35. Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber.

Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

On the islands named Trinidad and Tobago, it is the 1970s, and the Black Power uprising has come and gone. The men who led it with courage and determination have seen their dreams of social change shattered, their purpose suddenly uncertain. Among these former revolutionaries is KingKala, a poet-kaisonian returning from detention to find that his former comrades-in-arms have either fled or adapted strange new personas. KingKala is joined in bemusement by Sonnyboy Apparicio, a fellow songster and man of action who no longer knows in which direction his fortune, to say nothing of his responsibility, might lie. When the chance to perform roles in a promising foreign film emerges, KingKala and Sonnyboy leap at the opportunity, only to learn that the parts in which they have been cast, that of exotic tribesmen, are to be short-lived. Faced with this dilemma – of whether to die the complacent on-stage deaths they have been assigned, or to challenge this assumption – the two men begin to grow closer. Their camaraderie sets one of the multiple backdrops for the events in Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie, a novel of myriad contemplations on life, love, and the issue of identities on a personal and national scale.

Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Is Just a Movie is Lovelace’s first published novel in over a decade. A work marked by much anticipation, it is told in that signature style of an ease in storytelling, of a writer’s tongue primed in the rich awareness of local landscape and local concerns. The characters who populate this novel strike the reader as people known throughout a lifetime, their stories, dreams and grievances akin to those overheard at the market, the mosque, in Woodford Square or on the streets during Carnival Tuesday mas. KingKala, self-avowed “maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets”, does not so much preside over the happenings in the fictional village of Cascadu as he observes them, sometimes in silence, sometimes chiming in, but always vigilant.

It is Sonnyboy who more often claims the focal role; in his frequent forays into different jobs and titles, he is a portrait of a nation’s expectancy; he channels the frustration of his unrealized dreams, along with his ever-persisting desire to be seen in his community not as a badjohn, but as someone more: as a man capable of rising above the weight of old, unwise decisions.

Perched on the shoulder of the narrator, KingKala, the reader can expect to shift seamlessly through decades, major occurrences, seasons of both nature and politics. The Prime Minister who rules both uneasily and assuredly over the nation is seen at one instance in the heyday of his governance; in a later scene, he appears to still be in power, far past his expected due. The everyday grit of ordinary circumstance is pitted against the suggestion of otherworldly happenings. This subtle marriage of the literal and the fantastical is woven together with an unblinking skill; it convinces utterly, making no digression seem unnecessary, no tall tale excessive. It feels perfectly natural for villagers to be playing cards in one chapter, then lining up to officially sell their Dreams for money in another. Ancient historical figures are invited to celebrate the nation’s successes; prime ministers declare their intentions to live forever; miracles remain within the realm of hope. A multitude of voices accompany single encounters, acting as a reminder that there are a whole host of ways in which reality can be perceived. Not every story needs to be told within rigid lines; Is Just a Movie benefits from the intricate tapestry of its structure, presenting a reading adventure as ornate as it is serenely guided.

The narrative never focuses doggedly on Sonnyboy alone, allowing the stories of the other inhabitants of Cascadu to be told in vivid, enduring detail, with equal measures of humour and sobriety. Through Sonnyboy’s experiences are filtered the hopes and dreams of unforgettable figures: of Franklyn, whose unmatched prowess at batting causes an entire village to creak to a standstill; of the beautiful Dorlene, whose near-mishap with a falling coconut prompts her to literally turn her life around. Daily events shape the fabric of everyday communal life, ranging from the commonplace to the fantastic: the swift decline of corner shops, the disaster of a flambeau-lit political party’s campaign, the unexpected miracle accompanying a funeral.

Told in language that soothes and thrills, Is Just a Movie is a novel replete with symbols by which Trinbagonians can map their multiple places in history. When Sonnyboy hears the sound of steelpan for the first time, “the notes flying out like flocks of birds…like a sprinkling of shillings thrown in the air, like a choir of infants reciting a prayer,” he is attuned to a timeless magic. Not every revelation is meant to be comforting, however – as a Laventille shopkeeper grimly comments, “What was performance in Carnival is now the reality of life. The devil is no longer in the make-believe of Carnival; he is right here on our streets. The Midnight Robber is not a character in our fiction, he is in possession of real guns.”

In this most recent offering from a master literary craftsman, the abiding messages of resistance, and of the pride one earns from self-recognition, illuminate every page. It is writing that unhurriedly allows us to see ourselves as we are, blemishes and beauty marks alike, and to grow in the power of that incredible knowledge.

This review first appeared, in its entirety, in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on September 2nd, 2012. You can view it here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

16. Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

Published in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press.

“God, that’s sexy as hell.”

This is what I thought as I sat in the audience of the Paper Based bookshop at the Hotel Normandie, a fortnight shy of one year ago, listening to Anton Nimblett read from the titular offering of his short story collection, in which the narrator shares a highly unusual post-haircut pleasure at his stand-in barber’s basement. I know the oft-deceptive spell that a writer who reads his work well can cast, though, so I purposed to find out whether or not, frankly, the sex was sustained as convincingly on paper as it was in person. I was not disappointed.

There are eleven stories in Sections of an Orange, some of which are connected by the same characters, telling different sides of the same, or different, tales.  In “Visiting Soldiers”, we confront the peculiarities of a quietly devastating loss, as we learn exactly what one bereaved mother carries in her purse. We nod in agreement at the description of the busybody neighbour in “Into My Parlour”, who feeds on gossip and forces doubt, with one well-timed suggestion. “On the Side” swerves between dual expositions: a gory car accident and the bonds of food and familiarity that link the two men entangled in it. “Time and Tide” traces the retreat of one of those men to Trinidad, where he allows himself to trade past hurt for the present of easy talk on Maracas beach, and the very definition of one pleasant surprise. In “Just Now”, we learn that there’s more to that pleasant surprise than a body that blesses a crisp white shirt with a bit extra beauty—we meet his wife, and the everyday voodoo love that anchors him happily to her side. We attempt not to cry at the miracle that dwells in the simple gift of “Marjory’s Meal”. “How Far, How Long” has us shake hands with Ray, and his man… and his other man, and how they’re all simultaneously incredible, but not quite enough. “Sections of an Orange” juxtaposes snippets of a hit-and-run news brief with one of the most tantalizing trips to the barber ever recorded. That barber, a misunderstood creative close to implosion, seals his fate with a trip to Van Cleef and Arpels, in “Ring Games”. In case we’d forgotten, we’re reminded  of the soothing balm avoidance can bestow, when we read what one good woman does for love in “Mr. Parker’s Behaviour”. The collection closes with the heart-thudding narrative of a man who’s best recognized for everyone, and everything, he isn’t, in “One, Two, Three – Push”.

A familiarity of place, persona and situation abounds in these tales of Trinidad and New York, but I have found that it takes more than mere recognition in fiction to make the writing sizzle. Thankfully, the familiarity in Sections of an Orange is partnered with both subtle and audacious (but never mawkish) wit and whimsy. I could not imagine saying to Nimblett, “You, sir, are out of touch.” Nimblett knows. He writes with the voice of a writer who sees, who spends a lot of time, maybe all the time, looking. Listening. Feeding off the vibe of strangers and best-beloveds alike—and if that sounds malicious, then it ought to be asserted that eavesdropping, observation and a good old Trini maco are the polished trade-tools with which the hottest literature is churned out.

I like the unpredictability of this collection, the way that the oeuvre defies pigeonholing with no mean spirit. You might watch the cover of the novel and instantly formulate your best-intentioned prejudices, but the writing will smack you on the cheek, whisper archly, “So yuh thought I was a book of gay stories, eh? Well, yuh damn wrong…”, but even this revelation is not cruel in the way it caresses your senses. Yes, within these pages are the travails and the merriments, the hassle and hustle and delight of men who love men, but to say that this encapsulates the work Nimblett has done is poor praise, if it can be called that. Yes, the work provides a fresh, relevant point of access to disenfranchised gay Trinidadian and Caribbean men. It also treats with grieving mothers, with the weight of suspicion surrounding non-heteronormative behaviour both home and away. It peers into the isolation experience, the journeys of Trinidadians to the United States, the sense of community away from the island hearth, and the voices of remarkable people as they plot their place in a society that does not share their several secret languages. There would be no shame, I think, if Sections of an Orange were a book devoted solely to the queer masculine perspective of the Trinidadian-American citizen, but the wealth of its multivalent concerns pre-empts that, soundly.

Readers, I am hunting for a quote from these pages, from any of these eleven productions in loss, longing, hunger, and the cry of the fettered Self, and yet… I find that I want to present entire pages of prose, instead. The passage that describes the magicked yet terrestrially gritty encounter between barber Glen and our unnamed narrator, who is given the honorific of “Chocolate Man” by the former, is lip-bitingly potent.

The two men succumb to the allure of fresh fruit in their pageantry of lovemaking:

“This time he grabs a section of the orange, holds it six inches in front of my face, and steadying himself with one hand right next to me, he squeezes with the other hand. Juice falls through the air, hitting my chest, pooling at the centre and trickling down my belly. He waves his hand around, still squeezing, so that juice hits my face and shoulders, collecting in the hollow at my collarbone and forming a liquid necklace at my throat. His eyes follow the movement of his hand, a hand that seems to follow the orange, tracing some deliberate pattern that only he knows. His fingers, smooth dark peninsulas that end in crowns of perfect pink nail, are wet now, and I want him to touch me.”

(from “Sections of an Orange”)

Landscape is just as vividly rendered—we feel that we are walking with the tormented Push as he struggles towards claiming his identity, as he paces the city streets.

“A thin breeze greets Push in the Brooklyn night — cooler than earlier. Red Hook buildings carve skeletons against an indigo sky, like dinosaur exhibits in a museum after hours. Telephone wires sag from wood poles, recalling yesterdays. Uneven cobblestone patches poke history through asphalt streets.”

(from “One, Two, Three – Push”)

When landscape and character meld so seamlessly, finessed with the talent of subtle strokes, we can read lines like these, wherein a man surrenders himself to the grief of an inevitable loss, in the midst of preparing a tribute that rivals coffers of precious metals.

“The tears came drop by drop, pooling until they flowed, and flowing more and more until they bloomed into sound — one low, deep sob and then another and another, until his body was shaking. Then he had to set the knife down as he crumbled from his middle, folding at the gut and catching his head in his hands. There, with the breeze still gently stirring the leaves, with the birds still singing sweetly and the waves still lapping on the shore, he cried alone.”

(from “Marjory’s Meal”)

You could shelve this book with your queer literature anthologies, sure, but I daresay your hand would hesitate. You’d look across at your trove of Caribbean lit., of course, and glance meaningfully at your American contemporary fiction, almost as if in reflex motion. Let’s not even think about that cross-section of diaspora writing you’ve accumulated over the years, or your favourite social commentary-related writing… or, in fact, let’s. Perhaps, in the end, you’ll  file Sections of an Orange with the books that best remind you of home, the books by which, if you have allowed yourself to live, you can shake your head at your own damn foolishness, swallow a lump of pride at your better intentions, smile and remember all the inventions of mind and heart you pioneered, for love.

The author discusses his work, influences and his indebtedness to a sense of community in the article Anton Nimblett Responds, at The Signifyin’ Woman’s review site, here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

14. How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

Published in 2010 by Graywolf Press.

An S. Mariella Gable Book (an award given by the College of Saint Benedict for an important work of literature published by Graywolf Press)

Winner of the Fiction Category Prize, OCM Bocas 2011.

Shortlisted for the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature 2011.

“I get her arms in front and see words written on them. It freaks me out. But it’s just words. ‘Stop looking,’ she says. ‘Stop reading.’ Lord Harry the Judge. I lay back in my seat and I just ask, ‘This is stupid. You couldn’t find no paper?’ She shakes her head, ‘I left my notebook.’ I open the golf and show her the roller paper, like a small notepad. ‘I didn’t think of that’ she say with her voice going all Yankee now. And then she crying like I hit her or something. She sit on her hands the whole drive back. Keep her arms tight by her side. Tonight, I think, I going kiss those arms. I going lick every word if she let me.”

from “Street Man”

I loathe exaggeration, especially when it comes to enthusiasm. I prefer my praise to be as precise as possible. Sadly, this means that much of my best loved phrases must languish, unused, waiting for true beauty to capture them. One such is borrowed from a film: to feel something “like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.”

Tiphanie Yanique’s premiere publication is impressive. A collection of short fiction and a novella, How to Escape from a Leper Colony is remarkable in that it feels neither solely craft nor character-driven, yet reads as a spellbinding marriage of both. Here is short fiction to get you excited about the genre entire. Here is a novella you will want to reread until the people in it are achingly familiar to you, a novella which shows its full lustre in its unabridged format, as opposed to the more dim showing it made in Akashic Books’ 2008 anthology, Trinidad Noir. At a handful of pages shy of the two hundred mark, Yanique’s prose begs to be read in one sitting. I  read it cover to cover in bed, bleary-eyed with intensity, and when I reached the last line of the last story, “Kill the Rabbits”, (which I would have loved to see even further fleshed out) I felt that I had not had enough.

How to Escape a Leper Colony features eight pieces. The titular story will show you some of the reasons why an island of lepers and the nuns treating them walk into the sea. “The Bridge Stories” is a compendium of narratives that tells the same story, marking it multiple ways for tragedy and release. “Street Man” reads like a tale you’d hear from the man himself, in a crowded bar, over beers and your interjections of, “Nah, man!”, “Oh gosh, man!”, “For real, man?”. In “The Saving Work”, two white women who’ve moved their lives to the Caribbean puzzle out the truth at the root of why they hate each other so (with a burning church providing the backdrop). “Canoe Sickness” offers a retrospective of a young boy’s thwarted dream of pro-football glory (the least evocative of the pieces, for me). Mason finds a hideaway chapel in Houston that reminds him of his Jamaica home (in strangely erotic tones, too) in the exquisite “Where Tourists Don’t Go”. In the vein of “The Bridge Stories”, “The International Shop of Coffins” is a multipart exposition of grief, distance and the things we’ll do for love. Finally, “Kill the Rabbits” (as authentic an account of the sweet madness that is Carnival as ever I read one) introduces us to three seemingly-different people in the Virgin Islands, and the unusual ways they are fettered, to each other and to love.

Straddling a swinging bridge betwixt magical allegory and gritty realism, these stories are superbly-wrought. Yanique’s eye to detail is exceptional; her attention to a credibility of tone and voice—to the way a person speaks, or internalizes a situation—is finely-tuned. There are numerous delights here for the careful reader that will be missed, and no mistake, by any page-skimmers.  Unearthing sleight of hand contradictions, such as the difference between what characters say and what they do or mean is a particular treasure. What makes it sweeter is that Yanique never contradicts herself; we spend no time running after her sentences, filling in plot holes with frustration. There are no perfect, sparkle-toothed island exotics waving for the approval of tourists here, and this is a relief.

For all that How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a debut offering, nothing about Yanique’s work heralds it as mawkish or sickly desperate to please. Can my desire for this book to have been a longer collection truly be a complaint? Hardly not, though I do wonder how two or three more stories would have affected the impact of the reading. That is a bold-faced hypothetical, however, so I will precisely declare: I love this writer’s writing, and I look forward, impatiently, to reading another riot in the heart from Tiphanie Yanique.

“One of my teachers once said that history has no influence on land, that land is outside of history. He lied or he was mistaken. History has carved down mountains. History has drenched out rivers. History has made the land, and the land has, when under duress, made history. […] No one and no thing is unmoved by human history, and it is a sad, sad truth. But that Carnival the land had decided to defy history. And this, like my body, was a bit of an impossible thing —  but an admirable thing as all impossible things are.”

from “Kill the Rabbits”

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge. 

12. Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Published in 1999. This Edition: Headline Review, 2000.

“I became nervous waiting for the poet to start. I was thinking, ‘Please be good, please.’ The poet became my dad, my brother, he was the unknown black faces in our photo album, he was the old man on the bus who called me sister, the man in the bank with the strong Trinidadian accent who could not make himself understood. He was every black man – ever.”

Faith Jackson has always been, for the most part, a good girl. She’s a dutiful, well-attired twenty-two year old university graduate, raised by black expatriate Jamaican parents who, according to the common account, came over to England on a banana boat. White boys heckled Faith about this during her childhood, but to her parents, nothing about that journey even remotely elicits shame. Here, early-established, resides Faith’s quandary: her existence straddles bi-polar states of embarrassment and defiance, of red-faced chagrin at her skin, and awful anger at the reactions it provokes in London, where her ‘kind’ are called ‘wogs, ‘nig-nigs’ and ‘coons’ by the various Caucasian whites with whom she interacts. After witnessing a brutal act of vandalism perpetrated by white thugs against the black proprietress of an independent bookstore, something in Faith gives in to despair.

Alarmed by their daughter’s detachment from her (ostensibly glamorous but unfulfilling) job, even by her withdrawal from the raucous bonhomie of her flatmates’ ambience, Faith’s parents devise a plan. They pay her airfare for a fortnight’s getaway in Jamaica, the home to which they’ve been contemplating returning. As Faith’s mother gently reminds her, “Child, everyone should know where they come from.”

While reading Fruit of the Lemon, it became quickly apparent to me that I was in the hands of a startlingly evocative writer. Levy rarely ‘lays it on thick’: there is none of that overindulgence, poorly executed, in exposition, description or plot progression. The ingrained racism Faith endures uneasily in England, her incremental malaise and mistrust of her own complexion, are subtly enforced at every turn, ‘til we feel like buckling beneath the pressure, ourselves.

Caribbean readers will not, I think, be disappointed by Levy’s depiction of Jamaica. Not being of Jamaican ancestry personally, I cannot claim a countrywoman’s expertise, but the testament of the life and people of the island never, not once, caused me to furrow my brow and say, ‘Eh?’ Odds are, whether you are from Jamrock, or Trinidad, or Barbados, or anywhere beneath our persistent and particular sun, you will recognize trademarks of your own growing-up stories. You will steups (loud and irritated sucking of one’s own teeth, referenced several times by Levy) at the description of a relative just like the one who drives you mad. You will sigh when Faith learns the saddest stories of her origins from her Jamaican family, because that sadness, that mad, mad history lies dormant in your family too, just waiting to be prodded uneasily to life again.

Fruit of the Lemon made me laugh uproariously, no small feat, considering that it takes comedic heft on the page to really send me reeling with mirth. Levy excels at marrying elements of the absurd with the lamentable. This is particularly well-transmitted in the presentation of Faith’s ridiculous yet endearing elder brother Carl, who proclaims his superiority over his sister, treating her with a mixture of gruff disdain and barely-veiled irritation, but sheepishly hides the face that he is only just doing his first A-level exam. Most, if not all, of Levy’s characters are drawn in this enviably well-rounded way, so that they things they do and say elicit both hilarity and mortification.

Perhaps most striking of the praises offered to Fruit of the Lemon is the Sunday Telegraph’s assessment that “…[readers] will recognize the truthfulness of the world which Andrea Levy describes”—and these truths, to my mind, have less to do with being Caribbean, and more to do with being an observant person, regardless of skin hue or geographical marker.

With a narrative that spans the reach of the Atlantic, Levy writes convincingly of home and abroad, of isolation amidst throngs and of togetherness where only a few are gathered. Fruit of the Lemon begins with a humbly tiny family tree of Faith and her nuclear family. It ends with the deeply-rooted history of multiple branches, each tier a story and a legacy all its own.

This review was initially featured on Baffled Books.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

Caribbean Writers Challenge 2011 @BaffledBooks

CWC Challenge Link! Click me!Even before a dear friend of mine who runs a funny, tasty cooking blog (over at Can I Have it Like That?) recommended this challenge to me, I’d been feeling the lack of regional literature in my life. I am a Caribbean girl, despite the foreign impressions I might sometimes convey, and I love the words, and word-wielders, of my islands and my region, as surely as I can love good writing, wherever its source.

Lisa and K, who run the engaging book review blog, Baffled Books, seem to feel the same way. I couldn’t agree more with their estimation that “Caribbean writers are notoriously underrepresented even within the Caribbean, with only a small section of local bookstores dedicated to them, few on the school syllabus and the majority of the population having no clue who the supposedly prominent writers, that represent their islands, are.  In the wider world only particular literary groups take much notice and most people, again, are completely unaware that the Caribbean is a hub of literary enthusiasm.” Well said!

I’ll be aiming to complete and review 12 Caribbean books this year, putting me in the advanced category of the challenge. It is a trying task in and of itself to find authors who live and work entirely in the region, so some of the literary works I’ve selected do belong to the Caribbean diaspora collective. I do not think that this tampers with the spirit of the challenge, though – to discover and appreciate writing that is enriched by, and grounded in, a Caribbean sensibility, in regional aesthetics, languages, series of identities, landscapes and forms.

The Challenge Shortlist (in no particular order)

{I will periodically update this list, as the books are read and reviewed.}

1. (Novels) Either Anna In Between or Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidadian-N. American)

2. (Short Fiction) Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett (Trinidadian-N. American)
{Read and reviewed in April ’11, here.}

3. (Novella/Short Fiction) How to Escape From A Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique (Virgin Islands-N.American)
{Read and reviewed in February ’11, here.}

4. (Novel) Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (Martiniquan)

5. (Novel) Raise the Lanterns High by Lakshmi Persaud (Trinidadian-British)

6. (Novel) The Year in San Fernando by Michael Anthony (Trinidadian)

7. (Poetry) The Predicament of Or by Shani Mootoo (Trinidadian-Canadian)

8. (Novel) Jonestown by Wilson Harris (Guyanese)

9. (Novels) Any one of the following from Andrea Levy (Jamaican-British): Never Far From Nowhere, Fruit of the Lemon, or Small Island
{‘Fruit of the Lemon’ – read in late January ’11, reviewed in February ’11, here. This review was first featured on Baffled Books.}

10. (Novel) Is Just A Movie by Earl Lovelace (Trinidadian)
{Read in August ’12, reviewed in September ’12, here.}

11. (Novel) No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff (Jamaican-N.American)

12. (Poetry) Yoruba from Cuba: Selected Poems of Nicolás Guillén (bilingual edition) by Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres (translator) and Nicolás Guillén (Cuba)

Lisa and K have since shelved this challenge, but by all means, sun-kissed, coconut and bullet-dodging, biche-breaking, wine-and-revelry reading, to all.