by Caryl Phillips
The similarities between A State of Independence and the previous book I read (My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid) are quite remarkable. In both, the main character left the place of their birth (in each case, a former British colony consisting of two Caribbean islands) and has gone twenty years without speaking to their family. Now the main character is returning and having to deal with the messy relationships they left behind.
Unlike My Brother, however, A State of Independence is a novel, not a memoir. The book takes place over a couple of days, at the time of independence from England in the 1980s. As Bertram Francis returns to his former home and relearns his way around, A State of Independence gives a sense of what daily life is like in St. Kitts. It’s a good book for armchair travelers. I learned about transportation around the island (there’s pretty much just one road), grocery shop-keeping (make sure to keep lots of batteries for transistor radios in stock before big cricket matches) and the importance of staying out of the sun (I too spent most of my time in the region trying to stay out of the sun). It was interesting to me that when Bertram returned, he expected to recognize and be recognized by people on the streets, even in the capital city on the other side of the island from his home. The current population of the island is about 35,000 (The country of St. Kitts and Nevis has the smallest population of any country in the Americas) so I guess it makes sense that if you grew up there you might expect to meet people you know anywhere you go.
Given its setting at the time of independence for St. Kitts and Nevis, A State of Independence, it isn’t surprising that the book also has a political tone. It is quite critical of local politicians, but also the international figures who descend on the country for the independence ceremonies.
Random interesting facts:
- St. Kitts and Nevis is the only country in the world with a nickname as part of its official name- St. Kitts is the island of St. Christopher.
- It seems that most people in the country are known as either Kittian or Nevisian and there isn’t an inclusive term for anyone living in St. Kitts and Nevis. I wonder if lacking a nationality term affects the degree to which people identify with their country as a whole versus their specific home island?