An Evening of Tea and Readings, February 8th

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Dear Book Lovers,

We were eager for our Tea and Readings series to resume this year, and it gave us joy to see that your enthusiasm matched our own! Last Saturday, we held our first literary evening of 2014 before a capacity crowd, at which we welcomed three uniquely engaging writers to the podium.

Our official event flyer, designed by Reynold Hackshaw.

Our official event flyer, designed by Reynold Hackshaw.

The evening’s first reader was Kim Johnson, one of Trinidad’s steelpan connoisseurs and foremost cultural academics. Johnson shared extensively from one of his most popular titles, The Illustrated Story of Pan, frequently interspersing his reading with colourful sideline commentary. Scarcely needing to rely on his own written reportage, Johnson regaled the appreciative crowd with anecdotes both revealing and whimsical. Avid collectors eager to acquire The Illustrated Story of Pan may have some waiting ahead of them: the book is currently out of print. (It’s been recommissioned for re-release, official date pending confirmation.) In the interim, though, we’ve several of Johnson’s other titles in stock, including Tinpan to TASPO: Origins of the Steelband Movement 1939-1951 (2011) and Descendants of the Dragon (2007).

Steelpan scholar Kim Johnson shares passages from his publication The Illustrated Story of Pan.

Steelpan scholar Kim Johnson shares passages from his publication The Illustrated Story of Pan.

Our middle presenter isn’t a stranger to the Paper Based reading stage: in late October last year, Paper Based was privileged to host Debbie Jacob’s book launch of Wishing for Wings, a true account of her experiences teaching English Language to incarcerated young men at the Youth Training Centre. Critical and personal response to Wishing for Wings has been effusively widespread: people agree that this is an indispensable book, an asset to every secondary school student, no matter their circumstances. Jacob spoke candidly of the horrors that can be found behind prison walls, both juvenile and adult, and of the enormous dedication it takes to imagine a better life while in remand. By the time she soberly wound her reflections to a close, there was barely a dry eye or unmoved expression in the house.

Debbie Jacob shares excerpts from her students' writing, many examples of which appear in Wishing for Wings (Ian Randle Publishers, 2013).

Debbie Jacob shares excerpts from her students’ writing, many examples of which appear in Wishing for Wings (Ian Randle Publishers, 2013).

Bringing the readings to a close, historian Angelo Bissessarsingh (who, like Debbie, is a Trinidad Guardian columnist), will have his first book, Walking with the Ancestors, on our shelves soon. While that book is poised to present a fascinating study of local cemeteries, Bissessarsingh wore the hat of fiction last Saturday, as opposed to the historical non-fiction for which he is perhaps best recognized. Sharing a short story, adapted from a novel in progress, the Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago founder had the audience in stitches from the first paragraph of ribald stream of consciousness onwards. In the wake of such a side-splitting rendition, which also served to highlight many facets of Trinidad’s post-war society, we’re just as keen to read Angelo’s novel as we are his non-fiction!

Angelo Bissessarsingh tickles the crowd's collective funny bone with his short story, "Lady Maudie".

Angelo Bissessarsingh tickles the crowd’s collective funny bone with his short story, “Lady Maudie”.

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautifully balanced triad of readers, whose offerings ran the gamut from historical introspection, to present-day societal study, to creative fiction of mirth and merriment. We’d like to thank Kim, Debbie and Angelo for their time and generosity — and we’re deeply appreciative to each of our patrons, both first-timers and familiar returning faces. Your unflagging support keeps our Tea and Reading series alive, and we look forward to many similar celebrations in your company.

Speaking of celebrations, our upcoming reading, on March 8th, will be a special one: in addition to showcasing a promising lineup of writers, we’ll also be ringing in Paper Based’s 27th birthday! We’re happy to announce that one of our March readers will be Nathalie Taghaboni, author of Across From Lapeyrouse and its sequel, Santimanitay. Stay tuned for our full list of readers, to be announced by the end of February.

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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