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.


Is America She Gone? by Beverley-Ann Scott

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger


Beverley-Ann Scott’s second novel bears the familiar markers of one of the Caribbean’s most severe, and self-perpetuating, cautionary tales: that of parents seeking opportunities for improved circumstances in foreign lands, leaving their children behind to uncertain fates. The protagonist of Is America She Gone?, Sandra, is one such aspiring mother. Devoid of financial or emotional support from the father of her two children, she decides to leave for Brooklyn, confident that in that seemingly-miraculous terrain of golden promise, she will be able to amply provide for little Andrea and Antonio. Sandra purposes, with heart-wrenching hope, to return to Trinidad soon, yet within a short space of time, her illusions about America as the land of plenty are swiftly shattered. When, she wonders with no small amount of despair, will she be able to hold her children again?

Forced to navigate an existence without the guiding hands of either father or mother, Andrea and Antonio’s fates are steered by their own dubious personal choices. As they progressively lose confidence in the prospect of Sandra’s swift return, they reach out to different sources of solace and diversion to ease the ache. Will Sandra’s children find the comfort and guidance they so urgently seek, or will they, as so many other reluctantly jettisoned relatives of immigrants before them, be forced to make their own way alone, for better or worse?

Delivered in simple yet piercingly effective prose, Is America She Gone? features a cast of characters we recognize all too well. They are people we know, in their thwarted ambitions, their desperate desires to make amends, and the fullness of their longings for a better world.

Gloria by Kerry Young

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Dear Paper Based Readers, as we continue to excitedly peruse the tremendous works from this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest, we turn our gaze to today’s selected novel: the second from British-based, Jamaican author, Kerry Young. Young’s debut novel, Pao, was released to critical acclaim, including a shortlist nod for last year’s Commonwealth Book Prize. As with its predecessor, Gloria charts the specific, compelling story of a Jamaican citizen’s struggle, embodying the multiplicity of life tales in an island whose motto resounds, “Out of Many, One People.”

Gloria flees the violent aftermath of her abuse-fraught country life, and heads for the uncertain, no lesser danger of bustling Kingston, where she tries valiantly to create a better, different existence for herself and her younger sister. She swiftly learns that the spectres of the past are not so easily left behind, and must contend with the weight of what lies behind her, as well as the daunting realities of her new world. It is a town that teems with vibrancy, set to the unsteady tattoo of a society learning to assert its own voice. Gloria does more than brush against the seediness of Kingston’s criminal underbelly; she is plunged into its recesses. Alongside this gritty series of revelations shines a distinct path for our protagonist, one that points towards self-empowerment, and, in so doing, grants Gloria the power to change the lives of other women, to reframe their worst stories, to offer them hope and strength.

Readers who delighted in Pao will rejoice to find the interlocking destinies of the novels’ two protagonists, yet this is far from the only recommendation I can offer in the name of reading Gloria. Young’s second novel is no less resonant and emotionally impacting than her first. In creating Gloria, she has given us a heroine worth rooting for: one who is unafraid to navigate her own fate, one who mirrors the evolving heartbeat of an entire nation.

Sic Transit Wagon by Barbara Jenkins

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

You would not be far off the mark if you described Barbara Jenkins as the literary darling of this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Her April 28th launch of Sic Transit Wagon, chaired by Funso Aiyejina, was one of the festival’s most enthusiastically crowded events, with Jenkins’ supporters and fans all but spilling from the stuffed seams of the Old Fire Station. Sic Transit Wagon has been written up glowingly by BC Pires, for the Sunday Arts Section of the Trinidad Guardian, where it was described as “a powerful, positive and beautifully written debut.”

The titular story of the collection involves an old, faithful station wagon, one that features as a beloved, steadfast landmark in the author’s life, up until the time it must be released. This reminiscence has bearing on each of the stories in Jenkins’ first collection, which engage with transience, loss and transmutation. Everything is variable; nothing on the page is immune from the vicissitudes of shifting fortunes, of growing children and affairs of the heart on a major to minor scale — reading Barbara Jenkins is a smoothly-modulated primer on how everything in life feeds fiction, and when it’s done well, we don’t chafe and bridle, even when the telling is too much to sit with comfortably.

Here, I think, is what makes reading Jenkins a singular experience – her Life Writing isn’t so linearly about “Life’s Ups and Downs”; these reminiscences and reality-infused fictions are multiple places at once: they’re subsumed in regret just as much as they’re borne aloft by every good feeling. Share these stories with your friends, your relatives, your arch-enemies. Wrap them up and mail them to your long-estranged Someone, living leagues away. The work in Sic Transit Wagon lives; it speaks of a generous worldview coupled with a writing style that is elegant in its restraint. These stories deserve to be read, and reread, until they become part of the life that you yourself are inhabiting.

All Decent Animals by Oonya Kempadoo

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger


Dear Friends of Paper Based, we’re still reeling from the whirlwind literary event that was this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest! We were thrilled, as the festival’s bookselling coordinator, to be present on each of the programme’s four utterly packed days, selling a vast array of titles; reconnecting with some of our bookshop stalwarts, and making new friends too. Now, as we reflect on the merriment and creative inspiration that Bocas always provides, one week later, we continue to highlight some of our very favourite festival selections of poetry, non-fiction and prose.

Signalling a triumphant return to long-form fiction, All Decent Animals marks the Grenada-based author’s first full-length novel in over a decade. Carnival designer and aspiring writer Ata, and her foreigner boyfriend Pierre, are tending to their friend Fraser, who is dying from AIDS. Set in Trinidad, the plot also explores the island as a curious, energetic microcosm of the Third World colliding into the First. With Port of Spain functioning as a dynamic central backdrop to much of the novel’s action, Kempadoo’s latest is rife with explorations on love and community loss, as vivid as they are searingly immediate.

Fans of Buxton Spice and Tide Running will not be disappointed; this is fiction that moves with well-modulated grace (and no small matter of riveting force) from the page, painting a portrait of a society many Trinidadians will find instantly evocative of places they’ve been; scenes they have witnessed, people they know. A triumphant, reflective tour-de-force, All Decent Animals deserves to be read with as much intensity as is evident in its composition.

Archipelago by Monique Roffey

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger


Dear Paper Based readers, as the tremendously exciting third annual Bocas Lit Fest draws closer (we’re a mere two weeks away!) we’ll be focusing on several of the festival’s books here on our blog. This week, we turn our attention to the three category prize winners of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, beginning with the victorious fiction selection: Archipelago by Monique Roffey. We’ve hosted a special reading of Monique reading from Archipelago at the shop, and can personally declare it to be a resounding success of a novel, one that sets itself apart on the merits of its ambitious, engaging voice. Archipelago reads as that rare fictive accomplishment: an engaging story, beautifully told.

The novel focuses on the (mis)adventures of unlikely hero Gavin Weald, his daughter Océan and their loyal hound, Suzy, as the three set sail on Gavin’s old boat Romany, to visit the Venezuelan Los Roques archipelagic chain of islands. In transporting his small familial tribe to new waters, Gavin flees the crippling loss he’s endured in Trinidad, charting a course to a destination whose emotional resonances he cannot yet quite fathom. An astounding portrait of the human psyche under pressure, the novel is replete with the stunning beauty of the natural world.

Succintly and grandly described by Kapka Kassabova of The Guardian as a “A big-hearted Moby Dick story for our times”, Archipelago wins over even the most sea-wary of travellers with its commitment to telling its own personal truths, and to telling them in a style that only serves to invite us deeper into the windswept, tempest-tossed world created in the writer’s capable hands.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger


Longlisted for the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (full longlist here)

Díaz doesn’t resurrect Yunior in this collection of short stories so much as he returns him to the prominence that quasi-autobiographical protagonist has enjoyed in the Pulitzer Prize winner’s previous works, Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In these new fictive examinations, Yunior is interminably unfaithful when it comes to romantic relationships, and betrayal shines at the dark heart of these forays and fumblings into what we do with love when it’s found us, and what love does to us whether we like it or not.

Selected as a finalist for the 2012 National Book AwardsThis Is How You Lose Her marks a messy, necessary route of self-discovery for Yunior, while revealing the seedy underbelly of the human capacity for treachery. It is a collection of fragmented, jettisoned selves, territories, languages and desires: within this colourful, jangling kaleidoscope of excess and separation, Díaz’s prose emerges as lushly ornamented (without falling into too-muchness) as it has been in his other two works of fiction. This is Díaz as we’ve read him before, and loved (or hated) him before, but unquestionably, if you’re a fan of his writing on the basis of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, then This Is How You Lose Her might well signal your perfect trinity. It serves to cement the writer solidly in the shoes of a literary heavyweight, if indeed there had previously been any doubt.

The World is a High Hill by Erna Brodber

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“That need to preserve might have come from my knowledge of how people’s history gets distorted and stolen.”

So says Erna Brodber, in an illuminating, wide-ranging interview with Keshia Abraham for BOMB Magazine in 2004. The sentiment resounds just as powerfully, this refusal of cultural appropriation, and insistence of writing against any and all empirical forces, in Brodber’s 2012 publication of short fiction (her first collection in this genre), The World is a High Hill: Stories about Jamaican Women.

A strong, unstinting selection of stories sees contemporary Jamaican society reflected for its moments of heartrending beauty, as much as in its faithful portraits of excess and unfairness. No matter the focus, Brodber’s prose is as unflinching as it has always been in her long-form novels. From each narrative, divergent yet solidly knitted portraits of “the modern Jamaican woman” emerge, and the revelation is a progressively more nuanced one, as the reader spends time with Beverley, Kishwana, Lily, Rosa and others. There can be no one, monochromatic identity for any measure of womanhood, Brodber espouses, and this is true for the Jamaican woman, too: she can, and does, represent a sargasso sea of possibilities, many of which are embedded into the miniature worlds created in this powerful, resonant collection.

See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Much has already been made of Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in a decade, particularly as it pertains to the author’s personal domestic life: See Now Then bears the dubious mantle of “vengeful narrative”, of a bitter, caustic reflection on the ruination of a marriage, of how happiness and complicity become eroded both subtly and viciously over time by both external and internal warring forces. Kincaid herself denies that the novel is a wholly autobiographical affair, defending her right to explore the themes that matter most to her, as seen in an excerpt of an interview conducted by NPR. When quizzed on the subject of her personal life being laid bare in the new work, Kincaid responds:

“My own everyday life was not on my mind so much, but how to render something that had happened. How to make sense of it. You know, men write about their life all the time. … If I had looked different, my autobiography in the book, or any kind of autobiography in the book, would not be held against it. … (The book is) not about the black woman, or the black this, it’s about a human experience.”

Chronicling the dissolution of the bond between the ironically-named Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, Kincaid plots the unconventional narrative structure of See Now Then, with Time itself assuming the relative importance of a functional character. Perhaps one of the reasons why Kincaid’s own personal life has become so spotlighted beneath the lens of this novel is a simple one: See Now Then makes for reading as rewarding as it is difficult. It maps the story of entire lifetimes, and considers where the fine ley-lines between self-individuation and relinquishing one’s autonomy lie — and whether or not this is a balancing act we can perform, as human beings, with any major success.

Boundaries by Elizabeth Nunez

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“Slaveowners in America were torturing the Africans they enslaved for reading, but the British had discovered the hard way of truth of the maxim – Nature abhors a vacuum. Fill their minds with your stories and they will adore you; leave their minds free to roam and they will hatch plans to destroy you.”

In Boundaries, published by Akashic Books in 2011, prolific Trinidadian writer Elizabeth Nunez continues the story of Anna Sinclair, the protagonist of Nunez’s 2009 novel Anna In-Between,  also published by Akashic. Boundaries, the author’s eighth novel, carries on (and, arguably, deepens) the examination of divisions between worlds that its preceding novel broached. Anna, the editor of Equiano magazine, prepares her Manhattan flat for her parents’ arrival, readying with some trepidation to receive and house her ailing mother. Though much of the novel focuses on the relationship between Anna and her mother, the fourty year old immigrant daughter is considered from multiple perspectives: as a struggling editor beset by challenges of content and style; as a woman seeking to negotiate her romantic involvement, as an individual of bivalent and intersecting realities.

A work that marks itself as triumphantly unafraid to pose the murky questions that surround identity, Boundaries is spotlighted by Kirkus Reviews as “a thoughtful literary novel exploring the shadows of cultural identity and the mirage of assimilation.” It stands as a laudable addition to the considerable body of fiction already produced by Nunez, and establishes itself as a serious, gracefully told story of the perils and pleasures that dwell within self-exploration.