A Review of Island Wings: A Memoir

During the 50s and 60s—after the Second World War, before independence—hundreds of Barbadians left their island home for countries like England, the United States, Canada. They left in search of a better life they felt they could not or would not achieve if they stayed in Barbados.

Some of these expatriates succeeded brilliantly in their quests, distinguishing their country of birth (Barbados broke away peacefully from Britain in 1966) as much as themselves. Others were less fortunate. All faced hardships: racism, joblessness, the cold comforts of an alien environment.

There were those who left behind families: little children, some barely able to walk, babes in arms. This was not so unusual. Their parents were to send for them once settled in their new homes.

But even if the hardships these expatriates faced have been amply chronicled in works by, say, Barbadian-Canadian writer Austin Clarke, the story of those "left behind" has not often been told.

Cecil Foster's Island Wings: A Memoir (Harper Collins, 313 pp., 1998) is one of those rare instances. A member of those left behind by parents who migrated to England, the Toronto-based writer offers an account of how he (and his two older brothers) dealt with their abandonment. Or, perhaps, this book is about how he is still dealing with it. He was less than two when his mother, following his father, left him in the care of his paternal grandmother.

Although the author of three other novels (No Man in the House, Sleep On, Beloved and Slammin' Tar) and two non-fiction books (A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada and Caribana: The Greatest Celebration), Foster is only 45. His growing oeuvre aside, it is rather early for a memoir; at least, for one that aims to sum up the decisions and actions of a lifetime.

Yet Foster, after working through the trauma of his separation from his parents and their eventual reunion 21 years later, has more questions than answers, which doesn't seem to vex him at all—or, in fact, the reader. Island Wings is more about how things happen, and how strange it is the way they happen, much less about the whys and wherefores.

In his deliberately plain, reportorial prose, Foster offers useful, general observations (reflections might be too strong a word) on the way things were during his childhood and still are today in Barbados. Then, as now, government jobs were coveted, too many men were bullies ("their claim to fame usually [corresponding] to how much they hurt people, whether strangers or family"), class snobbery was reflected in the school system, and poverty was a serious problem. With his parents over and away, sending what little they could in pounds and provisions until they couldn't anymore, life was truly a struggle on Lodge Road in Christ Church. When he went to live with his matemal grandmother, his circumstances improved but remained uncompromising. Foster and his brothers, ever each other's keeper, were forced to become men barely out of short pants.

Despite an inelegant rhetorical style and odd lapses (Barbados' population was not a quarter of a million in 1966; Martinque's most famous poet was Aimé Césaire) Foster manages to conjure a society, convey its conventions. If a problem with his story is that he recounts it cautiously from a distance—"I remember wearing my best school clothes..." instead of "I was wearing my best school clothes..."—events and incidents nevertheless pile up to form a whole, telling, poignant picture of coming of age during a time of transformation and revolution in the Caribbean. He was both privileged and challenged to be young and alive during the birth of his nation. Chapter 6, New Roads and Politics, about his awakening to the cultural and artistic possibilities of the world being formed around him, is one of the more engaging ones.

As in his first novel, No Man in the House, education was the road to salvation. After leaving Harrison College, Foster became a secondary school teacher. He had shown an aptitude for composition from youth, so taught English. Three months later, though, discouraged by his ineffectiveness, he gave up the jeers of the classroom for the hustle of Reuters' (later to become CANA'S) newsroom, signing on as a cub reporter and editor for the wire service. Actually, the professions weren't far apart in his mind: "I had always looked on journalism as a form of education...in terms of helping people become better citizens and aware of their circumstances....”

Foster eventually landed at the Barbados Advocate, where a scandal over one of his front-page stories caused him to flee his job, the late Prime Minister Tom Adams and the country—presumably for his life—to his brother in Toronto. His account of the scandal is intriguing. It is generally agreed by Barbadians there was something sinister about Adams and his autocratic style of government.

Still, the facts, as presented, suggest Foster was as much a victim of his own inexperience and enthusiasm. He doesn't support his side of the story with enough verifiable evidence that he did not misquote one of Adams' minister's in print. He also makes some erroneous assumptions, particularly about parliamentary practices and the reaction of The Nation newspaper's political analyst, Albert Brandford, to the affair. It wasn't until he was 23 that Foster saw his parents again.

It was, predictably, an awkward occasion. He finds his mother, who studied nursing, living in cramped conditions with five children, and his father, once one of Barbados' brightest musicians, virtually a broken man estranged from his family. And, as he notes early in the book, "what words did you use...to address parents with whom you had never had a conversation?"

That said, Foster avoids undue bitterness. Maybe this is because he has done so well for himself in his adopted country. Whatever the reason, his meeting with his mother generates some of the best writing in the book; honest, immediate, tender, and, finally, sure: "The time had just slipped by. We had explained, laughed, confided and blamed. We had gotten angry at fate and circumstances. We had praised those who stepped in to fill the voids in our lives." In his flight, and to his credit, Foster uses his island wings not just to rise above fate and circumstances, but also to embrace and forgive them if not forget their high cost.

This review first appeared as “Flight from Paradise” in The Antigonish Review #121 (2000).