By Neil Armstrong
Pride Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario – The Black and Caribbean Book Fair 2014 will focus on stories of migration as well as Black fatherhood when it happens at the William Doo Auditorium, University of Toronto on November 7 and 8.
Hosted by A Different Booklist, the event features new books by award-winning author and historian, Olive Senior; American journalist and book critic, Gaiutra Bahadur; tennis coach, activist and father of tennis champions, Serena and Venus, Richard Williams; and photographer and photo essayist, Zun Lee.
Senior’s book is entitled, Dying To Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal; Bahadur’s book is Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture; Williams’ memoir is Black and White: The Way I See It; and Lee’s book is Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood.
On October 9, Arts & Culture Jamaica Inc. presented a literary event at the Consulate General of Jamaica where Senior talked about her new book that was launched a few days earlier in Jamaica.
Senior said she grew up in a household of people who had been to Panama but she knew very little about the country.
She said, like many Jamaicans, she was familiar with the Jamaican mento song, One Two Three Four Colon Man He Come, and Panama was embedded in her childhood memory.
Her grandfather had gone to Panama and she felt compelled to find out what happened there.
After much research at the Library of Congress to see what her grandparents had gone through, and upon finding out, Senior said she cried and began writing Dying To Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal.
She said the migration to Panama lasted 80 years and was the ‘mother ship’ of migration, the first popular movement after emancipation.
Senior described it as a large social movement of people which came to an end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
As a result of that major migration, West Indians developed the coastal areas of Latin America going back for hundreds of years.
Senior said her writing of the book was to provide context and to write in the stories of West Indians whose presence has been absent from existing books about the building of the Panama Canal.
She wanted to tell the story from their perspective and has included over 200 illustrations and used the voices of the people who participated to legitimize their stories from their perspective.
West Indians provided 60% of the workforce in the building of the Panama Canal.
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture is Bahadur’s first book. She was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of six.
A former daily newspaper staff writer, Gaiutra has told the stories of asylum seekers and immigrants in Philadelphia and its suburbs and reported from Baghdad, Iraqi refugee outposts in Syria and Jordan, and the U.S.-Mexico border.
She studied literature at Yale and journalism at Columbia and was a 2007-2008 Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
Published by the University of Chicago Press, the book was a finalist for the UK’s prestigious Orwell Book Prize for political writing that is artful, and won the 2014 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book about the Caribbean published in the previous three years.
“In 1903, a young woman sailed from India to Guiana as a ‘coolie’ — the British name for indentured laborers who replaced the newly emancipated slaves on sugar plantations all around the world. Pregnant and traveling alone, this woman, like so many of the indentured, disappeared into history. Now, in Coolie Woman, her great-granddaughter Gaiutra Bahadur embarks on a journey into the past to find her. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other coolie women, shining a light on their complex lives,” notes a synopsis on the book’s website.
Senior and Bahadur will be featured on November 7, 6:30-9:30 p.m. in an evening of stories of migration.
Lee’s Father Figure provides a counter-narrative to the one-dimensional mainstream stereotype of the absentee Black father.
Over a period of three years, he developed a relationship and won the trust of Black fathers and their children that allowed him to capture the intimacy they share, something not usually depicted in images seen of Black men.
“Widely hailed as a landmark project, Zun Lee’s monograph is at once documentary photography and personal visual storytelling. Through intimate black-and-white frames, Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood provides insight into often-overlooked aspects of African-descended family life,” notes the publisher, ceibafoto.com.
Lee, who was born in Germany, lived in many parts of the US and currently resides in Toronto, began his photography project in 2011 “to explore a different take on the usually negative representation of Black fathers.”
In an epilogue in the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning national journalist at MSNBC, Trymaine Lee, wrote: “Zun Lee’s formidable project on Black fatherhood delicately captures a rarely seen space in the lives of Black men and their children, a tender place somewhere between masculinity and manhood.”
Williams’ memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, offers a lot of insight into his grit and determination to succeed.
It also tells of his plan for his daughters – Venus and Serena – to become stars in tennis, a sport that was replete with racism that he lived with and which greeted them in their journey to victories. He had written a plan for their lives two and a half years before they were born.
Not only does the book, written with author, Bart Davis, show the lived reality of growing up in poverty in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Jim Crow laws of the 1940s; it also opens a window into the strong will of his mother to survive.
A reception and launch of Lee’s book will take place 2-4 p.m. and Williams will read from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on November 8.
The event is being held in partnership with the Caribbean Studies Program at the University of Toronto at 45 Willcocks Street in Toronto.