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.

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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.

Swallowing the Sky by Lisa Allen-Agostini

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Cane Arrow Press, 2015.

Cane Arrow Press, 2015.

Confessional poems are often bleak and beautiful, wrapped up with honest and complicated hopefulness. In her newest collection, Swallowing the Sky, Allen-Agostini champions a strong poetic voice mired in such admission, one that’s borne bitter regrets, and emerged on the other side of harrowing landscapes. If life is a permanent gayelle, poems such as these are prepared to do battle in those confines. These verses ring out in celebration of fresh loves and sharp-suited new romantic possibilities, delving deep into the scar tissue of family secrets, seeking and stating truths with confidence and clarity.

In “Pathology”, the collection’s opening serving, the poems are both armoured and made bare by honesty: a family’s history is levelled at the reader for examination. With rawness unafraid to take its own measure on the page, brutalized femininities and the braggadocio of male swagger take root. These are legacies usually secreted beneath blameless antimacassars, but Allen-Agostini razes those gentilities to the ground, in movements such as “VIII: beast”:

“his cold eyes lit up to see me
his double, his shadow
never raised his hand or voice to me
though he beat my mother, called her
every kind of stupid
had women
even married one

but built my mother a house brick by brick…”

Nothing less than the undiluted marrow of life lines the insides of such verse, which, as the poet herself describes, makes for the hardest fare. In “Living”, from the collection’s third arc, the narrative voice is triumphant and wise to time’s caprice, as it proclaims:

“Living is the harder thing
not picking clumsy poems out of life. […]
Living is the art
the trick of holding your breath
til the poison dissipates…”

There is no mean craftswomanship in moulding such pain-tinged experience to form and structure, in ways that do not sully their first flush of feeling. Swallowing the Sky does this, and more – it suggests the fullness of a life that can summon poetry as its alchemizing, cleansing relief.

Coming Up Hot: Eight New Poets From The Caribbean

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Peekash Press, 2015

Peekash Press, 2015

Writers from T & T, Jamaica, Guyana, St. Lucia and St. Vincent take to the proscenium of this diverse yet united ampitheatre – that of recent, dazzling arrivals to the Caribbean verse community. Each poet receives a generous berth of allotted space from the Peekash editors, in showcasing the range and lyrical, linguistic complexity of their pieces. Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, winner of the 2015 Hollick Arvon Prize, astounds with the unassuming, yet leviathan strength of her poems on intimacies, fear and feminist redemptions.

The concluding poem of her segment, “A Hammer to Love With”, summons dread recollections of a female subject’s fearful majesty, recounted through the eyes of a second person narrator – one who has been well-schooled in the wrathful, eclipsing instruction of such power:

“You remember, oh yes.
She must’ve been seventeen,
dragged him home bleeding from the mouth
and singing in god’s tongue.
Between her bone-sharp teeth,
the hammer, dark and glistening.”

Multiple Guyana Prize for Literature recipient, Ruel Johnson, demonstrates depths of paternal devotion, juxtaposed against carnal reflective heat. The final poem of his own section, “Sugar”, is prefaced with a line plucked from Walcott, but does not lean on that laureate’s strengths to craft his own historically replete word-diorama of life on and off the great, maligned Guyanese estates.

Sugar is as persistent in the memory as is blood and salt, Johnson reckons, as he uses clear, sonically sharp language to send these truths forth:

“in the hot, shimmering
sunshine of our summer
the blackened, grooved cutlass
drifting upwards to the sky, and
hovering for the space of some
fleeting, uncaught memory”

Six other poets bring their unique capacities for enchantment, persuasion and splendour to this anthology. Whether you come to these pages for Colin Robinson’s clear-eyed, trenchant thoughts on fragmented masculinities, or Sassy Ross’ fever-washed soundscapes of sensuality and faith, the worlds within these poems will keep you charted on a persistent series of returns.

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.

 

Writing Down the Vision by Kei Miller

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Kei Miller‘s impressive repertoire in writing shows that he can make bold strides in both fiction and poetry: he’s got three published books in each of those genres. His newest book of poems, The Cartographer Tries To Map A Way To Zion, is set to hit bookstores in May this year. In this, his first book of essays, Miller’s wit, humour and discernment don’t vanish with the switch to non-fiction. On the contrary, Writing Down the Vision brings so many tributaries of thought to bear on the page that what emerges is an eighteen essay powerhouse.

Published by Peepal Tree Press in 2013, the collection has been longlisted for the 2014 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. The essays are workhorses in service of numerous purposes. In them, Miller demarcates the rise and fall of dub poetry (“A Smaller Sound, a Lesser Fury – A Eulogy For Dub Poetry”), laments the uncertain fates of same-gender lovers in Jamaica (“A Smaller Song”, which also functions as a letter of kinship to Thomas Glave) and hearkens to the writer’s religious fervour and disenchantment (“Riffing of Religion”).

Through each of the work’s essays, written in different years, countries and for audiences separated by geography and circumstance, the collection’s constant hallmark is that it is never, ever boring. Miller’s prose is by turns energetic, whimsical, elegiac and brave, but it steers clear of dry academic treatments and lethargic speculations. These are essays against which you can check your own biases, intellectual quarrels and best-laid opinions; everything Miller writes serves to propel the conversation forward, not to claim it as his sole province.

One might assert that a lifetime’s experience resides in Writing Down the Vision, or several commingled experiences over any number of lives. The essays reflect this multivalency, offering the reader glimpses (and long gazes) of Jamaica; the Caribbean, and the world around us.