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?


What I read in autumn 2019

With winter fast approaching, I think it’s a good time to review what I read over the autumn months. As the weather cooled down, I started to burrow into books again, particularly nonfiction/memoir.  Here are the highlights.

Educated by Tara Westover

This memoir blew me away. I was astounded at the author’s spare upbringing with a fundamentalist Mormon father with idiosyncratic beliefs about education, government, modern medicine, and work. The book largely wrestles with the conflict between family obligation and self-actualization. Westover ends up reaching the apex in education with a PhD from Cambridge University but also suffers familial estrangement. I guess you win some, you lose some.

Autumn Light by Pico Iyer

This memoir reflects on the losses the author’s family has suffered in recent years. First, his father-in-law passes away and his mother-in-law has to be put in home because she suffers from dementia. Second, he wrestles with the fact that his mother lives alone in California. Third, Iyer deals with an estranged brother-in-law whom he has never met. He also shares his experiences with his local ping pong club in Nara. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

This series of interlocking stories follow four Chinese immigrant women from war-torn China to contemporary San Francisco. There, these women navigate cross-cultural waters, marriages, and often conflicted relationships with their American-born daughters. Although I hate to say it, Tan’s writing often comes across as “magical” and “exotic.” However, her storytelling and evocative imagery certainly captivate the reader.

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin

This autobiographical memoir was shocking and often heartbreaking. Young Staceyann did not have an easy life and it is amazing she was able to make it so far in spite of her life challenges.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

After reading Here Comes The Sun, I was eager to devour this Jamaican author’s sophomore novel. It follows the adventures of Patsy who leaves her daughter behind in Jamaica to start a new life and follow an old lover in Brooklyn.

What it Means When a Man Falls from The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

I first read one of her stories on Granta and was happy to read the rest of them in this delightful collection. However, my favorite story remains “Who Will Greet You at Home.” So haunting!

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo 

This novel was not at all what I expected. The plot moves along swiftly and deals with corruption in political life and civil unrest in Nigeria. Recommended if you like plot-driven novels.

At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider

This memoir follows a family of five who literally travel around the world. When I first started reading it, I was genuinely shocked that the family also visited many places I landed during my own 3 month-long RTW trip with uni friends. The book made traveling with a young family enticing because of the hands-on education the kids received on the road.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

I wanted to hear the author’s thoughts on writing in a non-native tongue, namely Italian. While reading, I was able to draw a lot of parallels between her struggles learning the language in the native country and my struggles trying to get my head around learning Japanese in Japan.

Trinidad Noir: The Classics ed. by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni

Because I enjoyed the first Trinidad Noir from Akashic Books, I decided to read this “classics” version. It includes a lot of reprints from canonical Caribbean authors like VS Naipaul, CLR James, Eric Roach, Derek Walcott, and Sam Selvon. However, because of this, many of the reprints fail to fall under the noir writing genre. The stories that did captivate the noir literary style included work by Sharon Millar, Elizabeth Hackshaw-Walcott, Elizabeth Nunez, Wayne Brown, and Shani Mootoo.

What are you reading right now for fall?