shit!”
The others laughed. But Melanie said, “Don’t mind him, Mariana.
Do join us. After we finish that drink we’re heading, along with the rest
of the people of Bequia, to De Reef in Lower Bay, where we’re going
to dance until dawn.”
“Come on, Mariana,” Al chided. “You’re only young once. I’ll bet
Verity would love to dance all night.”
Verity had stopped to wait for me and heard Al’s comment. She
looked over at me, asking with eager eyes if she could do just that. She
had certainly dressed appropriately if she’d been hoping for willing
“But we’ve got to put these children to bed,” I pointed out. Verity
was looking disappointed when the four expats left.
Dudley caught up with us on the main road in front of the Anglican
Church, and I realized as we were driving away that we hadn’t met up
with Tex or the Litt sisters.
We were soon home again, the sights and sounds of the Harbour
far behind us.
As I was getting into bed, I thought about how enjoyable it had
been: no phoney celebrations with strangers, no false wishes for the
coming year, no expensive fireworks displays or decorations, no desperate
attempts to have a good time at any cost. Everyone celebrated the beginning
of the new year together—young, old, tourists, foreigners, expats,
locals, everyone enjoying the moment. That’s what Bequia is all about.
I lay awake in bed that night for a while and considered what
might be in store for me in the coming year. Whatever it was, I hoped
it would be better than a year that involved losing my husband both
physically and emotionally and being forced to redesign my whole life.
Anyway, I knew it couldn’t possibly get any worse. I reached out and
pulled Jerry closer to me and fell asleep to the sound of purring in my ear.