Shalini Puri, The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory

(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 358 pp., $75

Because of the trauma of the Grenada Revolution, beginning with the relatively bloodless coup of March 13, 1979, punctured by the tragic and bloody executions of October 19, 1983, and ending with the US invasion of October 25, 1983, Grenadians have come to feel protective of their country in a time of ongoing national grief; protective of its past, its present and its future. For these reasons Shalini Puri’s book is especially valuable. It is a sensitive telling of the sad and tragic story of the making and unmaking of the Grenada Revolution.

This is not so much a history book as it is a book about history – those who make history and those who are made by history. It goes beyond the official investigations, reports and findings and tells the story of the Grenada Revolution from the perspectives of those who lived it and who died by it and for it. The author employs Marxist methodology to sculpt a memory and a legacy for the post-revolutionary Grenadian people. Speaking dialectically she wants the book to “contribute to remembering possible futures” (277).

Puri also speaks of serendipity or what she calls “the momentous role of accident” (96) in relation to the spontaneous decision taken by Maurice Bishop on the day his followers liberated him from house arrest and carried him on their shoulders to his freedom, and moments later, to his death. He was expected to go to Market Square to address the gathered masses and reassure them that all was well. But instead of going to the square he turned left and went up the hill to Fort Rupert, where he entered the armory and reportedly began to distribute weapons to his followers. Meanwhile, the forces loyal to Bernard Coard, who controlled the Central Committee of the Party (the New Jewel Movement, NJM) after purging Bishop’s supporters, appeared poised to retaliate. Suddenly shots rang out and in the “crossfire” Bishop, 15 close comrades, and dozens of faceless and nameless others were executed while several leapt off the cliff to their certain deaths. Three decades after the bloodletting, it is still unclear who shot whom and the wound is still open; the whereabouts of the bodies of Bishop and his comrades are still unknown. There remains collective culpability of the Grenada 17, who were arrested on murder charges, tried, convicted, sentenced to death and then released, but no individual has taken responsibility for the killings.

More than merely getting the ‘facts’ right, however, Puri reflects on the events surrounding October 19, 1983, and asks what they signify for the future of the Caribbean Left. She wonders whether the growing authoritarianism within the Party, along with the increasing militarization of the society, made the events of October 19 inevitable. In other words, what she offers is not a facile Left versus Right, socialist versus capitalist ideological stand-off, but a call for an honest assessment of “the anguish of the Caribbean Left” (156). For as the NJM transitioned “from movement to Party,” internal bickering and personality politics surfaced, elitism and vanguardism entered the equation, and shortly thereafter, as “the Party mistook itself for the Revolution” (82), the alienation of the masses ensued and the stage was set for disaster.

Unlike many other narrators, what Puri tells is not “a Left vs. Right story, but an intra-Left story” (8), which offers a serious lesson to those involved in Left politics in the region. She is keen to aver that Marxism-Leninism cannot be force-fed to ‘the people.’ Thus, a major mistake of the revolutionaries was that “…Marxism was taught as a formula and not as a tradition of debate” (96-97). Many “…supporters of the Revolution were not Marxists at all, but rather saw themselves as contributing to a national-popular project” (272), and given the dependent capitalist and Christian backdrop of the Revolution, many ordinary people “were either uninterested in socialism or suspicious of it” (39). The undoing of the Revolution, therefore, as Coard himself admitted, was precisely its elitism and its not taking clear steps to develop into a mass party after seizing power.

Puri focuses on the complex question of memory as a window onto history and describes Stone memory, or official memory as represented in monuments, statues, official holidays, naming of buildings, streets and even the national airport (Maurice Bishop International Airport). These are treated as sites of struggle, and indeed, it was not until 2009 that a political decision was taken to rename the airport in memory of the slain Prime Minister. Because remembering is dialectically tied to forgetting, both are treated as political acts, and narrative becomes crucial. This is why today “The Grenada Revolution forms no part of the history curriculum taught in Grenadian public schools” (9). On the other hand, October 25, 1983, the day of the US invasion, is known widely as Thanksgiving Day in Grenada and is a national holiday. Stone memory, then, represents official, sanitized, political memory. Puri, however, wants to problematize the notion of ‘truth’ and advances the idea of ‘truth’ as socially constructed.

The Grenada Revolution challenges the veracity of Stone memory and aims to complicate it by inserting something called Volcanic memory alongside it. Volcanic memory speaks to the relationship between history and suppressed memory and echoes Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences.”1 In this view volcanic memory is subjective, episodic, unpredictable, unrehearsed, empowering and unpredictable, and ties in with the author’s goal to amplify the eloquent silences of history, “to mobilize memory for egalitarian politics in the present” (8). Volcanic memory is linked to grief and acknowledges that both remembering and forgetting are tied to the subjective, lived experiences of all human beings. Today Grenadians of all walks of life are living witnesses to the power of truth that is released when volcanic memory erupts.

There are many volcanic ‘truths,’ that are often missed by historians, and are not archived or memorialized. But because remembering and forgetting involve the politics of recall and are tied to the on-going national trauma, Puri speaks of “the particular articulations and structuring silences of memory that I have encountered in Grenada” (23). The politics of recall is like all other political processes and involves power: the power to recall and to redefine a past, to socially construct a memory in such a way that one’s version is accepted as true.

This said, Shalini Puri’s reception by the Grenadian people of all social classes and political factions is nothing short of remarkable, for Puri is an outsider; she is not even Caribbean and in a world where patriarchy rules, she is young and female. Owing to her outsider status, the physical, emotional and cultural distance makes this book all the more rich. The Grenada Revolution was a personal experience for Grenadians. It affected all aspects of their daily routines at work, at school, at play and at the market. It informed and transformed their culture. The Grenada Revolution improved the lives of ordinary people physically, politically and emotionally.  They were better fed, educated and medically attended, they were politically validated as masters in their own home, and the dismissive label of small-islanders that Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Barbadians and Guyanese so often sought to pin on them was decisively cast off. For Puri, writing three decades after the murders of the NJM leadership and the US invasion, the process is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of ordinary Grenadians. And this is why she makes memory, understood politically, the key organizing theme of her book.

She traces memory via various sources and channels: official investigations, reports and findings; the voices of popular culture, especially the lyrics of the calypsonians; the various commemorations, dedications and naming of buildings, streets, and monuments; narratives of participants in the Revolution; the novels and poems of revolutionaries; the testimonies and apologies of prisoners and prison guards, who were once comrades and then became the jailers of their comrades; comments from Grenadians in the diaspora; and reactions from leaders and scholars in neighbouring Caribbean countries. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history, politics, philosophy, sociology and pain of the Caribbean.

Reviewed by Anton L. Allahar
Sociology Department, Western University
London, Ontario
allahar@uwo.ca

Note

1. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 27.

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