Review: Passport from Here to There

Does the name Grace Nichols ring any bells?

To be honest, before I read Passport from Here to There, I had never heard of this highly rated and accomplished Guyanese born, British-naturalized poetess.

Her latest collection includes love songs to many people and things. In particular, many focus on her childhood growing up in Guyana and her return to her homeland as an adult.

The collection begins with a memory of her childhood self in “Rites of Passage”:

If I were to meet the ghost

of my childhood running

with slipping shoulder-straps

and half-plaited hair

beside a brown expanse

of memorising water…”

I have never been to Guyana but I can just imagine Nichols as a young girl running along the coastline of one of its many rivers or the muddy Atlantic.

Then there are poems dedicated to her life in the UK but with a deep ambivalence from her days growing up in colonial Guyana. In “Tea with Demerara Sugar” she writes:

I know your cost in tears, brown sugar, the bloody sweat

behind each crystal grain – you whose shadow still haunts the sun…”

I can taste her nostalgia and joy as an adult returning to Guyana in “Landing”:

The Liat plane dipping towards the rim of the Atlantic and the beginning of Georgetown sends the wings unfurling from my heart towards the city of my girlhood haunts...

Homing in to my first-time landing at Ogle, nothing can stop my Demerara smile

waxing wide as that sweetening estuary…”

Some of these poems were so good I had to read them twice.

Highly recommended!

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this collection from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Review: The Mermaid of Black Conch

It is safe to say that The Mermaid of Black Conch is not Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Some may even say it’s the adult version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale.

In Roffey’s version, Aycayia the mermaid is caught by Yankees fishing in the waters off St. Constance village. Luckily, she is rescued by a local fisherman, David. While she hides out in his home, she slowly retransforms into the woman she used to be.

Aycayia is really a “red woman,” a Taino who was cursed by her peers because of her latent power to seduce their men.

Long story short: This is the archetypal “stranger comes to town” story where the arrival of the mermaid upsets the natural balance of St. Constance and causes a “sea change” in a host of relationships.

In the story, there is also a lot of talk about “sexing” the mermaid because she symbolizes the exotic, the unattainable, what the fishermen have never had.

Roffey’s writing definitely evokes the vibrant colors and lushness of the Caribbean seascape and landscape. I think it’s the perfect summer read, if you want to be transported to a magical-realist version of a Caribbean island.

* DISCLAIMER: I received the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read The Mermaid of Black Conch? What did you think?

2021 #ReadCaribbean

Can you believe 2021 was my third year doing #ReadCaribbean on the Insta? Thanks to Cindy Allman of Book of Cinz, this project has really taken off, encouraging readers all over the world to explore Caribbean literature.

We bookstagrammers and writers highlight what’s on our reading list during June – books about the Caribbean, usually written by Caribbean people living at home or abroad. Many people, particularly Caribbean people, get to discover the length and breadth of the canon, not just the bitter aftertaste they experienced in Lit/English class in secondary school.

This year, I read the following:

Things I have Withheld by Kei Miller (Jamaica)

After reading Augustown, I was curious to read this collection of essays by the Jamaican author. Overall, the writing was excellent and thought-provoking. I especially loved the travel essays. My favorite bits were:

  • “Mr. Brown, Mrs. White, and Ms. Black” which looks at how each character is viewed through the prism of class in Jamaican society.
  • “The Boys at the Harbor” about the Gully Queens in Kingston.
  • “The Buck, the Bacchanal, and Again the Body” about the buck that terrorizes a family in Gasparillo, Trinidad after Carnival 2019.
  • “The White Woman and the Language of Bees” about the author’s contradictory feelings towards a white Jamaican author who is offended when a black Jamaican author tells her off for being inauthentic.
  • “Sometimes the Only Way Down a Mountain is by Prayer” about the author’s sojourn in Ethiopia, the promised land for Rastafarians.
  • “My Brother, My Brother” about the author facing his ancestral past at Elmina Castle.
  • “The Old Black Woman Who Sat in the Corner” which reveals a skeleton in the closet of the author’s family.

Antiman by Rajiv Mohabir (Guyana/US)

This is a memoir from Guyanese-American poet Rajiv Mohabir. For me, the best part of it was where Mohabir described his relationship with his grandmother, Aji. I also found that his journey to India to find out more about her Bhojpuri folk songs paralleled Naipaul’s search for ancestry in An Area for Darkness.

Unlike Naipaul however, Mohabir has a distinct passion for India, its culture, and its language and the trip is one that cements his identity rather than splinters it even further.

However, I noticed that when his grandmother dies, the narrative becomes fragmented and difficult to follow with mythologies, imagined conversations, details about his depression and failed relationships, and more songs and poetry.

Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne (Barbados)

I haven’t read any middle grade Caribbean fiction so this was new territory. That being said, Bourne did a fantastic job of sucking me into the protagonist’s world. This novel would also translate well on the screen.

I also like how seamlessly she blended local folklore with the plot. It was also nice to read about bits and pieces of Bajan culture which seems very similar to Trini culture!

And that’s a wrap! Can’t wait for next year. If you took part in #ReadCaribbean this year, share what you read/discovered/put on your TBR list in the comments!

It’s Been a While

First off, apologies for the radio silence. Since then, I have been in the throes of motherhood but now I am finally getting around to reading and writing more. With that said, here’s a quick recap of what I read in 2020:

Three Tigers, One Mountain by Michael Booth

The book is quite an enjoyable read because it takes you through different historical locations in each country where the author chats with local professors, museum staff, and students about controversial issues such as the “comfort women” issue (such a misnomer!), Unit 731 (biological warfare), and the Nanjing massacre. Each nation’s attitude is particularly revealed in how it records its history, whether in its school textbooks or national and local museums.

Malala by Cinelle Barnes

Filipino-American Cinelle Barnes is a writer who reaches into her gut to pick apart her harrowing life experiences and to show how they affected her adult outlook, her relationship to her parents, and her interactions with a country that considered her legally undocumented for several of her formative years. This is a must-read for anyone interested in true-life immigrant stories.

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

This was my first exposure to Romesh Gunesekera’s writing and boy, was it delicious! From the beginning, I was swept up in the nostalgic world of 1960s Sri Lanka – one filled with Chocolacs, exotic birds, dazzling natural landscapes, and posh mansions. However, Suncatcher’s scenery is not the main draw of this book. Instead, the coming of age story traces the friendship between Kairo and Jay, both trying to maneuver adolescence in postcolonial Sri Lanka. If you like books like A Separate Peace and movies like Stand By Me, then I think you’ll also love Suncatcher. Highly recommended.

Borderline Citizen by Robin Hemley

This is a series of travel essays that tackles contemporary issues such as patriotism and national identity in an age of shifting borders, migrations, and refugee crises. The American now living and working in Singapore himself holds no allegiance to any country and travels the globe to speak to people in borderline areas – exclaves, enclaves, and overseas territories such as Baarles, the Falklands, Kaliningrad, Point Roberts, and the chitmahals along the Indian/Bangladeshi border.

So Many Islands ed. by Nicholas Laughlin

This anthology from Peekash Press has contributing work from island writers across the globe. For me, the standout stories include:

🌟Granny Dead by Melanie Schwapp (Jamaica)
🌟Beached by Angela Barry (Bermuda)
🌟Roses for Mister Thorne by Jacob Ross (Grenada)

New Worlds, Old Ways ed. by Karen Lord

This eclectic collection of speculative fiction was certainly a different cup of tea for me. Usually, when I read Caribbean fiction, it’s heavily realistic or steeped in the past. In spite of this, there were a few interesting stories that offered food for thought.

Standout story:

🌟 Maiden in the Mud by Kevin Jared Hosein

Force Ripe by Cindy McKenzie

This coming of age story is told from the perspective of Lee, a young girl growing up in Grenada. Unfortunately, Lee’s story is a familiar one in the Caribbean where many children are left with grandparents or up to their own devices while Mommy and Daddy seek greener pastures elsewhere. In fact, McKenzie’s novel reminded me of Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise. In Lee’s case, her mother seeks a better life through work/another family and her father through Rastafarianism. The reader instantly feels sympathy for Lee who is caught in circumstances beyond her control.

Tea By the Sea by Donna Hemans

This is the sophomore novel of Jamaican-American author Donna Hemans. It opens with a real shocker. While Plum, an exhausted new mom, rests in her hospital bed after a difficult delivery, Lenworth, the baby daddy, kidnaps the newborn and disappears. The plot slowly unfolds how Plum deals with this loss and also explains the why behind Lenworth’s conduct, building to the final confrontation between the two estranged lovers.

One Year of Ugly by Caroline Mackenzie

One Year of Ugly is told in the snappy voice of Yola Palacios, a Venezuelan translator/writer and illegal immigrant living a “cockroach fairytale” in Trinidad. The novel starts in the thick of a hostage scene. A flamboyantly dressed stranger called Ugly interrupts the Palacios family BBQ seeking payment for a deal he struck with the now dead Aunt Celia. What follows is the family’s torment at the hands of Ugly and their lack of access to proper help because of their illegal status. Author and freelance translator Caroline Mackenzie mentions that the story is based on several real-life conversations she had with Venezuelans living in her homeland. 

The Whale House by Sharon Millar

Published in 2015, this is the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner’s debut collection of short stories. Millar’s prose is like a good Trini black cake: rich and gooey with sensory details. The landscapes featured are often lush but humming with an underlying darkness.

Secrets We Kept by Krystal Sital

In this searing memoir, author Krystal Sital unravels family secrets in the aftermath of her maternal grandfather’s hospitalization. However, the question remains: why was her grandfather, Shiva Singh, the way he was? He was by no means an anomaly in his generation but in general, it would be enlightening to find out why some Indo-Trinidadian patriarchs turn out the way they do.

Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur

The Guyanese-American author weaves personal memoir and historical details to tell the story of coolie women, emigrants from the Indian subcontinent to far flung parts of the then British empire, chiefly Guyana where the author was born. Highly recommended nonfiction read about the Indo-Caribbean female experience.

The London Dream by Chris Macmillan

This was an interesting read for me, having been a previous resident of the metropolis. It pulled the shiny veneer off the city, claiming that it is essentially still Victorian-era London today with its mass levels of inequality, exploitation, and a surplus of labor for few choice jobs. Great read if you’re a fan of migration studies.

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

Following a good friend’s recommendation, l read this Amazon bestseller. I definitely enjoyed hearing the story from the protagonist’s perspective but sometimes it came off very soap-operaish. For example, many times, her employer, Big Madam, seemed a caricature of a horrible boss. Or is this just how Adunni, the main character, sees her? 

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

Sorry to say this but for all the hype this book got on Bookstagram, l found Love After Love extremely depressing. Sure, l thought that the Indo-Trinidadian cultural references and the multiple Trini voices were on point but still…For me, there was only a little redemption at the end but spoiler alert, this book delves into some HEAVY stuff: domestic violence, cutting, attempted suicide, murder, Kali worship, LGBTQ+ issues, just trauma, trauma, trauma.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

What was it about 2020 and traumatic books? We already had that Covid-19 thing to deal with. Although Doshi’s prose sharp and clean like a tack, Burnt Sugar is yet another story of a dysfunctional relationship. This time, it’s mother against daughter and in the end, l was scratching my head about who was crazy/mentally unstable.

The Girl With the Hazel Eyes by Callie Browning

The Girl with the Hazel Eyes is the story of “pretty eye” Susan, a reclusive author originally from Barbados now living in a retirement settlement in Florida. Susan’s story is told against the backdrop of Barbados’ late colonial and early post-independence days. There’s plenty bacchanal and ole time memories in this one.

Musical Youth by Joanne Hillhouse

The plot follows Zahara, a shy girl who lives in the shadow of her flamboyant dead mother. However, things start looking up for her when she joins a drama production for the summer. There, she develops a romance with cast member Shaka and ends up becoming more self-confident in her musical talent. I think I would have really enjoyed this Caribbean YA book as a teenager because Hillhouse makes a lot of references to popular soca, dancehall, and reggae lyrics.

And that’s a wrap! What did you read in 2020?

 

Goodreads Challenge 2019!

It’s nearing the end of 2019 so you know what that means – it’s time to sum up my reading (yay!). 2019 was a good year. Overall, I surpassed my Goodreads challenge of reading 52 books this year by clocking 67 books!

Here’s the list divided into novels, short story collections, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, and graphic novels/comics. The ones I’ve starred are the ones that had a considerable impact on me.

Novels

  1. Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
  2. Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan *
  4. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
  5. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  6. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok *
  7. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
  8. Augustown by Kei Miller *
  9. Golden Child by Claire Adam
  10. Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn *
  11. My New American Life by Francine Prose
  12. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith *
  14. A House For Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul *
  15. Crick, Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge
  16. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid *
  17. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  18. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery *
  19. My Enemy’s Cherry Tree by Wang Ting-Kuo
  20. A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Philips *
  21. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  22. The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
  23. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
  24. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  25. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat *
  26. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Short story collections

  1. Trinidad Noir: The Classics edited by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni
  2. What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
  3. How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs *
  4. A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai
  5. The Transformation and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
  6. Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf
  7. Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link *

Nonfiction

  1. Three Tigers, One Mountain by Michael Booth *
  2. Thin Places by Jordan Kisner *
  3. VS Naipaul’s Journeys by Sanjay Krishnan
  4. Stories that Stick by Kindra Hall
  5. Online Marketing for Busy Authors by Fauzia Burke
  6. Writing is Essential by Judine Slaughter
  7. Elements of Fiction by Walter Mosley
  8. Footnotes by Peter Fiennes
  9. We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik
  10. Focal Point by Brian Tracy
  11. Beyond Guilt Trips by Anu Taranath
  12. An Uncommon Atlas by Alastair Bonnett
  13. The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman
  14. Cuba Then, Cuba Now by Joshua-Jelly Shapiro
  15. Imaginary Homelands by Salman Rushdie
  16. Diasporic (Dis)locations by Brinda J Mehta *
  17. The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
  18. How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom
  19. The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker
  20. Unconventional Medicine by Chris Kresser
  21. How to Polish Your Manuscript in 10 Days by Anne Victory

Memoir

  1. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider
  3. The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin
  4. Autumn Light by Pico Iyer
  5. Educated by Tara Westover *
  6. Apple, Tree by Lisa Funderburg
  7. Malaya by Cinelle Barnes *
  8. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid *
  9. A Map to the Door of No Return by Dionne Brand
  10. Magic Realism for Non-Believers by Anika Fajardo *
  11. Belonging by bell hooks *

Graphic Novel/Comics

  1. The Wonderful World of Sazae San by Machiko Hasegawa

Poetry

  1. Modern Sudanese Poetry by Adil Babikir

How many books did you read this year? What were your favorites?