Among the Bloodpeople by Thomas Glave

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Akashic Books, 2013.

In his introduction to this new book of essays, Pulitzer prizewinning poet Yusef Komunyakaa says, “… Glave’s voice resonates in the plucked string holding each sentence together, an echo of James Baldwin and Jean Genet; his language carries the full freight of witness.” You might choose to describe the prevailing quality that drives this collection as “fearless”. It’s even more telling to consider that Glave operates boldly in the interests of the stigmatized and disenfranchised, despite potential fear of reprisals.

Glave, whose previous works include the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles (2008), is unshy on the page, regarding the bloody tide of anti-gay sentiment that so typifies popular Jamaican culture. He vigorously decries not just the dancehall culture, but the (in)actions of “the bloodpeople” themselves: fellow Jamaican and Caribbean peoples, of shared genealogy and social circumstance. All of this surfaces in Glave’s first essay of the collection: “This Jamaican Family: The Word, and Dreams.”

Several of the collection’s essays smartly dismantle easy preconceptions about LGBT-culture consumption in the Caribbean; about the realities of what it means to be “othered” on the fronts of colour; of geographical roots; of sexual orientation. Other essays excavate family histories with equal parts nostalgia and a kind of regretful optimism. In “The Bloodpeople in Language,” Glave situates himself in the third person. Musing on his deceased sister, he is “…sundered and surprised that, on particular mornings and afternoons and evenings on the green island of his people’s origin and history, he finds himself listening […] for the sound of her in the language.”

A sensitive, sharp set of intelligences — intellectual, to be sure, but prevailingly emotional, too — reside in the makeup of these essays. Whether Glave is musing on his original founder’s role in Jamaica’s J-FLAG, providing a frank, poetic meditation on “barebacking”, or paying homage to his chief literary influences, these pieces are moulded in resistance, bolstered by history, suffused in poetry: each of them is a delight.

Advertisements

Our Book Club Pick: Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Ian Randle, 2013

“Maybe in the past, a long time ago, I was a criminal but not anymore. I’m just a usual individual right now. I’m going to behave myself and go to plays and learn my work. A tiny, little feeling inside of me says I’m more intelligent than I may think so I’m going to utilise that.”

So says Shawn in an eager letter to his CXC English Language teacher, Debbie Jacob — an unlikely instructor for the task of furnishing several young inmates with the inner workings of the English syllabus, according to Jacob herself. Though the journalist, author and librarian retained misgivings about the quality and consistency of her tutelage, she persevered, incorporating stories, essays and subject material outside of the scope of the often-rigid, unimaginative course matter. The personal stories of the boys under her charge, as shared in Wishing for Wings, are a testament to both her determination, and that of her students.

As Jacob reminds the reader multiple times in clear, unornamented prose, the fates of the boys in remand behind the Youth Training Centre’s forbidding walls are seldom thought of in a positive light. The conditions under which they are mandated to live and function are highly questionable, and in these austere circumstances, it seems hardly likely that hope can flourish. Yet, beneath Jacob’s guidance, the young men she teaches gradually emerge from the shells of their necessary armour, sharing more of their secret aspirations and plans for self-betterment.

In a sense, Jacob’s voice in this narrative is kind yet peripheral: she sidelines her own personal tales to repeatedly let the boys’ contributions — in the form of essays; book reviews; dream sequences and letters — shine through. The end result is a frankly unforgettable journey, one which, by its end, will have you considering these remarkable youths as far more than “inmates”. Their futures will gleam with promise, augmented by the power of flight they’ve earned through unremitting work and their longing for brighter horizons.

Given the rich possibilities for both discussion and inspiration that lie in the pages of Wishing for Wings, it’s no wonder that we’re pleased to select it as our official November Book Club Pick! Here are a few reading circle questions to help get you started: please feel free to share additional ones in the comments section.

Discussion Questions for Wishing for Wings:

  • Much has been made of the famous poem that opens the book: “Dreams”, by Langston Hughes. In what ways is the use of this poem as an epigraph especially suitable for these boys’ stories?
  • The first assignment that Debbie gives her YTC charges asks them to select which animal they would most like to be. If pressed with this question, which animal would you choose, and do you think the choice reveals anything in particular about your character?
  • Jacob often expresses dissatisfaction with the course material assigned to CXC English Language, calling them “boring textbooks filled with irrelevant material.” What do you think of her alternative teaching methods, and do you think they would be successful in a conventional classroom setting?
  • Did you find yourself rooting for one boy above all the others? Which of Jacob’s students did you feel the most for, while reading, and if his future was described towards the book’s end, how did his progress (or lack thereof) make you feel?
  • After finishing Wishing for Wings, were any preconceived notions you held about life at the YTC in Arouca destroyed? What recommendations would you make, to have life behind those gates become a healthier environment for the young prisoners there?
  • During the course of the book, Debbie makes loans and gifts of novels and other reading material to her students, in the interest of broadening their appreciation of the world, and its different inhabitants. If you could recommend just one book to an impressionable young person, which would it be, and why would you select it?
  • “English,” Debbie tells her students, “is about learning how to express yourself.” In response, they inform her that English is about life. Which of these perspectives do you agree with more, and if you agree with neither, how do you define the purpose of an education in English?

Previous Book Club Picks:

Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

What Things Are True by Jackie Hinkson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published in 2012, the year in which Jackie Hinkson celebrated his 70th birthday, What Things Are True reflects far more than a book title: it’s the author’s attempt to answer a lifelong question, one to which he knows there may be no swift recourse. Hinkson’s memoir reveals the interiority of some of his most highly generative years in the world of art. The narrative focuses on segments of the artist’s life in chapters that are both beautifully and simply titled (“Dreaming of an Old House”; “A Boy in Cobo Town”; “Autumn Blues In Paris”). Indeed, much of Hinkson’s reflections transmute what is seemingly ordinary — a childhood schoolyard scuffle; a series of ruminations on an old house; a sea voyage to an unfamiliar country — into reflections that are ornate with the weight of memory, coloured in by a mind attuned to perceptions of light, darkness and the countless variations betwixt those two states.

A Paria Publishing Title, What Things Are True has been described by historian Bridget Brereton (in her Trinidad Express review of the book) as containing a “rich social history in Hinkson’s finely written” prose. Brereton draws attention to the author’s numerous pen portraits that intersperse the chapters, adorning written recollections with visual hearkenings to buildings, portraits of family members. These illustrations serve to flesh out and deepen the ways in which the reader appreciates Hinkson’s artistic journeys.

Teeming with myriad reflections of a vanished age; of both the pleasures and perils inherent in the working creative’s existence; of the rewards bestowed by family and the dangerous allure of critical fame, Hinkson’s memoir is, perhaps above all else, the opposite of a full stop. It’s a declaration of intent: a promise of a continued life in the visual arts, marked with as much attentiveness and sensibility as shines through in these pages.

Battle Dress and Fancy Dress by Irwin Ottley

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

BattleDress1

Published in 2012, in commemoration of Trinidad and Tobago’s 50th Independence anniversary, Battle Dress and Fancy Dress is described by Bridget Brereton, in a Trinidad Express review, as both “well researched and strikingly illustrated”. Carnival scholars will relish the addition of another scholarly, informative work on the origins of T & T’s mas traditions, which Ottley convincingly argues have the bulwark of their roots in pre-colonisation practices of West and Central African rituals. While not refuting the European influence on some aspects of Trinbagonian mas foundations, Ottley presents a clearly-demarcated series of positions that support a West African bedrock. He credits African Christmas Carnival festivities with bearing the blueprint emblems of creativity that endured in local modern mas.

The author also gives credence to the presence of T & T’s militia, along with the troops of the British army, on aiding in the cultivation of carnival traditions. The “battle dress” half of the book’s title derives principally from this influence, which Ottley describes as significant in the style of dress and weaponry displays enacted by these militiamen and soldiers.

Battle Dress and Fancy Dress‘s back cover, featuring a collage design of numerous illustrations referenced in the book.

The meticulously researched text enjoys frequent punctuations from a plethora of detail-captioned black and white images, predominantly sourced from online slavery archives that have been curated by tertiary institutions, as well as the Michael Goldberg Postcard Collection, housed at UWI St. Augustine’s Alma Jordan library.

The Sky’s Wild Noise by Rupert Roopnaraine

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

We’re rounding out our coverage of the exceptional 2013 OCM Bocas Prize shortlist with a tribute to the non-fiction winner: The Sky’s Wild Noise, a collection of essays from veteran politician and social commentator, Rupert Roopnaraine. This title is also the second on the shortlist to have been published by Peepal Tree Press – the other being poetry winner, Kendel Hippolyte’s Fault Lines.

A formidable chronicle of essays marking a lifetime of political service and social activism, Roopnaraine’s entries range from satirical treatments to eyewitness accounts, from critiques of visual arts to testimonies on the lives of great departed comrades and Guyanese luminaries. The Sky’s Wild Noise is a rare, meticulously plotted gift to Caribbean letters, revealing as much about the resilient, doughty composer of these ruminations as it does decades of sociopolitical history. The compendium provides a narrative that is dually relevant to Guyana’s society, as well as to the broader Caribbean spectrum.

Thus concludes our 2013 OCM Bocas Prize shortlist – but stay tuned! As the festival draws ever closer (less than a full week to go now!) we’ll be paying attention to other talented writers on the official festival programme by spotlighting their books. If a particular selection catches your fancy, and you’ll be in Trinidad from the 25th to the 28th of April, don’t hesitate to check the festival out in person! Remember, all the events (with the exception of workshops, for which there is a nominal fee) are free to attend, and who knows? The 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest might well be your favourite bookish event to grace your calendar this year.

The Illustrated Story of Pan by Kim Johnson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

IllustratedPan

There seems no prevarication to be made about it: The Illustrated Story of Pan is a thing of spectacular beauty, the crown jewel in a Carnival music lover’s catalogue of  visual literature. In this remarkable, necessary tome, it is the photographs — from the rare, to the previously unseen, to the iconic — that guide the arc of the narrative, and never before have you been so eager to be led by images for the sake of art and cultural history.

As Kim Johnson himself remarks, in a Caribbean Beat feature (March/April 2011), “It began with a single photograph”. Speaking on the hundreds of photos he painstakingly curated, Johnson said, “Every photograph had been lovingly preserved for decades, which spoke of their importance to their owners, and as such every owner had stories surrounding each photo, stories of adventure and discovery, of love and danger.”

The Illustrated Story of Pan is, like the best type of books tend to be, many things in one: cultural artefact; photographic panorama (pun probably intended!); labour of love, storybook for the ages. In the tradition of the best books, too, it must be beheld, and absorbed, to be believed. All roads to essential Carnival reading and viewing should lead here, to work of this calibre and sentiment.

The Political Calypso by Louis Regis

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Long regarded as one of the region’s foremost experts on calypso, Dr. Louis Regis presents what might well be the definitive scholarly work on this art form. Keith Q. Warner, author of Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso, salutes the work as “a significant contribution to the field of calypso studies”, adding that “few published works have taken this extensive a look at the political calypsoes and what informs them.”

Mining the political terrain of Trinidad and Tobago can be, to put it delicately, a messy business. Dr. Regis posits that in calypso, the tools for decoding, analyzing and appreciating political resistance are readily available, a matter of public record — accessible to anyone who will listen, and perhaps sing along.