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!

6 literary quotes about the Caribbean immigrant experience

Immigration is on everyone’s lips these days, especially with tightening national borders and refugee crises. That said, the migration of Caribbean people has always been a tumultuous one. You may not know this but most of the people in the Caribbean migrated to the region from other parts of the world: Africa, India, Europe, China, and the Middle East to name a few. After this first migration, many then left their new “homelands” for developed countries, particularly the US, the UK, and Canada. Want to learn more about their migratory experiences? Here are 6 literary quotes about the Caribbean immigrant experience.

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The Mimic Men (1967) by VS Naipaul

“Shipwreck: I have used this word before. With my island background, it was the word that always came to me. And this was what I felt I had encountered again in the great city: this feeling of being adrift, a cell in preparation, little more, that might be altered, if only fleetingly, by any encounter.”

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The Lonely Londoners (1956) by Samuel Selvon

“Harris is a fellar who like to play ladeda, and he like English customs and thing, he does be polite and say thank you and he does get up in the bus and the tube to let woman sit down, which is a thing even them Englishmen don’t do. And when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm, with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show, and he walking upright like if is he alone who alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black.”

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‘Til the Well Runs Dry (2014) by Lauren Francis-Sharma

“New York City was like the deepest deepness of Blanchisseuse. A city bush where people, rather than animals, slithered and lurked, where people, rather than trees, smashed and bumped. In the city-bush, like in the bush of Blanchisseuse, there was barely a sky…I could sense, as I watched them, – all of them – behaving repressively wild, with fear and dread built up behind the whites of their eyes, that none of them knew how to get out either.”

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The Amazing Absorbing Boy (2010) by Rabindranath Maharaj

“I remember Uncle Boysie telling me that Canada was so safe the policemen wore nice red outfits and rode on horses but according to Roy the country was like Gotham City with crooks around every corner… I pictured them as shady Frank Miller characters with bulging muscles and machine guns poking out from trench coats but the photograph from the papers was of a group of boys my age. They kind of resembled some of my friends from Mayaro too.”

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The Swinging Bridge (2003) by Ramabai Espinet

“If you happen to be born into an Indian family, an Indian family from the Caribbean, migratory, never certain of the terrain, that’s how life falls down around you. It’s close and thick and sheltering, its ugly and violent secrets locked inside the family walls. The outside encroaches, but the ramparts are strong, and once you leave it you have no shelter and no ready skills for finding a different one. I found that out after years of trying.”

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz

“Once you’ve been fuera, Santo Domingo is the smallest place in the world.”

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5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?

Think again.

As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers.  Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.

 “I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.

Mimic Men

“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”

“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of  it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”

“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”

A Way in the World

“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank…We were just there, floating.” 

“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”

The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and post-colonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”