Nothing is ordinary or predictable in Brian Samuel’s autobiography Song for My Father.
With the exception of Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog, I can’t recall any book I’ve read in this genre that is so laugh-aloud funny. But Samuel’s story is one up on Knight’s for its ability to tackle serious, uncomfortable topics through humour.
From the prologue, Samuel blends mystery, tension and humour, beginning with the opening conversation between himself and students in England questioning him about why his mother is not present in his life.
Samuel points out that no one would have bothered to ask about his missing mother in Trinidad, but it baffles boys in England. His mother has a looming presence in the autobiography, even though she doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the story.
Creating a major character out of someone who is missing is challenging to pull off, and Samuel does it as well as Joseph Conrad did with Kurtz, who makes his appearance near the end of Heart of Darkness.
Samuel explores important themes of survival, family and belonging in a personal story that shatters stereotypes and transcends boundaries.
In an interview he describes himself as “an economist by training, jack-of-all-trades by inclination. I've worked in shipping, agriculture, aquaculture, tourism, and project financing; and now I consult on all the above. While building my house. And sailing. And biking. And...” He also calls himself the “quintessential nomad…Thus far I've lived in ten countries, and moved from one country to the next a total of 22 times, in 69 years.”
Remarkably, Samuel said his autobiography was originally only meant to tell his family’s story to the new generation coming up. He hadn’t considered a wider audience.
“It started out as a collection of old photographs, with a narrative attached to each, and it just kept on growing. Also, friends have always marvelled at our unique family journey, and urged me to put it on paper.”
He said it took him two decades to write, and he finished it during the pandemic.
This endless cycle of moving to other countries makes Song for My Father a defining story for third-culture kids, born in one place and living in a succession of other places. They are common in today’s world, but were unusual for Samuel’s generation, when West Indians migrated to settle in Canada, the US or England.
For Samuel there is anger, disappointment and confusion in this whirlwind life, but the problems and challenges do not outweigh constant adventures captured in brilliant imagery, natural dialogue, relatable conflicts, and subtle nuances that show rather than tell this compelling story. Even names tell a story. His father name is Darwin and his two brothers are Tom and Gerry.
This is a coming-of-age story that creates many questions for Samuel and readers to answer. Why does his mother abandon the family with no warning? What do survival and a sense of belonging mean when you’re constantly moving? Can you grow up happy without having roots in the place you were born? Are you more worldly or less connected if you constantly move? These are questions I often wondered about when I worked in an international school for 30 years.
Samuel is a natural storyteller, adeptly weaving pertinent world history through a very personal story. I especially enjoyed the story of Darwin’s friendship with Eric Gairy before he became the Grenadian Prime Minister.
Each anecdote reveals the irony of a situation and transcends his personal experiences to paint a larger, universal picture. Samuel possesses enough confidence as a writer to allow his story to show its meaning, usually through well-crafted anecdotes, rather than explaining events to readers. One of the most poignant examples is the one in which his father, crossing the Atlantic, and other West Indians are put out of their decent cabins and into a stuffy, cramped room, which conjures up images of the Middle Passage, to make room for white passengers. The ship is caught in a storm that wipes out the cabin and washes away the passengers who took his father’s place.
Samuel comes from a family that defied stereotypes. His grandfather, Endee, was a rare landowner in Grenada. He is astute and progressive, but clashes with his son Darwin, a free spirit who constantly defies expectations. Here we get a picture of how colonialism and a colonial education affected families in the West Indies.
Samuel writes, “The Caribbean’s loyalty to Britain wasn’t particularly surprising, given the effective job the Empire had done for centuries in brainwashing its subjects.”
He wry humour captures class differences during the war.
“In Grenada, the first impact of the war was food. Overnight there were shortages of staples like rice and flour, Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Fray Bentos Corned Beef. But these shortages only affected the middle class. Country folk had lived off the land and sea all their lives, war or no war.”
Samuel weaves together his own observations with excerpts from his grandfather’s diary and father’s letters, adding layers to the story personally and historically. Somehow, they manage to blend seamlessly together.
We see how colonialism affects politics, culture and family as Darwin’s generation breaks with colonial traditions still entrenched in Samuel’s grandfather’s generation. Samuel shows how families and culture are dynamic and subject to outside influences.
Darwin breaks with the tradition of aiming for a job as a lawyer or doctor, rarely achievable anyway, and goes to England to work during the war. He returns to Grenada during the Windrush era. Darwin always seems to be operating against the tide. There are always twists and unexpected turns in his choices that affect his sons' lives.
Then there’s Samuel’s absent Scottish mother, who provides the opportunity for the author to touch on the challenges of interracial relationships at a time when they were rare and unaccepted. The scenes between Samuel’s mother and his Grenadian grandfather are funny and revealing.
Samuel’s anecdotes make this a memorable autobiography, one of the best I have ever read for its honesty, unique tone, natural dialogue and brilliant structure. Be forewarned, you have no idea what shocking revelations are coming your way when you read Song for my Father – particularly when Samuel finally meets his mother later in life.
This is a book that should be used for CXC and CAPE literature – yes, nonfiction is literature – Caribbean history and Caribbean studies, because it creates an understanding of literary elements and history in a whole new light.
You can hear Samuel talk about his book today at 11 am (Sunday) at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest when he joins Ira Mathur and Simone Dalton in a panel discussion on writing personal stories chaired by Newsday's Paula Lindo at the National Library on Abercromby Street.