Archive for the ‘Antiguan Literature’ Category

I’m participating in a year long Jamaica Kincaid reading festival this year. The first book that I read for this event was ‘At the Bottom of the River‘. It is a short story collection with 10 short stories. It is a slim book at around 70 pages, and I finished reading it in one breath.

This book is a collection of short stories, but the stories don’t look like any short stories I’ve read before. They defy classification and categorization and defy our attempts to put them in a pigeon hole. Some of them seem to be written in a style closer to stream-of-consciousness, and though I’m intimidated by the stream-of-consciousness style, I found these stories very accessible. Some of the stories seemed to address the grand themes, like the creation of the universe, the evolution of life and of humans, the future of everything, while others seem to address themes which are emotionally closer to us, like the relationship between a mother and a daughter. But this is all my interpretation. Your way of looking at it might be totally different. The stories are unusual and unique, and this book is very different from the other Kincaids I’ve read before. But the one thing I can say is that it is incredibly beautiful. So at some point I stopped worrying about the plot and the characters and just immersed myself in the beauty of the writing and the beauty of this thing which has been classified as a story. I loved all the stories in the book, but my favourite stories probably were ‘Holidays‘, ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately‘ (it is very, very interesting, but I can’t tell you more), ‘Blackness‘, ‘Mother‘, and the title story, ‘At the Bottom of the River‘.

I loved ‘At the Bottom of the River’. Looking forward to reading a new Kincaid book next month. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘At the Bottom of the River

“I saw a world in which the sun and the moon shone at the same time. They appeared in a way I had never seen before: the sun was The Sun, a creation of Benevolence and Purpose and not a star among many stars, with a predictable cycle and a predictable end; the moon, too, was The Moon, and it was the creation of Beauty and Purpose and not a body subject to a theory of planetary evolution. The sun and the moon shone uniformly onto everything. Together, they made up the light, and the light fell on everything, and everything seemed transparent, as if the light went through each thing, so that nothing could be hidden. The light shone and shone and fell and fell, but there were no shadows. In this world, on this terrain, there was no day and there was no night. And there were no seasons, and so no storms or cold from which to take shelter. And in this world were many things blessed with unquestionable truth and purpose and beauty. There were steep mountains, there were valleys, there were seas, there were plains of grass, there were deserts, there were rivers, there were forests, there were vertebrates and invertebrates, there were mammals, there were reptiles, there were creatures of the dry land and the water, and there were birds. And they lived in this world not yet divided, not yet examined, not yet numbered, and not yet dead. I looked at this world as it revealed itself to me—how new, how new—and I longed to go there.”

“I had no name for the thing I had become, so new was it to me, except that I did not exist in pain or pleasure, east or west or north or south, or up or down, or past or present or future, or real or not real. I stood as if I were a prism, many-sided and transparent, refracting and reflecting light as it reached me, light that never could be destroyed. And how beautiful I became. Yet this beauty was not in the way of an ancient city seen after many centuries in ruins, or a woman who has just brushed her hair, or a man who searches for a treasure, or a child who cries immediately on being born, or an apple just picked standing alone on a gleaming white plate, or tiny beads of water left over from a sudden downpour of rain, perhaps—hanging delicately from the bare limbs of trees—or the sound the hummingbird makes with its wings as it propels itself through the earthly air.”

“And what do I regret? Surely not that I stand in the knowledge of the presence of death. For knowledge is a good thing; you have said that. What I regret is that in the face of death and all that it is and all that it shall be I stand powerless, that in the face of death my will, to which everything I have ever known bends, stands as if it were nothing more than a string caught in the early morning wind.”

From ‘Holidays

“The road on which I walk barefoot leads to the store — the village store. Should I go to the village store or should I not go to the village store? I can if I want. If I go to the village store, I can buy a peach. The peach will be warm from sitting in a box in the sun. The peach will not taste sweet and the peach will not taste sour. I will know that I am eating a peach only by looking at it. I will not go to the store. I will sit on the porch facing the mountains.”

Have you read ‘At the Bottom of the River‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Jamaica Kincaid book?

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I loved Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘A Small Island’, and so I thought I’ll read her book ‘Annie John‘.

Annie lives in the island of Antigua with her mom and dad. She tells us her story – how things were when she was a child, and how things were during her adolescent years, her close, beautiful, complex relationship with her mother, her affectionate relationship with her father, her best friends in school and outside, how her relationship with some of her best friends became intimate and romantic, about her school and teachers and life in Antigua during those times.

Annie John‘ is a beautiful coming-of-age story. I loved the beautiful, complex portrayal of the relationship between Annie and her mother. This is my second Jamaica Kincaid book and I love her more and more with every book.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“In the year I turned fifteen, I felt more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be. It wasn’t the unhappiness of wanting a new dress, or the unhappiness of wanting to go to cinema on a Sunday afternoon and not being allowed to do so, or the unhappiness of being unable to solve some mystery in geometry, or the unhappiness at causing my dearest friend, Gwen, some pain. My unhappiness was something deep inside me, and when I closed my eyes I could even see it. It sat somewhere—maybe in my belly, maybe in my heart; I could not exactly tell—and it took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs. I would look at it and look at it until I had burned the cobwebs away, and then I would see that the ball was no bigger than a thimble, even though it weighed worlds. At that moment, just when I saw its size and felt its weight, I was beyond feeling sorry for myself, which is to say I was beyond tears. I could only just sit and look at myself, feeling like the oldest person who had ever lived and who had not learned a single thing. After I had sat in this way for a while, to distract myself I would count my toes; always it came out the same—I had ten of them.”

“For over a year, no rain fell. There was nothing unusual about that; drought was such a big part of our life that no one would even make a comment on it. Then, each day for a week or so, the clouds overhead turned black. No rain came right away with the black clouds, but then one day it started to drizzle, first in that annoying way of a drizzle, where it stings your face and your hands and your feet. That went on for a few days, when suddenly the rain started to come down in a heavy torrent. The rain went on in this way for over three months. By the end of it, the sea had risen and what used to be dry land was covered with water, and crabs lived there. In spite of what everyone said, the sea never did go back to the way it had been, and what a great conversation piece it made to try and remember what used to be there where the sea now stretched up to.”

Have you read ‘Annie John‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Jamaica Kincaid’sA Small Place‘ through Rowena’s (‘Les Reveries de Rowena’) recommendation. It was just 80 pages long. I finished reading it in one breath.

The book is structured like a conversation, but mostly with the author talking to the reader. Initially, she takes the reader to be a tourist and then she continues the conversation after that. In the initial part of the book, Jamaica Kincaid talks about how a tourist who lands in Antigua experiences the island. Then she takes the reader by their hand and shows them around and describes how the life of an actual native Antiguan is. While doing this, she also tells us about Antiguan history, the British colonialism in the past, the recent history of independent Antigua, the government, the politics, the corruption, the disproportionate influence of foreign nationals. It is a fascinating journey.

The unexpected thing for me in the book was Jamaica Kincaid’s style. Though the book addressed serious topics, there was an underlying humour throughout, and I was laughing through most of the book. I’m not able to differentiate between the different types of humour these days, but I think what was depicted in the book was either satire or dark humour or a combination of both. Kincaid trains her guns on everyone and everything and we can’t stop laughing. But when we stop to think about it, it is also heartbreaking. When we reach the last chapter and we read –

“Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of it seems unreal. Sometimes the beauty of it seems as if it were stage sets for a play, for no real sunset could look like that; no real seawater could strike that many shades of blue at once; no real sky could be that shade of blue…”

– we realize that inspite of everything, this is Jamaica Kincaid’s love letter to her beautiful Antigua. I wish that I could quote the whole chapter, but it runs into a few pages, and so I’ll let you read it yourself and discover its beauty.

I loved ‘A Small Place’. I can’t wait to read more of Jamaica Kincaid’s books.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak (you have an accent); they collapse helpless from laughter…They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you. Still, you feel a little uneasy. Still, you feel a little foolish. Still, you feel a little out of place. But the banality of your own life is very real to you; it drove you to this extreme, spending your days and your nights in the company of people who despise you, people you do not like really, people you would not want to have as your actual neighbour…

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Have you read ‘A Small Place‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Joanne C. Hillhouse’sMusical Youth‘ sometime back and read it yesterday.

The story told in ‘Musical Youth‘ happens in Antigua, one of my favourite places in the world. I’ll tell you why later 😊 Zahara is in high school. She loves playing the guitar. Her mom is no more, she doesn’t know her dad, and her grandma brings her up. Grandma is tough and strict. Zahara becomes friends with Shaka Zulu. Shaka is also in high school and he is an aspiring musician too. Shaka’s father is no more and he has been brought up by his grandpa and his mother. Soon Zahara’s and Shaka’s friendship becomes more than friendship. As the story moves forward, we learn more about these two young people’s families and friends, Zahara’s relationship with her grandmother, Shaka’s relationship with his grandfather and how his grandfather inducted him into music. We also learn how these two young people got into music, we learn about their mentors who inducted them into it and guided them, and how music plays an important part in their lives. We learn about their inspiring teachers Father Ellie, Diva, Mr.Perry. The conversation between Zahara and Father Ellie and Shaka and Diva and Shaka and Mr.Perry are some of the most beautiful parts of the book. Mr.Perry is an amazing teacher and inspiring figure and in one scene he kicks the asses of parents without worrying about the consequences and that scene gave me goosebumps. I wish I could quote the whole scene here, but it runs into multiple pages and so you should read the book to find out what happened. As an appetizer, I’ll quote a part of it here.

““These are your children. Do you think you can just hand them over to me and don’t look back?” Mr. Perry paced as he spoke. Shaka was familiar with this version of his English teacher; it was the version he and others in his class saw when they didn’t complete an assignment or work up to expectations. It was Mr. Perry’s “if you don’t do better, you’re letting yourselves down” voice. It was funny to see parents on the receiving end of it…Shaka watched, almost in awe, as Mr. Perry paused and looked down his nose at the parents like they disgusted him. The weird thing was they took it. The parents shifted uncomfortably in their seats but didn’t make a peep. Mr. Perry’s superpower, he’d discovered, was the ability to command an entire room of people even if it was a roomful of parents, parents who probably earned lots more than he did. He wasn’t exactly sure what a teacher’s salary was but he knew the Teachers Union was always in the news complaining about too-low wages, so it couldn’t be very much. He knew that all the kids in their theatre troupe didn’t come from the same world. Some of their worlds were within reach of each other sure, like his and Zahara’s, but others like Dan’s and Nicola’s might as well be as far away as the moon with their helpers and nannies and whatnot. But Mr. Perry wasn’t checking for any of that just now. He was letting the parents have it as though their deep pockets didn’t matter.”

If the book is just about teenagers at school making music and falling in love, this book would be a regular YA novel. An interesting one, but a regular one. What elevates it to a fascinating, important book are two things. One is the family secrets which come tumbling out of the closet and the surprises that are revealed. They are heartbreaking but also lead to beautiful things. The second thing is the book’s commentary on colourism seen through the lens of music. It is fascinating and insightful and makes us think.

I loved most of the characters in the book, especially Zahara’s grandma, Shaka’s grandpa and their musical mentors, and especially their teacher Mr.Perry. Mr.Perry was totally kick-ass!

I loved the way Joanne Hillhouse brings out the beautiful natural speech of Antigua on the page – we can feel the Antiguan / West Indian / Caribbean flair and style come alive on the page, while reading the conversations between the different characters.

I loved ‘Musical Youth‘. It is a beautiful love letter to music, to being young, to family, to falling in love, to inspiring teachers. It is about love, loss, unearthing family secrets and dealing with them positively, seeing the evils of racism and colourism and learning from them and becoming a wiser and a better person as a result. It is also a beautiful education in music, especially Caribbean music. Joanna Hillhouse has written other beautiful books and I can’t wait to read them now.

So, now more on one of my favourite places Antigua, as I promised earlier 😊 I’ve always had a soft corner for Antigua, because that is where my all-time favourite cricketer and my childhood sporting hero Viv Richards is from. Viv Richards was cool and stylish, was tall, dark and handsome, and according to me, was the greatest cricketer who ever walked on a cricket field (apologies to Sir Donald Bradman). We’ll never see the likes of him again. I’ve never read a book set in Viv’s home island of Antigua written by an Antiguan writer, and I was so happy when I discovered that ‘Musical Youth’ was set in Antigua. I was even more happy when I discovered that Joanne Hillhouse has sneaked in a Viv Richards reference into the book 😊 Thank you so much, Joanne 😊 Sharing below a couple of pictures of the great Viv Richards in his prime, looking cool and stylish and incredibly handsome. Every schoolboy wanted to be like him, including yours truly.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Only on one occasion had Granny Linda gone too far. That was the time Zahara’d broken the silver necklace, the one Granny Linda had taken from her mother’s jewellery box saying that it perfectly complemented her white Confirmation dress. When Zahara broke it, Granny Linda had snapped. It was her worst beating in living memory. Granny Linda hadn’t beaten her since, as though her grandmother had been scared by how angry she’d been. Zahara had heard her grandmother crying that night, and that had made her more afraid than the beating. She associated her grandmother with solid things, things not even a hurricane could knock down, like a mountain. You could strip it clean but it would go on standing. She knew that Granny Linda considered tears a weakness. Zahara didn’t know how to make sense of a world in which Granny Linda was weak enough to cry. She pretended that whole memory away, the Holy Communion, the lost necklace, the beating, and the tears. She looked at her grandmother, solid in that moment, turning the cornmeal and avoiding her granddaughter’s eyes.”

Have you read ‘Musical Youth‘? What do you think about it?

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