It’s probably a bit of a cliché by now - a Caribbean novel with scenes of Carnival - but Carnival was such an important part of my childhood, and especially of summer, that it’s bound to sneak in when I'm writing about summer in Antigua. If you come to Antigua between the months of June and early August, you'll find that much of the radio talk, music, and energy there are directed at Carnival. Well, Carnival and politics - but once you begin to understand the lingo, you’ll understand that politics is mixed up in Carnival as well.
Once you strip away all of that, though, Carnival is a freeing feeling, a celebration, a moment to just let it all go – and more so than any other time at the Carnival masquerade (Mas, for short). In Antigua, the Mas is important enough to rate two days of holiday: Carnival Monday (also known as August Monday, the day the Africans enslaved in Antigua were liberated in 1834) and Carnival Tuesday. That’s when the feathers and beads, standards and back pieces, music and revelry take over the streets. If you’re a tourist in Antigua (or any of the Caribbean islands, some of which celebrate pre-Lent) during Carnival season (yes, it is its own season) and stay ensconced in your hotel or on the beach for the duration of the two parade days, then you really haven’t experienced the island culture. It's all worth experiencing - from the J’ouvert (literally “day open”) which begins at the crack of dawn, to the marathon two-day parade to the last lap, which bucks up against midnight (although somehow everyone who participates manages to drag themselves to work the next day).
In my effort to keep my writing of summer and Carnival fresh in my book Oh Gad!, I relied heavily upon the fact that all of it is new for my main character, Nikki, who has spent so much of her life in the U.S. that she is Antiguan more or less in name only. Point of view helps make the old new - if you can feel the familiar from a fresh place, feel it for the first time through someone for whom it is the first time, the sense of it becomes less worn. In writing each scene, I drew on my feelings of playing Mas at Carnival, but I also tried to feel it in Nikki’s skin - her initial trepidation, and her subsequent seduction by the Carnival and fresh love. I hoped through this approach to make Carnival for the reader viscerally joyful – and something more than a cliché. Of course, only my readers can decide if I succeeded. What do you think? Here’s an excerpt from the book:
It was on Fanso’s balcony that the whole idea of them playing Mas was raised. Nikki was there, and Aeden. Jazz, Giovanni, and Tapanga-Rose. Carlene and her boys. Fanso’s family.
It was Antoinette who brought up the topic of Carnival, relating that her boys were supposed to be playing with their school troupe that year.
That set Fanso off, reminiscing about watching the troupes as a boy, and fantasizing about playing Mas. “Is back then they had Mas, not them swimsuit they wearing nowadays,” he said. “The King and Queen of the band costume used to take up the whole street. And the troupes, the back pieces, the head pieces! It was fantasy, man, fantasy! I remember this one called Fire and Ice, a back piece of red and silver. Dynamics. Oh, and don’t talk ‘bout the year of ‘Satan coming down,’ that was a sight.”
“Carnival wasn’t no big thing back ah yard,” reported Carlene. “Is just now it kinda coming up.”
“Well, Carnival was the adventure in my day from Marcus Christopher’s skellihoppers to the jam bull – scared me more than any movie as a child,” Fanso said, shaking his head fondly. “Yeah, Carnival was it for me. Don’t play Mas no more, but calypso still deep in me. When you hear Carnival come, I don’t want hear nothing, can’t feel nothing but Calypso.”
“We know,” Antoinette intoned, uncharacteristically, even as Nikki cut in with a sarcastic, “Naaaaw!”
Fanso ignored them, caught up in the excitement of the Carnival talk. “When Carnival Monday and Tuesday come and I see the troupes coming up Scot’s Row, I does feel a longing to be with them, a pull like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
“So, why do you not do it?” Antoinette wanted to know.
Fanso was silent, apparently unable to think of a good reason.
“Actually, I’ve always wanted to, as well,” Giovanni suddenly piped up. “But all I ever heard of was Trinidad and Rio Carnival, and of course the Brooklyn West Indian Carnival on the Eastern Parkway. Can we still get in?”
His eyebrows twitched excitedly, and in spite of her desire to sit this one out, Nikki smiled catching Jazz’s eyes for a moment. Her sister smiled back indulgently, wiggling her own eyebrows and causing Nikki to laugh outright.
“Share the joke,” Carlene interjected even as Fanso mused, “it kinda late, but maybe we can squeeze in somewhere.”
“Let’s do it,” Aeden said, and Nikki wanted to clamp her hand over his mouth, not keen on donning one of the bathing suits that passed as Carnival costumes.
“Come on, Nikks, live a little,” Jazz wheedled, sensing her sister’s reservation.
“Well, we can’t all go,” Nikki said. “Who’ll look after the kids?”
“I cannot,” Antoinette piped up, before anyone could even look in her direction. “I will be with the school troupe. I have already volunteered to assist.”
“Audrey,” Carlene said. “I’ll ask her.”
She winked at Nikki, and, somehow, the vestiges of Nikki’s resentment toward her slunk away. She did feel like celebrating, she realized.
“I’ll need lots of liquor,” Nikki quipped.
The liquor helped, and the music from the speakers echoing in her chest, and the spirit of Carnival moving through the crowd. And the rain. Lots and lots of rain, licking them like flames. At its burn, their spirit caught fever, a cheer going up from the crowd as they jumped higher, danced harder.
"Jump and le we, mash it up..."
The singer, feathered and beaded, danced alongside the hulking, speaker-laden Burning Flames truck, microphone in hand. And they did just that.
“…mash it up…”
“…mash it up…”
“…mash it up…”
“…mash it up…”
The buzz was unlike anything Nikki had ever felt, even during sex; even during sex with Aeden. She kissed him then, amidst the sweltering, gyrating bodies and the rain. Always game, if he was surprised by this show of exhibitionism, he hid it well as he responded, eagerly, in kind, his slick body grinding against hers. She turned her face to his neck and buried her lips and nose there, breathing him in, tasting him. His dreads tickled and she shivered a little. Oh, she felt alive! She laughed, and unexpected tears joined the rain, wetting her cheeks. She laughed more before pulling away and re-joining the frenetic jumping. Aeden let her go for a time, but was soon tugging her back to where it felt good, in his arms, her back to his chest as their hips moved in unison. Nikki, crushed against him, found she didn’t mind one bit.
During the last leg of the marathon parade, they spotted Audrey, who’d opted to leave Columbus and Belle at home. She stood on the sidelines sheltered by a huge umbrella Nikki could only imagine her owning, with Tapanga-Rose in her arms while Imani and Judah held on to her shirt tail. When the boys spotted their mother – a jubilant Carlene, uncaring of the folds and ripples of skin forced into a too-small costume – they made a break for it; and soon they, too, were a part of the bacchanal.
The Excerpt above is from my (Joanne C. Hillhouse's) novel Oh Gad! Please do not repost without permission. For more on Joanne and the book, like her on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse