The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Every day from now til Christmas, we’ll be bringing you handpicked selections from the very best of current and classic Caribbean literary shelves (with one or two international picks stirred in). Each title will be accompanied by recommendations for its ideal reader, to aid you in your Yuletide gift selections — and we’re thrilled to unfurl our seasonal book banner with a gorgeous coming of age debut, Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill.

Sisters Dionne and Phaedra are no strangers to tumultuous journeys. They’ve had their lives uprooted and resettled in Barbados, where the rules are different, the sea closer and brighter, and the nights filled with a new kind of magic. Sharply different in temperament, both girls negotiate the rule of their stern, wise grandmother, Hyacinth — and the world of changes that lingers just outside their Bird Hill doorstep. They learn quickly that “home” is a complex, sometimes infuriating destination:

“Ask a Bajan where their navel string is buried and you will get as many answers as people you ask, and all of them will have to do with home.”

Steering clear of a postcard-glossy portrait of Barbados, Jackson paints a world in which women’s voices have the power to upbraid, cleanse, curse and heal. Hyacinth describes herself as one who sometimes needs nightfall to hear herself properly, and both her granddaughters learn to find their power — separate yet united by familial threads — in a society where everyone’s personal affairs are laid bare, where untold beauty grapples with sneaking suspicion and sequestered secrets. Even when things are at their most despair-laden, the three women whose lives, losses and victories fill this novel with richness and depth reach for something more within themselves.

It is in the process of weaving these family ties that the novelist makes her realms of matriarchy and cultural fusion shine, showing that long roads to peace can be marked by miraculous signposts as much as maelstroms.

We recommend it for: lovers of strong, capable female protagonists; readers of Tiphanie Yanique and Cristina García ; those who enjoy their bildungsromans with bite, colour and lyrical storytelling beauty.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

A hungry, soaring triumph of a story, Marlon James’ third novel more than confirms his reputation as a teller of good tales – it announces A Brief History of Seven Killings as this year’s unequivocal must-read, a titan in its own class. Tackling Bob Marley’s life in music and out of it, James catapults the reader through several decades, bringing us hosts of players both foul and fair, duking it out in wars (and rumours of wars). He knits the whole with dizzying talent, exploring violence and the potent triad of sex, drugs and reggae, showing us the true faces of Jamaicans in love with each other, the music, and Jah on high.

In our Christmas newsletter last year, we praised this as the ideal triad-topper, for those seeking to complete their Marlon James oeuvre. Though the focal points of each narrative are distinct, if you loved John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, you’ll thrill to James’ storytelling strengths ringing true for a third time. It’s a sure bet for lovers of experimental fiction that flouts easy pigeonholing, for readers of Irvine Welsh and Iain M. Banks.

With a cast of characters this diverse, there’s always someone to root for, as much as there’s someone else to revile: James’ prowess in this richer-than-contraband-rum world weaving is that the differences between people shine as much as their similarities. In music, corruption and the desire for more, these men, women and not so fresh-faced youths curse and love each other with all the human desperation that everyday living affords.

“But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.”

Perhaps one of the chiefest pleasures of A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is to remind us in searing, sharply ambitious writing that life is happening all around us, in every impossible breath.

House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

To borrow the title of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, the protagonist of Roffey’s fourth fiction book is every inch the reluctant fundamentalist. Ashes, a mild, pious scholar, finds himself swept up in the bloody carnival of a coup d’état gone terribly wrong: one that leaves him, gun-toting and terrified, in the ransacked House of Power of fictitious Caribbean island, Sans Amen. Roffey’s courageous take on the events of T & T’s 1990 attempted coup reads with a sense of suspended incredulity at its own unbelievably murky waters. Seldom has there been this level of vigorous creative interpretation with one of our nation’s most harrowing – and still, least resolved – psychological traumas. In this novel, no one, from reckless politicians to ideologically motivated terrorists, escapes criticism, and no one is cast as blameless in Sans Amen’s ledger of sins.

In our Christmas newsletter last year, we eagerly endorsed Monique’s newest novel for lovers of politically thrilling, intriguing reads; Trinbagonians who won’t shy away from an uneasy analysis of their own country; those who’ve read and appreciated Raoul Pantin’s Days of Wrath. The work has gone on to reap juried acclaim, earning spots on both the 2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist and the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature longlist.

A telling exchange between Minister for the Environment, Aspasia Garland, and Breeze, the weapon-wielding youth holding her hostage, poignantly underscores one of the novel’s many divides in privilege and power. Aspasia wonders, regarding Breeze with a medley of dread and sympathy,

“about the size of this young boy’s world. Had he ever swum in the sea along the north coast of his own island? Had an adult ever taken him over the mountains to get to the sea? If he was from the slums in the east of the City of Silk, there was no reason he should know about, let alone care about sea creatures.”

Many moments of sensitive portrayal, of the plights of government ministers and ghetto insurrectionists in equal measure, mark the trajectory of House of Ashes, a novel that stands proudly in the cache of Roffey’s brave storytelling.

Limbo by Esther Figueroa

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Few debut novels can lay claim to mapping a nation’s environmental heart, yet this is what Esther Figueroa’s Limbo seeks to delineate from its opening pages. To hear the story’s feisty and emotionally volatile narrator, Flora Smith, tell it, Jamaica’s lack of concern for the very land and ocean that its inhabitants call home will be its ruination. Flora struggles to keep her small environmental NGO afloat, seeking respite in the counsel of her dearest friend Lilac, with whom she can share her deepest grievances, romantic frustrations and giddy recollections of youth.

When large-scale corruption, linked to beach sand-mining, raps ominously on Flora’s door, how the environmentalist responds will determine not just the future of her intrepid NGO, but her own personal safety, too.

Limbo is a story as devoted to the bonds we make with kindred spirits as it is a satirical examination of humanity’s worst crimes against a landscape it ought to nurture and respect. Figueroa pulls no punches in her dire analysis of man’s relationship with the great outdoors, using Flora as a convincing, impassioned mouthpiece in the eco-conservationist’s often-thankless battle.

“What circle of hell is reserved for those who have done irreparable damage? What should be their eternal damnation?” Flora asks herself, in the aftermath of uncovering some distressing abuse of coral reef systems. Grimly, she concludes: “For those who enrich themselves through lies and silence, let them listen to a ceaseless, blaring, tuneless chorus singing of the consequences of their actions.”

A passionate, playful romp through Jamaica’s yet-untrampled wilderness, Limbo‘s pages are equally heavy with pronouncements against the ecologically unaware. Limbo reminds the reader that our vast enjoyment of life is critically linked to how well we honour the lakes and rivers, the sand and sea of our Caribbean homes.

 

Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Truth be told, we’ve been having a spot of bother, keeping Mr. Loverman (Penguin UK, 2013) firmly planted on our shelves. Already on our second shipment of this, Bernardine Evaristo’s seventh book, it’s easy to see what makes it a surefire seller. For one thing, it’s got a storyline you can’t shake a stick at, so swiftly do the pages fly by in its bacchanal-infused telling. Barrington Jedidiah Walker, Esq., Barry to his friends, is perpetually sharp-suited and smooth-witted. He’s a veritable dandy who walks the streets of his Hackney neighbourhood with equal parts panache and well monied élan. Barry has held a secret close to his chest for most of his life, keeping it under wraps from his wife Carmel, a long-suffering religious zealot, and their two daughters. He hides it from everyone who forms a part of his immediate and extended society, save one Morris Courtney de la Roux. This is because Morris himself is the secret. He has been the object of Barry’s private ardour ever since, as the latter puts it, “we was both high-pitched, smooth-cheeked mischief makers waiting for we balls to drop.”

Ian Thomson, in his review of the novel for The Spectator (UK), concludes his glowing assessment by declaring, “It is to be hoped that Bounty Killer will read and enjoy this tender, even trailblazing novel (in or out of tight trousers).” Thomson’s reference to the Jamaican dancehall artist (and longtime anti-gay advocate) isn’t accidental: Mr. Loverman confronts hot-button issues of gender, sexuality and identity politics with unflinching commitment. From flashbacks of forbidding Antiguan village life, to present-day gay club scenes and domestic confrontations, readers have a front row seat to the unfurling drama that envelops Barry, and the big decision he must make.

Mr. Loverman isn’t afraid to wear the brightest colours in the public square, declaring to all and sundry that it’s well worth your time, your laughter, and the hours of animated chatter it’s sure to prompt in its (frankly, fabulous) wake.

Our Book Club Pick: As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Akashic Books, 2013

“… there was something gentle & easy & comforting in the island’s mere presence before us: its hazy solidity. The indisputable fact of its simply being there — only a stone’s throw away — despite its dreamlike appearance. And those of us still leaning up against the rail, still gazing through the descending dark, found it difficult, almost painful, to turn we backs to it.”

The year is 1845, and the utopianist visionary, John Adolphus Etzler, is setting sail for Trinidad, along with his fantastical invention, the Satellite, and the members of his Tropical Emigration Society. Among their rank and file is young William “Willy” Tucker and his family, seeking a better life away from their low-class, East End London existence.  Willy, truth be told, is transfixed by the mute beauty Marguerite, also on board the Rosalind — he and Marguerite are from different worlds in England, but he hopes that in this brave new world, he and his sweetheart might tread the same path.

Life holds stark revelations when the Tropical Emigration Society docks in Port-Spain, and Etzler’s machines are put to the test, with drastically useless results. How will these beached migrants fare in the island’s jungle morasses, especially when the “Black Vomit” (yellow fever) begins to snare the travellers, one by one?

Non-fiction category winner of the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize, Edwidge Danticat, praises Antoni’s novel as “a marvel, layered in histories… an unforgettable and matchless work of fiction.” We couldn’t agree with her more: Antoni’s prose pushes linguistic and traditional text-format boundaries in the best way. As Flies to Whatless Boys was Paper Based’s final official book launch of 2013, a fact of which we’re especially proud. Held on December 14th, the event boasted a capacity audience, each of whom listened, rapt, while Antoni read segments of his book — of particular delight was his rendition of the infamous Miss Ramsol character. (Readers who’ve enjoyed Antoni’s story, “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives”, from the Trinidad Noir anthology, will recognize the boisterous, colourful character immediately.)

The novel’s immense range; its clarity and depth; its irrepressible sense of humour despite bleak circumstances; the way it tackles historical documentation with a neo-archivist’s repurposing zeal: these and other reasons are why we’re thrilled to proclaim As Flies to Whatless Boys our January Book Club pick! Have a look at our reading circle questions below — if you’ve read the book, do share your thoughts with us, and feel free to add questions of your own in our Comments section.

Discussion Questions for As Flies to Whatless Boys:

  • The novel is opened with two epigraphs: one from William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and one from “The Schooner’s Flight” by Derek Walcott. Which of these do you find ties in more directly to the heart of the book?
  • Many of the people and events in the novel have their basis in historical fact. What do you think of this marriage of fiction to reality? Do you think some historical figures and happenings ought never be creatively interpreted, or do you think everything that’s happened in History is worth exploring imaginatively?
  • Miss Ramsol, director of the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives, has been described as “the best thing about the book” — do you agree? What do you think her letters add to the novel (or would you have preferred the book without them?)
  • Willy and Marguerite share an unconventional romance, most of which unfurls aboard the Rosalind. Do you think their relationship would have been possible in nineteenth century London? What other unconventional relationships exist in the book?
  • John Adolphus Etzler could be said to be both a charlatan and a visionary: are there any Etzler-esque, larger than life con artists in today’s world? Do you think you would have been tempted to sign up for the Tropical Emigration Society?
  • The bond between Willy Tucker and his father is a moving one, explored in the novel in a variety of ways. Which interaction between the two Tuckers most moved you, and which piece of advice given from father to son, did you find most meaningful?
  • Does your favourite moment of the novel take place on the sea, or on the land; in England, or in Trinidad; in the nineteenth century, or in 2010? Do you feel, by novel’s end, that Willy has made the right choices — and how would you choose, were you in his shoes?

Previous Book Club Picks:

Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob
Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

She Sex: Prose & Poetry, Sex & the Caribbean Woman

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

The inaugural publication of Bamboo Talk Press, She Sex could rightly be regarded as a trailblazing, transformative work, concerned with showcasing the innermost erotic stories of Caribbean Women. Some truths about women’s sexuality — its practices; its taboos; the secrets it dares not reveal — are typically kept close to the chest, as the anthology’s co-editor, Paula Obé, mentions in the book’s introduction. Obé continues, saying, “Sometimes shadows need to be lit to take away that fear.”

Several of these pieces tackle achingly difficult subjects revolving around the female body and psyche, bringing them to the page with emotional fervour that lingers long after first readings. These contributors aren’t afraid to bare their teeth, whether they’re recounting the electric thrills associated with initial sensual encounters, or casting blame squarely in the laps of sexual predators. Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné’s poems lilt with a deep, quietly authoritative energy. In “Mother of Water”, the poem’s narrator triumphantly declares:

“I will not wear this gift
of well made shame
passed down to me.
I am a woman not buried
quite so easily.”

Lisa Allen-Agostini’s poem, “The Tiniest Tabanca”, delves energetically into Trinidadian Creole to probe the shocking hurt of a theft, one that leaves the subject of the piece sliced open with the intensity of loss. The line “sharp sharp knife cutting skin and flesh and bone like butter hand slip you crying onion tears slow surprising pain you never look for” conveys this in fluid urgency.

In the prose section, “No Lipstick for Me” by Kavita Ganness reveals the narrator’s inner turmoil, in the wake of a harrowing act of male-inflicted trauma. Ganness’ piece sees the protagonist alternating between outrage and bemusement, vacillating helplessly before she takes her defense into her own hands, in an act of exultant aggression. One of the early lines of the story warns, “…terrible things happen, it’s inevitable in most cases — like women dirtying their lips with lipstick.”

The collection features the work of several other writers, including talents from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and Bermuda, making it a truly collaborative regional project. Indispensable for women and men who want to read true erotic tales from our societies, She Sex will prompt both delight and dismay, in competing measure.

A Kind of Eden by Amanda Smyth

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

2013, Serpent’s Tail

Martin Rawlinson realizes that Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean nation to which he has emigrated for work purposes, is a contradictory sort of paradise: beauty abounds on those shores, to be sure… but at what price are the islands’ attractions to be enjoyed? Our protagonist is a top police officer, recruited by the local government in an effort to take T & T’s burgeoning crime rates to task. He finds intoxicating pleasure in the arms of the much-younger Safiya, a precocious town-based journalist with a worldly air that feels more mysteriously inherited than contrived. The previously-staid married man persistently disregards the comfortable yoke of convention in an attempt to absorb as much of Safiya into his bloodstream as is possible. How, then, will he navigate the presence of his wife Miriam and daughter Georgia, when they arrive on the island, cherished but distracting reminders of the English life that trails in his wake? Worse still,  how will Martin respond when an unspeakable act of violence shatters the idyll he has constructed for himself on this deceptive Trinbagonian terrain?

Eminently readable, this second novel by Smyth packs powerful punches with more bite to their seductive force than initially seems apparent. Using Martin’s journey as a kind of psychologically and emotionally involved construct, she prompts readers to explore the depths of their perceptions about paradise, and its mirror opposite. While reading A Kind of Eden, you may ask yourself: can a landscape ever be ambivalent, when it’s been populated by people with such deep and conflicting desires?

As with some of the most thought-provoking fiction, Smyth’s sophomore work provides no easy answers, offering up in the place of clear solutions a series of startling, beautifully-constructed revelations, written in visually resonant prose.

Speaking of Promises by Debbie Jacob

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

SpeakingPromises

Debbie Jacob curates a weekly Sunday Arts Section Book Club for the Trinidad Guardian, where her musings on books, authors and the fascinating world of reading are always a pleasure to explore. She tackles both local and international literature, and her perspectives on characters, themes and symbols lend themselves to a generous circumference of interpretation: much like this 2011 collection of short fiction she’s penned. Speaking of Promises was released by Archimedes Publishers, and contains fourteen stories, each of which focuses on aspects of the Trinidadian spirit in unique ways.

It’s evident from the first handful of stories that Jacob understands the complexity of human character — she serves up compelling portraits of men, women and children living on the frontlines of difficult decisions, making choices that will affect themselves, as well as those they love and disdain. These aren’t black-and-white, simplistic narratives; far from it, as the author takes time to develop the inner thought processes of would be heroes and possible schemers alike. “Graduation Day” provides a heart-wrenching platform for consideration of the troubled waters often stirring between hardworking mothers and their less than grateful daughters: the story packs a punch line sure to sting one’s eyes with tears. Not all the short stories are as agonizing: levity abounds in “Crime Watch”, wherein two amateur sleuths (with a touch too much time on their hands) see the scales of justice tip into work — just decidedly not in the way they were expecting!

Jacob, who has also authored the 2005 Macmillan Caribbean title for young readers, Legend of the St. Ann’s Flood, is a fiction writer of both perspicacious viewpoint and sensitive heart, this combination undeniably prompts a  level of storytelling that soars.

Near Open Water by Keith Jardim

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Writing for the T & T Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section, book club coordinator Debbie Jacob describes Near Open Water in terms of its importance as a firestarter for serious conversation on our nation’s fragmented fortunes. Jacob reports, on Jardim’s first collection of short ficton, that it “allows us to talk about many important issues in our society. It also allows us to look at how family and culture shape our lives.”

Indeed, each of these twelve stories of Near Open Water prompts serious consideration of our various Trinbagonian identities: the ones we parade about in so-called polite company, versus the ones we unleash when cornered by the savage hiss of the wild. There are many selves within us all, and it is to this frequently metaphysical examination that Jardim pays keen attention. Published by Peepal Tree Press in 2011, the collection was longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

Bodies of water are never too far away from these narratives: in Jardim’s nuanced storytelling voice, the sea can represent as many multiplicities as the human psyche. A little boy’s beachcombing reverie takes a sinister turn in the collection’s first story, “In the Atlantic Field”. In “The White People Maid,” Cynthia encounters a folkloric figure, after witnessing a gruesome display of criminal cruelty at the grocery. Certain stories delve deeper into shades of the magically realist: in “Kanaima, Late Afternoon”, a man takes a journey that seems to lead him both closer to, and further from, that which he most desires.

A triumphantly unsettling debut from a talented voice in fiction, Near Open Water merits necessary reading for anyone interested in gleaning a complicated, elegantly wrought portrait of life in Trinidad and Tobago. It is a work not suited, perhaps, for the faint of sensibility, yet it will reward those who like their stories gritty and gleaming with difficult truths.