This Virtual Nomad stop is a bit different. A (10) and I drive 190 km south to spend a Barbados night with a dear, dear friend. My friend CS is half-Bajan and a gorgeous, beautiful soul. Even if the Virtual Nomad Barbados stop means leaving nearly all the other nomads behind, it is a good excuse for me and A to visit CS and her family.
But first, Barbados.
Barbados is an island micro-state in the Caribbean, a few islands south of Antigua and Barbuda that the Virtual Nomad has already visited. Barbados is currently world famous for its most famous export, superstar Rihanna.
Night of talking
The Barbados night consisted more of talking and sharing, than eating. Tales of pig tails, goats and cheap meat cuts with overcooked vegetables, but not actual eating. CS says that as a child, she lived on fast-food burgers, rather than the pig tails, rice and peas. The decision to skip food this time seems like the right one. Instead we talk about cocktails and drinks, and childhood memories.
A brand new republic
Barbados had an Indigenous population of Arawaks and Caribs before the Spanish and Portuguese arrived – and named the island Barbados, the bearded ones (barba=beard). The Iberos were not interested in the island and it was basically used for slave collection from time to time until, in 1627, Britain claimed it. The Brits settled plantations, mainly for sugar, and imported slaves from Africa. The slaves rebelled several times, the most famous slave leader being called Bussa, who is a national hero. Once slavery was abolished, it still took more than a hundred years for living conditions for the Barbadians to improve. Barbados became independent in 1966, and a republic in 2021 when Sandra Mason was elected as the First President of Barbados.
The capital of Barbados is the colourful city of Bridgetown. 90% of the population (around 280,000) is of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. English is the official language but Bajan Creole is the language of everyday use for most. Since independence, the country has been relatively peaceful with strong economic development. Barbados, together with Japan, has the highest proportion of centenarians per capita.
The struggles of brown girls
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall was published in 1959. Semi-autobiographical, it is a story of Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn. It is a coming-of-age story in the context of immigration, identity and belonging. Divided into four parts, the book covers several years of young Selina’s life and her awakening as an adolescent/young woman. She has a hard working, determined mother with a life goal of owning a brownstone house and a drifter father who has never found a purpose for his life. An immigrant’s life is not easy, and black Caribbean immigrants find themselves as objects of discrimination and racism.
This is one of the books I would love to love, and feel guilty for not loving. It tangles masterfully in the experience of alienation and racism, and the experience of black immigration and generational clash in a country that is foreign and not welcoming. There is a true biographical sense to it which reflects the author’s own background as a child of Barbadian immigrants. The themes of immigration, race, education and a woman’s role still resonate in the contemporary context.
But I did find it a hard and slow read, and it took me many pages to somewhat engage in the lives of the characters. I still think it is a relevant, important book and I am glad that I pushed myself through its description-heavy, slow text until the end, where things are pulled together.
Cherie Jones is a Barbadian lawyer, author, single mother or four and a domestic violence survivor. Her debut book How the one-armed sister sweeps her house was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2021) award. It is a harrowing tale of violence, captivating from the very start. It is set in Barbados in the 1980s, with the stark contrast of the poor natives and the people that exploit them, from spouses to tourists. The storytelling is of five star quality because you just cannot put the book down. But the relentless cycle of violence, from domestic to incest, the never-ending cycle and everything between, becomes slightly suffocating. It is an intense novel and the description of (domestic) violence is written with knowledge and experience. It’s a never-ending festival of misogyny, poverty and hopelessness even for those who have found the means to survive. It is being in the wrong place and the wrong time, loving the wrong people but above all, it is about the power of the predator over the weak, and of life without an escape.
My final Barbados book comes from Naomi Jackson: the Star Side of Birdhill. Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing, this book was nominated or longlisted for an extensive list of awards including the NAACP Image Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize.
It is another book about the clash of two worlds. Two sisters are sent to Barbados from Brooklyn to live with their grandmother for the summer. They explore the island until tragedy strikes and they are faced with a difficult decision. In the book there are several references to Annie John, the book I read for the Antigua and Barbuda stop.
“Loving another person, she knew well from watching and knowing Avril, was the most dangerous thing of all. Loving a country besides the one you lives in was a recipe for heartache.”
It is captivating at the start, boring from the middle and nearly ridiculous towards the end. Basically a good story wasted in a silly resolution.
Freedom and crime
Vigilante – the Crossing (2015), directed by Marcia Weekes is a story of an ex-con gone good à la Barbados. Marcia Weekes is a Jamaican-born Barbadian dancer, director and producer who has won several awards and is the founder of the Caribbean School of The Arts. She also has a show called the Marcia Weekes show that discusses issues relevant to the black community and African Diaspora.
The movie itself is not an original story – a reformed criminal returns to his homeland and finds himself needing to clean up his village of thugs while crossing paths with a white woman who wants to help the community to be better. The partially interesting elements are the references to class and race tensions, and the fact that the action takes place in Barbados.
More interesting is Barrow – Freedom Fighter (2016) from the same director. It is a partly fictional ‘docudrama’ about Errol Barrow, the first Prime Minister who was instrumental in Barbados gaining its independence in 1966. It won the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Diaspora Documentary in 2018. It reflects on the birth of a country in a slightly messianic way, but one can understand its importance to a country such as Barbados. The docudrama combines fiction and interviews with people who knew Barrow.
By far Barbados’ most famous export is Rihanna. She is a multi-awarded singer, the second best-selling female singer of all time (and 8th of all musicians) and a business woman. On Barbados’ first day as a republic, Rihanna was declared a National Hero of Barbados.
She does not really need a introduction but there are several sites that describe her path from the lower side of Bridgetown to global stardom. Her father was an abusive drug addict and alcoholic but young Ri Ri was talented enough to catch the attention of US producers and the rest is history.
Next stop: Belarus