Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! The poems in our Day Nineteen selection brim and burst with a life that’s as curious about its next conquests as it is careful in the cataloguing of its girlhood, scraped-knee woes: Lauren K. Alleyne’s Difficult Fruit.

There is no one, conclusive way to map womanhood in the world’s fraught and scar-leavened sphere, but Alleyne’s verses strip their gloves off, plunging lyrical, sensual wrists deep into the business of navigating space as black, female, both bold and wary. Refusing to shy away from the horrors of trauma, the poetess’ subject is woman’s body, woman’s heart: her canvas is a map made for intrepid explorers — for readers who understand that so much of the daily fight is in the reclamation of small, earthen victories. Bravery manifests in the footsteps of a woman who reassembles her life in the aftermath of a rape, and a no less imperative fortitude, differently marshalled, resides in the triumph of a narrator, exulting in her body’s amplitude:

“In my dreams I am free of you –
I wear bikinis, do back flips, touch my toes;
but then I wake up wanting
to cram the world into my mouth
and let it fill you to bursting.
O, proud belly, you are the life-basket,
bearer of the thousand possible births.”
(from “Ode to the Belly”)

Trading from a full basket of free verse and conventionally metred forms, this first collection speaks candidly and courageously about endurance in courtrooms, cloisters and beneath cavernous skies. The accusers in these poems are a powder-wigged prosecution, rigging charges against hooded youths, or the indifferent and empyrean cosmos, staring down at each of us on our least defended, existential nights. Alleyne’s defense is vigorous, exultant living in the face of every despair.

We recommend it for: poetry devotees of Loretta Collins Klobah, Sharon Olds and Nikky Finney; fans of fiercely feminist verse that navigates both Trinidadian and international space; defenders of the downtrodden, social activists and freedom fighters of every stripe.

Ground Level by Jennifer Rahim

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Nine is a delight in poetic rumination from a talented voice, one who’s accrued deeper insight in each of her collections, building a legacy in verse that scales the empyrean heights of an interior life: Jennifer Rahim’s Ground Level.

In truth, this latest offering of Rahim’s sees the poetess going to ground, pressing further and further into the cavern of self-inquiry to test the mettle of her own contemplative, powerful verse. Many of the poems in this body of work are direct engagements with T & T’s recent spate of reckless criminality, much of which informed the 2011 State of Emergency. Not every reflection of Rahim’s is dire, however: her poems point out the essential restorative truth of the land and sea we so cavalierly neglect, and the promise of succour close to shoreline and forest hearth.

The balm of the wilderness outside one’s window is not a universal panacea, Rahim’s writing suggests — there is no complete liberation from coups, government cover-ups and terrorisms of the heart, while one walks the earth. Yet, in poems such as “Ground Doves in the Lime Tree”, solace is secure in the canopy of an arboreal home:

“In that light, all the pain
there ever was to bear
seemed no cross to carry –
with the whole tree cooing
and white blossoms offering
the soon-come relief of limes.”

With homages to Miss Miles, Anthony McNeill and Martin Carter, Ground Level is both a warning bell and a church song at vespers: ushering in those who fear the times and trust in the slow, gentle groundswell of all things beneath our human errors.

We recommend it for: Stalwart adherents to Rahim’s poems – it’s doubtful they will find fault with this sovereign new publication; those seeking spirituality without unctuous lip service in their poetry; Grande Riviere beachgoers and dwellers (there’s a sequence of poems in here, just for you.)

The Strange Years of My Life by Nicholas Laughlin

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Six is a collection of poems that many Caribbean poets themselves have been hungrily awaiting, dreaming of devouring line after curious, compact, clever line: Nicholas Laughlin’s The Strange Years of My Life.

It is a challenge to say that most poems confront the act and art of living in truly original ways. Even if you’re wary of calling any creative body of work ‘original’, you will find a series of perspectives in Laughlin’s poems that contradict the staid perches from which you’ve been reading other books of verse. Imaginative and melancholic, bleakly witty and almost jocularly despairing, these poems are neither one thing nor another: you could accuse them of being tricksters, strange bedfellows and ominous calling cards, and you’d be right on all counts. What this makes for is a series of destinations that channel any adventurer’s senses of longing and wanderlust: in The Strange Years of My Life, the reader travels far, from fraught border crossings to breath-defying tower ascents — from lands requiring multiple vaccinations, to cafés where no one knows your name.

Though some of these harbours are by turns startling and laced with beautifully-rendered disorientation, Laughlin writes deeper into hurts and cares that are universal. Witness his achingly plotted unfurling of a damaged interpersonal desire, in “Enough is Enough”:

“I am waiting on your letter.
When it comes I will read it like it is written on your skin,
like it is written on a crust of bread.”

Treachery, heartbreak, discovery and ruin: these things are constant signposts, no matter your country of origin. No matter how far The Strange Years of My Life roams, it returns in every poetic movement to cut bone-deep into the reasons why anyone bleeds, curses or runs very far.

We recommend it for: those who thrill to the poems of Andre Bagoo, Anne Carson and Vahni Capildeo; constant travellers in need of a permanent verse-voyager; fans of lists, letters and loopholes in poetry.

The Ten Days Executive by Rhoda Bharath

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Five’s pick is one of the four titles launched at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest: a powerful eye-opener in short fiction for those (Trini and otherwise) who shy away from headline news and the true-life horror stories that grow close to home: Rhoda Bharath’s The Ten Days Executive.

Many a man, woman and politician has been felled by pride, puncheon and party-card mentality: at the intersection of these three bacchanals, these short stories shine with an unapologetic savvy knowingness of T & T space. Sallying forth with a lioness’ share of narrative gumption, Bharath’s fiction debut focuses on sharks in suits, smart people made stupid by lyrics, stalwart youthmen facing down the barrel of society’s prejudice, amid many other tales worth telling. In a land where most are for sale, these stories ask their readers to face up to the prices we exact in the name of love and liberty.

What resonates most about Bharath’s fiction is that it’s never cut too distantly from the fabric of reality: the fodder for these (a)morality tales could have been plausibly culled from Express and Guardian headlines, developed to detail those whose lives act as collateral damage for high-stakes fancies and under-the-table dealings. Rather than each story being  reduced as a “political” examination, The Ten Days Executive shows how politics infuses the ground-structure of personal lives: that politics means more than merely PNM vs UNC: it’s in skintone hue; Convent accent or lack thereof; Carnival wildness; police brutality, and all the ways citizens survive in our rainbow islands. These colours, proudly touted in Benetton ads as signs of unity, often carry darker portents, as the author shows in “Breast Pocket”, detailing a dangerous relationship which is no rarity:

“Because he skin red, he used to tell me all kinda thing, like how my skin so black and I should paint my skin white so that at least when we have outage he could see where my black ass hiding. If that was really the case I woulda wish for power outage all the time, because then he woulda never see me.”

You might not be able to trust everything you read in the newspapers, but you can trust in the honest, relentless heart of Rhoda Bharath’s fiction — no short story collection is less likely to lead you astray.

We recommend it for: lovers of Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie; those who prefer their satire sharp and well-moulded, with a contemporary cache of references; sociopolitical pundits, bloggers and media mavens.

The Whale House by Sharon Millar

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Two’s selection brings us one of Peepal Tree Press’ outstanding debut short fiction collections of this year, launched at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and since fêted to significant critical acclaim: Sharon Millar’s The Whale House.

If Sharon Millar were a markswoman, you get the impression she would keep her hands steady, her aim unerring, and her powder dry: that’s how the stories in The Whale House hold themselves up on the page. An unsentimental dismantling of complex constructs is Millar’s forte: here, she tackles grief and decay in both the human and natural environment, suggesting that we’re more like the beasts we hunt than we’d like to believe.

The author doesn’t villify or exalt any of her characters in absolute terms: instead, she shows them set in stark, often brutal relief against scenes of stunning beauty and inevitable decay. She tackles a mother’s heartrending resignation to a deep-rooted illness; another mother grappling with rage and fear, learning of her child’s murder; a master cockfighter who prizes both his champion roosters and his mysterious, witching woman: this is a Trinidad at once familiar and seductive in its insights, in its capacity to make new alcoves out of everyday destinations.

The whole is woven with an awareness of the environment, of its capacity to cradle and destroy, that grounds this collection with certainty as ancient as bedrock, as beautiful as a waterfall’s cascade. As the principal figure of the final story, “Spelunking”, remarks:

“The forest has no time for town shenanigans like flashy planes or making the village my own exotic backdrop. The forest has an instinct for this type of behaviour, even if you hide it from yourself.”

You might come to the book for Millar’s Commonwealth prizewinning story, which is the work’s titular piece, but you’ll stay for the whole, astonishingly well-knit ecosystem.

We recommend it for: field naturalists with an affinity for poetry in their scientific research; readers of Alice Munro and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw; fans of well-plotted stories marked by sensually replete language and symbolism.

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.

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.