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«“The Biggest Callaloo Anybody Ever See”: Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace Giselle A. Rampaul The University of the West Indies CALLALOO A typical ...»

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Postcolonial Text, Vol 4 No 1 (2008)

“The Biggest Callaloo Anybody Ever See”: Robert

Antoni’s Divina Trace

Giselle A. Rampaul

The University of the West Indies


A typical West Indian potpourri, its name is an old Arawak word, served traditionally

on Sunday.


1 big armful dasheen leaves (an indigenous swamp plant)

12 African okras

1 cp. coconut milk

12 crabs

½ lb. saltbeef, or nice hambone 1 clove garlic touch of East Indian curry, seasoning 1 big basin boiling water Scald crabs and scrub well. Soak and cut up saltbeef. Wash dasheen leaves and strip off stalks and midribs. Wash and cut up okras. Put dasheen leaves in rapidly boiling water (this gives them their rich, dasheen-green colour). Add remaining ingredients and simmer until soft, about 3-4 hours. Stir thoroughly. Do not remove meat from crabs: West Indians prefer to spend the afternoon picking them clean and sucking them dry. Other ingredients may be added as desired: bhaji, bodi, bluefood, cassava, eddoes, tanya, greenfigs. Plantain, pigeonpeas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, dumplings, and all ground provisions. Any and everything goes into a good callaloo.

Serve with endless foofoo. (Antoni 317-18) Callaloo is central to an understanding of Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace.

In fact, the recipe for the dish, as it appears above, is included in the text as one of the many types of discourses sewn together to create this eclectic and unconventional narrative. This dish, made up of various ingredients, becomes a metaphor for this text in which discourses and stories converge and diverge to construct the myth of Magdalena Divina, the central character. Callaloo may be seen as a metaphor for the West Indian identity that is associated with heterogeneity, hybridization and indigenousness, but the comparison is sufficiently complicated to simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) represent homogeneity, fusion and integration.

This mixture is evident not only in the racial and cultural diversity of the fictional island of Corpus Christi in which the story is set, but also in the structure and the experimental nature of the narrative. An encyclopaedic wealth of information from science, religion, history, literature and the arts is integrated into a veritable potpourri. It is for these reasons that I regard Divina Trace a “callaloo narrative.” Although Antoni’s Corpus Christi is fictional, it is modeled on the island of Trinidad which is perhaps most associated with callaloo. This is especially obvious through the place names that are very similar to many toponyms in Trinidad if not through the similar racial composition of the island. Trinidad has been associated with callaloo in other writings as well. Aisha Khan in her book Callaloo Nation: Metaphors of Race and Religious Identity among South Asians in Trinidad, and Viranjini Munasinghe in Callaloo or Tossed Salad?: East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad, for example, use the metaphor to represent multiculturalism, variety and syncretism—the recipe above points out that “[a]ny and everything goes into a good callaloo” (Antoni 318). But the recipe also characterizes the dish as “typical[ly] West Indian” suggesting that hybridity is a shared feature of the West Indian islands, not only Trinidad. Other West Indian islands do have variants of the callaloo dish—for example, Guyana’s pepperpot—so Divina Trace seems to be concerned not only in attempting to define Trinidadian culture and identity, but also that of the West Indies as a whole. As Claude LéviStrauss observes, “the cooking of a society is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure” (595). Khan, Munasinghe and LeviStrauss all show the close connection between food and reading culture.

The recipe characterizes West Indian identity as a mixture of diversity and indigenousness as callaloo is described as a “potpourri” of which the main ingredient is “an indigenous swamp plant” (Antoni 317). The recipe further mentions three distinct culinary influences—Arawak, African and East Indian. As Brinda Mehta argues, “the recipes for the preparation of creole food reflect an inherent hybridization of different culinary experiences and styles” (124) —elsewhere referred to as “creative ‘masalafication’” (119)—and “spices [...] communicate an important lesson in cultural and racial harmony by showing how the blending of spices from different culinary traditions can produce an even more appetizing curry, colombo or callaloo” (118). According to Linda Brown and Kay Mussell, foodways define identity and “celebrate cultural cohesion” (5), and Dean Karpowicz argues that Divina Trace “creates identity as well as represents it culturally” (“Postmodern Collective”).

This is done through the metaphor of the callaloo dish.

In an interview with Michelle Caswell, Munasinghe furthermore discloses that Trinidadian East Indian descendants object to the metaphor because “[t]hey argued that since the ingredients making up the ‘callaloo’ are boiled down to an indistinguishable mush, the original ingredients lose their respective identities and blend into one homogeneous taste” (qtd. in “The Indian Community”). Although the dish in this description represents fusion rather than heterogeneity, this idea is also important to the text’s construction of a West Indian identity that is at times also represented as “an indistinguishable mush.” The hybrid nation that the callaloo metaphor is meant to reflect and describe is more than just the result of the influence and confluence of different cultural traditions. It becomes, by virtue of the tangling and interweaving of these various 2 Postcolonial Text Vol 4 No 1 (2008) strands, a new space, a new identity, difficult to define and to describe.

The difficulty in determining whether callaloo represents multiculturalism or fusion is reflected in the motif of distortion in the text, revealed in the very narration of the stories where truth is twisted and difficult, if not impossible, to decipher: “Antoni offers a world in which parentage is confounded, one can be just a little bit pregnant, and deformities are literally reborn as perfections” (Matos “Meiotic Fictions”). This concept of distortion that appears and is developed throughout the narrative helps to construct West Indian culture and identity as complex and indefinable indeed.

The stories in the text centre on Magdalena’s origins, her life and her death. Magdalena herself becomes a symbol of the cultural diversity and fusion of Corpus Christi since she is modeled according to and embraced

by the different religious groups in the island as Papee Vince narrates:

[S]he had already come to each of we individually in we time of need: to the Pañyols as Divina Pastora, to the Amerindians as Akambo-Mah, to the Africans as Mamma Latay, to the East Indians as Kali Mai. Now she came to all of we collected and together as Magdalena Divina. (377) She resembles the Virgin Mary in many ways—not least by her imperforate hymen after pregnancy, which suggests a sort of “immaculate conception”—but she is also associated with Mary Magdalene, while the retelling of the Ramayana associates her with the Hindu Goddess Sita. She becomes, then, “a deity whose roots cannot be clearly traced to just a single source; she is the syncretic result of historical entanglement, of the confluence of cultures in a new ‘whirled’ space” (Dalleo 29).1 Even her appearance symbolizes the different racial and religious groups: “at first glance this Magdalena looks no different from all the little half-coolie, half-Creole, half-Warrahoon, half-so-and-so little callaloos running around” (Antoni 36). According to Evelina, however, “she is a white woman [...]. White white and beautiful and fair as morning sweet self— never mind what foolishness you hear bout she being a callaloo mix up with coolie and Creole and Warrahoon and every kind of blood with blood, Papamoi!” (Antoni 71). These varying descriptions of Magdalena as well as the inconsistency in the accounts of her origin, life and death (as well as that of her frog-child which may—or may not—have been an anencephalic foetus) create a great sense of mystery around this character, and the text seems to be as much about piecing together her identity as it is about showing the impossibility of doing so: “Is this Magdalena an ordained nun, a married woman, or a consecrated whore? And the answer Raphael Dalleo also examines the family tree that begins the novel only to show that the lineage, not only of Magdalena, but also of almost all of the major characters is suspect, “turn[ing] the straightforward Domingo family tree into a crisscrossed spider web.” Saadiqa Khan further points out that the inaccuracy of the family tree highlights the fact that many of the members of the Domingo family may be products of miscegenation (24Perhaps this is why Divina Trace could be regarded “an ethnologically promiscuous text” (Benitez-Rojo 189).

3 Postcolonial Text Vol 4 No 1 (2008) [...] is obvious enough: she is all three” (49). In fact, as Papee Vince points out, “the most salient feature of this black Madonna [Magdalena] [.

..] is she universality, the all-embracing all-comprehending expansiveness of she great love” (347). The textual figure, the callaloo, is therefore enriched in its multiple meanings, and in its definitions of West Indian identity, by the passage in which her disfigured “crapo-child” is

supposedly boiled and served at Christmas dinner:

It is the biggest callaloo anybody ever see and anybody who taste it say it is the best they ever eat. We are all gather round the table for this big Christmas dinner [...] and when these boys start to eat they can never stop, that soon I begin to think this story will no finish a-tall before they burst. All you can hear in the house is slup slup slup with the spoons scraping the bowls, and pass some more of that callaloo please! (418) The otherwise repulsive crapo-child, disfigured and distorted as its features are, becomes the main ingredient that makes a callaloo so delicious that none of the boys can have his fill. Perhaps the text suggests, then, that the dissolving of the boundaries in West Indian societies, although it involves distortion of the parent cultures and identities, results in the creation of a new cultural space that is defined by the very difficulty of defining it.

This is also reflected in the Carnival of Corpus Christi on which the main events of the text centre. Corpus Christi’s Carnival is analogous to the Trinidadian Carnival, but because it is celebrated on Holy Thursday, it represents a festival in which “several important elements of Christian doctrine and worship—the Mass, the Blessed Virgin, the Passion—come into play” (Patteson 156). Despite these Christian aspects, this Carnival is also obviously influenced by the different racial and cultural groups of the island in the same way that the callaloo dish is. Papee Vince tells Johnny, [T]his Catholic carnival, this fete with which you have come to identify yourself, did not originate as any kind of Catholic carnival a-tall. Quite to the contrary. Because it was not taken over by the Catholics of Corpus Christi until much later, as initially it was a Hindu and Shango fete: a festival of East Indian and African origin. [...] Furthermore: the original Corpus Christi Day did not take place on Corpus Christi Day a-tall. That is to say, it did not occur on Holy Thursday, but on Good Friday: the day of Christ’s death. The day when all the East Indians and Creoles and Warahoons went into the Catholic church to take up Magdalena, parading her joyous through the streets, resurrecting her up to take He place. It was a day known not as Corpus Christi, but as the Day of Suparee K Mai: the Day of Mother Kali, Black Hindu Goddess of Death and Destruction. (349) Edouard Glissant’s poetics of relating might be applicable here as he defines Caribbean poetics as a tension between sameness and diversity.

The text constructs a world of diversity and heterogeneity through its inclusion of various traditions and religious backgrounds, but it simultaneously dissolves boundaries and differences by creating festivals that are all-embracing and celebrated by all.

This complex description of West Indian identity is also reflected in the linguistic structure of Antoni’s text. Divina Trace is a prime example of M.M. Bakhtin’s “heteroglossia” or “many-voicedness” since there are 4 Postcolonial Text Vol 4 No 1 (2008) multiple narrators (some not even alive), each with his/ her particular idiolect and worldview. Because the “same” story is told and re-told throughout the text by different characters, this leads critics such as Rhonda Cobham to regard the novel “an exasperating and tedious experience” (49), and Gustavo Perez Firmat to argue that “at times [...] sweet-tasting callaloo [turns] into a bewildering hodgepodge.” However, the constant retelling is important and necessary as the very idea of truth is challenged and the end result, according to David Lichtenstein, is a “heterogeneous and nonlinear narrative” that constructs the Caribbean “not as a single unit, but rather a diverse conglomeration of characters and cultures” (“Hypertext and Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace”). Binaries cannot exist in the text, and if they do as in the case of science and religion, they are constructed only to be demolished through ingenious syncretism, or to be proven inadequate as explanations of events. As Lichtenstein further argues, “one’s conception of any character/subject as unified or homogenous becomes problematic” (“Hypertext and Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace”). In fact, Antoni, in an interview with Peter Josyph, explains that the Warrahoon “Na-me-na-na-ha! Na-me-na-na-ha!

Na-me-na-na-ha!” at the end of the first paragraph of the novel translates to “I don’t understand! I don’t understand! I don’t understand!” a most appropriate way, in his opinion, to begin the text (qtd. in “Walking Down”).

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