The three books of my 26th birthday.

I turned twenty-six on August 18th. Part of these celebrations involved the merry claiming of Novel Niche’s very own, spiffy domain! That’s right… instead of holding to that handy ‘dot wordpress dot com’ suffix, I took the plunge, and now Novel Niche lives at ‘dot net dot com’. Apart from the ability to fit the blog’s name more handily and elegantly upon business cards, and the thrill of its triple alliteration, nothing else has changed. I haven’t gone corporate, I’ve just… embraced the delights of a new address.

I cannot recall a single birthday where my mother hasn’t gifted me a book, or several. This year it was one, and I am glad it came unaccompanied. There’s something to be said for the single title in your hands, the way it demands your attention, especially if it’s worthy. My mother never gifts me books that won’t, sooner or later, inhabit precious space in my interior weather.

Library Journal describes This Strange Land, (Alice James Books, 2011) the third full-length poetry collection of Jamaican poet Shara McCallum, as “poems of ruin and rebirth, … a marvellous collection filled with a lovely and evocative music.” Even more entrancing than this is fellow Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison’s assessment:

“Jean Rhys could be the presiding spirit of this moving collection, which mines deep veins of loss and displacement. The personal and the political converge in new ways in these finely crafted poems, and readers should be prepared for unexpected turns and genuine surprises.”

A collection governed by that particular Jean Rhys-ian sentiment and spirit will win me over, I know, in ways I may find difficult to articulate, in the aftermath of my experiences with the work. I wasn’t exaggerating when I called Wide Sargasso Sea my Everything Book, back when I recommended six Caribbean novels for summer/long vacation/life reading. I am just as eager to discover just how Rhys “presides”, as Goodison suggests, in these poems, as I am to find out how McCallum speaks, hearing the shape and weight of her poetic concerns as articulated in her own voice. (The collection is beautifully accompanied by a CD of the poet reading several of her pieces.)

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Shara McCallum read her work before, at a 2012 Bocas reading with Guyanese poet, Fred D’AguiarThis Strange Land was longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. When I heard McCallum read, I knew I would need to acquire her work, vitally and through urgent means, so it made the best kind of sense to be surprised with it on my birthday, by my mother. That language of essential, literary knowingness, can be so tenuous, so impossible to script convincingly between two souls. I am infinitely lucky to have that with my mum.

My uncle and I have this tradition: no matter how busy our lives get, he takes me book-shopping on my birthdays. Last year, he bought me The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj (at whose 2012 Bocas reading I was present, and on which I shared my thoughts), and Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love. This year, I chose two titles firmly rooted in Caribbean terra firma.

Haitian writer Myriam J. A. Chancy’s The Loneliness of Angels (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and is hailed on the Bocas blog as “steeped in Haitian history, charting human connections across gulfs of time and space.” Told from multiple narrative voices, spanning generations, borders, languages and communities, the novel hints, even from its blurb, at a transformation (or else a confirmation) of how Haiti is perceived. It feels that it will be a necessary read, if not an easy one. Spiritual matters are said to bind the novel’s numerous threads, and I am, I confess, almost singularly concerned in seeing how this is borne out.

Chancy read from The Loneliness of Angels at this year’s Bocas festival, too, but with the program as delightfully stuffed as it was, I couldn’t make it. When next she reads here, I will endeavour to be in attendance, my well-read copy in hand.

Another writer whose Bocas reading I missed was that of Indian author Rahul Bhattacharya. His novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011) was the winner of this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and generated quite a bit of buzz at Bocas, too. It is annoying to consider that Kirkus Reviews touts the book as “occasionally rippling with pidgin English and yet always sparkling with literary insights”, as though the presence of the former could automatically be thought of as a detractor to the latter. Kirkus goes on to say that the narrative is set “within the landscape of a forgotten corner of South America…an exotic locale”, compounding my issues with its nonetheless glowing write-up. I’m much happier quoting the dust jacket’s other critic, Sam Lipsyte:

“What a voice, what a startling, funny, charming, provocative voice! Rahul Bhattacharya’s narrator is a true wanderer and a gifted poet of description. The journey he takes us on, through Guyana, through histories and selves, is a wonder.”

Perhaps the reality of having grown up/continuing to grow up in a former colony, of inhabiting a place that others feel comfortable breezily grouping as “oh, the islands“, perhaps that has led me to think of “exotic” as pejorative rather than laudatory. No islands are created equal; there is nothing in Trinidadian history that ought compel one to think it is synonymous with Guyanese history, a reality that writers like Bhattacharya doubtless know. I love reading novels about Guyana, not because it is an exotic place, but because the novels are about Guyana. That an Indian native has written what’s been called the quintessential Guyanese novel is not a deterrent. It hints to the possibility of more access to seeing, and to the abundant richness of discovery — both of which can lead to the finest writing.

I’d meant to close this post with thoughts on the book I ordered for myself, in recognition of twenty-six bibliophilic years. I’ve wanted it for so long, and been quietly enthralled with its writer for even longer. I will speak of it, and her, another time, when my order is delivered, and I’m holding that much-anticipated volume in my grateful, hungry hands.