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. 


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.

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

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.