Books; Harvesting the trees of knowledge

Two young writers have given powerful voices to the `East Indian' women of the Caribbean. Paula Burnett welcomes them; Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo Granta, pounds 14.99, 249pp; Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo Phoenix House, pounds 12.99, 176pp
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The Independent Culture
Take two narrators. One is a nurse in an old people's home, now, in an island resembling Trinidad, the other a child growing up a couple of decades ago in Guyana. Both are created by women of Asian ancestry, from the two Caribbean nations that are as much East Indian - in local parlance - as African. Oonya Kempadoo (who was born in Britain, and now lives in Grenada) is Guyanese. Shani Mootoo is Trinidadian, although she was born in Ireland and now lives in Canada, where Cereus Blooms at Night has attracted warm praise.

These debut novels from promising writers share their distinctive Caribbeanness, but also an unconventional approach to sexual politics. For the nurse uncovering an old lady's story in Mootoo's book is a gay man, inhabiting a fictional world in which sexual identities are as mobile as globetrotters. Meanwhile, the girl who narrates Kempadoo's book prepares herself like an athlete-in-training for the heterosexual world, but by chiefly same- sexual play.

In both books, boundaries are there to be crossed. Nobody is one thing only. Nature is not a monoculture. That both titles refer to trees (Buxton Spice being a Guyanese mango) is significant, since both books query exclusive definitions of the natural or the normal.

Writing about the sexuality of children is not easy. A slight misjudgment of tone results either in alienation or prurience. Oonya Kempadoo avoids both. Her trick is to narrate the sexual awakenings of a pre-pubescent Guyanese girl in her own voice, with all its local freshness and authoritative innocence, and in such a way that a national story emerges.

Buxton Spice is episodic, like a sequence of short stories, in which Lula matures from little girl to bra-wearing teenager, alert to the neighbour's son, Mikey, described as "tall, dark and lanky. Black slinky cat but white teeth smiling. He never knew how much I watched this man-self, his tall loose laughy way, made me want more of it. Be near him all the time. Walk and lope around with him."

Lula's voice is a brilliant achievement, precise, moving, poetic, and a reminder that children's interest in sex is as natural as that of animals.

These are rural children. They know the difference between a donkey's "lolo" and a pig's. Lula is intrigued by the grown-up world of sexuality, learning by play, like the rest of us. She inhabits a Jungian world, assuming for herself and others a "man-self" and a "she-self" which can be staged at will yet which different personalities, of either gender, can have in different proportions.

This is a story we can all recognise, but it is also a carefully told oblique history of Guyana. If childhood innocence makes it in many ways a book of genesis, the serpent is named uncompromisingly as Forbes Burnham, Guyana's long-lasting late president. Burnham is shown as introducing corrupt politics and corrupting sexuality. The decent people of Tamarind Grove, shocked when rape and murder rear their ugly heads in the neighbourhood, are quick to blame the politicians' lead.

Buxton Spice proves to be as much a political novel as one about childhood. Oonya Kempadoo makes Lula of mixed race, with an East Indian father and Creole mother. She models a way out of Guyana's racially-driven politics, but by the end the family is packing to leave the country. The story that began in innocence ends in experience and charts the loss of an Eden, with the Buxton Spice as Lula's tree of knowledge.

Shani Mootoo's book, which also records a loss of Eden, seems more formally sophisticated - with its retrospective retrieval of Mala Ramchandin's story by the gay nurse, Tyler, her carer - but it is not wholly convincing. The location is Paradise in the island of Lantanacamera (camera-lantern), the antithesis of the Shivering Northern Wetlands, or SNW.

This suggests a rather precious nod towards magic realism, but the political nous which should provide the hard hand in the magic realist glove remains somewhat limp.

For although the story Tyler tells in his quaintly formal manner has a moving originality, it strays at times dangerously close to whimsy. Mootoo could do with a slice more of Kempadoo's sharpness.

A Gothic past hangs over the harmless old lady whose only sounds are imitations of small creatures, and whose frailty includes oddities such as erecting furniture into barricades. In fact, the strength of gentleness proves to be the paradox at the book's heart.

Tyler uncovers Mala's history as if lifting layers of gauze from a wound. Her pain is induced by patriarchal power, but that, in turn, is traced back to the colonial experience.

The father who sexually abused her was raised in a missionary family, losing his ancestral culture, but was ostracised when he took a shine to the white reverend's daughter. Hurt by this racism, he married on the rebound, only to find his disillusioned wife abandon him for the said reverend's daughter.

This begins to sound like a none-too-good soap opera, and it gets worse. Yet in another way the plot, thickened though it is with sexual exoticism, stays curiously cool and eloquent.

Mootoo's book intrigues with its mysterious old lady, but Tyler's voice sounds dull after Lula's. It is Kempadoo who is taking the novelist Sam Selvon's torch and running with it. The story of East Indian women, in all its heterogeneity, is finally beginning to be told.

Paula Burnett is editor of the `Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse'