“The Art of White Roses” – Viviana Prado-Núñez

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. 

Advertisements

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. 

The Yard by Aliyyah Eniath

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Family secrets and feverish passions clash in this lushly envisioned debut novel from Eniath, one that creates a microcosm of Trinidadian Indo-Muslim compound life that rings true in every feud, wedding and ritual. The star-crossed lovers of the tale, Maya and Behrooz, must contend with the expectations of their family; the obligations of their separate social standings, and the hungry desires of their hearts. Here’s a first novel that promises a longstanding career from its author -– the prose is by turns playful, poignant and persuasive, illuminating an enclave of T&T society not frequently found in contemporary fiction.

Love, though embittered and beleaguered by its own woes, retains the capacity to save even those swimmers who struggle the most — this is a truth that Eniath’s novel makes plain. Several of her characters’ impassioned speeches impart this, using language that soars and rejoices in love’s sovereignty:

“Behrooz and I… we don’t come pre-packaged. Apart, we’re damaged. But together, he and I, we know every tree, rock and blade in that orchard. We remember every blackbird that nested there. We’ve chased the frogs and the crickets, and grabbed lizards by their tails… You should see their faces when we disrupt the daily prayer or steal the children’s shoes as they congregate.”

Not only romantic love is afforded such attention in the novel: at its core, The Yard is about the bonds that we strengthen, or weaken, with time and the weight of our human decisions. Whether she’s investigating the constancy of devotion that a mother shows her daughters over decades, or revealing the innermost yearnings between besieged suitors, Eniath signals to the reader that it is our connections, for better or worse, that hew us.

The Yard was one of Paper Based’s Twelve Books of Christmas 2016 selections! We paired it with Sabrina Ramnanan’s Nothing Like Love, because both novels are brimful with a curious, consummate exploration of what goes on behind closed doors. Both novels also show that the best-kept secrets often simmer in the smallest spaces!

Sailor Dance by Eleanor Joye Donaldson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Twenty’s selection soars with the tribute song of a deeply lived, culturally ingrained life of a quintessentially Trinidadian son of the soil, recounted faithfully and with fond, insightful accuracy by his daughter: Sailor Dance: John Stanley Donaldson – The Story, by Eleanor Joye Donaldson.

It has always been easy enough to play party card politics, yet even in the zenith of his service to the People’s National Movement, John Donaldson distinguished himself in his inclusive calls for service to country. This was one of the qualities for which the multiply-laurelled diplomat and former government minister most made his name known: in the consistent application of selfless integrity to his portfolio of achievements. A formidable athlete; prominent statesman; and perhaps most touchingly, a man whose committment to his family life is handsomely detailed in this biography, Donaldson epitomized an existence of patriotic, passionate investment.

These truths of one man’s extraordinary accomplishments and tenderly domestic particulars are brought lovingly to life in Eleanor Joye Donaldson’s uncluttered, affectionate writing style. With equal parts clarity and clear-eyed reminiscence, the daughter reflects on her father’s humble beginnings, tracing a trajectory that is every inch an upwardly mobile success story.

We recommend it for: readers of Reginald Dumas’ The First Thirty Years and Anthony Sabga’s A Will and A Way; biography aficionados who like civically-grounded and culturally accomplished subjects; longtime PNM adherents interested in delving deeper into the origins and successes of one of its historically key figureheads.

Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! The poems in our Day Nineteen selection brim and burst with a life that’s as curious about its next conquests as it is careful in the cataloguing of its girlhood, scraped-knee woes: Lauren K. Alleyne’s Difficult Fruit.

There is no one, conclusive way to map womanhood in the world’s fraught and scar-leavened sphere, but Alleyne’s verses strip their gloves off, plunging lyrical, sensual wrists deep into the business of navigating space as black, female, both bold and wary. Refusing to shy away from the horrors of trauma, the poetess’ subject is woman’s body, woman’s heart: her canvas is a map made for intrepid explorers — for readers who understand that so much of the daily fight is in the reclamation of small, earthen victories. Bravery manifests in the footsteps of a woman who reassembles her life in the aftermath of a rape, and a no less imperative fortitude, differently marshalled, resides in the triumph of a narrator, exulting in her body’s amplitude:

“In my dreams I am free of you –
I wear bikinis, do back flips, touch my toes;
but then I wake up wanting
to cram the world into my mouth
and let it fill you to bursting.
O, proud belly, you are the life-basket,
bearer of the thousand possible births.”
(from “Ode to the Belly”)

Trading from a full basket of free verse and conventionally metred forms, this first collection speaks candidly and courageously about endurance in courtrooms, cloisters and beneath cavernous skies. The accusers in these poems are a powder-wigged prosecution, rigging charges against hooded youths, or the indifferent and empyrean cosmos, staring down at each of us on our least defended, existential nights. Alleyne’s defense is vigorous, exultant living in the face of every despair.

We recommend it for: poetry devotees of Loretta Collins Klobah, Sharon Olds and Nikky Finney; fans of fiercely feminist verse that navigates both Trinidadian and international space; defenders of the downtrodden, social activists and freedom fighters of every stripe.