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.

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!

The Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Say a shivering hello to our Day Seventeen selection: an anthology that’s been a long time coming, brined as it is in the folklore, superstitions and spectral happenings of these multiple-tongued islands — a collection of ghost stories that’s eminently, bloodcurdlingly Caribbean: The Haunted Tropics, edited by Martin Munro.

We, Antillean and archipelagic island-dwellers, are no strangers to our own ghosts. The fifteen offerings in this anthology, spread across the English, French and Spanish-speaking countries of our region, are at their best when they show how closely the living lace fingers with the dead. Whether summoning the vestiges of plantocracy’s permanently bitter legacy, or breaking open classic hairraising fables to flood them with new significances, Munro’s chosen his writers well. Each of them absorbs the haunted consciousness of the islands into their narratives, and presents a grim, sometimes-jocular, often-terrorizing portrait of the monsters living under our beds, beneath our silk cotton trees.

From Guadeloupean Maryse Condé’s “The Obeahman, Obeahed”, which opens the collection, to Trinidadian Keith Jardim’s “The Country of Green Mansions”, which closes it, every story confronts not only otherworldly fear, but perhaps more pressingly, the monsters and mayhems we curate in our own secret hearts. Jardim’s story delves deep into Guyanese river country, tangling erotic explorations with the phantoms of a history-steeped past:

“And suddenly something was there, in the room with him, other than Arianna, who continued sleeping. He could see nothing of it, but felt a weight in the room. The floorboards creaked in the corner behind the mirror, not of a presence moving from one place to another, but stationary, shifting its weight, as if, he imagined, dutifully considering something — maybe him.”

Shani Mootoo’s smart-talking jumbies; Fred D’Aguiar’s reimagined trickster Anansi; Lawrence Scott’s sepia-tinged photographs containing hidden truths: all the ghosts and graveyards in The Haunted Tropics are wearing their best obeah-suited apparel, and they’re looking forward to meeting you.

We recommend it for: those who’ve been longing to greet some duppies and douens, rather than white-sheeted Hallowe’en shriekers in their fiction reading; fans of Madison Smartt Bell; Earl Lovelace, and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s full length-works; adherents and acolytes of the Caribbean literary gothic.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Fourteen bestows on us a historical and literary fiction blending that stirs family tree mysteries; magical goings-on, and savage, serene portrayals of womanhood – all in one triumphant maiden voyage of a first novel: Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning.

In this world of both preserved memory and factual reconstruction, the language mesmerizes and entrances, with all the skill evident in Yanique’s OCM Bocas fiction prizewinning debut, How to Escape From a Leper Colony. The Bradshaw family is the focus of this new book, and the author gifts us sixty years of their astonishing highs and devastating lows, stitching the spaces between conflicting and tumultuous generations with a brand of magical realism uniquely informed by her Virgin Islands setting.

Some of the story’s most luminous and illuminating sections arrive when the narrative switches between the book’s fortune-seeking, disparate yet deeply bonded sisters, Eona and Anette, products of a union as spangled by secrets and star-crossings as the romances these siblings go on to themselves conduct. Witness Anette, gazing out at sea, reflecting on a love that, in the novel’s penchant for well-layered confessionals, carries more than its own fair share of dark buried treasure:

“The sun was reddening the sky. The sea air was filling her. This moving and big and overwhelming blue sea. This active and passionate and relenting blue sea. And she thought of the first man she had really loved. The way they knew each other’s bodies, even in the dark — like they were aboriginal to each other.”

Laying claim unpretentiously to the standard of an epic story, Land of Love and Drowning takes us fathoms deep, past shipwrecks and secrets into the heart of an island, discovering itself.

We recommend it for: Devotees of magical realism, from García Márquez to Allende to newer voices in the genre; lovers of domestic sagas peppered with high drama; those looking for a kindred read to Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light.

Uncle Brother by Barbara Lalla

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Eleven’s selection is a novel steeped in Indo-Caribbean cultural ancestries, mingling with the persistent, often dangerous elements of life in the technologically-edged Trinidadian urban environment: Barbara Lalla’s Uncle Brother.

Lalla’s newest work is rich with multiple perspectives, conveying a sense of history that’s begun to evanesce in our collective consciousness. Tracing vital lines of Indo-Trinidadian tales of origin, immigration and cultural coalescing, Uncle Brother spans generations, including conflicts both domestic and civic. The author’s scholarship as an eminent linguist stabilizes and seeps into these interlocking segments of duty and devotion: each chapter evidences language’s careful, polished use to create deeply enduring meaning. 

Uncle Brother himself is unflagging as the story’s larger-than-life, yet eminently believable hero, one for whom family connotes ultimate sacrifice and endeavour. Marble-pitching; kite flying; jaunts to fishing ponds; meetings in village centres and rumshop brawls: these signposts of both childhood and adult living fill Uncle Brother’s pages with a fidelity of remembrance that navigates away from nostalgia, and towards something much more potent: the transcription of authentic experiences, of an entire fading way of life.

While it is a powerful meditation on community life, Lalla’s novel simultaneously tackles the inward struggles of a man who wrestles his own personal demons along with his self-imposed obligations to be a beacon to kith and kin. The author illustrates with poignancy the effects these interior wars have on an aging patriarch:

“I forced myself to look out through the car window as we hummed through Port of Spain. You are eighty-two but made of old iron. I caught the eye of a well-dressed young man with a rasta hairstyle tied back with a thin black ribbon, and he nodded with a smile of utmost gentleness to the old man I had become. When did this happen?”

We sojourn far beyond the lighthouse in this contemplation of what home means: the forest beckons to us, as does the pulse of everyday rural living in parts of Trinidad whose place-names many have lost the facility to pronounce.

We recommend it for: those seeking to round out their collection of Barbara Lalla’s fiction titles; readers of Lakshmi Persaud and Merle Hodge; seekers of the historical Indo-Trinidadian experience, rendered in thoughtful fiction.

Leaving by Plane Swimming back Underwater by Lawrence Scott

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Eight of our handpicked selections is a gem — a compact companion of short fiction that’s immense in the crafting of its interior worlds, full of light, memory and music, orchestrated by a master hand: Lawrence Scott’s Leaving by Plane Swimming Back Underwater.

Such is Lawrence Scott’s craftsmanship in his newest collection that you might mistake it for sleight of hand – but make no mistake, the symmetry and ineffable majesty in these short stories is real, and so immediate as to be tangible. Whether tackling the shadowy past of Trinidad’s colonial spectres, or lambasting church and state alike in side-slapping picong, doused and flavoured liberally with satirical flourishes, Leaving by Plane Swimming back Underwater is a treasury of experience, musing on faith and its absence with equalizing strokes of conviction. Whether you’re agnostic or avowedly spiritual, you’ll want to hearken to the confessional and shrine of the vistas Scott so lovingly fashions.

These stories pay attention to Trinidad’s natural splendour, and to the wider beauty of the Caribbean archipelagic chain. Even when human monstrosity threatens the security of personal and national cares, nature persists. The many men, women and children in Scott’s resplendent yet rooted prose cling to nature for succour, asking of the landscape, the rolling hills and vast seas greater questions than there are ready answers. In the concluding lines of “A Dog is Buried”, the protagonist hurls a desperate plea to the ocean depths, and receives a chilling, ancient response:

” ‘What? What did she promise them?’ I shouted above the breakers on the black rocks. The answer was the repeated boom of the sea with its long memory of raping, killing and burying, the blood from the gutted fish staining the rocks.”

Penitents and preachers, lonely urchins and lost souls: all manner and make of voices converge on these pages that are a skilfully woven tapestry of past and present, guilt and comfort, desolation and divine grace.

We recommend it for: those seeking to round out their Lawrence Scott collections, eager for his latest since Light Falling on Bamboo; readers of Oonya Kempadoo, Anton Nimblett and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw; literature lovers who appreciate elegant prose marriages of the sacred and the secular.

The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Seven’s pick elegantly and masterfully swoops in, especially for lovers of classic literature rekindled in contemporary contexts: Caryl Phillips’ The Lost Child.

It’s an herculean task, mapping the complicated, indistinct portrait of the famous antihero Heathcliff, made broodingly remarkable in Emily Brontë‘s Victorian classic, Wuthering Heights. Where did Heathcliff come from? Of what were his dubious origins, and what matter of events shaped him into the moor-wandering man, bleak lover and passionately haunted figure who reigns powerfully in libraries everywhere? Phillips’ supple, unsentimental prose concerns itself with Heathcliff, bordering the novel with scenes from that character’s nascent journeys and imaginings.

This is no mere rewriting of Wuthering Heights, however: the author weaves Heathcliff’s narrative into the larger concerns of Monica Johnson, a twentieth century mother to two sons who finds herself, through a series of increasingly more dire events, at the ends of her endurance and capacity to thrive — both as caregiver for her children, and ultimately for herself. The Lost Child inhabits Yorkshire moors with no less grim significance than did Brontë‘s opus, and in a scene featuring a certain one-time authoress of ill health herself, that savage hinterland still beckons:

“She can see now that the morning light is already fading and the afternoon is preparing to set in misty and cold. Beyond the swaying tree, beyond the church, are the wild moors that call to her to rise from this confinement and race purposefully into the December wind and observe the landscape in its winter colours. I must go. Let me go.

Strategically juggling time periods, speakers and situations, Caryl Phillips shows how the orchestration of personal hungers leads refugees, stranded children, and starved minds to both bleak and beguiling ends. Less a morality tale and more of a musing on homelessness, exiles and the cruel poetry of the void, The Lost Child is staggeringly beautiful writing on several grief-stricken lives.

We recommend it for: lovers of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ classic Caribbean response to Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre; anyone who’s been drawn to the difficult mystery of Heathcliff; readers of Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie.

The Ten Days Executive by Rhoda Bharath

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Five’s pick is one of the four titles launched at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest: a powerful eye-opener in short fiction for those (Trini and otherwise) who shy away from headline news and the true-life horror stories that grow close to home: Rhoda Bharath’s The Ten Days Executive.

Many a man, woman and politician has been felled by pride, puncheon and party-card mentality: at the intersection of these three bacchanals, these short stories shine with an unapologetic savvy knowingness of T & T space. Sallying forth with a lioness’ share of narrative gumption, Bharath’s fiction debut focuses on sharks in suits, smart people made stupid by lyrics, stalwart youthmen facing down the barrel of society’s prejudice, amid many other tales worth telling. In a land where most are for sale, these stories ask their readers to face up to the prices we exact in the name of love and liberty.

What resonates most about Bharath’s fiction is that it’s never cut too distantly from the fabric of reality: the fodder for these (a)morality tales could have been plausibly culled from Express and Guardian headlines, developed to detail those whose lives act as collateral damage for high-stakes fancies and under-the-table dealings. Rather than each story being  reduced as a “political” examination, The Ten Days Executive shows how politics infuses the ground-structure of personal lives: that politics means more than merely PNM vs UNC: it’s in skintone hue; Convent accent or lack thereof; Carnival wildness; police brutality, and all the ways citizens survive in our rainbow islands. These colours, proudly touted in Benetton ads as signs of unity, often carry darker portents, as the author shows in “Breast Pocket”, detailing a dangerous relationship which is no rarity:

“Because he skin red, he used to tell me all kinda thing, like how my skin so black and I should paint my skin white so that at least when we have outage he could see where my black ass hiding. If that was really the case I woulda wish for power outage all the time, because then he woulda never see me.”

You might not be able to trust everything you read in the newspapers, but you can trust in the honest, relentless heart of Rhoda Bharath’s fiction — no short story collection is less likely to lead you astray.

We recommend it for: lovers of Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie; those who prefer their satire sharp and well-moulded, with a contemporary cache of references; sociopolitical pundits, bloggers and media mavens.

The Whale House by Sharon Millar

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Two’s selection brings us one of Peepal Tree Press’ outstanding debut short fiction collections of this year, launched at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and since fêted to significant critical acclaim: Sharon Millar’s The Whale House.

If Sharon Millar were a markswoman, you get the impression she would keep her hands steady, her aim unerring, and her powder dry: that’s how the stories in The Whale House hold themselves up on the page. An unsentimental dismantling of complex constructs is Millar’s forte: here, she tackles grief and decay in both the human and natural environment, suggesting that we’re more like the beasts we hunt than we’d like to believe.

The author doesn’t villify or exalt any of her characters in absolute terms: instead, she shows them set in stark, often brutal relief against scenes of stunning beauty and inevitable decay. She tackles a mother’s heartrending resignation to a deep-rooted illness; another mother grappling with rage and fear, learning of her child’s murder; a master cockfighter who prizes both his champion roosters and his mysterious, witching woman: this is a Trinidad at once familiar and seductive in its insights, in its capacity to make new alcoves out of everyday destinations.

The whole is woven with an awareness of the environment, of its capacity to cradle and destroy, that grounds this collection with certainty as ancient as bedrock, as beautiful as a waterfall’s cascade. As the principal figure of the final story, “Spelunking”, remarks:

“The forest has no time for town shenanigans like flashy planes or making the village my own exotic backdrop. The forest has an instinct for this type of behaviour, even if you hide it from yourself.”

You might come to the book for Millar’s Commonwealth prizewinning story, which is the work’s titular piece, but you’ll stay for the whole, astonishingly well-knit ecosystem.

We recommend it for: field naturalists with an affinity for poetry in their scientific research; readers of Alice Munro and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw; fans of well-plotted stories marked by sensually replete language and symbolism.