Three Terrific Coming of Age Novels for Young Adults

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger
Images by Alicia Viarruel

Ask (almost) any adult: growing up doesn’t always come together as easily as a pot of simmering pelau over a riverside cookstove. The ingredients for a successful coming of age story often feature spicy seasonings — how better to map a young adventurer, discoverer or teen rebel’s growth than with tempestuous authenticity? Just like there’s no one way to cook a pelau, there’s no one-size-fits-all narrative for a compelling young adult story. Here are three that we recommend, for distinct and deep-rooted reasons.

The Old Songs, by Madeline Coopsammy (Inanna Publications)

Set in the dramatic advent of Trinidad & Tobago’s Independence, The Old Songs heralds a young girl’s self-discovery against the backdrop of a nation’s early steps towards self-determination. Written with explanatory italicizations for many local words, framed in a slightly Austenian structure, this novel holds much of T&T in sharp-eyed judgement as it does fond, nostalgic fascination. Tessa Joseph, the intrepid, curious heroine at the heart of the story, learns to question the allegedly superior worlds of both Church and Convent, striving to find her place in a system she swiftly realizes doesn’t always practice the country’s watchwords. Whether she triumphs or falls victim to racism, colourism and the sweeping scythe of class will keep you turning pages, in anticipation and an underdog’s hope. Pairs well with Brown Sugar and Spice, by Betty Peter, for slightly younger readers.

Girlcott, by Florenz Webbe Maxwell (Blouse & Skirt Books)

1959, Bermuda. Scholarship-intent Desma is poised on the brink of sixteen, and things are about to change forever — in ways she can’t possibly fathom until historic events sweep into motion. A boycott is in the air, one intent on stamping out the insidious racial and political lines dividing white and black Bermudian society. What will Desma decide, and where, ultimately, will her allegiances lie? Second place winner of the 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, Girlcott enlightens while educating, casting light on a crucial period on Bermudian history. Situating Desma’s political awakening and sense of responsibility to others’ safety is the hallmark of Maxwell’s writing here, which shines with simple, convincing style. The author lets the enormity of the Theatre Boycott, and the intensity of Desma’s emotional responses to its effects, carry the book’s strength, making for grounded, rewarding reading. Pair with the politically-powered YA powerhouse, The Art of White Roses, by Viviana Prado-Núñez.

The Dark of the Sea, by Imam Baksh (Blouse & Skirt Books)

Come for the sea monsters, stay for the supernatural suspense, learn lessons as timeless as the ocean itself. Winner of the 2018 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, The Dark of the Sea not only plummets us deep down to oceanic territories filled with self-governing aqueous warrior-dwellers, it centres numerous facets of the adolescent Guyanese experience. Danesh, our protagonist, faces down odds influenced by Lovecraftian epics, but he also deals with the acutely realistic burdens of teen suicide in his community, of fragmented family relationships, and the challenges of ‘fitting in’ into a world not designed for those who think and feel outside the mainstream. Once you sink your teeth into this epic adventure, you won’t want to leave the world Baksh has created: it’s as multifaceted and complex a portrait of Guyana as you can imagine, populated by supporting characters whose personalities and problems crackle with plausible intensity. Pairs perfectly with Baksh’s 2016 CODE Burt Award winner, Children of the Spider.

Which of these brave, inspiring bildungsromans have you read? What’s your favourite Caribbean Young Adult novel of all time?

Four Haunting Caribbean Reads for October (and Beyond!)

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger
Images by Alicia Viarruel

We may not have autumnal leaf fall or cozy sweater weather here in the Caribbean, but we’re no strangers to our very own haunting reads. Take a peek at the current bookshelfies in temperate climes and you’ll see tall stacks of Shirley Jacksons and Stephen Kings next to pumpkin spice lattes and glow-in-the-dark ghouls: we’re joining them in spirit(s), minus the ambience but big on the thrills.  

This October, Paper Based Bookshop presents a quartet of short fiction and novel picks, brimming with elements of the eerie, traces of the terrifying, and glimpses of the ghastly. Buckle in, boo-k lovers!

Where There Are Monsters, by Breanne Mc Ivor (Peepal Tree Press)

Trinidadian McIvor’s short story debut is a page-turner on several counts, not least of which is the author’s skillful braiding of folkloric elements into her fiction. The fear laced into the narratives Mc Ivor summons is chillingly psychological: sometimes, you’ll wonder as you put the collection down to pause between stories, could it be possible the monster is actually you? Let yourself linger over “Robber Talk”, which threads a winding road from the Queen’s Park Savannah and Stollmeyer’s Castle to wind up in a seemingly innocuous pastoral spot – the verdant Botanic Gardens. Yet is there more lurking in the shadows of the palms and leafy pedestrian walks? Mc Ivor believes there is: this story and the others in Where There Are Monsters are intent on taking you there, even if you scream.

Kingston Noir, edited by Colin Channer (Akashic Books)

The Akashic Noir series dismantles preconceptions about a country, a city, and the people who live, love, and war there. So it is in Kingston Noir, curated in three sections by Colin Channer, to amplify the voices that flee violence yet seem to simultaneously court it, in a grimly compelling two-step. From Kei Miller and Thomas Glave come offerings of xenophobic suspicion and anti-queer aggression that endure long in the reader’s memory. In Leone Ross’ “Roll It”, we’re laid bare by the most haunting tale of the anthology: if you doubt a model’s catwalk could be transformed into a fiery psychological site of devastation, you need to sample what Ross does with language here, before diving right into the scene of the crime. It sears, it soars, with an unforgettable brutality: an evocation of such horrors within.

The Repenters, by Kevin Jared Hosein (Peepal Tree Press)

If Trinidadian Kevin Jared Hosein uplifts the genre of Caribbean horror in our contemporary writing, colour us teeth-chatteringly unsurprised. His debut novel for adults, The Repenters, introduced its audience to a psychogeographical Trinidad beyond even the grit of newspaper headlines. As the novel’s protagonist Jordon Sant, consigned to life in the St. Asteria Home for Children, struggles to preserve scraps of happiness amidst misery and cruel caprice, he learns that the world isn’t as it seems, not even when you think you’re cheating fate with some survivor’s tricks. An orphanage with secret rooms and skittering spiders is a familiar horror trope, and Hosein elevates it to something more: it’s a place where lives are raggedly lost as much as they’re protected, where the world within threatens your safety when all the lights go out.

Hadriana in All My Dreams, by René Depestre, translated by Kaiama L. Glover (Akashic Books)

The time? 1938. The scene? Jacmel, Haiti. The situation? Wedding. Funeral. Zombies. Yes, you read that right… and there’s a lot more crypt and tomb infused bacchanal where that came from. Depestre serves us a witty, bitingly satirical take on love from beyond the grave (literally), giving us an undaunted narrator in Hadriana Siloé, whose turn at the wedding altar and cemetery plot all take place amid the effervescent, technicolour backdrop of Carnival. Jacmel is written with expansive loving attention, made into a character in its own right: here, young men morph into libidinous butterflies, sexual abandon mingles with brutality, and love struggles to win back the day from the nefarious forces of predatory violence. This is not the zombie story most Western audiences will be expecting, and it’s all the erotically richer for it.

Which of these chilling Caribbean book companions is your favourite? Which would you like to place at the top of your to-be-read ghoul-pile?

Letters to K – Anu Lakhan

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

letters to k

Argotiers Press, 2018.

 “The meaning of life is that it stops,” wrote Jewish novelist Franz Kafka. Taking this thought up beyond the grave, Anu Lakhan’s masterfully curious chapbook, Letters to K, asks the extraordinary question, “How do I send a letter to my dead best friend?” There is, of course, the small matter of our narrator living in an entirely different timeline to the famed absurdist. Is this fan mail? It might well be that, and so much more.

The hand that writes these letters to K – K is Herr Kafka himself – belongs to someone we know only by their initials, J L. Her register to the author of The Metamorphosis is its own changeling adventure: she moves through modes of crippling anxiety, plucked-up courage, forthright candour, concern, vulnerability, and hope. In these letters to a literary master long dead, J L speaks not only to the scribe that Kafka was, but to the man Franz could not escape being. You might not expect these confessional, shy-brazen missives to be funny, but they are, offering singing cats who stalk attack birds by song; possible hallucinations of phantom felines; musings on whether ‘god’ should appear in lower or upper case.

This chapbook is something that presses past the easy definition of Kafkaesque — it understands the nightmares that all manic thinkers dream, and is a bridge between worlds of planar reality and polymorphic fantasy. Here, cups of tea are accessories to spleen-deep revelations of the human spirit, with more questions posed to dead beloveds than can ever be fully answered.

“Letters have always felt like dreams to me. Perhaps others are more careful in their letters. I am not,” writes J. Read this if you’re a fan of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, with a dash of any book where a man wakes up as a giant roach. If you’ve ever felt like dropping a wax-sealed salutation to Jane Austen in your mailbox, or firing off a racy mid-work email to D.H. Lawrence, Letters to K is that rarest and most necessary of (chap)bookish confirmations: you’re not alone.

The Beast of Kukuyo – Kevin Jared Hosein

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“In Trinidad, the dead are cursed. Nobody remember you after a week. Even if they mangle your body and stuff it in a hole, everybody would just nod their head and say, We hafta trust in God’s plan. I was done with that. I seen it already. I went through it myself.”

You don’t need to convince Rune Mathura, the teenage protagonist of The Beast of Kukuyo, that life is unfair. Though she’s had her fair share of hard knocks, Rune, a resident of rural Kukuyo village in the early 1990s, is as surprised as anyone else when her classmate Dumpling Heera is the victim of a brutal murder. Rune tries to hone the detective smarts she’s picked up in her regularly scheduled viewings of Murder, She Wrote: she’d like to solve the case of who took Dumpling down with such crude violence. 

A 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature finalist, this novel by Kevin Jared Hosein brings gritty, uncompromising realism to the coming of age genre in YA fiction. There aren’t princes or deus ex machina subplots here: Rune often fends for herself in this swift-paced, unsparing narrative of seedy rumshops; a menacing Doberman named Mangeshkar the Castrator; cockfights in close quarters; the Kangal boys and their appetite for viciousness. You might ask: is this world too dark a setting for a capable young adult tale? The answer is that Hosein never shies away from darkness in his tellings, and his stories are the better for it, for readers of all ages. 

Human intimacy and tenderness are on full display in this brutal landscape: witness Rune’s guarded concern for her alcoholic brother Nick, or the gentle sternness with which their grandfather Sam strives to raise them. Rune’s relationship with her best friend, the stoic and even-tempered Tiki, is one of the novel’s best interpersonal character developments: it’s a tribute to the complexity and subtlety of emotional bonds forged between young people, even amid significant trauma and terror. 

How we wrangle with our own beast, and whether or not we succumb to the monstrous within us: this is one of the central motivations of Hosein’s grave, gripping tale. 

Home Home – Lisa Allen-Agostini

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“Most adults don’t believe children can get anxiety, but believe me, we do.” 

Lisa Allen-Agostini’s Home Home, 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature finalist, is a brief but stirring lesson in what it means to make a family, and how home can be anywhere with deep and devoted roots. Kayla, whose stern disciplinarian mother has sent her to Canada, isn’t so sure she can ever get used to the Edmonton cold, even on an average summer day. She bundles herself up in excessive layers, keeps herself company in her own room at her aunt’s house. Aunt Jillian and her partner Julie are the first lesbian couple that fourteen year-old Kayla has known; she loves them but isn’t so sure how to feel about ‘the LGBT thing’. Throw in a best friend thousands of miles away; a cute boy who gives Kayla serious butterflies, and Kayla’s battle with mental health: it all seems like too much for even a smart, resourceful girl to manage. How, in the midst of this maelstrom of sickness and uncertainty, can Kayla be sure of exactly who she is?

This isn’t a detached look into the life of a chronically depressed teenager. Allen-Agostini brings us into the complex, often chaotic inner world of Kayla, and shows us this protagonist as a living, breathing girl child. Kayla navigates her mostly-hermitic world using the contemporary technology anyone her age might. Her Skype calls with Akilah are a touchstone to a familiar life, which the writer brings into sharp auditory focus: we can hear the “burbling, bubbling” Skype ringtone every time Akilah calls; we can feel the importance of that sound, no matter how annoying Kayla finds it. We hear its reverberations in her everyday life. 

Allen-Agostini’s portrait of Kayla, a girl who both knows her own mind and fears it, makes Home Home indispensable reading for young people, and for older people who want to know their youth better. In her obsessive Buzzeed video watching; her love of old-school hip hop; her quest to find the place she belongs, Kayla is a young person worth rooting for, worth believing. It’s a convincingly-hewn message of this slender, strongly-mapped novella: every young person who struggles deserves not only awareness, but faith, and loving trust. 

Giant – Richard Georges

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Gentle poetry does not always denote a gentle age. 

Ask the poems in Richard Georges second collection, Giant, if you want confirmation of this. This book reminds us that the sea is made of tears, that a grandmother’s passing can steal your breath when you least expect it, that the “storm shreds the trees to bones, drags children / from their homes by their heels”. The wars waged on the home front of your heart and nation wear you ragged with care. Giant understands, and looks on. 

If the act of witnessing was one of the main concerns of the poet’s first collection, Make Us All Islands, then it is immersion that animates the poems in Giant. See “Creation / Nowhere”, in which the speaker sheds skin, “washing my eyes clean in the briny sea”. Similarly, the opening poem from which the collection takes its name exhorts a metaphysical dismantling, a breaking down of self to allow for the plumbing of greater depths:

“Unhinge your aching limbs, rest them beside
the river, fold yourself into jars
to be opened.”

If we could but see the world, and our habitation in it, as giants do, we would live closer and more intentionally to the marrow of life. This is one of the primary invocations of Giant. Though it is gently moral, pushing the notion of goodness, a space where “God / can be found hollowing out a home in your heart”, it never veers into preachy condescension. 

We will never live in a fair empire, but Giant eases us into an understanding of how to cope, and grow good things, in the uneasy islands we do have. These signposts of respite are never hidden from the reader with abstractions: they glow in the darkness like deyas do, and signal a way home that may be complex, but can be trusted. “Burn”, dedicated to poet Andre Bagoo, is one such way in the world: 

“The whole damn world is alight
and hungry and nothing is ever enough —
but there is poetry, which will suffice.” 

Steer your small boat in the deep waters of Giant. Richard Georges’ poems endure in, and despite, this empire, or any other. 

The Art of White Roses – Viviana Prado-Núñez

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

To live in oppressive times is a kind of emotional suffocation, a constricting of freedom that applies both to the confines of your country, and the limitations of your hope. The Art of White Roses, winner of the 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, explores what it means to feel like a prisoner in your own island, and what it means to grow hope in a seemingly barren place. 

The time is 1957. The place is Marianao, Cuba, and the US-backed Batista regime is a heavy boot on the populace: university students are disappearing; eyes are averted from terrible goings-on; corruption becomes synonymous with daily bread. Thirteen year old Adela Santiago witnesses it all: that which she understands, that which she doesn’t. She plays dominoes with her brother Pingüino, makes ropa vieja with her mother before sunrise on Sundays, writes about José Martí at her schooldesk: all of these seem like signposts of a normal life, but Adela knows better. She knows about los desaparecidos. She pays attention, and senses Cuba is on the brink of something explosive and dangerous: something that gleams with the fire of revolution. 

Prado-Núñez gives us a capsule of society in the Santiago clan: a supposedly conventional nuclear family made of hardworking parents; an eccentric grandfather; precocious yet dutiful offspring. So much of The Art of White Roses‘ storytelling strength lies in a series of subversions: the author’s treatment of family loyalty and complexity might be its crowning, subversive gem. In carefully-drawn, sensitive examinations of familial devotion, treachery and trauma, Prado-Núñez assembles for her reader a palette of human cynicism and optimism at its finest, and its most intense. 

At the centre of this domestic diorama stands Adela, a protagonist who summons empathy and affinity, a weather vane of conscience in troubled times, an archivist whose love for her Cuba provides some of the book’s most memorable lines: 

“It came to me so vividly, the Havana of my mind. I could taste the salt of the popcorn burning my tongue, could smell the heavy sweat-scent of the ocean. That Havana was mine, and it would always be mine, except it wasn’t.” 

What a narrative triumph Prado-Núñez presents for us, this fragmented, faithful ode to a place caught in the crossfires of toxic rule and feverish change, a suburb of Havana where a girl dreams in a blue house, feeling the world shift beneath her feet, feeling herself change, in unavoidably bittersweet response. 

Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

The Haitian earthquake of 2010 left a trail of damage that was both devastating and persistent: nearly a decade later, its repercussions still reverberate in the everyday lives of its citizens. Mouths Don’t Speak takes us into the beating heart of the earthquake’s terror, seen through the eyes of diaspora Haitian Jacqueline. The horror of uncertainty Jacqueline feels is rendered so convincingly by Ulysse that we, too, reading along, grit our teeth with worry for her parents, not knowing whether they’re buried under the rubble. 

When Jacqueline goes to Haiti, her precocious and beloved daughter Amber in tow, she thinks she’s returning to her natal land to be a dutiful daughter, and to reconnect with the parts of her spirit that have long gone neglected. Ulysse is at her best when she delves into Jacqueline’s vulnerable emotional core, painting a central character who exists at the storm’s eye of so many identities: thwarted artist; devoted and despairing wife; besotted mother; restless spirit. Could a return to Haiti almost a year after the earthquake provide her with what she needs, with what she’s too afraid to ask for?

We see most of Mouths Don’t Speak from Jacqueline’s eyes, and when other characters speak, their own voices are as credible, laced with resentments and fears, with ghosts and private dreams. Jacqueline’s ex-marine husband Kevin is a strong example of this: he’s a portrait of wounded masculinity, a veteran with PTSD who neither trusts Haiti nor Jacqueline’s dubious emotional attachment to a place she left when she was ten. 

Using simple, affecting language, Ulysse shows the breakdown in communication between Jacqueline and Kevin:

“Between deployments, their love had been stronger than before. They sent each other the sort of text messages they could view only in private places. Now, Jacqueline shrank each time he came near. They slept in the same bed, but worlds apart. In the mornings, if they caught each others’ eyes by accident, they saw only despair.”

It’s emblematic of a pair of larger concerns in Mouths Don’t Speak — the ways people wrestle their phantoms, and the ways in which we struggle to be free of our burdens. This novel is a candid exploration of what forces live in the house shared by grief and hope, and what richly unsettling terrain we uncover when we try to go home. 

Tell No-One About This by Jacob Ross

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

We cannot know the fixed compass point of anyone’s heart, no matter our intimacies. Jacob Ross’ stories understand this. What’s more, they can tell you about all the secrets a human heart can hold. They activate the short story form to the heights of its power to captivate imagination, command language, and court-martial the gamut of human emotion.

Tell No-One About This loosely yet symbolically gathers its stories in four sections: Dark, Dust, Oceans, Flight. The stakes in Ross’ worlds are as immediate and omnipresent as this quartet-convergence, in which nature defies, thwarts and occasionally soothes the ambitions of man. In “De Laughin Tree”, a precocious youngster and her vigilant grandmother fend off the land grabbing claims of a foreign interloper, by paying attention to the small patch of land they inhabit, hearkening to its deep-rooted portents. “Rum An Coke” provides “the great, starless emptiness” of night as a veil for one mother’s dangerous solitary mission, en route to her son’s sleeping drug dealer. Sienna, the intrepid girl-diver of “A Different Ocean”, is as wise as an elder when it comes to the unforgiving truth of the sea:

“…each time she turned her heels up at the sky there was nothing that said she would ever see the day again. The ocean might simply embrace her and not release her. That did not frighten her. It was not the same thing. Missa Mosan told her once that no one could predict when the sea would take a life. What was certain, though, it never wasted it.”

It is no exaggeration to say that while you read Tell No-One About This, you will be in the hands of an expert craftsman, an alert and intuitive observer of what makes us all human. In stories that sweep wide, showing the interwoven, often contradictory truths of a Grenada and its people, Ross reels his reader in. When you’re released, you will not be the same as you were when you began reading: this is the crucible of all outstanding fiction. You will hum, wail and sing to these stories’ lives.

Dreams Beyond the Shore by Tamika Gibson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Dreams Beyond the Shore is the first place winner of the 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s challenging to find #YALit that has its finger on the pulse of contemporary teen life in T&T, but Tamika Gibson’s debut novel serves up a true-to-reality coming of age tale in the 868.

Focusing on precocious yet dutiful Chelsea Marchand, and her nascent romance with star football schoolboy Kyron Grant, Dreams Beyond the Shore examines the grey space between first crushes and family obligations, in prose that’s clever, crisp and on the mark. You can hear the saucy picong fresh from the football field, as Kyron sidles up to greet Chelsea, just like you can taste the sweet-hand flavouring the meals made in Chelsea’s grandmother’s perpetually-bubbling pot. Gibson doesn’t train her sights on an easy emulation of American tropes in YA writing. Instead, she shoots – and scores – in her depiction of the red, white and black: whether she’s talking about food, fetes, or funny business in high office. 

Chelsea and Kyron are relatable protagonists, both as individuals and as a couple coming under fire from authority figures. Their fathers — an aspiring Prime Ministerial candidate, and a shadily prosperous businessman — aren’t spared their children’s scrutiny, with the trajectory of the novel making judicious statements on the price of blind obedience and generational discord. Gibson illustrates this in lucid, compelling streams of consciousnesses that pepper and peer into the storytelling: 

“But even as I practiced in front the mirror, got into character and finessed my cadence and pauses, I promised myself that this was the last time. I would do my father’s bidding this one last time. Then I would no longer be used as a pawn. As for tonight though, I’d give them the best show they’d ever seen, issuing the clarion call on behalf of this bloody impostor.”

Breaths of fresh air in publishing are elusive, but that’s just what Dreams Beyond the Shore is: vibrant, energetic fiction for young adults that’s realistic and romantic, funny and fresh, full of promise, playfulness and perception. I can’t wait to see what Tamika Gibson writes next.