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

The Caribbean in Sepia by Michael Ayre

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Ian Randle, 2013.

This meticulously researched and curated visual assemblage, subtitled A History in Photographs 1840-1900, reveals itself as a superior photographic presentation. It’s not simply because of the vast cross-section of images on display, the majority of which are rare and otherwise difficult to access, but because of Ayre’s keenly seeing interpretation of the history represented in these pictures. Ayre’s interwoven passions of photography and economy come elegantly to bear on The Caribbean in Sepia‘s trajectory, one that spans sixty years of the lives of 19th century Caribbean citizenry. The author’s commentary explores the intricacies of their social systems while examining the persistent effects created by the difficult legacies of slavery and the sugar plantation system.

Solidly praised by historian Pedro Welch as a “treasure trove of resources that will provide data for analysis by historians for quite some time to come”, representing “a unique contribution to the historiography of the Caribbean”, this title promises hours of intelligent introspection, both a visual and text-based meditation on a distinctive period in the region.  Providing that elusive marriage of perspicaciously-shot imagery subjected to rigorous, cogent analysis, The Caribbean in Sepia displays some of the best sociocultural commentary on the fortunes and failures of 19th c. Caribbean society to have appeared in publication.

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.