This picks up where the previous installments of Antigua and Barbuda Literary Works Reviewed pages left off (use the search feature to the right to dig them up). As with those earlier pages, it features reviews about A & B writings that I come across as I dig through my archives or surf the web. You’re welcome to send any credible/professional reviews that you come across as well. They’re not in any particular order, I just add them as I add them; some will be old, some will be new. It’s all shared in an effort to underscore, emphasize, and insist on Antigua and Barbuda’s presence in the Caribbean literary canon.
“Musical Youth is beautifully written. It is a pride to Caribbean young adult fiction. Though it addresses a strong and very real social issue, the writer skillfully educates you while she takes you back to the innocence of school days in the Caribbean.” – Vanessa Salazar at Poui Publishing and Productions
“This sweeping and engaging novel addresses a multitude of issues including the social, political, cultural, romantic, religious, economic, and indeed ideological and psychological understandings relating to the villagers of Sea View Farm….Speaking of men and women, Oh Gad!is populated with a brilliant and striking cast of characters.” – ‘Oh Gad! A Pastoral Panorama of Fictional Narratives’ by Mali Olatunji, aesthetician who worked for 21 years as one of three fine arts photographers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; co-author of The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda – in the 2014 edition of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books
“I give it an A+ for (among other things) capturing in a very interesting way the tentative attraction and growing relationship of boy and girl in the teen years, as well as affirmation of how friends can help one another over some of the uncertainties and humps of those turbulent years.” – children and YA author, Jamaican Hazel Campbell (RIP) re Musical Youth
“Hillhouse’s authorial voice is lyrical and descriptive. The interactions of this extended and blended family, along with their respective communities in Antigua and the United States provide a range of interesting perspectives that are expressed in characteristic dialogue of their regions. The universe of this novel is not only populated with intergenerational and multi-cultural characters but also with connections to ancestors and newborns. Compellingly, the complexity and depth of Oh Gad!is well disguised as easy beach reading with the usual soap opera formula of romance, political intrigue, family feuds, and the like. In this way, Hillhouse masterfully transports us back and forth from our modernity into the mythic yet real seat of Antiguan culture. What we find there is fascinating.” – Leah Creque-Harris in Caribbean Vistas FULL REVIEW HERE
“It’s well written, characters well drawn, all the things one would expect. I enjoyed it. Most important, I think the YA readers will enjoy it.” – Diane Browne re Musical Youth
“I have to admit that I was once weary of reading Caribbean fiction because they tend to get dark quickly and I don’t read books to be depressed. I am pleased to say that Joanne’s Musical Youth was refreshing and uplifting.” – Marsha Gomes-McKie
The relationship between Shaka and Zahra is fused by music, loss, and a search for personal identity. As a writer, Hillhouse brilliantly manages to weave their story of personal growth so effortlessly that the great energy between the two creates sparks.” – Camille L. Cortes Lopez, University of Puerto Rico in The Caribbean Writer Volume 30, 2016 (on Musical Youth)
“I applaud her for her commitment to her roots, and while Elizabeth Nunez claims that Hillhouse is “a pretty brave soul” (NPR Books), I regard Hillhouse as the visionary who prepares the soil for Antigua and Barbuda’s future literary scene.” – from a 2017 paper presented at the Antigua Conference by Valerie Knowles Combie
“Joanne C. Hillhouse’s Musical Youth is an excellent portrayal of two young people’s coming-of-age in their native Antigua and Barbuda. Narrated through the author’s brilliance as an observer of youth and as a prose stylist, the book describes the collective involvement of cultural pride with commitment and leadership to produce a meaningful life for an island community.…This coming-of-age story is grounded and set in the author’s native Antigua and Barbuda, with its idiosyncracies and cultural activities, which are at the novel’s core.…The unforgettable themes, setting, language, and actions make this coming-of-age story a must read.” – Rite of Passage Enhanced through Community Involvement by Valerie Knowles Combie in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 10 Number 1 Summer 2017
Reviews of works by Jamaica Kincaid, Althea Prince, Marie Elena John, and Joanne C. Hillhouse en espanol (attempted translations of excerpts below).
“Never in my life have I met a female protagonist like the one in Autobiography of My Mother…I was fascinated.” (re Jamaica Kincaid)
“This author explores being Black and the political and social considerations that this entails. In fact, she edited a very cool book called In the Black: New African Canadian Literature that I have been using to select my authors…she has a book called Ladies of the Night. I really didn’t love it but I find it an interesting book. The stories revolve around women who are in very different social conditions and situations. Some of the stories are set in Antigua and Barbuda and others are located in Canada. Worth reading.” (re Althea Prince)
“When I approached this book, I came across a well done family saga…I really liked the aspects of miscegenation, mysticism…in general very good.” (re Marie Elena John’s Unburnable)
“It is a very cute little book about a seal that has an adventure at sea and it was very nice to find an author who doesn’t underestimate children in a way of approaching the subjects…it was quite refreshing to find in this book a little bit of that search for identity and find a place in this beautiful and vast world. It also talks about self-discovery and respect for differences. They are important issues.” (re Joanne C. Hillhouse’s Lost a Caribbean Sea Adventure)
“In reality, however, much like “Girl,” Party has layers. It functions as a subtle message about what it means to witness horror to such a degree that we lose our language for it; it is a quiet story about coming of age, suddenly, as a young black girl because of what the world shows us. It is about the many words our silence can hold, the way our absences can ring as loudly and discordantly as the words we do feel able to say.” Party review at Lit Hub
“Published in 2017, the short story ‘The Other Daughter’ by Joanne C. Hillhouse fits the literary movement we call Postmodernism. Postmodernist works can be recognised through themes, context, and narrative techniques. In ‘The Other Daughter’, we notice that the author explores the theme of feeling like an outcast, isolated from the world one lives in, which is often explored in postmodernist stories.
In terms of postmodernist narrative techniques, ‘The Other Daughter’ plays around with the distinction between fact and fiction by letting the narrator tell two different versions of the same story, but at the same time letting the reader know that one version is fictional. Playing around with the ordinary rules of storytelling like this is very typical for postmodern works.” – this is not a review, it is, however, a summary, analysis, themes and messages, and perspectives of elements of the story and its structure at studienet.dk (related: Denmark has included the story as a question in its national assessment for secondary school); read the original story at Adda
Excerpt: “Dreamland Barbuda is a quick read (very quick, with roughly 2/3s of it being taken up by the bibliography and appendices), and for this time in the history of Antigua and Barbuda, an essential one.”
This page has grown fairly quickly, so I’m breaking it up in to two pages.For A – G, go here, for H – N, go here, for U – Z, go here, and for books, go here.This is exclusively for creative pieces by Antiguans and Barbudans accepted to established literary journals, festivals (and other notable literary platforms), and contests (not pieces posted only to personal blogs) as I discover (and in some cases, re-discover) them. Primarily, the focus is on pieces accessible online (i.e. linkable) because those are easiest to find; but it is not limited to these. It is intended as a record of our publications and presentation of creative works beyond sole authored books. Naturally, I’ll miss some things. You can recommend (in fact, I welcome your recommendations), but, as with all areas of the site, additions/subtractions are at the discretion of the admin.
“In the weeks between her death and being
Laid to rest, life became COVID-19.
Both the living and the dead shared one air.
Then the service came, and I was not there.
I watched from the safe distance of an app
As my mother and uncle, masked among
The masked few in a pewless space, made peace
With the orphans who’d come to take their place.
Looking at them on screen was like looking
Out at the world through the bars of a cage.”
PHILLIPS, ROWAN RICARDO – Screens (poetry) – The Night Heron Barks – 2020
PHILLIPS, ROWAN RICARDO – reading at Poets Out Loud – Fordham University – 2011
PRINCE, ALTHEA – How you Panty get wet? (fiction, from her book Ladies of the Night) – in Carnival is All We know: an Anthology Celebrating 50 Years of Antigua’s Carnival and the Creativity of Our Writers & Artists (edited by Joanne C. Hillhouse and published as a supplement in the Daily Observer) – 2007
RICHARDS, ROSALIE – Smitten – (poetry, 2012 award winning Wadadli Pen Challenge poem) – Tongues of the Ocean (special issue – Artists and Writers of Antigua and Barbuda edited by Joanne C. Hillhouse) – 2014
RICHARDS, ROSALIE – The Creation (fiction, 2006 award winning Wadadli Pen short story) – Anansesem (Wadadli Pen special edition) – 2011
RICHARDSON, BERNARD – ‘True Blue’ and ‘Colourful Smiles’ (visual art – photography) and 1996 band of the year award winning mas ‘Oh Barbuda!’ (visual art – costumes interpreting features like the frigate bird and Martello Tower) for Vitus Mas Troupe – in Carnival is All We know: an Anthology Celebrating 50 Years of Antigua’s Carnival and the Creativity of Our Writers & Artists (edited by Joanne C. Hillhouse and published as a supplement in the Daily Observer) – 2007
ROMEO-MARK, ALTHEA – Neighbour’s in the Wood Shack, Desiree’s Revenge, Flawless, Play-Mamas, and A Kind of Refuge/Living in Limbo (poetry) – Womanspeak: A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women, Volume 7 – 2013
ROMEO-MARK, ALTHEA – Burdened (poetry – which is quoted below along with six others) – Published in KRITYA Poetry Journal – 2012
Excerpt: “Everything is on her head. She trudges forward. A straw mat tops the aluminum basin filled with rescued essentials. Her face, veiled in dust, masks the fear beating her breast. Her feet, swollen from endless trooping, take her where others go. Carrying memories of death, she follows a long trek to nowhere, and pauses only to suckle the child strapped to her back.”
Excerpt: “They say if you come back they goin’ block the entrance to the church.” “For what? What I do to them?” “They say you make the man leave his wife of twenty years to marry you.” “But, that’s their business?” “They don’t see how Joseph could leave his wife to marry you. You know what they call you?” “What?” “Black, ugly, long mouth. . .”
Excerpt: “Bokrah man
lashing whip ‘pon bank.
lashing whip ‘pon back
done gone long time.”
ROSE, BLAIR A. – The Day I became a Man (fiction, 2006 award winning Wadadli Pen short story) – Anansesem (Wadadli Pen special edition) – 2011
S., CALVIN – ‘Animale’ (visual art – designer gown done in leopard print, worn by Kai Davis in 1998 when she won the Antigua Carnival Queen and 1999 when she won Ms. Caraval title in St. Vincent), ‘Le Papillon’ (visual art – designer gown worn by Jermilla Kirwan who won the best evening wear prize and the crown in the 1996 Antigua Carnival Queen competition), and ‘Rumours’ (visual art – designer gown worn in 1999 by Antigua Carnival Queen contestant Kim Phillips; Rumours was part of a theme chronicling a year of Jealousy, Rumours, Scandal, Fame, and Triumph) – Carnival is All We know: an Anthology Celebrating 50 Years of Antigua’s Carnival and the Creativity of Our Writers & Artists (edited by Joanne C. Hillhouse and published as a supplement in the Daily Observer) – 2007
SIMON, DAVID – Open Secrets (poetry) – in intersectantigua.com – 2020
SIMON, MONIQUE S. – Color of Love (poetry) – Calabash Volume 3 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2005
Excerpt: “It was night, so it was light Island light Home for the night light Man whispering to woman light Child teasing child ‘bout daytime, schoolyard game light Extension chord attached to hanging bulb over old wood tables with dominoes, cards, and checkerboards light Bob Marley, Short Shirt, King Obstinate, Charlie Pride, old-time calypso light Home from ‘de week doing live-in maid job light
It was night, so it was light carried like electric current throughout the night in the small village…
Tonight, Saturday night Bolans was dark but it was light, real light”
SIMON, MONIQUE S. – Raven in my Arms (poetry) – Calabash Volume 3 Number 2 Fall/Winter – 2005
SPENCER, CHARLENE – Stranger (poetry) – (p. 31) in The Caribbean Writer Volume 28 – 2014
TAYLOR, YORIE – You (poetry) – intersectantigua.com – 2020
THOMAS, DEVRA – Her Missing Fingers (fiction) – Tongues of the Ocean (special issue – Artists and Writers of Antigua and Barbuda edited by Joanne C. Hillhouse) – 2014
THOMAS, DEVRA – Sands and Butterflies (fiction, 2011 Wadadli Pen award winning story) – Anansesem (Wadadli Pen special issue) – 2011
TOBITT, WILLIAM ‘SHELLY’ – Look what they have done to my song (calypso) – in Carnival is All We know: an Anthology Celebrating 50 Years of Antigua’s Carnival and the Creativity of Our Writers & Artists (edited by Joanne C. Hillhouse and published as a supplement in the Daily Observer) – 2007
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Musical Youth, Oh Gad!, With Grace, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure/Perdida! Una Aventura en el Mar Caribe, and The Jungle Outside). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page onauthor blog and/or facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen, my books, and my freelance writing-editing-coaching-workshop services. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.
This is a review I wrote for the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, 2016 edition (to see my review of the Review, check Blogger on Books). To order copies of the Review or to subscribe email Paget_Henry@Brown.edu
I reproduce my review here. While you can excerpt and link with credit, it is not to be copied, pasted, published, or in any way used without my permission.
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
“Sometimes,” writes Mali Olatunji, in this book, appropriately dedicated to his elders, “even I have great difficulties in deciphering the pictorial or symbolic philosophy of some of my ‘Woodist Jumbie’ photographs” and this reader can’t help nodding in agreement and relief. Because the book is confounding at times, though I must say never boring or, for that matter, frustrating. How could it be with the artistry of the master artist, as he is described throughout by co-author Paget Henry, and the guidance of a sage such as Henry, de-constructing the images throughout? But the personality of the book is sometimes a perplexing mix – is it coffee table art book for the art-lite appreciator, a philosophical journey in image, a technical work with appeal to fellow photographers and aficionados; it is at times all these. The effect is that sometimes the commentary gets in the way of simple appreciation of the work, sometimes it leaves the reader feeling lost especially when what’s seen and what’s explained are at odds, and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary in bringing clarity to the artist’s vision and helping the reader make key connections. And so where does this fit, this book: among other art books? among instructional photography books? among philosophical tomes? or within easy reach in the section for pretty picture books? The challenge is that it doesn’t sit easily on any of these shelves – a marketing challenge to be sure. But marketing is not my business here. So I’ll talk perhaps about the things I find most interesting about this book.
The images I appreciate for their essential beauty. The philosophy that underpins them, this intriguing sense of an artist grappling with both an idea and a new technical language to speak it, is also interesting to me. And I absolutely love the Antiguan-ness of it – that it is fine, fine art that acknowledges the existence of the jumbie of African-Antiguan/Caribbean lore, defiantly inserts them into privileged spots usually occupied by the deities of Western mythology – Jesus in Da Vinci’s Last Supper for instance.
This book is significant on several levels. Consider, for instance, that the visionaries behind it – Olatunji and Henry – come from a small island in the Caribbean; and have both distinguished themselves as immigrants in that country so many hold on a pedestal, America, where Henry is head of Africana studies at Ivy-league university, Brown, and where Olatunji, though rooted in his African-livity, photographed and learned from the masters of western art for decades as the fine arts photographer at the Museum of Modern Art. I mention this not in a look at them aren’t they special way, but because I want to underscore that they then took all acquired there, and mixed it in with the ingredients that made them here, in Antigua, where folks had no choice but to be creative and inventive to make life. By so doing, they’ve brought that distinctive brew, articulated it as well as such a thing can be articulated, and offered it back to Antigua, though sadly an Antigua now more pre-occupied with looking out than looking within and celebrating its own creativity.
And so it is with some bitterness that Olatunji says in the book, “It is beyond doubt that contemporary Antiguans and Barbudans have already shifted from their African-Antiguan Distinctiveness to the adaptation of outside cultures. Our contemporary generation is fast becoming completely ‘follow-fashioned’…” And if that is so, it is good that this book exists as another record not of our folk history – as do books like Monica Matthews’ Journeycakes and Keithlyn and Fernando (and Papa Sammy) Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour – but as the articulation of a philosophy informed by home, Africa; nourished by the imagination, by the act of re-inventing ourselves here in Antigua; and which somehow also wouldn’t exist without some Western instruction as well.
This book is unique for these reasons, and for being daring enough to stare down the mockery of even acknowledging the existence of jumbie much less the audacity to build a visual and spiritual philosophy around them. To suggest that they are more than just the boogie man, to posit that they are instead the non-corporeal essence of our ancestors still with us, still looking on on things, still formulating opinions on things, still watching, still guiding, still seeing. Their opinions and feelings on the things they see, certainly as the photographer sees it, is communicated with the careful selection and application of grains of wood (and sometimes leaves). This is not just for-so. As, per the photographer’s own acknowledgement, given the belief that jumbies live/d in trees, this idea of their vision taking on a woodiness makes perfect sense. It’s one story any way, and he backs it up with striking and convincing imagery.
“Image 33: Nelson’s Dockyard 2” P. 55, The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.
I’ll talk here about some of my favourites.
There’s the cover image of the jambull/john bull, a fearsome creature we didn’t have to imagine as children as he was always part of the Carnival, charging the crowds, barely kept in check by the whip man, scrounging for the pennies thrown – a confusing narrative even now into adulthood. Recently when I posted a picture of late artist E. T. Henry’s impression of a John Bull on my facebook page (facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse), it got an origins conversation going, and no two theories were the same. Was the John Bull a stand in for ‘Great Britain’ per one narrative, was it a satirical character from the English imagination, or was it per the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda’s newsletter, which prompted the post, a masked African witch doctor being tended by the ‘Cattle Tender’? Olatunji’s image – which I remember first spotting many years ago, likely my introduction to the artist’s aesthetic, in the lobby of the Royal Antiguan Hotel – elevates the be-horned character to god like status as he hovers over the city at night. And I think that projection is intentional, the positioning suggesting that he has the freedom to move at will and to see all. There is no ‘cattle tender’ or bakkra in sight.
There’s the Slapping Hands image which has a whole back story, a story some of us grew up hearing about a girl who opened a book she shouldn’t have after being told not to. There’s even a related calypso – penned by the late great Marcus Christopher and sung by Eugene ‘Canary’ Henry all the way to the crown in 1960. In the Olatunji image we see several ghostly hands coming at the subject, whose eyes are wide in undisguised horror. Who knows what the real story behind this bit of local lore is – though Glen Toussaint does a good job of chronicling it at his blog Dat Bwoi for Jackie as part of his series on regional folklore of the, shall we say, superstitious variety. As with these things, even his version leaves question marks: “Some say that she was going insane, slapping herself, others claimed it was in fact a Jumbie attacking her. Whatever it was, the hand prints on her face were clear enough…” And whatever it was Olatunji’s Slapping Hands does as good a job of capturing it visually as anyone could. What strikes me as I consider this image and Glen’s accounting is, no modern Antiguan would perhaps admit to believing in much less seeing a jumbie…but they’re not prepared to discount the possibility… for fear of vexing the very jumbie they’re not prepared to declare they actually believe exists.
Olatunji, of course, shows his hand i.e. declares his belief, with this book. It’s a bold move.
Olatunji is not a fan, I think it’s fair to say, of the term used throughout by Henry – “painterly photography” – but it’s hard to describe another of my favourite images, Eyeing the Groundswell, as anything but. It is a beautiful image and the strokes laid by the bark overlaying the beach scene has the brain instinctively categorizing it as a painting rather than a picture. It is not something documented – as people tend to think of photographs – but something conceived; the realm of the imagination, artistry, painting (though of course, within that conceit is the dismissal of photography as something innately outside the realm of the imagination, artistry, painting, and perhaps that implied dismissal of the fact that he’s contemplating shutter speeds and depth of field rather than oils and brush strokes is what vexes Olatunji). Olatunji attempts to address this tension when Henry gives him the last word in the book. He writes, that paintings are a “referent” of the artist’s inner self while photographs are “light-reflected creations from a surface or a state being”. That being the case, he must conclude, but only sort of, that his images lie somewhere in between. His images, he writes, are “self-referential” but with “layers of multiple objective realities” and something quite different, and intuitive, as a result.
This particular image, beyond its prettiness, gets the Henry treatment, a breakdown re the creative and technical process of creating it, a documentation of the artist’s intent, and the analyst’s interpretive treatment. If you’re interested in such things, you can study the picture with this information as context, or you could simply appreciate the innate beauty of it, the hyper-sharpness of the colours, the storminess of the skies, the stillness of the beach below; and that would be enough.
The warm tones of “Graceful interfold of beachness” are also appealing in a way that has nothing to do with the brain and everything to do with the soul. But ever there to feed the brain, Henry explains again about the selection of the bark, what appealed about it, and the effects of the overlay. And you’ll agree, I think, that there is a Van Gogh-esque quality to the way the lines curve their way down the length of the image.
The entire beach series boasts a natural beauty, an alluring fluidity in the swirl of the bark, and a sense of nostalgia for moments of nature either uninterrupted or in harmony with the humans who come to her. Through Deconstructed Beach-ness, Dogging the Groundswells, Nascent Salt, Barbuda, and Sea Bathers, there is not a resort in sight, and so nostalgia is stirred by the sense of something lost.
In the two-picture Barbuda Conch Blues series, we get first a straight-up documentary image, a relatively mild interaction between nature and commercial activity with the return of fish boats to the beach. Then, the same image, as seen through the woodist eye of the jumbie, and you’ll find yourself wondering as you peer through the image of shadows and light, and shadows within the light, what’s jumbie’s view of what he’s seen. For my money, s/he seems troubled – maybe due to the fact that the men returned with no catch, a tid bit shared by Henry which, along with the turmoil surrounding resort development plans on the sister island, yes, is impacting my reading of this image. Is nature withholding her bounty or has she been overused? Is the environmental commentary deliberate or mere projection? This image interests me as it raises questions in my mind.
The book hits a sweet spot in terms of both text and images with the series that follows, the focus on the Anglican Cathedral, Big Church in the local vernacular, a conflicting symbol with historical and religious implications for Antigua and on a more personal level, as broken down by Henry, for Olatunji. The first image shows the church within context of the city, on the hill, dominant, towering over everything; the second image, Easter Sunday, in black and white shot from within the church garden/graveyard as people pour out in their Easter Sunday best, is almost idyllic – both are documents rather than straight up commentary, the jumbie has not weighed in as yet. That changes, the next five images showing a progressively tumultuous relationship between the viewer, the jumbie, the departed, likely African, soul, and this symbol of English and Western and Christian dominance. It is an uneasy relationship and the swirl and heaviness of the chosen barks, the way they shadow and settle like a cataract over the scene by the time we get to the last of these images, Entombed, underscore this. There is no denying the contrast Henry points out between the picturesque, relatively speaking, beach scenes, and these images awash with critical intent:
“Unmistakable is the tension from his boyhood between a deeply felt African spirituality that had been devalued and negated by an imperial Christianity. In this series, the colonized African strikes back through the vision of the Jumbie at the colonizer on the terrain of religion. The particular intensity of these images makes it quite clear how strongly our master artist has experienced and lived this conflict.”
I have to agree.
And it’s at this point, I think that it hit me that as much as these images are supposed to be the world through the jumbie’s eye, it’s actually the world through the jumbie’s eye as interpreted and sometimes influenced by the artist – if this were a book I was writing, the jumbie would be a character in that book, with a certain amount of agency/independence of its own but filtered through my understanding and shaping of that perspective. It was for me a pivotal turning point in terms of my reading of this book. What I was reading/seeing was a story as told to the artist by the jumbie as shown to me by the artist and interpreted for me, to some degree, by his co-author. It was if not a work of fiction, a work of creative non-fiction, and all the more interesting because of it.
The Slave Dungeon one of the non-woodist images sprinkled throughout the book had me thinking of my first meeting with Olatunji – not a great beginning for us – and my introduction to this site which found its way into my novel Oh Gad! It’s at Orange Valley and (like the baobob on the Freemansville main road where national hero King Court/Prince Klaas and his fellow rebels would meet to plot) should, in my view, be as protected and revered as the British fortifications. The dungeon is a place where you can feel the pained and longsuffering and enduring spirit of our ancestors, it is a place where their jumbie lives, or so I posited in my reporting on the site back when and my interpretation of it in my novel. What is the photographer and his co-author’s intent in placing it here? Well, Henry explains that this image which continues the photographer’s encounter with colonialism should have had a companion image as others in the series will, but the jumbie version of the image “has deteriorated”. Now, I want nothing so much as to see it.
I suspect the jumbie’s response to it was strong, stronger than society’s lukewarm, ambivalent response, relative to the sites of British memory, e.g. Nelson’s Dockyard.
In this section, I am particularly drawn to investigate the Papa VC image wherein the esteemed and yet all too humanly flawed Father of the Nation in grey tones overlaid with gold-hued bark and the suggestion of ghostly faces within his peripheral makes for a formidable presence. Love him or hate him, there’s a solidity to him in Antigua and Barbuda’s understanding of itself as a nation and in Olatunji’s interpretation of him through the jumbie’s eye. “The woodist brushes in this photograph are indeed quite historic and reflect Olatunji’s appreciation and admiration of the early Bird,” Henry writes, while at the same time commenting on the late leader’s polarizing effect and Olatunji’s later ambivalence.
Carnival is perhaps the most photographed Caribbean tableau, after beaches and sunsets, but Olatunji, ever the iconoclast, has but one Carnival image here, the revelers largely obscured save for peeks of colour, this obscuring perhaps reflecting Olatunji’s disenchantment with the festival that was once an artist’s dreamscape and is now basically, even Carnival lovers like myself have to agree, an over-priced, all-inclusive, alcohol-laden, commercially-hijacked party – with music still too sweet to resist.
And so, Henry writes, “This decline in the cultural creativity and significance of Carnival Olatunji sees as part of the larger crisis of post-colonial governance resulting from gaps in the leadership practices of our governing political and cultural elites.” And yet, as the writer reports, Olatunji recalled being delighted by this particular Carnival display, underscoring this section’s theme of ambivalence – he loves it, he loves it not, he loves it, he loves it not…
There is no ambivalence, however, about the Antigua Sugar Factory, a site of sugar production, and by extension occupation of Black lives back in the day. The factory is decayed and overlaid with a bark so thick and cracked the decay is magnified, and is, paradoxically, almost a thing of beauty. The past is being petrified.
Among the New York images, some of the most striking for me are Fire Beyond Brooklyn Bridge, with the placement of the wood approximating a sun flare backlighting one of the city’s more iconic images; City Hall, in which the seat of government is murky looking, hinting perhaps at the corruption and stasis that so often infects politics making it ineffectual; Petrification at Harlem, which rather than seeming frozen to me, has the effect of waves that for me calls to mind the name of another image in the book Antigua a-wash-way. Let’s see what Henry has to say about these images and how his insights gel with or prove ‘wrong’ my interpretation. Hmmm, bridge on fire, more “incendiary” than my interpretation; city hall rendered “stony, obstructed, and inaccessible”, yes, I can see that – I did not, however, see the “ghostly appearance … (of the woman) …walking away… with very uncertain results or unclear answers” until Henry, as guide on this journey, pointed her out; but I might have to agree to disagree with him that the water in the black and white Harlem image appears frozen though I can agree that it speaks to tension between nature and the urban landscape of the most (debatably) famous and infamous city in the world.
These New York images are great talk pieces, great for discussion, because of that, because they are so widely open to interpretation, because there’s a darkness to so many of them, e.g. A Shadowed Pathway in which the jumbie may or not be seeing a shadow of himself – but that’s just one interpretation.
Sometimes, every now and again, the woodiness is naturally occurring such as in View from My Harlem window, a beautiful picture of a New York street as seen through the leaves of a tree on what seems to be a quiet morning in Fall or, another favourite, the award winning Solitude in Fall, in which the trees line up in the distance in an image defined by its lines and mood; but more often they are chosen and imposed by the photographer to reshape the image into something otherworldly such as Central Park Strollers, a jigsaw of an image, or Mah in which a Twin Towers-like pairing of images is enswirled in the rich reddish-gold bark representing the mother of one of Olatunji’s friends. The latter is one of those images that makes a strong case for the description Henry favours “painterly photography”. He shares an anecdote in which the film developer, when Olatunji went to collect his images, “insisted to the end that this was a painting that had been photographed”, leading to the conclusion that “Mah is a very good example of the multiple ways in which Olatunji’s works are seen by different viewers, and thus also of the kinds of heated exchanges that they can produce.”
You will marvel at Olatunji’s mastery of his art form through simply beautiful vistas like Moments til Moonrise, and through images like A Jumbie at Moma in which the artist’s Antigua crashes in to the ‘hallowed’ spaces of Western high art, wherein we’re not seeing through the eyes of the jumbie but are observing the jumbie, a ghostly apparition, in this space. And if there’s any doubt that Olatunji is not an opportunistic photographer but is very deliberate about his images, you have only to read Henry break down of how this image came to be:
“To get the shadow of the man that represents the Jumbie, Olatunji found a very cooperative subject. The group standing in the corner was much larger before the photograph was tken. As some were departing, Olatunji asked this man to be a part of his photograph, but did not tell him that he would be providing this all-important shadow….Hanging on the wall to the left is, of course Picasso’s famous ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. This is the painting that has in its upper right hand corner the much discussed lady whose face reflects the iinfluences of the masks of the Fang people of Gabon.” None of this is accidental – up to and including the decision to locate this jumbie in a space occupied by one of the masters’ works, a work in particular that references Africa, which the Antiguan-born artist claims as his spiritual home from his style of dress to the name he owns.
Looking at Snow Play in Prospect Park, I think back to an earlier image, Labour Day at Fort James, and see intentionally or not an appreciation in the photographer if not the jumbie for the carefree joy and abandon of youth. The photographer was, of course, doing other things with this image, technical things that the writer admits went over his head, but whatever it is it makes for a beautiful winter wonderland in which there is a noticeable interplay of light and shadow on the snow.
Broadway, Times Square, these are all covered, literally under the jumbie’s gaze but it’s the second image of Brooklyn Bridge, in which the fire has burned out, the colour of the wood like fading embers or the warm tones of sunset over the scene. The post script to this chapter is the photographer’s cheeky meeting of London and New York in which he lays a scene from one space space over a moment from the other, to prove his mastery of his medium and his control over his narrative.
“Image 69: A Tree Grows in Broadway” from The Art of Mali Olatunji Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.
It is clear that Olatunji felt fired up on landing in England, the one-time ‘Mother’ of so much of the world including his homeland Antigua. The beauty of the parks clearly captivating him and the jumbie gazes on them almost affectionately, appreciative of the way nature resists being pushed out by industry – unlike New York where he lived for many years. The iconic sites are there Nelson’s Statue, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, River Thames (a beautiful image), Big Ben all blocked by the swirling, cracked, jaundiced and jaded eye of the jumbie. One of the more interesting series centres on Big Ben, on the artist’s effort to rob Big Ben of its bigness, it’s iconicity, its arrogant demand that the world run on its time – and if you’re thinking Big Ben is a stand-in for Mother England herself and the jumbie working her voodoo via the photographer’s hand is all of Africa’s displaced children, I would venture you’re not far off. That’s certainly my read of it as the artist progressively ages the image, so that it seems to decay and whither to stillness under the jumbie’s gaze. Of the final image, Big Ben stopped, Henry writes, “It has been largely silenced as decay has turned to petrification – a deadening that has encased Big Ben in photographic stone…(calling) to mind the complete erasure of the cathedral in our Big Church series.” This is one of those moments where the presence of Henry as guide is critical in making key connections – because here is one of those moments that this book is more than just a pretty coffee table book, more than just a technical exploration for photographers interested in a new technique, a moment where the book is, in fact, decisive, emphatic commentary on the African experience in relation to England and, more broadly, Western powers. Politics is at play here in many ways, in the case of this series notably in the commentary implicit in the images of parliament darkened by bark as though covered in smog and in the protests which declare ‘Capitalism isn’t working’ which meet with the jumbie’s and the photographer’s approval. On a purely aesthetic note, Big Ben stopped and in fact the series of three of the iconic clock is among the more beautiful and, sorry, Mali, painterly images in the book.
We return to Antigua with the jumbie, with the photographer, and their spirit is not at ease – evident in the flow of wood grain over the image of the Holy Family Catholic cathedral and Mount St. John Medical Centre in Downward Flow of Spirituality and Health, the dark and foreboding shadow over shadow of The Ship of State, in the roughness of the bark over the harbor view in Storm of Corruption – no ambivalence there. Jumbie and photographer are angry and that anger turns in on itself to depression and despair as they look at the ships in the harbor, for instance – the kind of thing that makes those invested in cruise tourism’s debatable offerings salivate – and see instead of beauty the Encroaching on the Environment and Pollution!
It is not a happy ending though Henry attempts to make it so with the inclusion of images that for the most part don’t fit the woodist aesthetic, images which he said represent hope – portraits of artists. One of those artists and the only one of four portraits seen through the jumbie’s eye is the one of me, shot in New York, reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy.
“Image 107: Hillhouse reading Kincaid’s Lucy” from The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.
I’ve stared for long minutes at this image, trying to understand what the jumbie sees when she looks at me because though the image is positioned to represent hope, the dappled grain has an odd effect – where there might be hope, but also uncertainty and concern. The other woodist images in this section are of Olatunji’s son at play, and the jumbie does seem hopeful looking on this image, and the master artist in prayerful pose, and though his face seems at rest the swirl of textures around him suggest he is not quite at peace – and given the images that have come before, who can blame him. It is also at odds with the sense those of us who think of Olatunji less as the fall on your knees in prayer type and more of the get up and fight type. If it were a story being told, this would seem a bit of a pat ending – which is not intended as a swipe against the writer, who does a good job throughout of bringing context to the work – but of the underlying tension between the spirit of the artist and the ordering of the writer.
But the artist gets the last word, re-focussing the reader on his intent – and it is here that we get a deeper sense of the technical innovation and philosophical searching guiding this work; his respect for his elders and for the unseen, for his culture and his people, for process, for intentionality – moving beyond taking pictures to making pictures. And reading this section one can’t help thinking what a shame it is that he is not being used in some way here in Antigua and Barbuda to teach master classes in photography, yes, but also in so many of the concepts the book explores, which can perhaps be summed up as who are we – who we be. It is a soul searching sort of work. And perhaps it started as is suggested at one point as the artist tried to grapple with aging and death, with loss without losing hope; but it has evolved in to more than that – a documentary of a life, a commentary on space/s and history, and a probing at, yes, who we be.
Beautiful as the gallery is that follows, it could have, perhaps should have, ended with this final word from the artist. But since the gallery is there can I just end by commenting on the beauty in stolen slice of life moments like Boys at Sea, still life images like sugar apple and pupa, and additional woodist works like Autumn in Connecticut – a series that leaves a lasting image of a master artist, the master well earned, in full command of the language of his art and in the crafting of it.
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, Fish Outta Water, and forthcoming With Grace). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.
All images are from The Art of Mali Olatunji and are the artist’s copyright; do not re-use in any way without permission.
UPDATE! (October 4th 2016) I’ll be moving the Blogger on Books series (really just my take on books I’ve read and liked enough to write something about) to Jhohadli (my personal blog) with the next book. This archive will remain here on the Wadadli Pen blog. It’s the second major move for this series which began on my Myspace – remember that?
This is the third installment of Blogger on Books where I talk about books I’ve read and have something to say about. Usually if I’m posting about a book, I either liked it or liked something about it. You can read Blogger on Books l and Blogger on Books ll here.
I felt bereft when Bernice McFadden’s Sugar ended. I’m still trying to decide if the ending was unsatisfying storywise or if the story was so successful that the leaving was inevitably melancholic. Either way, it’s certainly a reminder that as much as we’ve been conditioned by fairytales, we very (very) rarely get the endings we want. There’s no denying though that Sugar was a compelling read anchored both by a compelling title character and a convincing if unlikely bond between two women that was the heart of the story. I’m talking about church going elder Pearl, who’s been grieving the violent death of her daughter for 15 years, and Sugar, who the short answer would say is a whore, given her profession, but who on closer examination of her very complex life, is really a woman who never got a fair shot – not since her mother abandoned her without a name, not since she was raised in a whore house, not since her every attempt to break with the trade goes fubar. Sugar at times seems like her own worst enemy, her survival armor so thick, nothing, not even well meaning efforts, can penetrate, and certainly her own heart can’t break out. Except it does, thanks to Pearl – seriously, their relationship is easily my favourite part of this book – and she does let something like love in, but she doesn’t trust it, doesn’t trust herself, and the pattern that’s marked her life to that point re-asserts itself. You’ll root for Sugar and your heart will break for her, you’ll be warmed by the bonds she forges with her substitute mothers especially Pearl and realize that she’s hungry for that most essential of relationships. And I suppose my frustration in the end is I wanted that for her too. In the ways that she makes me care, in her detailed and layered characterizations of her essential characters, in the way she colours in the world of the story and roots it in its time and place, in the descriptions and the mood and atmosphere that she crafts so well, McFadden has rendered one of those books that you could see transferring really well to film because it paints pictures in your mind and makes an impression on your soul. But there are things about the plot that feel improbable to me and in fact there are time when the clues dropped about Sugar’s history kind of leave me floundering so that certain essential connections are not made (in my mind) and certain other connections when they are made feel…unlikely…like what are the odds. It didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book which had some emotionally powerful moments not in an overwrought way but in simple, simple gestures that pack a punch.top
Broo ‘Nansi and the Tar Baby like Brown Pelicans below is from Little Bell Caribbean. As with that one, I had the boy read it aloud; this time instead of asking him to write a review, I just asked his opinion. Here’s what he said: “That was a nice story.” Actually that first part was spontaneous and then I asked what did you like about it, to which he responded: “I like the part with the song. I like when the part with tar baby and when Bro Tukuma say ‘Brer Nancy les go’ and Brer Nancy say ‘I’m not finished yet’. I just don’t understand; he not listening. Why doesn’t he listen?…I like the end; it rhymes.” After further consideration, he added spontaneously: “So, basically, this is just about two spiders, a tarbaby, and brer nansi almost being killed.” I should add that after the main story, there’s an explanation of who Anansi is and his place in African and diasporic lore; when I tried to add to the explanation he held up his hand (wait, wait, wait) and continued reading. So, I’d say it’s a good book to grab and hold even the interest of a reluctant (and boy is he reluctant) reader.top
Brown Pelicans (Caribbean Natural History Series) by Mario Picayo – this glossy book seems a good blend of nice visuals, history (the bit on Caribbean monk seals and why they became extinct, for instance), geography (maps), art (there’s some pelican inspired poetry), and science (all the pelican facts). But as I did with Pippi Longstocking (scroll down for that), I’m deferring to my nine-year-old on this one since this is more for his age group and reading it aloud to me and then writing what he thought was part of my strategy to pull him away from his ipad for five seconds. Here’s what he wrote: “The title is Brown Pelicans. I like the story because pelicans are my favourite birds and how they catch fish. I don’t like the story because they didn’t say why their feathers are oily and why they have webbed feet and why their beak is long. I know that pelicans are big, they can measure water depth and circle in the air to stop fish. The author is Mario Picayo. I like them because of their big beaks, oily feathers and webbed feet.” Okay, then.top
The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books (Volume 9 Number 1) very little space to the purpose suggested in its title, reviewing Antiguan and Barbudan books. The bulk of the volume publishes papers from the 2015 conference and some papers from a couple of decades ago – all, or mostly, with an economic theme. For people who understand that talk, those articles will be of interest and maybe in another platform they would be for me too …but when I crack the Review of Books, I really want to read book reviews and, Lord knows, there are more than enough books by Antiguans and Barbudans that have not been given critical treatment. So, that’s my gripe with this edition. That said, of the non-book-related articles, the one I found of particular interest was Juno Samuel’s The Making of the University of Antigua and Barbuda, because the re-purposing of a new secondary school into a university is very topical, controversially so, in Antigua and Barbuda right now (Fall 2016). Samuel’s piece reminds us of Antigua and Barbuda’s long tradition as a leader in education and that this university business is not a new idea, nor the opposition to it a new issue, but what his careful accounting of the work that’s been done and the thought that went in to the work by the original committee underscores is that it takes more work than simply re-purposing a building; and given the work already done, one has to wonder where’s the continuity. If this is an issue you are concerned about, you ought to read Samuel’s article which basically moots that a university is not only doable but necessary…but not this way. The unasked (and perhaps rhetorical) question as ever is can we (ever) look past the politics on such things? The actual reviews now get only pages 181 to 230 of the Review but they make for compelling reading. Natasha Lightfoot’s Troubling Freedom is on my to-read list and Review editor Paget Henry’s review has me even more convinced that this is a rendering of an unexamined area of our Antiguan history with a fresh approach to the reading of that history. Beyond that, there are three reviews, one by me, of Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry’s The Art of Mali Olatunji, each with a different angle on what each review agrees is a significant contribution to the Caribbean artistic, philosophical, and literary canon. I liked Jane Lofgren’s artistic insights on the book but then I also found intriguing associations Ashmita Khasnabish makes to Indian mysticism. So my request to the editor is more reviews, please.top
Time to Talk by Curtly Ambrose with Richard Sydenham – Curtly Ambrose, for the uninitiated, is a knighted former West Indies fast bowler from Swetes, Antigua. He first played for Windies in 1986 – there for the latter part of its days of dominance; his grit providing sparks of brilliance and hope during the team’s tumble from the top. Read the full reviewtop
>A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from Across the Commonwealth, Natural Elements Series, Volume 4 – Fire compiled by Alice Curry . Some entries feel out of place in this and, honestly, I’d count my poem Under Pressure among them. In fact, I’d say, in general, that this type of collection favours the folk tale. As a collection of writing from around the Commonwealth, it is at its best when it is sharing folk tales that tap in to the soul of the culture – you feel like you’re learning something about the people from whom the story came, about what informs the way they approach life. That said even among these, some of these tales end abruptly while others do a better job of coming to a point (and perhaps making a point). I found it a fascinating read overall. I like the idea of it and the execution, apart from whatever nitpicks I’m making here, was pretty good as well. I wasn’t in love with the art work and I did wish there was a bit more on the countries and the individual writers – a couple of lines. But I do appreciate the colossal amount of work that would have gone in to this; and I largely enjoyed engaging with so many different countries in a way I don’t get to do outside of an Olympics opening ceremony. Some standouts for me: Son of the Sun from Tonga, About a Chief and his Beautiful Wife from Botswana, The Beginning of Smoke from Brunei Darussalam, The Land Crab in the Kitchen from Maldives, The Gifts of Months from Malta, How to Share Five Cakes from Sri Lanka, The Tricky Invitation from Malawi (sidebar: I found an interesting Anansi oral/video/animation version of this that I used in one of my workshops alongside this version – a workshop focused on giving teachers tools and inspiration for bringing creativity into the classroom), Compere Lapin pays a Price from St. Lucia, Bhadazela and Mningi from South Africa, the Glass Knight from the United Kingdom, The Spear that Brought Fire from Zambia, the Burning Heads of the Susua Hills from the United Republic of Tanzania, and A Ball of Fire from Trinidad and Tobago. I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like the poetry, some of it just didn’t seem a good fit for a collection of this type but some did the job well – e.g. Fire from Namibia, War Song from Papa New Guinea, Creole Woman from Belize, and because, of course, it’s Paul Keens Douglas and his poems are always tales of the folk – Banza from Grenada.top
Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? by Astrid Lindgren – This is a children’s book so though I read it first, after my second to last nephew read it, I asked what he thought of it with the intention of sharing his review instead. It’s succinct: “I’m surprised she is a little girl and so strong. I really liked it.” Yes, I realize we have some work to do regarding his conditioning already at such a young age re what girls cannot do…especially since no one, girl or boy, could lift a horse like Pippi does in this story.top
Littletown Secrets reminds me of, those sort of fantastical children’s books from back in the day, books like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series – you know what I mean, those books about normal children interacting with the abnormal world in a way that to our childish brains seems totally plausible and fun. Like, of course, there’s a talking rabbit who’s in a hurry and a giant, magical tree. Of course. Some of us never quite outgrow that and for us magical realism and, really, the many branches of speculative fiction exists (big up to all the adults who never lose sight of their inner child). Anyway, the point is, I really enjoyed Littletown Secrets – and my nephew enjoyed Littletown Secrets. In fact, he read it first, in 2014 after I bought it at Bocas. Yes, it’s that kind of book – the kind of book to lure a reluctant reader, a boy no less, and apparently they’re the archetype of reluctant reader, into the magical world of storytelling. The story is set in a small indeterminate town in Trinidad – I’m not sure they say that specifically; but the author K. Jared Hosein is a Trini and the book does mention the Savannah (which admittedly is located in the capital but) as a community space where kids play cricket and old friends re-connect. The organizing principle of the book is that the central narrator is the town’s secret keeper – which he becomes when instead of a lemonade stand, he sets up a Secret Keeper stand as his summer hustle – and each chapter is a different secret, each reflective of the ‘deadly sin’ that introduces it. The author uses the known deadly sins but gives his own definitions. Wrath, for instance, is the “the trait of setting oneself on fire and colliding in to others”. The redefinition of the sins sets up its own set of expectations – a darkly humorous tone and an entertaining and instructive tale in which lessons are learned, though maybe not always by the participants in the tale – and it delivers. It is totally invested in the madness it sets up – the world under the well, the magic mirror, the ghosts in the clock tower, mechanical bats…why not. And it invests you, the reader, in that world and in the lives of the characters – rooting for the good guys, hoping that the lazy and badminded get their comeuppance or learn the error of their ways, hoping that the good guys win. And they do, for the most part, this is the realm of they all lived happily ever after after all. Except this is not a fairytale and so we meet the keeper of tales as an adult – emotionally restless – who gets the opportunity to have his dreams of becoming a writer come true, if he would just give up his secrets. This sets up an opportunity to show how you can take life and make story without betraying life. That exchange at the end between the secret keeper/storyteller and one of his former clients tickled the storyteller in me. And I think the book as a whole will peak the interest of the young reader in your life – boy, girl, reluctant, avid – and may call to the child in the adults in your life, too…even if that adult is you. I can safely say that I’ve never read another Caribbean book QUITE like this one and now that I have I’m even more eager to read his second book, The Repenters.top
The Bibliography of St. Lucian Creative Writing Poetry, Prose, Drama by St. Lucian Writers 1948-2013 with related supporting material compiled and edited by John Robert Lee with assistance from Anna Weekes – this is not something you read cover to cover, though I did flip through it; it’s a resource – a valuable one. And in this digital age a resource that works best with a companion digital version that is readily updatable. The print version can become dated very quickly – which is the case here as I read, for instance, Vladimir Lucien’s single entry in the Poetry section (Fathoms of Sunset and Other Poems, 2009) knowing that he’s since gone on to win the Bocas prize for Sounding Ground. But such is the limitation of print in an era where just about any information you can think of is at your fingertips. But recordings like this are still absolutely necessary for the record, and there’s no denying the work and the patience involved in putting this together especially as the author said “many publication, even those produced by reputable local printing houses, lacked basic bibliographic information. Many carried no date of publication. I found a publication with no author’s name, no title, no date!” If I was to do something like this for Antigua – which I guess I sort of have been doing with the bibliography (and its sub-lists) of Antiguan and Barbudan writing – I would take the approach of having a print version covering a particular time period, as this did, with a plan to update it every five years or so with a readily accessible and steadily updated digital version as companion. All of this takes time and money, of course, so all a researcher can do really is what they can. I’ve done fiction, poetry, non-fiction, children’s fiction, screenplays/plays, songwriting, short stories/poems, awards, blog, and review lists on this site (slower than I’d like and investing more time than I have to give because nobody’s paying me to do this), and even I’m impressed with the breakdowns this author takes the time to do – there are primary lists broken down by genre, then an extensive list of supporting material, then author indexes broken down by genre, selected articles, index of literary periodicals, international anthologies with St. Lucian writers, dissertations etc. background readings – plus an appendix of Caribbean blogs (Wadadli Pen even gets a shout-out). As comprehensive as I’ve tried to be here on the site, the inclusion of unpublished and oral pieces would be a step too far for my individual resources; not for Lee though and he needs to be applauded for his meticulousness. I hope the St. Lucian arts community and government and people appreciate what he’s pulled together here (and support both the digitization and periodical updating of the print version). As for why this matters, think only to that proverb re the lion and the hunter and the importance of having a record of our lives in our words.top
The Boy who loved Batman: the True Story of How a Comics-Obsessed Kid conquered Hollywood to Bring the Dark Knight to the Silver Screen by Michael Uslan – the site I won this book from doesn’t exist anymore; that’s how long it’s been since I’ve had it. I’m a bit of a fangirl so I’m fairly sure that’s why I threw my hat in the ring but I had no idea what to expect when I opened it. It has been a good read for the most part – part memoir, part inspirational, part how-they did-it, part fanboy/fangirl fantasy. It is, as the title said, the story of the boy who loved and revived The Batman – specifically Michael Uslan is the one who brought my era Batman (Michael Keaton) to the screen but, yeah, he also executive produced your Batman (Christian Bale) too. Essentially, the dark, tortured Bruce Wayne who has eclipsed the sort of pop art ’60s era version of Batman is all his doing. And in this book he tells how he did it. It began with his love of (read: obsession with) comics as a kid, with teachers who encouraged his creativity and rebel spirit, with parents who supported even if they didn’t always understand, with mentors, with doubters and self-doubt and setbacks and despair and compromises, and luck and preparation meeting opportunity and all that jazz. For a writer, an artiste, like me I was especially keen on tracking how he held on to his dream of creating something while circumstances conspired to stick him in life’s cubicle. The how-he-did-it part in the end was the bit I obsessed about as I looked for clues to my own journey. I gained some insights but I also learned there’s no magic to it, just holding to your dream even if life does necessitate some detours and pauses. An interesting read for the movie buff, the comic obsessed, Batman lovers, and just anyone whose ever held a dream they felt impassioned by in spite of the odds – and as I am all those things, I quite enjoyed it.top
Point of Order by Ivory Kelly is an easy read. Which is not to say it’s a shallow read – quite the contrary. What I mean is that it’s a pleasurable read but it can be like that unexpectedly steep drop into the deep end at the beach. Only the drop here is into matters of politics, gender, and identity. Neatly organized into poetry and prose with sub-categories of the former, the collection opens strong with WMD – and, on reflection, was fair warning that a collection that references a leader (Dubbya?) “spending soldiers like loose change” wasn’t here to make nice on serious issues. From Crayons in which a mother commits to a quiet rebellion to reverse her daughter’s rejection of self (conjuring the doll test); to Heart of a Dragon in which she tries to get beneath the hard scales to the heart of the dragon, stand in for police and more specifically police overreach, really insisting that the dragon look at himself; and beyond what quickly becomes clear to me is the running theme of tension between opposites – things as they are, things as the poet would like them to be, each sandbox-tree-like dig a rejection of the way things are. It’s there in pieces like Contradictions (the warring opposites threaded together with irony as it comes hard at the community’s ongoing battle to reconcile itself with itself); in Writer’s Block (where the warring impulses are within the writer, and specifically the feminine writer who wonders “how can I write this poem/with all those voices in my head?” except she is writing the poem, making the act of writing an act of rebellion, a feminist act); in Perspectives and Schoolbooks (where the tensions/contradictions are cultural); in Time and the Sittee River (where nature and wo/man war); in Public Service (where it’s the frustrating push and pull between the Public and the ones it claims to serve, all evidence to the contrary). It also needs to be said that though very, very Belize specific, much of what Kelly writes is Caribbean relatable (there are even a few “jacks” in there – thought that was an Antiguan thing) and, now and again, thematically universal. I liked almost everything in part one; in the second poetry section, my likes were a bit more spread out (Vocabulary Lesson, Unshackled, Fences, Civil Disobedience – a sharp reminder that the pen is mightier than the sword with its pointed line “some braved Jeffries’ gun/Threw missiles at policemen/Me? I drew my pen.”). Coming from that it was a bit hard to switch gears to the third section of poetry – which dealt with affairs of the heart but Mr. Write did make me laugh out loud on the bus – try that without getting funny looks. Did I mention the humour built in to the situations is part of the book’s appeal? Far from being abstract, a lot of the poetry is rooted in specifics, situations, that help give the reader a sense of connection. My favourite poem in the fourth and final section of poetry for instance was A Bouquet of Pencils, which, with this very specific line “No more half pencil/(the good half for your brother)”, stirred memories of having to share mangoes with my sister – how she would get the seed and I would get the sides – and spoke to a time where you didn’t have a lot, but you had enough.
On to the stories. I had already had a taste of Ivory’s storytelling skills thanks to her story in Pepperpot and the opportunity to hear her read from it in 2014 when we both participated in a session at the Aye Write! festival in Scotland– that’s how long this book has been sitting on my shelf and me too shame though there are just more books than time (there are books that have been waiting longer – read me! read me!). I liked all the stories – tout monde sam and baggai. The first ‘If You kyaa ketch Harry…’ will resonate with any adult Caribbean person who has been through at least one election cycle, ‘Andrew’ will strike a familiar note for anyone who has been to school in the Caribbean – though its tensions are very Belize specific; and ‘Family Tree’ might throw you for a curve until you consider the non-nuclear family model with all its stray branches pervasive throughout the Caribbean (you’ll not only find its not that far-fetched, you might be moved to wonder why it doesn’t happen more). ‘The Real Sin’ was the weakest of the stories in my view simply for being a little too-heavy-handed with its messaging, but even so it had some strong moments – the quiet moment of two friends laid out side by side not looking at each other, absorbing life changing news was one such moment, the infuriating meeting to discuss that life changing news with administrators who have more sanctimony than empathy was another well executed scene.
So all in all, big up to mi sistren from Belize; an easy read on uneasy issues.top
This edition of Susumba’s Book Bag is Rated R. Not actually but with its focus on the erotic, it’s fair to say it falls in to that category – even if it didn’t at once tickle your fancy and your Muse (and it does; both). My favourites are Sharon Leach’s Her and Him which counterbalances the coldness that has settled in to a 20 year marriage – “She thought about the morning after the last child, Astrid, her baby had left home for college, how they’d both sat staring at each other over breakfast at the dining table, two strangers with no words to say to each other.” – with the heat that’s stirring between the partners in the marriage and someone outside it. Who might surprise you. It didn’t me, the big reveal more a confirmation of what I had suspected. The titillating details aside, this is really a feminist unpacking of a relationship in which the wife is lost and searching, and on the verge of claiming something for herself, and the husband is arrogant and clueless, and on the verge of being cuckholded (and I can’t feel a lick of sympathy for him in he arrogant, selfish self!). In poetry, I was moved by Gillian Moore’s Oya All Over, mythical and messy at the same time (“she’s never learned to say no to what she really wants”). If you think this has feminist overtones, you need to read Peta-Gaye Williams’ If You Lead I Would Follow, the poetic voice’s assertion of dominance over her own pleasure, by extension her own life (a criticism, intentional or not, of the dominant point of view that the man is the head of all things womanly, the home, the marriage bed etc. that counter-argues you can be the head if you know how to head things right, and only then):
“And can you touch me?
Oh sure! But with conditionalities attached
Cause if you’re gonna touch me without reaction
It is better you just watch me…”
Her other poem of note (for me) is Navigating my Vagina which deals with the awkwardness of early self-exploration. I would share something from it but
“I flip through the pages eager and keen” was the only PG quote I could find. Be warned, this book is hot (so kids, this one nuh fuh yuh).
“Miss, Miss, yuh fat.
Yuh fat bodder me.
Yuh fat bodder me bad.” – that’s from Walking on the Street in Liguanea by Loretta Collins Klobah. If you’ve been to the reading room, you know I’m drawn to her poetry, having shared quite a bit of it here. But this series (which includes In the Bank at UWI at Mona Campus, Walking Montego Bay, Walking Below Sovereign, and In a Taxi) taking on the erotic through the lens of street harassment or creative, heavy-handed flirtation depending on your point of view resonated with me – taking me back to the streets of Jamaica which really could be anystreet, Caribbean, any public space where a woman is sexualized and, frankly, doesn’t always know how she feels about it – embarrassed, flattered, disgusted, harassed, threatened, a mix-up of these?
I’ll say this, lots of people do the erotic – it’s taboo and risqué and fun – but not a lot of people do it right, and these writers, the ones that stirred a reaction in me reminded that it’s not just about how raw can you be but how real (and I don’t mean in a throw away keeping it real sense but in making the moment matter, in tying it in to character, in giving it significance beyond the meeting of body parts…while making it hot).top
Gone to Drift – Remove the sub-text about the larger environmental issues and you still have a pulse quickening drama, and a poignant social narrative, at the heart of which is a boy you come to not only root for but love. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lloydie managed at least twice to bring tears to my eyes. Read more.top
After reading The Caribbean Writer (Volume 29, the 2015 edition), which I read almost every year, I like to share the pieces I liked even if I didn’t love the issue. I think this year’s write-up falls in to that category. I didn’t love it cover to cover but I did like… 10 Reasons why My Brothers like White Girls …intriguing title right?…plus the poet Felene M. Cayetano, I’m now realizing after the fact, is someone I met this past January (2016) in Guyana…there’s a dry wit I recognized in her when I met her that comes through in this poem from its opening lines …there’s also a rootsiness, an earthiness that pervades the ironic lines, the contrasting impulses within the black body as detailed in this poem…
I, also, liked Dike Okoro’s stuff (After Edwidge Dandicat and Rituals) well enough as well…Althea Romeo-Mark’s Now Massa Loved Some Hunting, Aprille L. Thomas’ Silver Anniversary, Khalil Nieves’ Guantanamera: Se Fueron, Dario R. Beniquez’s Ode to a Platano, D’Yanirah Santiago’s Boy: A Futuristic Take on Kincaid’s ‘Girl’…that’s it in Poetry…
In Fiction…Her Story, My Regret by Bibi Sabrina Donaie…actually I feel fairly certain I liked Bibi’s other story The Bakers as well (though I can’t be sure without re-reading)…but Her Story, My Regret definitely, for me, made a stronger impression dealing as it does with the still too prominent reality of the monster in your home…Nena Callaghan’s A Hanging has me reflecting meanwhile on the region’s dalliances with totalitarianism (with Big Brother’s complicity) and stirs a vague prickling of concern at how easy, with each infringement on our freedoms, it would be for any of us to sink in to such a state…and she does it with powerful passages like this:
“I still remember when Trujillo was killed, the secret celebratory handshakes among the adults, amidst the fear of what was to come, and me jumping on the bed trying to smash Trujillo’s picture, a mandatory effigy that all Dominicans had to display in their homes as if its very presence would protect them from Trujillo’s wrath. Trujillo’s picture not only told Dominicans who was boss, but also served as a reminder to anyone who considered taking actions against his totalitarianism, that he not only ruled the nation, he ruled their homes from afar as well.”
The Right Hand of God by Justin Haynes was a sad account of receding memory amidst internalized trauma…and then there’s Mona George-Dill reflecting on the pains (such as whipping days) and pleasures (mangoes for days) of a Caribbean childhood in Stonin de Mango…I used Neala Bhagwansingh’s Jumbie Daddy in a workshop this past summer (2015)… Haitian Boy meets Mommy by Isnel Othello and almost a counterpoint to it Heirs by Jonathan Escoffery…another enjoyable tale from a child’s perspective was Twanda Rolle’s The Sunday School Teacher, God and a Little Girl, Tim W. Jackson’s When the Sea shall give up the Dead was an immersion for both reader and character… Robbery at Rendezvous Restaurant by Niala Maharaj was suspenseful…while still on the subject of crime Dwight Thompson’s Haitian Carpenter proved quite the rapscallion, shout out to Antiguan Tammi Browne-Bannister and her Wee Willie Winkle on winning the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for short fiction …Christine Barrow’s Evelyn was a subtle tale that lands hard in its exploration of class, privilege, and moral compromises…and also on the subject of class and privilege the less subtle The Lives of Kenneth and Ramesh by Vashti Bowlah was also an interesting read…though the little boy especially was well written…Highlow’s Cricket Bat by James Baisden was highly entertaining… The Exhibition by Darin Gibson was a favourite…in part because it sits in the world of art and the pretentions it elicits …and Crab Girl by Ashley-Ruth M. Bernier was relatable…
In non fiction, I like Blake Scott’s read on tourism in revolutionary Cuba – very topical, recent events considered…the Jamaica Kincaid and Tiphanie Yanique interviews were insightful reads…in book reviews, I was surprised that Bethany Jones Powell’s review of Vybz Kartel’s Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto made me want to read the book when I am not a fan of the artist…that’s about it…
Oh, my CW award winning Flash fiction When we Danced and my poem ElectionSeason ll are in this issue, as well.top
This picks up where the previous Antigua and Barbuda Literary Works Reviewed pages left off (use the search feature to the right to dig them up). As with those earlier pages, it features reviews about A & B writings that I come across as I dig through my archives or surf the web. You’re welcome to send any credible/professional reviews that you come across as well. They’re not in any particular order, I just add them as I add them; some will be old, some will be new. It’s all shared in an effort to underscore Antigua and Barbuda’s presence in the Caribbean literary canon.
“Walter’s paintings alone comprise eleven categories, including the Alphabet series of small-scale paintings given titles such as A for Ape, Q for Queen, and so on, and which represent ideas and objects from Walter’s world. With its devotion to nature and expressive pictures, this visual lexicon is similar to that of Frederic Bruly Bouabre. Another series, Flora and Fauna, depicts plants, fish, and animals accompanied by their taxonomic names, these reveal his obsession with the mysteries of nature.” – Frank Walter’s work discussed in Raw Vision
“If I had to liken it to another work, Unburnable comes closest to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a longtime favourite of mine, and stands upright alongside Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother and Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe” – D. Gisele Isaac in Essential, Issue No.5 April/May 2006
“An interesting thing about Considering Venus is that Lesley’s sexuality is never defined. It’s just love between two women–with no barriers. Isaac has written a lovely book, with just the right fusion of prose and poetry make it a joy to read.” – Sistahs on the Shelf writing on Considering Venus
‘This remarkable book, which elegantly blends commentaries and interpretations of “painterly photographs”, as the authors dub their work, is a feast for the imagination and a fountain of aesthetic thought. The photographs are made and not merely seen. The photographs are not only precise imitations of the real but deep penetrations of it, in search of Truth—the truth of the imitations of imitations.’ – Teodros Kiros at Fusion Magazine writing on The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua and Barbuda writers Tammi Browne-Bannister and Joanne C. Hillhouse had their stories from Akashic’s Mondays are Murder online noir series reviewed in the February 28th 2016 edition of Trinidad and Tobago’s Sunday Guardian. Of Barbados-based Browne-Bannister’s portrayal of male rage in Stabs in the Dark, Shivanee Ramlochan writes, “she fully embodies the rage and thwarted virility of the unnamed male narrator, not sparing him from the beast he becomes on the page. The author delivers a portrayal of the murderer in language that is pared down, the better to let the full weight of his brutality weigh in the storytelling.” Of Hillhouse’s The Cat has Claws, she writes, “…Hillhouse keeps the secrecy taut in her storyline, baring just enough suggestion to hold her reader captive…” Read the full reviews here
“In this young adult novel from Antiguan Joanne C. Hillhouse, second-place winner of the inaugural CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, music is both the food of love and a furnace for self-expression. Hillhouse speaks directly to young readers, but with concerns of colourism, class clashes, and society’s skewed expectations for boys and girls. There are no missteps in this tender coming-of-age romance, only an enthusiasm for love and life that reverberates triumphantly…” – Caribbean Beat, March/April 2016 re Musical Youth
“I would want to say that as political and economic history this book by Paget Henry does have its equal and perhaps its betters, but as analysis of cultural development or underdevelopment, it is unsurpassed by any I know.” – Tim Hector on Peripheral Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Antigua by Paget Henry (article: Antiguan makes Great Contribution to Overcoming Underdevelopment: Paget Henry, originally published in the Outlet in 1985, republished in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 8 Number 1 Fall 2015)
“This is a profound examination of the human condition, as a child, in an island, colony, an independent colony, not as maudlin tale, but as wonderful lyricism.
a lyrical prose which uniquely and superbly captures the rhythm, the cadences, the magic, the nuances, the tones and shades of Antiguan English speech.” – Tim Hector on Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, reprinted in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 8 Number 1 Fall 2015
Shivanee Ramlochan wrote this about Musical Musical Youth (Joanne C. Hillhouse) on the Paper Based blog:
“Brimful with resonant notes on first-time courtships; adolescent discovery; tightly-knit friendships and the rewards of discipline, Musical Youth deserves multiple encores — this is one young adult pick you’ll want to savour several times over.”
Hazra Medica wrote this about Unburnable in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 8 Number 1 Fall 2015:
“Marie Elena John’s debut novel Unburnable is a tremendous surprise, and a welcomed addition to Antiguan literature, Anglophone Caribbean women’s writing, and Anglophone Caribbean writing in general. It is a surprise because its crafting belies the ‘greenness’ of its author. Its surprise is great because as a debut project, its tackling of massive/significant and underexplored themes and experiences in Antiguan/Caribbean literature is, for the most part, well-executed. Moreover, it is a welcomed addition because, among other reasons, it is a belated yet timely intervention into the conventional neglect and/or mistreatment of a number of Caribbean subjectivities and experiences by West Indian literature and literary criticism as well as West Indian and ‘Western’ historical narratives.”
The Artwork of Mali Olatunji
Antigua and Barbuda Youth Enlightenment Academy
July – September, 2015
A Note from Artist, Mali Adelaja Olatunji (excerpts)
“This body of photographs, ‘Woodist Jumbie Aesthetics’, is for me an assemblage of abstract speculative conjectures.
“…their strident nature allows for a re-examination of Spirit and the aesthetics of departed souls – Jumbies.
“Each photograph is of two or more images that are inter-layered by inter-penetrating optical images of people, places or object onto silver halide salt (film), in a camera. This process is exceedingly improbable to replicate. Thus each is unequivocally an original.
“(in ‘pure photography’) …exactitude in physical replication: lines, color, form, texture and so on, is your aim. Having mastered this for a long twenty-one years, I deserve the space to make ‘my Art’!
“I made the decision to concentrate less on making photographs that were primarily instantiation of factual accuracy…more on picturing ideas of unreliability as an imaginative activity.”
A Note from Author, Paget Henry, the Art of Mali Olatunji (excerpts)
“In addition to bringing fresh support for the fine arts possibilities of photography, Olatunji brings to this visual practice a new technique and an original vision. This new technique is that of using the lines and textures of wood, tree bark, and leaves to enhance the symbolic capabilities of photography. It is this enhanced symbolic capability that gives his photography its painterly qualities and its power to engage the spiritual, and social themes that run through this exhibition.
“The original vision derives from Olatunji’s attempts to imagine how our world would look if seen through ‘the eyes’ of a Jumbie or a departed soul that has taken up residence in a tree now that it has lost its body. It is on account of this new woodist technique that this original vision that Olatunji’s photography will surely generate a lot of interest and debate.
“His photography is sure to raise questions about the long and tense relationship between painting and photography, as the painterly possibilities of the latter are developed in his work to a heretofore unprecedented degree.”
A Note from the Exhibition Curator, Karen Allen Baxter (excerpts)
“This exhibition, The Painterly Photographer, the Artwork of Mali Olatunji, the first in the Sir Reginald Samuel Gallery, also marks the formal opening of this important arts space. The work of Mali Olatunji is meaningful, engaging, explorative, poignant, sometimes humorous and perfect for this inaugural exhibition!
“These photographs invite the viewer to look again, view with intent, examine closely to realize more or realize something else and to appreciate differently.”
So, this book has been many years in the making. I’ve had many discussions with both Mali and Paget about it over the years. I now look forward to reading it. I’m (insert indescribable emotion here) to be included among the images. Ha! me, a model! From all my discussions with the creators of this book over the years, I know it’s more than just pretty pictures, that there’s technical experimentation and exploration of ideas, and of a particular idea very much rooted in our (maybe more once upon a time than actual these days) African Antiguan belief system. I know books like this are important in grounding us in Self; as Mali said at the launch, there is too much of the Antiguan Self slipping away with this dressing up in other selves that we do, losing our Self in the process. As he said, this book is not just for us; it is Us. Thanks, Mali. Thanks, Paget, for pushing Mali (I know he didn’t go easy …but here it is for the record). Finally, congrats to Hansib for, in this weird time in publishing where even Big publishers aren’t taking risks, being outside the box not only in taking on an unconventional project like this but for quickly becoming an MVP when it comes to taking on book projects from this small place. Think about it, Hansib is responsible for the publication of several Antiguan and Barbudan books in recent years, from my own The Boy from Willow Bend, to the Art of Mali Olatunji, and including Paget’s V. C. Bird book and Dorbrene O’Marde’s Bocas Short Listed Short Shirt book Nobody Go Run Me and Send Out You Hand. Which other publisher Caribbean or not would have taken a chance on those ideas, simply because they felt they were voices that needed hearing, stories that needed telling, and not rushing and skimping on the quality in the process. No relationship is perfect but jack his jacket on all that and look forward to more. Now go get Mali’s book. In fact, get all those books while you’re at it.
As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Musical Youth, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, are okay, lifting content (words, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.
From about 2006 to 2010, I (Joanne C. Hillhouse) wrote a blog on My Space called ‘Read Anything Good Lately’. In 2010, when I left My Space, that migrated here, sort of; that is, I started adding favourites or books which I found interesting in some way to Wadadli Pen. I’m still moving some of those earlier reviews (and marking them with an asterisk*). That initial posting was called Blogger on Books and continued to late 2012. Which is where this begins. As before, I won’t necessarily write about every book I read, but if there’s something I feel like commenting on, here’s where I’ll do it. Feel free to join in in the comments section and keep checking back, this is a growing list. To see books featured previously just use the site’s search feature and search for ‘Blogger on Books’. Oh and for reviews by others of my books, go here.
Marlon James’ Book of Night Woman – I kind of hate this book and I also could never turn away from it…if that makes any sense. It is completely absorbing; completely an immersive experience, and because that space and time into which you’re being immersed is a slave plantation in the Caribbean in a time when white men had the power of gods over the lives of black people and wielded that power like the devil, it’s not an easy place to be. But the book also doesn’t allow you the easy, familiar, often simplistic narratives and responses – even as a black person who KNOWS that they were wrong and we were done wrong. As such, and because of the visceral nature of the writing, it feels like an emotional pummeling with next to no relief. Violence is treated casually, just a normal part of life on the plantation, which it was, hard though it is to read – to have, for instance, a vibrant character like Dulcima introduced only to be thrown away in a matter of pages with such deliberateness as if to punish us, the reader, for being foolish enough to care for her, for forgetting where we are. Main character Lilith’s reactions in such times mirror our own or vice versa; she is getting a schooling in the ways of her world as surely as we are. It is also true of the book though that tragedy with no ease up is not the sum total of the slave experience – not when the enslaved African (not the beast his enslaver tells him/herself they are though they will f*ck that animal and have the temerity to act disappointed and hurt when the abused ‘animal’ bites) has the capacity, as most humans do, to love and be loved, to form trust, to dream. Even the one who betrays the rebellion has a dream, after all, a narrative beyond just her role as traitor. Book of Night Women doesn’t let you stay in your comfort zone of feelings – anger toward whites, empathy toward blacks etc. For instance the first time Lilith has sex with the white man she falls into a ‘love affair’ with, the reader’s feelings are as confused as hers because there’s an eroticism to the writing of it that makes you feel guilty because your brain is telegraphing this is rape, this is rape…only it’s not written like rape…and Lilith is as perplexed as we are by her feelings, musing that the pain makes it easy to remember why you’re supposed to hate but the niceness is dangerous. Needless to say, for me anyway, the book is a roller coaster of emotions and an uneasy narrative …but one you appreciate certainly by book’s end. Yes, the ending is unexpectedly somewhat satisfying, notwithstanding that near the end of the book I had to pause to talk sense to myself, to remind myself not to expect a happy ending – and it’s not, happy – but it left a powerful impression if nothing else of the power of story, of being able to tell your own stories, to write your history as you lived it, not as it was told to you by an other. Long and short of it, Book of Night Women, highly recommend, even if historical fiction (or historical magical realism – as this has some elements of that) really isn’t your thing. Good story is good story and this is a good story.top
The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry – I finished this just a few days before Christmas and ended up drafting in a single night a long form review for submission to the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books. In part because I was trying to distract myself from the need to punch someone (long story); in part because the book inspired a lot of thoughts. The images are technically inventive and imaginative, critical and captivating, and sometimes confounding as they explore what Olatunji calls the jumbie aesthetic using his woodism technique, the layering of precise pieces of bark or other parts of trees over specific images to create a commentary on the images and suggest a jumbie perspective. Part coffee table book, part technical photography book, part philosophical read, it’s not entirely clear who the preferred audience for the book is but what’s clear is that this is a photographer with a perspective and the technical skills to indulge it, a human searching for meaning in the world around him, and a man trying to connect with his departed ancestors. It’s an interesting book and I can honestly say I haven’t come across one quite like it before.top
Juletane by Miriam Warner-Vieyra proved to be quite compelling (and melancholy) – though I admit it took a couple of attempts for me to get into it. Set in the French Caribbean, France, and a Muslim-based African country, this feminist protest novel tracks one woman’s descent into madness after an ill-fated polygamous marriage. The narrative is unambiguous about polygamy (and quite possibly marriage generally) being ill-fated, if you’re a woman. Everything in the book angles towards that; characters not so much inhabiting their world as playing their roles within a narrative with a point to make and a tragic endpoint to get to. Structured as a series of journal entries, the writing is strongest when the title character is at her least lucid, floating between dream and reality. Of course, by virtue of that it’s among the hardest sections of the book to read; delving as it does into a fractured consciousness.top
Whew! That’s my first thought on completing Bob Marley Lyrical Genius by Kwame Dawes, a book I picked up in 2007 at the Calabash festival because one, I’m a Bob fan and two, I’m the kind of music fan who enjoys reading liner notes for the history and insights on how the songs came together. This was more weighty, of course; it dug deep, it felt epic, and, frankly, it was slow going and took me forever…well since the second quarter of 2008 at least. Still, though not as reader friendly as anticipated, it was a worthwhile read and quite insightful in terms of breaking down the lyrics through a social, cultural, political, and personal lens. Also, it reinforces my view that Bob was one of the great songwriters of the rock era, as dismissive as some are of his skills and the weight of his message. Dawes comes to the work as someone who clearly loves the music, knows the culture, and has the chops to break it down musically, lyrically, and in terms of context. It was no doubt challenging, but also inspiring; reminding me of my own desire (some years in the making now) to chronicle Antigua’s calypso journey. One other thing though, more extensive quoting of the song lyrics would have helped, especially with little known or less familiar lyrics.top
Claudia Elizabeth Ruth Francis’ The Road to Wadi Halfa – I actually read this a few years ago, but I can’t find any evidence that I posted my thoughts here, so here…An intriguing read, perhaps the first political spy/international thriller novel by an Antiguan author with ripped from the world headlines immediacy. I felt the plot could have been considerably streamlined but, while it took a while to draw me in, all in all it ratcheted up the tension and invested me as the reader in the outcome. Once I got into it, I was in.top
The Caribbean Writer Volume 28 – It takes me a while to get through the Caribbean Writer (it’s thick, as journals go) but it’s always a worthwhile read for discovering new Caribbean voices and/or re-familiarizing myself with ones I’ve previously enjoyed. In Volume 28, the 2014 edition, favourites included Rebellious Roots by Shelly-ann Harris, At the Karaoke Bar, 21st Century Hotel by Ann Margaret Lim, Rivers by Khalil Nieves, Saint Ignatius by Guillermo Rebollo-Gil, Abeng in Beijing by Fabian Thomas, and The Lemon Cure by Joey Garcia in poems; the short story Soldier by Jacqueline Bishop; in non-fiction Roster and Genealogy of Emigrants from the British Antilles Settled in Chiloe by Pablo A. Perez; and in reviews Junot Diaz bring Yunior and his Views on Racism and Hyper-Masculinity to El Barrio by Lavern McDonald.top
Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class – in a book with adultery, petty crime, deception, rape, abuse, threats of murder, murder (well, manslaughter), a book that though primarily located in a small village in Ireland moves between world capitals, it’s reassuring to know all’s well that ends well – and it did, no spoilers – that’s just Maeve Binchy for you – lots and lots of characters, richly detailed, the subtle shifting of a society in transition but which still has not lost its soul, a world where dark things happen but the majority of people are essentially good …her books are as ever filing, satisfying, with hints of home…wherever home may be.top
Through the Window by Floree Williams – this didn’t charm me the way her first book Pink Teacups and Blue Dresses did. This is not to say that it lacked charm, the quirk of my lips at odd times in the reading testify to some of that lingering charm – and the prose is as clear and the characters as affecting (yes, affecting) as I’d come to expect. Here, Williams graduates from girlhood to the dramas and ‘dramas’ of young love with mixed results.There’s a breezy rhythm to the telling that makes the story feel buoyant in spite of the angst and drama – contrived or other wise. But it is a mite predictable (it is a romance and they tend to be). At the same time, it is a quick read that will entertain especially but not exclusively lovers of the genre. For those who are not fans of the genre…it’s hard to tell…there’s nothing in particular that sets these characters apart …but I think once you pick it up you’ll get in to it. There is a groundedness to the storytelling that made me care about the outcome – root for Anya to make the right call whatever that is in situations like this – and there was at least one instance where I was still carrying vexness for her when she had clearly already moved on – so Williams does make you care about her characters without being too heavy handed about it. There’s a bit of overwriting in the descriptions – noticeable because simplicity is her style. Plus, the editing and/or proofing could have been tighter (things will slip through the cracks, yes, but I’m inclined to mention it when it proves to be a distraction from the story itself and, if I’m being honest, at times it was). Overall though a light, quick, mostly fun. long lazy day read; and one any one who’s ever been young and in love…and a little bit paranoid…will likely be able to relate to.top
Mio’s Kingdom by the renowned Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren…so definitely not a book for my age group. But I found it appealed to my sense of fantasy and adventure – albeit relatively uncomplicated fantasy – and deals with fairly adult concepts such as the loneliness felt by an unloved orphan child, overcoming great – seemingly insurmountable odds, facing death, finding courage even when feeling great fear etc. but in a way relatable to a young child and in a way that resolves it while preserving their innocence. The language is a bit old timey and occasionally rhymey but I actually quite like the in-built poetry of it at times and can see it appealing as a bed time parent child read aloud over a series of nights, given the sometimes lulling effect of the language. And no “lulling” there is not a euphemism for boring, there’s plenty of adventure here to keep young minds entertained (there’s even a flying horse…or hundred). I can picture this book as a film, that’s the other thing, an adventure film with appeal to the same kids and grown-assed-kids (like me) who flock to films like Lord of the Rings. The evil here is pretty straightforward and the magic simple but there’s a certain beauty and appeal in that especially for younger readers. If you’re looking for reads with good lessons, you can’t go wrong here – for instance when Mio promises to stay by his dying friend’s side because the love and companionship of a good friend is worth more than glory. The actual battle is not Helm’s Deep, in fact it’s fairly anti-climatic considering the build-up (so low on the action)…also the adult in me was hoping for some clarity as to why the big Danger had to be this single boy’s quest, and perhaps certain death, while his father remained behind and greeted him with open arms on his return. Huh? Aren’t parents supposed to throw themselves in the way of danger for their kids, not send them in to it …but then I have a feeling that’s the adult in me, only 80 percent not 100 percent committed to the fantasy like a kid might be. Besides the book is from the kid’s perspective and this question never comes up (but adults are gonna adult, you know). Bottom line, Mio’s Kingdom is fun read-together read for parents and kids alike.top
Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan – This phrase “…the linguistic and cultural jolts and jarrings as two languages grind against each other…” inadvertently, I think, drive home Ann Morgan’s point about the awkward beauty of things getting lost in translation. In my Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean culture, grinding can call to mind heavy (sometimes brutal) teasing or an especially sexy wine (a certain type of dance rooted in Africa and synonymous with the Caribbean where a twerk by any other name is still a wine) involving a man and a woman…guess where my mind went? But, yes, back to the text. What a remarkable undertaking, what a compelling read! I felt genuinely happy at times wading through this highly sourced book which probably just reinforces that I’m a nerdy bibliophile but, whatever, nerdy bibliophiles need their Carnival rides too. And British writer, Morgan’s project is nothing short of a Carnival ride with its jolts and wide turns, stomach dropping plummets and more. If I’d been there at the beginning when she decided to read the world in a year, I might have said, “girl, yuh crazy?!?” even while rooting for the audacity of the experiment. Likely she felt like giving up along the way (even given her tangible passion for the project) but I’m glad she didn’t. If, like me, you follow Ann’s blog, you’ll have already read her thoughts on the books she read (and if you follow this blog, you might have read her thoughts on some of the Caribbean books she’s read) and even so you might be somewhat surprised that the book isn’t about the books she read nor is it simply about the process, though it covers that in spades, and about the community she discovered along the way, even in this vast world
“Many were the mornings when, stumbling bleary-eyed to the computer in the grey half-light of dawn, I was galvanized by an enthusiastic comment, an offer of help, or news that a stranger thousands of miles away had turned up a lead on a story or manuscript for me out of no other impulse than the desire to see me succeed in my endeavor.”
…but it’s primarily about what she learned along the way not just about her own privileges and prejudices but about how the world is configured, about the value of story even in the increasingly IT world (and she has some thoughts on that increasingly IT world as well)
“Increasingly, what we see reflected back at us when we look for something online is not the world but a reading of our world – a mathematically calculated reflection of the insides of our own heads.”
I understand better the context for her comment in her review of Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean in which my story “Amelia at Devil’s Bridge” appears, “A number of the writers have chosen to represent the dialects of their characters for a Standard English-speaking reader (so that someone who uses British or American English could pronounce the words phonetically and get them to sound as the characters would say them). While there are practical reasons for this choice, it has the effect of implying a reader who comes from elsewhere…” which mildly bugged me at the time of reading as it does when any critic implies that I’m/we’re deliberately pandering to an American/British audience. Having read Reading the World, however, I understand better that Ann’s concerns are coming from a deepened awareness of the imbalances in the publishing world…and the conscious…and, yes, unconscious influence of colonizing forces, still. Still, assumptions shouldn’t be made. That said, and there’s no denying this, and if the book has an overarching theme, it’s in its reinforcement of the idea that stories can shape and erase culture, can define the character of a nation and speak to one nation’s relationship with another, with another hemisphere, with world history. For someone interested/invested in such issues, this was an illuminating read. For the Caribbean leg of her journey, Ann read Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua and Barbuda), Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner (the Bahamas), Song of Night by Glenville Lovell (Barbados), On Heroes, Lizards and Passion by Zoila Ellis (Belize), Afro-Cuban Tales (Cuentos negros de Cuba) by Lydia Cabrera – translated from the Spanish by Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder (Cuba), The Snake King of the Kalinago by Grade 6 of Atkinson School (Dominica), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic), The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins (Grenada), Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo (Guyana), I am a Japanese Writer (je suis un écrivain japanais) by Dany La Ferriѐre (Haiti), John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Jamaica), Only God can make a Tree by Bertram Roach (St. Kitts-Nevis), Neg Maron: Freedom Fighter by Michael Aubertin (St. Lucia), The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (St. Vincent and the Grenadines), and One Scattered Skeleton by Vahni Capildeo (Trinidad and Tobago). If you’re wondering where’s Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, St. Martin, Anguilla et al… you’ll need to read Ann’s chapter on the nightmare of configuring the world…who knew that this deep in it wasn’t definitive? For the full list of Ann’s world, check her site or get the book; it’s a worthy addition to your collection – especially for booklovers and among those for those with a particular interest in world literature, and isn’t it all world literature?top
All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele – I’ll be honest, my copy of All Over Again was inadvertently left behind between switching from one street car to the next in NOLA when I was only one page from the end. This means that I didn’t really get to finish it (I mean I tracked down a copy and read the words but I was no longer in the story); it also means that I don’t have direct quotes (since I don’t have my dog-eared copy to remind me of pieces I absolutely had to share). Buuuut I do know that this Burt Award winning book is one I sincerely recommend especially for young readers, especially boys. It is steeped in the young boy’s perspective with all of its cockeyed (makes perfect sense to me) justifications and frustrations as it episodically moves from one life defining or life changing chapter in his life to the next. The interesting cast of supporting characters include his unintentionally annoying little sister Mary Janga, his mom who practically passes on life lessons to him, his terrifying father who may get him after all, his cousin who is like his moral compass, his arch rival at school, the whole world of ‘unfairness’, and the girl, you know there had to be a girl right? The writer achieves the feat of seating you firmly in his point of view with her use of the second voice, effective use of the second voice; the pacing and comic timing of the book are to be applauded; and yet for all the humour we get a real sense of the all too serious world of the boy, a world not without its struggles including and beyond his personal dramas. Adults will enjoy it, teenagers (it’s intended audience) will be able to relate to it, but as the boy is on the line between boyhood and young adult hood, younger boys may enjoy taking the ride with the boy as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure they will.top
The Dancing Granny by Ashley Bryan – When I wrote this originally, we had just read this at the Cushion Club (the reading club for kids with which I volunteer) and once again Anancy – that enduring character – was front and centre, distracting Granny with the music she couldn’t resist and making off with her food. Anancy will never change, eh! Some say he’s a bad example for young people. I say he’s a testament to the craftiness that can trump sheer muscle; he’s a survivor, just like us. And that makes him a kind of hero as surely as his badmindedness makes him a sort of villain. Besides, think about it, doesn’t he usually pay for his lyin’, thievin’ ways in the end? This was my and the club’s introduction to Bryan’s very musical narrative – and it had us tapping out beats and making up rhythms for the numerous songs in it. And as he mailed me a handful of his books earlier this year, we’ll be discovering more of his writings. I look forward to it; for the works in their own right, but also because when I had the opportunity to interview him, I found him to be a delight and thought if I could have half the youthfulness and joy and appreciation of life that he has at his age, then I’d be very lucky indeed. ETA: Bit of trivia about my book Musical Youth; Ashley Bryan’s Dancing Granny is the literary work the characters interpret for their summer production.top
The Whale House and Other Stories by Sharon Millar – “She is a Trinidad writer who eschews Port of Spain and the more familiar geographic, ethnic, and emotional landscapes of the land and the literature of the land for something a bit more on the fringe, something not as easily categorized. And she does it masterfully – I almost want to coin something like Mistressly there because she is most decidedly a woman writing women, primarily, and digging into the hurt, grazing her fingers familiarly over the spots where the hurt has scabbed over.” This is an excerpt from my full reaction to (not review of) this book which ran long. Read the full, here.top
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – I read and remember enjoying Jane Austen in college (Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) though the details are vague now – with the exception of Pride and Prejudice thanks to Kiera Knightly’s Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy (love that film!) Still it wasn’t nostalgia that made me pick up a copy of Mansfield Park when the logos ship of books came through one time. Or it might have been, I don’t know, but I know the fact that the book referenced my island-home Antigua (so I’d read) was part of my curiousity. In the end, that became the most difficult bit to separate because when I think of Antigua in the time that Sir Thomas would have visited, I can’t help thinking of the horrific reality of the Africans (my ancestors) working on plantations there (the wealth which made communities like Mansfield Park possible). It didn’t stop me from engaging with the book but there was an awareness of this genteel, class conscious society being propped up by something much darker. No, what kept me from engaging with it as much as I would have liked was main character Fanny – I just found her judgmental and puritanical and passive(aggressive). Her silent disapproval of the play her peers intended to put on (what’s wrong with putting on a play? Even if for fun and flirtation), her silent (and classist) disapproval of her former home (it’s urban, it’s chaotic, horrors!), her silent disapproval of, well, everything. She’s initially quite sympathetic. Pried from her family and reluctantly brought to the much more affluent but much colder Mansfield Park with the intent of improving her station – but never being allowed to forget her place in her new family. Like Edmund, her (first) cousin, the reader is meant to feel sympathetic toward Fanny and does for the most part but her lack of spirit in time gets wearying. By turns I find myself wanting her to speak up or loosen up, or something, but to be fair she is a young woman from a different time and it is never a good idea to impose your time on the world of the narrative you’re reading (I know this!). And I do agree with Fanny on some things – for instance her disregard for men who like Mr. Crawford play with women’s feelings. Still. By the end, I’m supposed to be charmed by her and convinced of her “mental superiority” and I’m just not – though of her steadiness, longsuffering-ness, and a certain amount of discernment, yes…I suppose. I mean, as far as that discernment goes, okay, yes, I know she was right in the end about Mr. Crawford who turned out to be, as she had correctly assessed, frivolous and all of self, lacking in steadiness and a moral compass. Still, even with that, there’s an awareness on my part that few but ‘perfect’, compassionate, but kinda dull Edmund could stand up to Fanny-level judgment. And (no doubt Fanny’d find my compass broken too but) I never quite got what made Ms. Crawford a villain, as opposed to just a young woman being young (okay, this is a tale of manners so her spiritedness would be contrary in such a world, and yes, she is sort of frivolous; but she was always nice to Fanny who was nothing but cold toward her, so as far as manners go, I find it hard to see Ms. Crawford as the villain she’s meant to be). Fanny’s aunt, Ms. Norris, is a totally different matter altogether – nothing redeeming there. Still, I never feel quite as disapproving as Fanny does of everything and in fact find her censure and weepiness (the only real emotion we see her overtly exhibit) tiring …and tiresome. And this grand inevitable love between her and Edmund, assuming I could put aside my own modern biases and accept that in such times and such families there’s nothing objectionable in marrying your first cousin, I just don’t see any chemistry between them. Friendship, yes, but no more, really. I’m adding this here nonetheless because overall I still find Jane Austen’s crafting of the narrow world of her times and her ability to make drama even when very little happens quite interesting, her subtle way of critiquing that world and its “manners” instructive, and her use of language quite beautiful (so beautiful I found myself quoting long excerpts of it much to the consternation of the fans of my facebook page no doubt). She remains a pioneer in women’s lit (writing at a time when women writers were very scarce indeed). So, if Mansfield Park wasn’t my cup of tea, some of that is my baggage; you may quite enjoy it. For a much more enthusiastic (and frankly, ,more informed) review, read http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10987048/Mansfield-Park-shows-the-dark-side-of-Jane-Austen.html.top
Le Freak – I know I saw Nile Rodgers performing at the Grammys not that long ago – that Daft Punk song, Get Lucky – so I know he’s alive and still making music…right? But the end of his autobiography Le Freak still felt like a cliffhanger. He’d just got a cancer diagnosis, and made a decision to die living rather than live dying. And though I’d seen him since the publication of the book in 2011, my brain still short circuited over, what happened next??! Thank God for Google; according to Wikipedia, he announced in 2013 that he’d beat the cancer. Well. Can you tell that I got caught up? I may not be a fan of reality shows but, though my definition of celebrity is specific to those who rode their talent to success not those famous just because, I certainly understand our obsession with celebrity culture; my enjoyment of celebrity biographies and autobiographies – my ingestion of celebrity ‘news’ – may be categorized as light-hearted distraction but it is somewhat voyeuristic. And in Le Freak, Rodgers throws all the windows and doors wide open and walks around naked. Not just figuratively. Sex, drugs, and the decadence of rock ‘n roll are on full display. But as my friend who recommended it noted, what makes it most interesting, is the insight to the creative process, his creative process. You’ll have a new appreciation for his disco tracks after reading this and new perspective on some of your favourite pop hits. Nile has literally worked with everyone, every one. His take on their interactions and how they worked together make for interesting and enlightening reading. His life is a bit of a horror show at times – seriously, stay away from drugs kids – but there’s no denying that he lived. And created some indelible music that will survive him. And his candor about his struggles with esteem and his creative struggles make Le Freak more than just a voyeuristic thrill, but a real look beyond the flash, at the soul of a man.top
Okay, so I just finished Prince Lestat, the latest in the Vampire Chronicles, a series I fell in love with as an undergraduate in university. I mention that to underscore the fact that Louis, Lestat, Armand, the whole gang and I have been together for a while. I loved Interview with the Vampire, the Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, Tale of the Body Thief, Memnoch the Devil (when I finally got around to reading it)… these were probably my favourites in the series. I have mixed (like 65/35) feelings about Prince Lestat. Not because it feels overpopulated – though sometimes it does – because some of the back stories were quite fascinating; not because there wasn’t nearly enough Louis – because when he started his melancholy musings at the end, I remembered just how melancholy his musings can be, a reminder that Louis is probably best in small doses. Not because I couldn’t get into the Rose storyline, though I couldn’t. I think because the bulk of the book was all about the build-up (so much so that when Lestat in a fit of pique jumped onto a table and took decisive and bloody action I practically pumped my fist realizing how much inaction there’d been to that point) but then the climax was somewhat anti-climatic – the Brat Prince is now an actual Prince, Prince of the immortals if you will. Meh okay. Someone who’s minded his own business forever and ever is suddenly so easily manipulated (no, I’m not talking about Lestat, and I didn’t buy it, but there’ve been debates and I may be alone in this).The referencing of the book that started it all showed how far Louis has come, though far for Louis is still baby steps, he’s still the most handwringingly human of the blooddrinkers, but it was also a reminder of how self-referential the book felt at times. All that said, I still love this series and you should read the book for yourself – Anne Rice still writes beautifully lush prose, intriguing characters whose moral dilemmas and the choices they lead to can be compelling when they are, narrative which probes at the bigger questions – where do we come from, why are we here, what does it all mean, and as far as Vampire lore is concerned she remains the Don (her Vampires are out there walking the night, they are!). Even a weaker entry in the series is readable if you’re a fan of the series, and if the book reads as a set-up to a new direction in the series, then that means there’ll be more in the series. Right? Right? If you’re not, the book is actually a pretty good primer.top
BIM Arts for the 21st Century – this elder of Caribbean literary journals is as always well balanced and insightful. I am happy to be a part of this collection with my story What’s in a Name. On reflection, and oddly given that I primarily read fiction, I especially enjoyed the poetry followed by the non-fiction sections. My picks for poetry at once accessible, aesthetically pleasing, and rich with layers of meaning are Velma Pollard’s Kicking Daffodils?, Winsome Minott’s Meeting a Fake West Indian – (even the title’s funny, right?), As Usual Thursday Morning by Ann Limm, The Language Situation in Puerto Rico by Loretta Collins Klobah – (and I appreciated the opportunity to read, or attempt to read it, in both English and Spanish), A Birthday Reflection in Verse for Fidel by Kendel Hippolyte, also his Unlife. On the non-fiction side Tennyson S D Joseph’s piece on Hilary Beckles – Ploughing in Hard Soil – was particularly interesting to me. The journal was a balance of revered and new voices, and some that are both new and revered – making for a solid view of some of the best of Caribbean literature now.top
She Wanted A Love Poem by Kimolisa Mings – It’s good to see Kimolisa, a favourite of the Antiguan open mic poetry scene, begin to put her poetry to print. Her self-published collection moves through the stages and variations of love. The best pieces are the mini-stories; the details of mood and moments, character and plot, things observed and things unsaid – as in Ago – laced through her seductive flow, helping to lift some of those stories above the easy clichés of love poetry. Edit: I will add this. I think Kim has talent, I love her flow, but I don’t think this collection is the best of her simply because it feels there are moments that could have been …sharpened, if feels there are times she could have dug a little deeper, it feels there are times when it could have benefited from a critical eye (the specific input of not just a lover of poetry or language, or even a general editor, but a poetry editor in particular). But it’s a pretty engaging read overall with some quite poignant moments and there’s no denying the music (jazz, blues… maybe) in her words and the fact that the collection tries to probe at more than the obvious definitions of love. Look forward to more.top
40 Dayz – Motion – (this is not a new read; it’s newly added here though) – I have to admit I found her Motion in Poetry to be a more satisfying read. But there’s no denying her way with words and the power of her voice. Here are two excerpts from my article on the book, to be published in the Daily Observer: “My favourite section is WombStory and my favourite poem, I think – this changes – blues. Like the blues themselves, it sings of one thing while seeming to sing of another and does so in a tone at once mournful and yearning.” and “In 40 Dayz, the images flicker in and out, sharp and precise but almost too quick to grasp; in my case a few readings were required for it all to begin to sink in. In the end, I found a collection that startles and questions – no, demands – as it pushes and prods at things.”top
Just finished reading Kei Miller’s Writing Down the Vision and, sigh, wrote the author another fan letter. You’ll remember I did the same after reading Fear of Stones. Let me say this, this book isn’t just for writers and though it’s fairly Jamaican-centric, it’s not just for people from Yard. It’s a book that delves into the social-psychology of what it is to be a Caribbean person and a Caribbean artist writing that Caribbean person in this time. Kei articulates it well.top
The Other Tongues – I didn’t understand half of this but I’m glad I read it…and I think I get the gist in terms of the span and general tone of Scottish writing…interestingly there’s a bleakness in the imagery and experiences that seem, on the surface of it at least, to be the opposite of the Caribbean experience…and yet pull at something very, very familiar and relatable. I kept being drawn to things…a stray line, a stirring image, a sense of a complicated history and people.top
A letter for my mother is an emotional read, and isn’t that an understatement. As one of the contributors, I can honestly say I’m not half as brave as these other women who left everything about the most complex relationship most women have right there on the page. It’s the kind of book that will make you tear up as you encounter the jarring recognition that grown as we are, we are still sometimes just little girls in need of mommy’s love, even as we stand up and move through life, sometimes dragging a bag of hurts behind us, sometimes striding purposefully as she taught us whether through words or in response or opposition to her example. The book is especially powerful because I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in the African American as in the Caribbean community, you just don’t unpack your personal history like that – not without getting creative about it. Unadorned like that and laid out for other people to chat ‘bout would have taken, to borrow a Junot Diaz turn of phrase “ovarian fortitude”. They likely would have had to retreat to a quiet place inside themselves to where it was okay to be vulnerable. What results is a book that does what so many things claim but fail to to do, it keeps it real. I recommend it for mothers and daughters.top
I just finished reading Volume 27 of the Caribbean Writer and I’m going to hold it to the same high bar it set for Caribbean writers to hurdle over; there were some messy aspects to this issue – the lack of order and absences in the contributor section and the need for additional proofing to address some repetitions and errors that may be a result of formatting leap immediately to mind. But there’s no denying that the United States Virgin Islands publication, under the stewardship of new editor Alscess Lewis-Brown, remains the gateway for new, quality Caribbean voices. Many who themselves now set the bar among modern Caribbean writers saw some of their earliest works published here. And now we have – among my favourites from Volume 27, the 2013 issue:–
Yashika Graham’s Directions from the Border (in which she maps the way to her place of origin and her heart in the uniquely Caribbean way of giving directions), Figment (in which she uses language beautifully to map the empty space between daughter and daddy), and My Mother (a loving ode to same) – her first publications in print according to her public facebook page; fellow Jamaican, award winning poet Monica Minott’s instructive and evocative Reggae Until Jesus Come and in celebration of another musical icon, Shabba; Rashad Braithwaite’s rumination on geography and opportunity in We Who were born of the Ocean; Rohan Facey’s brief but striking Postcard Image and the Artful Fist, both about illusion and reality; Darryl Roberts’ Tourist and I want to Learn Flamenco Guitar, both capturing certain rhythms of island life; Shanarae Matthew-Edwards’ nostalgic and somewhat epic Fish and Fungi; Antiguan-Dominican Glen Toussaint’s booming Dat; and, rounding out my poetry favourites, Joey Garcia’s haunting Deep.
Whew! How’s that for an over-loaded sentence!?!
The short fiction list is lighter though, since fiction is my love, no less significant. The ones I dog-eared, and mention them here hoping you’ll keep an eye out for these stories and the writers who penned them, Lizards by L J Swanson; My Jumby by Jody Rathgeb; the Annual Christmas Cuss-out by Cheryl Corbin; the Imported Wife by Dwight Thompson; The Hechicera’s Ace by John Russo; Miss Tally’s Last Dance by Ashley Ruth-Bernier; Island Joe by Ryan Rising; Where Dreams Die by DC Laidler; and Paradise Just for Us by Rosalyn Rossignol.
Yes, here you will find some of the all too familiar tropes of Caribbean fiction, and it’s a challenge to not allow ourselves to be ensnared by them, but there are also write-arounds, jump-overs, and the turning of fresh soil in some of these pieces, all of which made for entertaining – and sometimes, deep – reading.
Thanks to the reviews, some new selections are added to my to-read list. Well, some like Dorbrene O’Marde’s Nobody Go Run Me, which I’ve recently been invited to review by the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books have already been read, but D. Gisele Isaac’s enthusiastic review, not always in agreement with the author always engaged by him, make me eager to revisit it. Edwidge Dandicat’s Claire of the Sea Light was already on my to-read list, because I have never not absolutely loved anything she’s written, but Patricia Harkins-Pierre’s review provided additional incentive. New to the to-read list, though, are Frank Mills’ The Last Witness, reviewed by S. B. Jones-Hendrickson because, hello, a Caribbean murder mystery, the very idea intrigues; Ann Margaret Lim’s Festival of Wild Orchid, reviewed by Loretta Collins Koblah, who stands tall among contemporary Caribbean poets in her own right; and And Sometimes they Fly by Robert Edison Sandiford, a most interesting and unusual read based on the review by H. Nigel Thomas.
A feature of The Caribbean Writer – in addition to sharing new works by new and established writers, introducing additions to the Caribbean canon, coverage of a wide cross section of genres – that make it a tribute to everything Caribbean arts is the tributes section where even when you don’t know the artiste, the writing can make you feel the loss of that, such was the case with Jane Coombes detailed and stirring tribute to Smokey Pratt
I must add that it’s thrilling to have several of my pieces – poetry, fiction, and an extract from a screenplay – included in the Caribbean Writer Volume 27, it’s been a long journey from that first, first of many rejections, to this point, even knowing that this is not a point of arrival, because with the Caribbean Writer you have to earn your place every time, which is as it should be as they continue to set the bar for good writing in the Caribbean.top
The White Witch of Rosehallwas interesting to me not so much for the character themselves (in fact, their limited dimensionality was one of the book’s shortcomings in my view) but what it says about the nature of Caribbean slave society – the sickness that it was to all involved. In such a situation, the tale suggested, it’s inevitable to become infected with either megalomania or mistrust; and given that the tale is set in a time when Jamaica is on the cusp of an uprising of the enslaved people, all involved would have been well advised to sleep with one eye open. It all moves very quickly, three weeks, give or take, from beginning to end, too quickly for all that happens to the characters internally (from how the main character adapts to the world to how suddenly and unbelievably outside of a Mills and Boon maybe the various romances manifest. But the detailed rendering of atmosphere and setting, most of it filtered through the newbie eyes of the main character, does attempt and largely succeed in slowing the pace, and grounding the story. I also think that though the language and narrative style is understandably dated (the book was first published in the early 1900s and the story is set in early 1800s), the writer has a good sense of the layers of meanings in words or in certain words grouped together, and of the weight of the situation he reports upon, so for all that’s unlikely about it, it did from time to time prompt me to pause and reflect. So, while it’s not a favourite, it was not without effect. One of the book’s strengths is its effective handling of the supernatural elements – there is a spook factor that both the characters and readers are aware of – though with reactions ranging from fear to doubt to something like, well maybe. The end itself holds no surprise though I realized that I had come to care, however mildly, when news of Rider’s fate stirred a tinge of regret. I’m sharing my thoughts on it because, all told, I’m glad I read it finally, this classic of West Indian literature based on a reality that haunts the Caribbean to this day.top
Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean – Outstanding entries from the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize with a preface by Olive Senior. I just finished reading this collection and it’s a good one. I really liked most of the stories but my top five might be Janice Lynn Mather’s Mango Summer, Sharon Millar’s The Whale House, Barbara Jenkins’ A Good Friday, Ivory Kelly’s The Thing We Call Love, and Dwight Thompson’s The Science of Salvation possibly tied up with Kimmisha Thomas’ Berry. But it really comes down to preference because the crafting of all of these stories is exquisite and …experimental, and the Caribbean landscape they reveal has shadows, not just sunlight; there is heart and humanity but there is also darkness. Really well done; and I’m happy to be a part of it.top
I’ve owned Strunk and White’s Elements of Style since my college days; I re-read it recently prompted by Stephen King after reading his On Writing in which he really talked it up as the definitive book on writing. On re-read, I found myself tugging against some of the rules but even then have to admit that S & W though somewhat conservative know their stuff and back up their chat. So that just as you’re tugging against “Do Not Use Dialect”, which I’ve been known to do, you have to admit they have a point when they complete that thought with “Unless Your Ear is Good”. Their information is sounder than sound; so much so you’ll find yourself re-learning grammar, vocabulary, and writing rules you forgot…and, frankly, learning some for the first time. Bottom line, if you’re a writer or want to be one, it’s a good an essential reference book to have to hand. You’ll need to refer to it again…I know I will.top
She Sex, Prose & Poetry, Sex & the Caribbean Woman (edited by Paula Obe and Carol N. Hosein) – Just finished reading She Sex Prose & Poetry, Sex & the Caribbean Woman (edited by Paula Obe and Carol N. Hosein), a collection of writing by Caribbean women. The fact that I took this long to read this is not an indication of its quality, as I actually recommend it as a read and not just because I’ve got pieces in it. In fact, true confession, I’m not terribly confident about the two pieces selected for the collection. Another true confession, I write more poetry than fiction probably but I feel more sure-footed in the world of fiction. Of my pieces in the collection, One is probably my favourite; it grew out of a visual prompt, a painting by Antiguan artist Glenroy Aaron. I remember the thing that struck me about the image was how intertwined the man and woman were, almost like they were extensions of the same body; hence the poem title ‘One’ – “I want to be so deep inside you/it be like/I’m wearing your skin/when I touch your nipple/it be my lips tingling.” Though it’s blatantly physical, I wanted to suggest emotional intimacy equal to or beyond the physical, and I wanted it to feel like a seduction not at the beginning of a relationship when they barely know each other, but when they’re already in – deep. My other piece – “A Religious Experience” is borderline sacrilegious since it’s using sacred terminology for something considerably less sacred. But the choice of terminology is meant to suggest the reverence with which they’ve embraced this connection they have – “and so we prayed/then the breeze sang a Holy song.” I’m hoping their selection suggests that I communicated something of what I was trying to communicate. But you, readers, will be the judge. As reader, my favourites included: READ ON.top
Dido’s Prize by Eugenia O’Neal – Dido’s Prize is old school romance like I haven’t read in a good long while – you know the template; boy meets girl, he tall dark and strapping, she a beautiful spitfire, they feel something intense for each other but amidst misunderstandings and other obstacles tug-o-war until inevitably they find their way to their happily ever after. That’s not a spoiler – that’s what this genre promises. That is to say that like most romance novels you know the end from the beginning because in romance novels the hero always gets the girl and the girl always gets her man. But its alignment with the genre notwithstanding, in Dido’s Prize, British Virgin Islands author Eugenia O’Neal deftly ups the ante – intricately weaving in tension, excitement, and uncertainty – by setting her historical romance against a backdrop of piracy and adventure. Pirates are popular these days, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Black Sails. But you’ve never met a pirate quite like this plucky heroine who masques her true identity and holds her own as deals with the uncomfortable realities of being a woman on a ship full of rowdy men. By turns spirited and fool hardy, Dido’s a pirate you root for – but still a pirate who tries to hang on to her principles even as she gets her hands bloody. what Dido’s Prize does that most pop culture pirate tales don’t is meet the reality of the world – the reality of slavery (and misogyny) in their world – head on (well, not as head on as say Roots or 12 Years a Slave but it doesn’t ignore it as they do in the world of Captain Jack). Kudos to O’Neal for managing that; for confronting the harsh realities of that world and yet keeping the story buoyant – not always edge of your seat but never dull. But because she adhered so closely to historical reality I doubted at times, even as I had my fingers crossed for, O’Neal’s ability to deliver on the happily ever after; especially as the pages wound down and the lovers remained separated – him beaten and facing the hangman’s noose, her resolved to free him and sail off into the sunset. Together. But deliver she did, even managing to make it somewhat believable that despite the realities of a world in which people who look like our heroine and her hero are commonly enslaved, they could find a space where they, their families, and a whole community of others like them could live free. And to do so in a way that feels, okay a little bit fanciful, but not strictly speaking out of sync with history. It’s my kind of romance; there’s too much else going on – pirate raids, slave rebellions etc. – for me to get bored, as I’ve been known to do, given the predictability of the genre. In fact, not only did I enjoy reading Dido’s Prize (which I won in an online contest on O’Neal’s website), if it did make it to the big screen, it’d be a fresh take on the genre of pirate films, one I’d pay good money to see. Think Hollywood would go for it?top
Little Rude Boys Girls by Deshawn Browne– First things first, the author of this book was 12 years old at the time it was published – the book and his improved grades came of a challenge put to him by the book’s publisher Dr. Noel Howell, a doctor and filmmaker who seems to have made it something of a mission to work with talented young people. I wasn’t keen to read and review the book because the authors’ a kid; so one, I’m not really the market, two, if I didn’t like it I couldn’t say that I did and I didn’t want to discourage a young boy admirably rising to a challenge. After all challenging young people to realize their potential and find their voice is what Wadadli Pen is all about. So the book’s merits or demerits as a literary work wasn’t really the point….I read it recently and while it’s not a masterpiece, it delivers an entertaining story with a bonus moral arc to its demographic (late primary boys and girls) and was quite enjoyable (for me, an adult). It’s a book about rivalries (harmless rivalry between boys and girls), family, and, unexpectedly, HIV/AIDS – it’s about pushing yourself, rising to the occasion. It reads less like fiction and more like a pretty detailed and vivid how I spent my summer – a very organized, episodically plotted, lively report from the perspective of a mischievous narrator who shows growth by the story’s end. I suspect good editing is also at play here but the young writer also has good story sense. It’s a bit overcrowded – a lot of characters to keep track of and not enough shading to give you a real sense of them beyond the roles they play in the book – but it’s neither exhausting nor, at the other end, is it ever dull. In fact it’s pretty satisfying and in the end shows itself to have a lot of heart, as well. I’d definitely recommend the author take some writing classes as he continues to grow and he may, down the road, have a book that is closer to a masterpiece in him because I’d say there’s potential there.top
Womanspeak (2013) – This is a well ordered collection, at times inspirational, at times provocative, at times beautiful, at times disturbing, universally insightful. It is also a fun and compelling read. Fun is an odd word for it given that this edition of Womanspeak speaks so profoundly to so much of what women go through and yet as the language wraps its colourful self around ideas of self and independence and the other big issues women grapple with it is, fun. I am delighted to be a part of it, happy that my poems and short story feel a part of it, part of this community of women Bahamas’ Lynn Sweeting has called together on the page. From a purely reader standpoint, my favourites included Althea Romeo-Mark’s A Kind of Refugee/Living in Limbo (which I may or may not have read before, I can’t be sure, in her collection If Only the Dust would Settle) from the essays section which also included interesting entries by Vahni and Leila Capildeo, Victoria Sarne, and Ashley Akerberg – stories that show women finding their footing with the rug pulled out from under them and to reference the Capildeo piece, “(creating) better circumstances, not the endless coping with situations”. In the fiction section which opens the journal, I think I responded to each of the stories on some level – landing each in the favourites category as well. My lip curled up in distaste three short paragraphs into Vashti Bowlah’s Vindira’s Day, a strong opener to the collection. My displeasure wasn’t with the story but with the man who was so distasteful he hadn’t even done anything to that yet and I already wanted to wash him off me. In Cherise A. Charleswell’s story, the way the story describes the character’s reaction to the male gaze and the pssst is very familiar to me; could relate as well to the way some became particularly menacing, the way you can feel abused by those encounters, even when nothing specific happens, even though it’s not something others would describe as particularly abusive. I was reading Shakira Bourne’s story We always smile for Photos in two places (it’s also in the Trinidad and Tobago anthology She Sex) and liked both experiences of it, and especially her use of irony; as I did the use of detail and the foreshadowing in the pre-Columbian world of Rhonda Claridge’s In the Distant Waters Land. The poetry section was rich as well, and I found myself finding things to like, images and insights that stopped me, even in the poems I didn’t love-love like the mother and daughter murdered for making a video of themselves laughing in the rain (Lynn Sweeting who also writes profoundly of masks and priorities in I like the Disguise). Poems to make you ponder, as Angelique Nixon’s Occupying Dissent Long Time if we haven’t in fact gone back to sleep despite its assertion that this is our time and its challenge to “us to stay woke together”; poems like ARM’s that make you marvel at the way she grounds the poems with earth-bound details – “rain-soaked clothes (clinging) to her frame. Cold (gnawing) at her shoulders. Her beige skirt, grass-stained, (and) hemmed in mud” – and yet untethers them with more abstract imagery – “dark clouds (crossing) her moon. Her thoughts (scattering) leaves after a storm”; poems, defiant in spirit like Opal Palmer Adisa’s; poems that pack a punch like Lynn Sweeting’s Woman of God which is stronger for its simple telling sans editorializing of an encounter between a pious woman and a domestic violence survivor. This is not passive poetry…these are revolutionary pieces about women’s (and men’s – e.g. “the forest man willing to die rather than step aside for the bulldozers because without the forest he will die anyway” – LS) encounters with the ‘justice’ system, about the failure of love, their anger, their defiance…and yet there is considerable beauty (variously dark or delicate but beauty nonetheless) to be found in poems like Charlotte Dunn’s Sea Grape Leaf Jump, Tanya Evanson’s Apocalypsiata…other poems that come to mind for various reasons as I write this reflection on a stirring collection are Anita Macdonald’s Seized, Sonia Farmer’s This is not a Fairytale, Nancy anne Miller’s Life Jacket, and Attilah Springer’s Dance Pretty Fight Deadly. In the fairy tale section – yes, there is a fairy tale section – my favourite was probably Barbara Arrindell’s feminist spin on an anansi tale – though there was much I liked about Brenda Lee and Lelawatee’s tales as well, most especially their freshness in an under-developed genre, stories perfect for that stage of childhood where you’re defining reality through imagination. In some way that’s all stages of life if you’re open to seeing…and if you’re open to seeing one of the impressions this collection makes is the precariousness and fragility of reality and on the other hand the strength and strategizing required to be a woman in the Caribbean, and in the world.top
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones – The thing Tayari does in this story that I find fascinating is how she ‘plays’ with the reader, this reader’s, emotions…I don’t mean that in a negative way….but…the story starts with the perspective of the daughter of the other woman, a girl who is always second best, or so it seems to her, in her father’s affections compared to his ‘real’ daughter and his ‘real’ family. We see the lawful wife and child as the other, the villains of the piece if you will, and the father as a weak man. Then, just when we think we have a handle on how we’re supposed to see this, how we’re supposed to feel about it, Tayari flips the script on us. Suddenly we’re in the perspective of the legitimate daughter, and suddenly she is the sympathetic one, and the one we’ve been following is, if not a villain, then a perplexing mystery. We find ourselves liking and feeling for this second daughter and her mother with equal passion, and even liking the father a little bit, seeing him, as we are, through the eyes of the daughter who has no reason to find him lacking. So, who’s the bad guy, who’s the good guy? In Silver Sparrow, as in life, it’s complicated. In Silver Sparrow, as in life, things just sort of unravel…and in Silver Sparrow, as in life, the ending is bittersweet…no happily ever after, no matter what the fairytales promise. And yet, like a fairytale, Tayari makes the meeting of hearts, as pedestrian and messy as it gets, seem magical, fated, and epic:
“And this is how it started. Just with coffee and the exchange of their long stories. Love can be incremental. Predicaments, too. Coffee can start a life just as it can start a day. This is the meeting of two people who were destined to love from before they were born, from before they made choices that would complicate their lives. This love just rolled toward my mother as though she were standing at the bottom of a steep hill. Mother had no hand in this, only heart.”
Part of the genius of her approach is the telling of the story from the perspective of the children – the two daughters – on opposite sides of the story because of their mothers and their love for their mothers and their desire to be first in their father’s heart, but bound to each other in a way their mothers would never be and their father could never understand. They are both heartbreaking, these girls, and if I feel any dissatisfaction with the novel it’s in the way that it swings back, at the end, to the daughter we first meet, as though we haven’t come to know and care about the ‘other’ daughter as well, and aren’t just as curious about what became of her (or her take on it), after. SIDEBAR: I met Tayari, sort of, in summer 2012 when I went to a joint reading she did in New York with another favourite of mine (Judy Blume). Wrote about it here. And I had the opportunity to meet her when she came to Antigua last year, but, regrettably, missed that opportunity. I prefer meeting the writers I like on the pages of their books anyway; this is the first book I’ve read for Tayari (though I follow her blog and fb page) and she is officially an author I like. top
Nobody Go Run Me: the Life and Times of Sir Mclean Emmanuel by Dorbrene O’Marde is, in my estimation, a perfect marriage of writer and subject. O’Marde knows the players and the context of his story well, he respects them but isn’t hesitant to critique them. He understands the link between the movements in the world of calypso and the real world movements that inspired or were inspired by them. He has unprecedented access to personalities and insights that flesh out the tale, and he clearly knows and loves the art form.Read more.top
“Okay so, On Writing by Stephen King, mi lub dis book bad (English translation: I really liked this book). It’s hard to know where to begin with the sharing because it’s so bookmarked. What I can say, in general, is that it reads more like a memoir than a how-to book though at the end you will have learned a thing or two about how-to…including that some of it is a kind of magic that is unexplainable even to the person doing it, a fact King acknowledges up front when he said, “…most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” And yet the only thing I disagreed with King about was the change of a character’s name in an edit of a sample from one of his stories at the end of the book; because the man knows his stuff and he reinforced some of what I already knew and added to it, teaching me new things. And because the book is memoir style, he teaches mostly by doing; as we read the stories of his childhood we’re learning how to tell a good story and then, bonus, he connects the dots. I’ll share some of my favourite bits.top
“I have climbed back into life over and over on a ladder made of words…” So Alice Walker says in the preface of Her Blue Body Everything We Know. There some crisp imagery especially in the Africa pieces, which are like emotional snapshots. Those are almost serene next to the angrier, lengthier, America pieces and the introspective anti-romantic pieces such as Warning which says, “to love a man wholly/love him/feet first/head down/eyes cold/closed/in depression”. One of my favourites among the latter is Never Offer Your Heart to Someone Who Eats Hearts – don’t you just love that title – as dark and cynical a piece as you’ll find in this collection but which ends on a hopeful note. There’s one about Janie Crawford, you know from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; loved that one too because it pretty much sums up how I saw the Janie character. I liked the one about Lorraine Hansberry too which is really about the fortitude it takes to be a revolutionary. Another of my favourites is How Poems Are Made: A Discredited View, “to the upbeat flight of memories./The flagged beats of the running heart.” I also liked Songless which asks “what is the point of being artists if we cannot save our life?” ; Each One, Pull One – another Hansberry inspired piece – in which Alice charges, “we must say it all, and as clearly as we can. For, even before we are dead, they are busy trying to bury us.” There are blatant activist pieces like These Days which I liked and you realize that for Alice writing is always political. And there is something searching and beautiful there too as in another of my favourites If There Was Any Justice in which she communes sort of with a favourite artist of mine Van Gogh. Two of the stronger pieces, for me, come near the end: A Woman is not a Potted Plant and Winnie Mandela, We Love You. I realize as I’m writing this that I actually liked this collection more than I realized, I read it over weeks of bus rides, bookmarking as I went. I shouldn’t be surprised. Alice is ever one of the more stimulating writers I’ve found, stimulating in that reading her work is not a passive exercise, it makes you think, feel, engage, write, and even without all that, there is enough truth here that I couldn’t dismiss it even if I had a mind to:
In These Dissenting Times
To acknowledge our ancestors means
we are aware that we did not make
ourselves, that the line stretches
all the way back, perhaps, to God; or
to Gods. We remember them because it
is an easy thing to forget: that we
are not the first to suffer, rebel,
fight, love and die. The grace with
which we embrace life, in spite of
the pain, the sorrows, is always a
measure of what has gone before.
I like autobiographies. No surprise then that every time I left the house for the bus stop, I usually grabbed Makeba: My Story (by Miriam Makeba with James Hall) from by current active pile of books. It was more than that though. She is an interesting person who’s led an amazing life and whose story, as if that weren’t enough, is part of the tale of the shameful story of apartheid South Africa. There was weirdly so much that was relatable in this book (certain customs and attitudes really did travel with my ancestors across the Atlantic) but there is much as well that’s distant from my own experience (perhaps closer to what my ancestors would have experienced in a world when and where they were considered less than human). The reason I most liked this book, however, is that I was almost utterly charmed by Miriam; I say almost because there is one chapter much later on that hasn’t settled…we are, none of us, perfect….but her humility, her talent, her passion all make for a very charming tale indeed, even amidst the tragedies of her life. Here’s a taste of her music:top
Forty Years of Struggle: the Birth of the St. Kitts Labour Movement by Sir Probyn Inniss – This is not something I would normally pick up but the author (a teacher, lawyer and former Governor) and I met during a reading at Greenland Books and Things in St. Kitts and gave me a copy. As I’d found his reading interesting – mostly for how similar the experiences of these islands are when all is said and done – I decided to give it a go. it was an interesting read. Of course, the book makes a case for the uniqueness of St. Kitts colonial era experience and in so doing suggests that things weren’t as rough on other islands. I suspect those in neighbouring islands like Antigua who lived through the post-Emancipation, contract laws binding adult workers and their offspring to plantations (like slaves), and pre and post labour days would have their own – contradictory – opinion on that; hell, I didn’t live it and I found myself being contradictory on occasion while reading. For example: “Antigua, by contrast, experienced better relations between the different classes and racial groups. This was evident in Antigua since the early nineteenth century and no doubt contributed to the fact that Antigua had no Apprenticeship period, moving from slavery to full freedom in 1834.” Really? Yes, we had no apprenticeship but not because things were sweet as mango between the planter class and the working class…Statements like this made me question some of the book’s other judgments (not the facts, the book stands strong on facts, but the conclusions reached based on those facts). That said, it’s an important perspective, one that sits on the same shelf as books like Antigua and Barbuda’s To Shoot Hard Labour and (I suspect since I haven’t actually read it) No Easy Pushover both by Keithlyn Smith. That it explores – beyond the broad division between the two main classes of people, the white planter class and the black working class, and the ways their history shaped a society defined by race-based value and deep power imbalances as a result – the Portuguese and middle Eastern (Syrian, Lebanese) immigrants that came to dominate retail commerce and other areas of business, and the complex relationship between the Eastern Caribbean and the Dominican Republic (in particular the export of workers from these parts for work in the cane fields of the Spanish nation and their poor treatment there…a reversal of which we are now experiencing) adds a dynamic that’s important to understanding the social history and reality of our countries. One lingering question the one posed by the writer at the end is how much has really changed, how fully have we embraced the opportunity to move beyond the patterns put in place by colonial era politics that did not favour (in fact had no real interest in) the working man (the black working man). That’s a question with resonance in St. Kitts, in Antigua, and no doubt in other parts of the region.top
Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice -*warning: this is a long one* – I’ve read a fair amount of Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire, Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, Tale of the Body Thief, Cry to Heaven, The Witching Hour, Blackwood Farm and some others) but not in a good long while. I remember thinking that Memnoch the Devil wasn’t for me…probably the girl that was raised Catholic including Catholic school, Holy Communion, Confirmation classes etc unconsciously turning from the perceived blasphemy. I say unconsciously because chances are if I thought it was so I would no doubt have read it in rebellion (another characteristic of Catholic girls). No, I think at the time I had just become disenchanted with the authoress I discovered in my college years, the same way I eventually became disenchanted with romance novels and other genres I consumed once upon a time but don’t feel particularly drawn to now. So I have to give mad props to Glen of Best of Books Antigua for his ambush sale of Memnoch the Devil, thanks for re-introducing me to one of my favourite writers. This book remind me of all the reasons the reader and writer in me was drawn to Rice’s writing in the first place. She is a boundary pusher and rule breaker – the ultimate Catholic girl rebel – on an epic scale. You kind of feel like you’re pissing God off a little bit by reading it, as much as Memnoch did with all his questioning, but you read on anyway (like him, you can’t help yourself). Re writing rules, as far as exposition is concerned, teachers often rap our knuckles with show don’t tell show don’t tell…well huge sections of Memnoch is exposition, there’s some showing but there’s a fair amount of telling as well…but it never feels dull in part because one of Anne’s signatures is the delicious descriptiveness of her narrative. Her words are alive so that even when nothing in particular is happening, the grass is growing, can’t you hear it? You know what I mean, she milks sensation from each moment so that even the still moments are not stagnant. Another rule, pare it back, don’t overwrite…hm, well, Anne’s writing is as lush and showy/flamboyant as a Caribbean sunset, and just as beautiful. The atmosphere she created in rendering the New Orleans setting of so many of her stories is part of what landed this city on my bucket list, half doubting that the actual city can live up to the one that lives in my imagination. She doesn’t rush the moments and at the same time creates amazing tension, hooking the reader to turn the next page and the next and the next even as nothing much more happens than one Being in conversation with another Being, trying to make his case. I love her writing – lines like “the story devoured the night” – I really do and I’m glad I was reminded of that. Let me say a word about genre. I don’t really believe in genre-fiction. I read what I read, I like what I like, genre be damned; and I really feel that folks who dismiss not just Memnoch but Rice’s Vampire chronicles (and this can apply to other of her supernatural fare) are missing out. She’s a great storyteller and I look forward to reading both Servant of the Bones, thanks to the teaser at the back of Memnoch, and the Wolf Gift (because, yeah, I guess the idea of were-fic in Anne’s hands intrigues me). Thematically, she remains in Memnoch, as bold as when she created a vampire with a conscience in Louis and paired him with an unrepentant rebel rock star of a maker in the first book in the series. Not enough Louis in this for my taste (I love Louis with all his human angst and complexity) but Lestat is very much present if not the star of this tale. No the very nature of creation, of heaven/hell, of God and humanity hogs the spotlight –and how bold is she to take on such grand and controversial themes? Bolder still to cast God as the villain (or as too removed from human feeling to be relatable) and Memnoch/Lucifer/the Devil, the beleaguered hero (the one trying to do good, the one working in the best interest of humankind), maybe, depends on your reading of it. Bottom line, Memnoch is a mind trip. And Rice doesn’t allow the reader to look away from it, nor from the disturbingly erotic image of Lestat sucking on Dora’s womb blood (not my favourite image, uh, but my new favourite word for that by the way). I will add only that I don’t know what prompted Anne to write this; if it was just the next inevitable stop on Lestat’s wild adventure – he’d done everything else right? Or if it was driven by her own questioning about the nature of God (and especially God in relation to human suffering something many of us have grappled with). I don’t know; I do know that tonally, it feels a bit like a cry of frustration – “we are in the hands of mad things” – and of despair – “why are we never never to know”. These are characters’ words, of course, but the whole book, entertaining and thought provoking and epic as it is, also feels deeply personal in that sense. Or perhaps I’m reading into things.top
Pineapple Rhymes by Veronica Evanson Bernard – This poetry collection is a bit of a time capsule…a fair amount of the references (such as the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday) are way before my time…think 40 years before my time as they reference the conditions and realities during the author’s coming of age in 1930s and 40s Antigua…but for an Antiguan of any age, or anyone with an interest in Antiguan culture, Pineapple Rhymes is a good blend of folk history and folk poetry in the folk language which is more than just a variation or bastardization of English as implied in the glossary. If you’re a regular to the blog or are at all familiar with my literary tastes, you already know that Women of Antigua was my introduction to the writing of the late Veronica Evanson Bernard. It remains my favourite poem in the collection, and a quintessential Antiguan and Barbudan poem in my view. Other pieces bookmarked were A Mudder’s Lament, Nutten Nar Bite, Shappin fuh a Wedding Frack, Laas at Sea, Congo Man, Wite Cloaz, Teachah Teachah, Twenty Fourth O’ May, and De Obeah Oooman. She writes the Antiguan as it sounds, the work is strongest when she uses that to get a good rhythm going as she chronicles the struggles and joys of the folk…without overly romanticizing it. It’s a book that calls to mind the now elusive Antiguan character.top
Living History by Hillary Clinton – I can’t imagine how at once scary and liberating it must be to write an autobiography; digging around the dark and uncomfortable corners of your psyche, revisiting your past triumphs and failures, exposing your soft underbelly. By comparison with others I’ve read, Hilary’s feels very controlled and as such didn’t draw me in as completely though she’s led a very dynamic and interesting life. The most interesting aspects for me were her early life; once Bill entered the picture, I felt it was too much about him (and having already read his biography and being a Hilary fan, I guess I wanted more of her and less of the president and presidential policy but when you’re a supporting player to the president, I suppose it’s going to shake out like that). The latter part of her journey (pre-senate) was interesting, and a bit more revealing, as well…but still restrained. Liked it enough to add it to this list though.top
Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World by Jon F. Sensbach isn’t my usual cup of tea but it was interesting and provided some insights to the experience of African enslavement (particularly with respect to the grey areas) that I hadn’t considered. And the roots of the Moravian church…wow, some interesting insights there.top
Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama – Beautifully written, insightful, engaging…and humanizing. He may be President but he was once upon a time just a confused boy seeking his place in the world. This book is evidence of that.top
Just got through reading New Writing: Poetry & Prose by Shoestring Press. It’s actually not that new anymore as it was released in 2001, and I’m not sure there are even copies in circulation any more. I borrowed a copy from one of the authors, Wadadli Pen chief judge Brenda Lee Browne. And I’m not just saying this because of her association with Wadadli Pen but she does a great job of capturing the rhythm of the island in her Diary from the Wet Side of the Moon and I was starting to get invested in the characters when the snippet ended so that’s good. As we do with older pieces she probably curls her lips when she looks back at this, if you’re a writer journeying, your work is going to keep on growing but if this was 2001, I’m even more eager to see what she’s come up with circa 2012. The other stories are all set in Europe, England especially and, I suspect, in East Midlands primarily. It was an alright read overall.top
The Shack by William P. Young – So, a friend insisted I read this…and I have. But honestly I’m not sure what to make of it. It starts out quite mysteriously and with deft pacing that mystery draws you in…then slows considerably after the big reveal (during the pages of exposition that follow)…but that big reveal (three in one, in fact) is significant and it does end satisfyingly with an open-ended (unstated) challenge to believe or not believe. It’s quite beautiful in parts, quite eloquent and insightful in parts, thought provoking (with respect to the nature of being, of fear, of surrender, of forgiveness, of our relationship with the divine). I can’t say this book had the powerful impact on me it did others (like my friend) but I appreciated reading it, in the end; and feel pretty certain the questioning it has provoked will linger. Post note: Actually it’s been a while since I read this and it hasn’t lingered as much as I thought it might but all other sentiments remain.top
Womanspeak is a literary and visual art journal edited by Bahamian Lynn Sweeting and featuring women writers from across the Caribbean. I’m in it, so this isn’t really a review, but I did have some thoughts about why I liked it. Yes, I do.top
Evening is the Whole Day – Preeta Samarasan
This book was written by my Breadloaf ’08 roommate Preeta Samarasan. I’m glad I discovered it and her, and discovered, too, that though from different parts of the world, there was a lot that connected us, in part due to the common cultural elements born ironically enough of our shared British colonial experience…or the residue thereof. As a Caribbean reader certain things will feel startlingly familiar when you read this; and the parts unknown, well that’s part of the discovery, isn’t it? I’ll admit it took me a while to get through it, it’s not an easy or light read; sometimes I was caught up, sometimes distracted, and sometimes I simply needed to look away. It’s very vivid and not always pleasant. Uncomfortable details aside, it is a stirring if at times claustrophobic tale (in the sense that I didn’t enjoy a minute spent with any of these people though I appreciated the author’s realistic and complex rendering of them). Speaking of style, I was immediately caught by the atmospheric punch (the thereness of the place) and by how the author captures the speech patterns of the Malaysian people in a way that makes it both relatable to the non-Malaysian reader and authentic (or at least authentic-sounding since I’m not qualified o speak to its actual authenticity)…it’s certainly one of the challenges I grapple with as a Caribbean writer, and I think this Malaysian writer does a good job of it here. The book is informative regarding the shifting mood in Malaysia for the span of the tale but really the country is primarily the context for a family drama marked by secrets, disaffection, hypocrisy, deception, and the politics of being.top
For In the Black: New African Canadian Literature, I decided, instead of sharing favourite stories or poems, to share favourite moments. Read More.top
I suspect for the Caribbean reader there will be much that resonates in Volume 26 of the Caribbean Writer. Though it deals with the natural environment, it is not about paradisiacal vistas so much as it is about the stories (in verse and prose) running through the veins of the natural environment. I count among my favourites Tregenza A. Roach’s poem The Grove in Bethesda which speaks of the bridges formed by the environment across which people choose not to cross (“…no love passes between”); and Meagan Simmons’ Drunk Bay Cliffs, a place of natural wonder and painful history (“we stand on the cliffs/and try to drink this place/in without feeling the violence in it:/this wide ocean/gaping like an open mouth”). The Last Crustacean by Shakirah Bourne uses perspective to effectively convey the disturbance caused by unchecked ‘development’. And while June Aming’s Two by Sea delivers bitter justice to those who take advantage of nature, Diana McCaulay’s Sand in Motion has the immediacy of a journalistic feature of nature being laid bare on the altar of development, and in Barbara Jenkins’ The Talisman (one of her two gems in this collection, the other being the adventure Healing Ruptures) nature is a vividly rendered backdrop for a complex and haunting tale of human interaction. Plus, there’s an honest to goodness ghost story, Aaron Adesh Singh’s The Duenne, while childhood takes an even darker, albeit less supernatural turn in Stanley Niamatali’s Girl-Child in which awakening sexuality, domestic violence, and violent nature converge. The protagonist in Thomas Reiter’s poem A Boy Harvesting wonders “Does everything on this island tell a story?” Yes, it does. The Caribbean Writer, the annual print journal of contemporary Caribbean literature, continues to gather the best of them.top
I have mixed feelings about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Lisbeth Salandar character was interesting, intriguing, and well drawn (though that made most of the other characters seem less so by comparison), the writer threads the tension tightly holding your curiousity and at times making you tense up the way a good mystery should. But it’s also fairly slow at both ends of that mystery, especially the back end (i.e. the section after the mystery of the missing girl is solved which feels both anti-climatic and emotionally unsatisfying though it did provide an interesting education on the world of international finance). Still, I’d lost interest in the outcome and still feel troubled that the many dead bodies were so quickly forgotten …but then moral ambiguity even by heroes and heroines is part of this book’s appeal so perhaps that’s intentional. I’d read another one in the series but I’m not hungry for it. I do want to see the film though.top
(excerpted from my review in the Daily Observer), Sugar Barons “is a lengthy read and the territory is generally familiar but the perspectives culled from personal journals, private communications and the like offer up fresh anecdotal tales and colourful personal narratives…” with contemporary resonance and/or ripples re the social and economic impact of sugar and its companion trade in African humans. An interesting read for history buffs and “…a reminder that the impact of the trade in indefinable ways is still being felt to this day.” Warning, the book does humanize the planters/slave owners, but even so slavery as practiced in our hemisphere was unprecedented in its level of brutality, so brace yourselves.top
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