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Archive for the ‘Black History Month’ Category

I was looking for short stories by Caribbean writers, recently, and I stumbled upon this collection, ‘Pepperpot : Best New Stories from the Caribbean‘ . I read this for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. ‘Pepperpot‘ is published by Peekash Press, an indie publisher which promotes books by Caribbean writers who live in the Caribbean.

There are thirteen stories in the book. I enjoyed reading all of them. Some of my favourites are these.

The Whale House by Sharon Millar – A woman is mourning the loss of her baby. Then we learn about her past and her younger days and some beautiful secrets are revealed. The ending of the story was beautiful and perfect.

A Good Friday by Barbara Jenkins – A beautiful woman walks into a bar. A man tries courting her. It all looks quite predictable. But halfway through the story Barbara Jenkins steps on the pedal, and the story kicks to a different gear, in an unexpected way. I loved the way it ended. Barbara Jenkins has written a novel which features some of the same characters from this story, and I want to read that.

Amelia at Devil’s Bridge by Joanna C. Hillhouse – I loved Joanna C. Hillhouse’s novel ‘Musical Youth‘ and so was excited to read this. A young woman finds herself in the rocky shore of the sea and she is naked. She doesn’t know how she got there. What happens next and the truth when it is revealed is unexpected and heartbreaking.

Berry by Kimmisha Thomas – A beautiful lesbian love story. Loved it. Berry is such an awesome character. One of my favourite passages from the book is from this story. It goes like this –

“Berry once told me that she had always thought of herself as both female and male. I understand why some men are confused by lesbian logic. I’m confused too. I am sure Berry, so talented and beautiful, always has men lusting after her. I asked one time how she deals with that. She shrugged and said, “I just become their friend. They stay or they leave.” She told me her family knows about her. They neither accept nor deny it. “We just be, you know?” I didn’t know. I didn’t know whether I was gay or not, or whether this was just a phase. But maybe I did know, cause I was just being, like Berry’s family.”

The Science of Salvation by Dwight Thompson – A spiritual leader and his wife meet an old friend. This old friend has ended up on the wrong side of the law. The spiritual leader tries changing him. What happens after that is the rest of the story. Beautiful and moving and thought-provoking.

Waywardness by Ezekel Alan – It is about a person who is regarded as ‘wayward’. You should read the story to find out what that exactly means. The story was filled with dark humour and it made me laugh throughout.

“Father, Father” by Garfield Ellis – A teenager is fleeing his attackers. What happens next is the rest of the story. It is gripping and fast-paced and scary.

I loved ‘Pepperpot‘. There are stories in it about love, loss, family, being gay, forbidden relationships, faith, bad things happening. They were fascinating to read. The book has a beautiful introduction by Jamaican legend, Olive Senior.

Have you read ‘Pepperpot‘? 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 stumbled upon Ann Petry’s books sometime back and decided to read her first book ‘The Street‘.

Lutie Johnson is a single mother. In the first scene in the story, she is looking for an apartment to rent. It is in a street which doesn’t seem to be nice, but that is the only place where she can afford to rent an apartment. She doesn’t like the Super of the apartment building, she doesn’t like her potential neighbours, the apartment building and the apartment she looks at are both dark without many windows and not good ventilation, but she takes it. We learn that Lutie used to have a husband and they were happy, but then he lost his job, and she found a job as a maid in a rich household, and she could visit home only once a month, and unfortunately, her husband cheated on her and this led to the breakup of her marriage. Since then, it has been hard for her. How Lutie navigates life as a single mom living in a poor neighbourhood, with weird and dangerous neighbours, when the street is everyday trying to get its hands on her and her kid, and whether she is able to triumph over the street and over her circumstances, forms the rest of the story.

The Street‘ is a powerful, moving book. Watching Lutie trying to protect herself and her kid from the street and from their neighbours and from their economic circumstances, and watching her work infinitely hard to achieve small gains, and seeing her efforts stymied by people who hold the reins of power in her little world is heartbreaking to read. When I reached the end of the book, I couldn’t stop crying.

I’ve seen heartbreaking movies during my teens in which a woman is trying to do her best to keep her head above water and is trying to progress in life in small ways and the system crushes her. I can see now where the inspiration for those movies came from. Ann Petry’s book was first published in 1946 and it was a bestseller when it came out. It was the first book by an African-American woman writer to sell more than a million copies. It is a pioneering book, because of the way it describes the life of a black woman who is a single mom who struggles in life and fights against the system. Ann Petry’s prose and the way she describes events is fresh and contemporary and it is hard to believe that the book was published in 1946.

One of the things I loved about the book was the way Ann Petry depicted the characters. None of them were black-and-white but were complex and fully fleshed out and flawed. Even one of the characters whom I regarded as a proper villain had a side which was unexpectedly childlike. The characters were just people who were thrown into difficult circumstances and each of them had a complex story and they were just struggling to survive and some of them were kind sometimes and not-so-kind at other times, while others were just plain ruthless because that was what was required to survive in the street. It was hard to love many of them, but it was hard to hate them too. Lutie, of course, towers above all of them, and she is one of the great heroines of 20th century literature. I loved her and cried when things didn’t go well for her. There were two other characters whom I found fascinating, Min and Mrs.Hedges. I loved Min and her small acts of rebellion and was happy when she won sometimes. Mrs.Hedges showed that even in these difficult circumstances one can be a kick-ass person, and can also be kind.

I loved ‘The Street‘. It was moving and heartbreaking, but I loved it. When I’m feeling brave, I’d like to read Ann Petry’s ‘The Narrows‘ next.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is featured on the first page, and it is a premonition of the things to come and it is what pulled me into the book.

“There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street. It rattled the tops of garbage cans, sucked window shades out through the top of opened windows and set them flapping back against the windows; and it drove most of the people off the street in the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues except for a few hurried pedestrians who bent double in an effort to offer the least possible exposed surface to its violent assault. It found every scrap of paper along the street—theater throwaways, announcements of dances and lodge meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that had enclosed sandwiches, old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the curb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street…It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the sidewalk and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins. It wrapped newspaper around their feet entangling them until the people cursed deep in their throats, stamped their feet, kicked at the paper. The wind blew it back again and again until they were forced to stoop and dislodge the paper with their hands. And then the wind grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies. The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald, for her hair had been resting softly and warmly against her skin. She shivered as the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck, explored the sides of her head. It even blew her eyelashes away from her eyes so that her eyeballs were bathed in a rush of coldness and she had to blink in order to read the words on the sign swaying back and forth over her head.”

Have you read Ann Petry’s ‘The Street‘? What do you think about it?

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Michael Holding – Mikey to fans and admirers – is one of the greatest cricketers who ever played the game. He was a much admired and feared fastbowler during his playing days. A few years after he retired he got a call from someone asking him whether he would like to commentate on the game on TV. Mikey said ‘Yes’ and before long he became a well-respected and admired and popular commentator. Legend has it that female fans loved his voice and he was a big hit. I couldn’t follow Mikey’s cricket career, because I was too young at that time, but I followed him when he commentated during matches. The thing I loved about Mikey was that he was fearless. He didn’t care what people thought, or if it would offend them – if he had opinion during the game he commentated on, he shared it. Sometimes, I didn’t agree with him, especially when he criticized his home team, the West Indies (for me, it doesn’t matter whether they win or lose, I’ll always love the West Indies cricket team. I’ve loved them since I was a kid, and I’ll love them till the end of my days. Before me, my dad loved them since he was a kid. It is a family tradition in my house ), but I always admired Mikey for being fearless. He was one of the few commentators who didn’t kowtow to the Indian cricket board (the only other commentator I know who was similarly fearless was Ian Chappell – I love him too), and I always get goosebumps thinking about that.

So, sometime in 2020, Mikey was commentating during a test match in England, and play was cancelled that day due to rain. Such rainy days are good times for commentators in the studio to have a cricket conversation. Someone asked Mikey what he thought about the Black Lives Matter movement. It opened a dam and Mikey opened his heart out. Viewers who were disappointed that the day’s play was rained off, were engrossed listening to Mikey, and soon the messages started pouring in. The next day Mikey was interviewed on a live TV news channel and he spoke more about it. People started telling Mikey that he shouldn’t stop with this, but Mikey felt that he had said everything he wanted to say. At some point his friend who helped him write his memoirs a few years back, told him that with the voice and platform he had, he can write a book about this and that will reach more people. So Mikey decided to write this book, ‘Why We Kneel, How We Rise‘.

In this book, Mikey interviews leading black and indigenous athletes of contemporary times, all of whom are legends in their fields, and asks them to share their experiences when they were discriminated against because of their race. Some of the famous athletes interviewed are Usain Bolt, Thierry Henry, Naomi Osaka, Michael Johnson, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Hope Powell, Adam Goodes, Makhaya Ntini. Mikey also shares his own experiences when he was the target of racism.

But Mikey doesn’t stop with this. If he had done that, this book would have been a collection of interviews. He also talks about the history of Black people across the centuries till the present day and covers the recent violent incidents by the police against innocent Black people. It is essentially Black History 101. If you have read books about it before, you would know most of it. But, like me, if you have read about it in a scattered fashion, you’ll find many new things in it. As Mikey says in his preface –

“Just finally, before we get started, I want to be clear : this is not a book of complaints. It is a book of facts. I hope it will enlighten, inspire, surprise, shock, move. And, above all, help to bring about real change.”

If we are not familiar with the facts Mikey describes, it will make us angry, it will make our blood boil, we’ll find them unbelievable, it will break our hearts, it will make us cry. All these happened to me. I knew some of the facts, but it was unbelievable that some of these bad things, pure evil things, were happening well into the 20th century. There were two chapters called ‘Dehumanisation’ and ‘History Lesson’ which were very hard to read, because what they described was heartbreaking. It was unbelievable to read about some of the things, that scientists and philosophers that we admire from previous centuries, had said.

Mikey describes every important word and concept be uses, in simple language, so that you don’t have to Google or search for the dictionary if you don’t understand them. For example, when talking about Jim Crow laws, be describes who exactly Jim Crow was, and what these laws exactly said. In another place Mikey describes what ‘redlining’ exactly means. This enhances the reading flow of the book and makes it a beautiful experience.

After talking about bad experiences by sporting legends and giving us a history lesson, Mikey also shows the way forward. He talks about how education is important, how teaching history which is unbiased and factual and which doesn’t sweep the past below the carpet, is important, and how this will help in changing people’s minds and help in making our shared future better and more equal for everyone.

Why We Kneel, How We Rise‘ is a beautiful book, a powerful book, a heartbreaking book, an inspiring book. Mikey is famous for being fearless and for speaking his mind, and he does that in every page of this book. He sometimes turns his critical, unflinching gaze on himself, and describes how he sometimes failed to protest against racism and fight back, during his playing days. It is stirring to watch. The book is filled with anger, of course, the anger of the right kind, because of the inhuman things that happened, but it is not an angry book. Mikey’s tone is neutral and pitch-perfect, and he doesn’t make sweeping judgements and generalizations but sticks to the facts. I still don’t know how he managed to do that, because in a book like this, it is easy to get into an Us Vs Them mode, but Mikey doesn’t do that. His analysis is based on facts and it is nuanced. It is perfect. At the beginning of the book, he says this to make his point –

“this is not a story about hating white people. The word I used on Sky Sports was ‘brainwashed’. White or Black, pink or green, we have all been indoctrinated to believe that one colour is the purest and best. The further down the colour chart you go, the lazier the person, the more aggressive, untrustworthy, less intelligent. Of course it is ridiculous to blame ‘white people’ for that. They don’t know any better and have been to the same schools and colleges and lived in the same societies and cultures as the rest of us. You are a product of your environment. As I said on Sky that morning, this thing gets into your head and psyche almost by osmosis. It happens without you being aware.”

Later in the book, he says this about Tony Greig, which I found very interesting –

“Tony Greig, the England captain, had said he intended to make us ‘grovel’. I wince at the word. Tony, as I realised once I got to know him much later when we worked as co-commentators, was not a racist. But he was ignorant of the slave era connotations of the word. Particularly spoken by a white South African who was only playing for England because the country of his birth was banned from international sport due to apartheid. It was incredibly insensitive. I may only have been twenty-two, wet behind the ears to the ways of the world and just be beginning to understand racism, but I knew what he said was wrong.”

In another place, while talking about the informal quota system which is prevalent in some sporting teams he says this –

“but discrimination – positive or negative – to my mind does not work. What if that Black person who gets picked purely because of the colour of his or her skin, rather than his or her ability, is shown up to be hopelessly out of their depth? And this goes for any industry – not just sport. It is counterproductive. If you start filling positions in sport, business, industry or whatever because you need to tick a box based on ethnicity, gender or age, instead of employing the best person for the job, you don’t solve a problem, you create one. In fact, you create lots of problems. For a start that person might not be capable of doing the job and, in a high-profile area like sport, that person is embarrassed. How is that good for inspiring someone or being a role model?”

Very surprising, unexpected and beautifully said.

Why We Kneel, How We Rise‘ won the William Hill prize in the UK in 2021. The William Hill prize is given every year to the best book on sport in the UK, and it is the sports book equivalent of the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer Prize. Typically a book on cricket or football wins this prize, because these are the two biggest team sports in the UK and both have a rich literature. But ‘Why We Kneel, How We Rise’ is no ordinary book on sport. It is much more than that. It looks at racism through the lens of sport, but then goes much beyond that. It is a book about our contemporary world and it is an important, powerful book. This book is a bestseller in cricket-playing countries, because of Mikey’s background in cricket, but it is not just a cricket book. It deserves to be widely read by readers across the world. It is destined to become a classic.

I can’t think of any sportsperson, present or past, who would have written this book. Sportspersons might make individual gestures on particular occasions or even share their experiences, but writing a full-length book like this, they’d avoid. Because it is filled with inconvenient truths and would offend a lot of people. Maybe Serena Williams might write a book like this after twenty years. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. But Mikey was brave and fearless and stuck his neck out and wrote this book. I don’t know whether there were any repercussions. I’m sure he lost some friends because they were offended. But sometime after the book was published, Mikey suddenly announced that he was retiring as a cricket commentator. It came out of the blue and was totally unexpected. It was heartbreaking for fans like me. Somehow one felt that there was some connection between his book coming out and him retiring. They happened too close to each other to have been a coincidence. It was almost as if Mikey thought that this book was his parting gift to his fans and admirers. The truth might just be that Mikey wanted to spend more time playing with his grandkids, tending to his garden, and taking walks with his wife to the beach. I hope that is the truth. I want to believe in that.

Thank you for this precious gift, Mikey. We’ll miss your fearless, wise commentary. Have fun playing with your grandkids 😊

Have you read ‘Why We Kneel, How We Rise‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Melissa Valentine’s memoir ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘ recently, through Olga’s recommendation, and I just finished reading it.

When Melissa Valentine moves back to Oakland after being away for many years, she gets in touch with her childhood friend and they catch up. Then this friend’s brother and their cousin also join and Melissa looks at this friend’s brother and remembers her own brother, whom she calls Junior, whom she loved very much, who was shot dead by unknown assailants when he was nineteen. The rest of the book is about Melissa and her family, and especially her brother Junior, the good times and the bad, and how things happened which ended in this heartbreaking tragedy.

Melissa is biracial – her mom is black and her dad is white. Her mom’s side relatives treat her and her siblings as one of their own, and they even accept her dad as a part of the family, while her dad’s side relatives attempt to show affection, but it looks like condescension. This adds to the complexity of her and her family’s experiences, because frequently they are treated as outsiders, both by the black and the white community, and so things are doubly hard and challenging for them. It is especially hard for the kids, especially Melissa’s brothers, and her favourite brother Junior gets beaten up in school for not being black enough. The book starts with this complex background and gives a perceptive and sensitive depiction on what it means to be a black teenager in today’s America. Melissa’s love for her brother Junior shines through in every page, and Junior comes through as a complex character, someone who is happy and cheerful to start with, but whom the system and society harass and pigeonhole into a box, and when Junior tries protecting himself by any means possible, it all ends in tragedy. It is moving, poignant, heartbreaking. I cried after I finished reading the book.

I loved ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘. I can’t wait to find out what Melissa Valentine will come up with next. This book is published by the Feminist Press and they continue to rock – this is the third consecutive amazing book by them that I’ve read.

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

“Dad is a poet in the way he believes in life, the growing of things, of children. But his poetry is the kind people don’t understand, maybe he doesn’t either, the way it grows out of control, the desire for life so great it escapes even him; he cannot control this life. He loves children, which are another kind of life. I have observed the way he admires babies. He holds them awkwardly, kind of like the way he dances, as if his joints do not easily bend, moving choppily to a rhythm only he can hear. Instead of the normal way of holding a baby—bringing it to your chest, rubbing its back, smelling its skin—instead of the cooing and pleasantries most people make in the presence of babies, he stares into the child’s eyes lovingly, with reverence, while holding its head in his sandpaper palm. I have seen him do this with my baby cousins in Alabama. I have felt the discomfort of the people around him, wondering what this white man is trying to transmit into the skull of this black child. It is usually a black child he holds up with this kind of reverence.”

“She warns us not to show our true colors, warns us regularly—before we go to the neighbors’, before we go to school, before we go to Grandma’s. What color is that? Sometimes it is the color of desire—don’t show hunger, don’t show need or want of any kind to outsiders. But often it is something else—the color of the city, the color of the cement, the color of the curse words that often slip from our mouths, the blackness of our bodies that mixes with the white to make us what the little Southern kids call bright. “Why are you so bright?” they ask in earnest, and I look at them bewildered, wondering with my literal city ears what brightness they see in me. Bright, but still very much not white. Is that the color Mom means? The not-white? Or is it another color? She would prefer we act like we don’t come from the city, like our feet were born dusty, like we came from roads, not streets. She would prefer we act full, satisfied. Junior doesn’t care; he always shows his truest colors.”

“I know by now that nice and good are myths. There is no good, no nice. And if there is, it is impermanent. There is proof all around me : a homeless summer and a burned-down house full of trash that was masquerading as good, as nice; a brother whose bad follows him wherever he goes, no matter how nice—there is no protection from black boyness. Good and nice are only illusory feelings, but, at least for a moment, I enjoy wrapping myself up in the illusion.”

Have you read ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘? What do you think about it?

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I have long wanted to read a Jacqueline Woodson book and I finally got around to reading her latest ‘Red at the Bone‘. I read this for ‘Black History Month’ alongwith ‘WOC Reads‘ and ‘The Bookdog Says‘. We had such a fascinating discussion on it.

Melody is a teenager who is celebrating her sixteenth birthday. When she walks into the party, we see her parents, we see her grandparents, but things aren’t what they seem. And soon we know why.

At this point, I’m in a dilemma. Should I summarize the plot and analyze it and reveal its secrets? Or should I give some vague clues to it which will entice the reader to go and pick the book and read it herself? After a lot of thought, I decided on the second one. So here goes.

Red at the Bone‘ is a story told from different perspectives. Each chapter has a different narrator or point of view and we see the story unfold through different eyes. Along the way, the story explores different themes, love, family, race, exploring one’s sexual identity. As the story moves along we get deep into the twentieth century, into history, into dark deeds and heartbreaking happenings, we meet people rising from the ashes and people trying their best but not able to rise. It is a haunting story, sometimes beautiful, sometimes moving, sometimes heartbreaking. There is so much packed in the story, that sometimes it is unbelievable, how such a slim book can carry so many heavy themes. It doesn’t feel that all these complex themes are forced into the story like we might do in the last minute into our overstuffed travel suitcase, but it feels like they are a natural part of the story.

We meet a fascinating cast of characters along the way, Melody and her best friend Malcolm, Iris and Aubrey and Jam, Sabe and Po’Boy and CathyMarie. We also meet Baby Benjamin who is beautiful and who is too good for this world. On the way, Jacqueline Woodson sprinkles literary stars in our way – Paul Laurence Dunbar and bell hooks and Audre Lorde and August Wilson.

I loved ‘Red at the Bone‘. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story, a beautiful love story, a moving exploration of identity. And many other things. I can’t wait to read more books by Jacqueline Woodson.

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

“Prettiest baby you’d ever want to see. For the few weeks he was with us, he’d open his eyes and look right at you – like an old soul. Like it was somebody from the past trying to tell you something.”

“Guess that’s where the tears come from, knowing that there’s so much in this great big world that you don’t have a single ounce of control over. Guess the sooner you learn that, the sooner you’ll have one less heartbreak in your life. Oh Lord. Some evenings I don’t know where the old pains end and the new ones begin. Feels like the older you get the more they run into one long, deep aching.”

“That’s why I don’t buy it when people say children don’t know. That they’re too young to understand. If they can walk and talk, they can understand. You look at how much growing a baby does in the first few years of its life – crawling, walking, talking, laughing. The brain just changing and changing. You can’t tell me all of it’s not becoming a part of their blood. Their memory.”

Have you read ‘Red at the Bone‘? What do you think about it?

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For a long time, if we were looking for Ethiopian literature, it was like looking for the elusive unicorn – it was hard to find, especially if we were looking for something in English or in English translation. The only book with an Ethiopian link out there was ‘Cutting for Stone‘ by the American novelist Abraham Verghese. Then Dinaw Mengestu burst on the scene with a couple of novels on Ethiopia. And then Maaza Mengiste published her first novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘.

Maaza Mengiste’s first novel was well received and got acclaim in newspaper reviews, but I don’t remember bloggers and book reviewers in social media reading it or reviewing it. It mostly slipped below the radar, I think. Then nearly ten years later, Maaza Mengiste published her second novel ‘The Shadow King‘ and this time, the timing was right. The book caught on like wild fire, there was a buzz among reviewers everywhere, the book got into award shortlists, including the shortlist for the Booker Prize, and suddenly, a long time after she started out, Maaza Mengiste became an international literary star. Very well deserved, I think. It is so nice to see her put Ethiopian literature on the world map.

Ethiopia has gone through challenging times for the past 80 years. It started with the Italian invasion and after a brief lull of peace after the Second World War, a military dictatorship came to power with Russian support, with recurring coup d’etats every few years. Even the end of the Cold War era didn’t improve things, with the new democratically elected head of state of that time behaving like an emperor, a civil war continuing in Eritrea in the north, and frequent fights with Somalia in the south. These days things are getting worse, with the federal government going to war against one of the state governments – and I am not using ‘war’ as a metaphor here, because it is actual war with two armies fighting against each other. I hope the current Ethiopian leaders come to their senses, and step back and resolve their differences by peaceful means.

Having spent most of my early childhood in Ethiopia, I have a soft corner for this beautiful country and its wonderful people. Till I was around ten years old, nearly all my friends were Ethiopian. I used to consider myself a honorary Ethiopian when I was a kid (More about all this later in a separate post.) So it gives me a lot of pain to see one of my favourite countries hurtling from one crisis to another.

Maaza Mengiste focuses on two different parts of 20th century Ethiopian history in her two novels. Her first novel is set during the time the military coup overthrows the emperor. Her second novel is about the time of the Italian invasion. They are two different fascinating times of modern Ethiopian history, and I am looking forward to reading the two books soon.

Have you read either of Maaza Mengiste’s novels? What do you think about them?

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Today’s post for ‘Black History Month‘ is about Viv Richards.

Viv Richards is my alltime favourite cricketer and my boyhood hero. For many boys from my generation, he was a hero, he was the cricketer we all wanted to be. Young people played with tennis balls and rubber balls, on the streets and in the rice fields, and dreamed of batting like Richards. Viv Richards was not tall for a West Indian cricketer, but he was dark and handsome. The sight of Viv striding into the ground at the fall of a wicket, twirling his bat, chewing gum, with his maroon cap on, with an expressionless face, was a majestic sight to behold. He was cool and style personified. Then he went to the crease and took guard – it was nearly always a leg stump guard, a middle stump guard was for chickens – and looked at the bowler. Some fans say that he glared at the bowler, but I don’t remember ever seeing him do that. By that time, the bowler had given up hope (atleast from the point of view of us, fans) and the magic began.

Cricket fans from across the world loved watching Viv play – the great love that fans had for him transcended national boundaries. He was adored by his fans from his hometown of Antigua of course, an island which has a population of around 96,000 people, and the cricket stadium there is named after him, but his international fans outnumbered the fans from his own island – he was like Pele or Federer.

Viv was an attacking batsman, one of the best that there ever was. Watching him play was like watching a master at work on his art. When he was playing his natural, flamboyant, stylish game, playing the ondrive, or his famous, majestic hook, or his legendary inside-out shot in which he stepped outside the leg stump and drove the ball over long off for a six (he played that shot off the final ball in the 1979 World Cup final), it was thrilling to watch. When he played a defensive game – yes, he could rein in his attacking instincts and do that too, his innings on square turning pitches were legendary – it was amazing to see how he adapted to the situation and to his team’s needs. Whether he was attacking or defending, he did that with style, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Featured in the first picture below is the cover of Viv Richards’ autobiography. It is beautiful to read. Featured in the fourth picture is Viv and his great friend Ian Botham – it is so hard to believe that these two played for the same team. Envy those Somerset fans so much!

Viv started playing for the West Indies cricket team in the middle ’70s and he retired in the early ’90s. He won every award and every trophy there is, and was highly respected and admired by his contemporaries. He held many world records. As his great contemporary Michael Holding once said, if Viv had wanted and if he had been selfish, he could have set many more records which would have been beyond the reach of players of the next few generations. But he was a person who didn’t care about records and statistics and always played for his team. He captained his team with distinction and he retired with an unbeaten test record. After he retired he was awarded every honour there is and he was knighted. It is appropriate to call him Sir Vivian now. But to old fans like me, he’ll always be Viv, the Master Blaster.

These days, Viv is in his sixties, and and is enjoying a second innings as a cricket commentator. He is funny and humorous as a commentator and is a pleasure to listen to. He also mentors T20 teams and is active on Instagram sharing his thoughts with old and new fans.

There have been many great cricketers who have come on the scene since the great Viv retired. But in my opinion, he was the greatest. That majesty, that style, that cool, that intensity – we will never see the likes of him again. For me, he was the one and only.

Frank Keating once wrote about his favourite boyhood hero, Tom Graveney –

“The batsmanship of Our Tom, was of the orchard rather than the forest, blossom susceptible to frost but breathing in the sunshine. Taking enjoyment as it came, he gave enjoyment which still warms the winters of memory.”

I can’t write beautifully like this, and I think I’m still not old enough to talk about the winters of memory, but I hope that one day, when my hair is fully grey, and I am sitting in front of the fire, on a winter evening, with my dog sitting next to me, I’ll remember Keating’s lines and I’ll think about my favourite Viv playing those majestic pulls and hooks and inside-out shots, and I hope my old wrinkled face will beam with pleasure.

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February is ‘Black History Month‘ and I thought that as part of the celebrations, I’ll write about some of my favourite books, writers and people. Today, it is about C.L.R.James‘ classic ‘Beyond a Boundary‘.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is a book which is a memoir, a social history and a sporting history, all rolled into one. This style of writing was unusual when the book first came out and so it was unique and the book broke new ground. In the book, James talks about his own life and how he started playing cricket, and then covers West Indian cricket history from the beginning of the 20th century till around the 1960s. He also looks at West Indian society and culture through a cricketing lens. The book asks the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” That question has acquired a legendary status since James’ first posed it, and has the same kind of significance that Camus question in the first passage of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus‘ has. Many have pondered on what that question meant, and what could be its potential answers. Whether the book answers that question or not, you have to read it to find out.

Beyond a Boundary‘ had a mythical status in my life, because I had heard many older cricket fans talking about it in revered tones, and I had dreamt of reading it since I was young, but the book was out-of-print and was hard to find. Then, one day I discovered that there was an edition in print by Duke University Press. It was ironic, because cricket is not an American sport, but this book, which was one of the greatest cricket books ever written, was out-of-print in cricket playing countries, but an American university press kept the flame burning, by keeping the book alive, keeping it in print. I paid a king’s ransom to get that edition. When a few years later, the book came back widely in print, I got two more copies 😁 The book on the left in the picture is the Duke University Press edition, while the one on the right is the newer one.

After I got the book, I read it in one breath and it gave me goosebumps throughout. There is a reason it is revered by older cricket fans. It is a beautiful love letter to West Indian cricket, and cricket in general, the best there is. James’ prose is beautiful and gorgeous, and it feels like he is an intellectual from the 19th century, because he doesn’t shy away from difficult words – one chapter is called ‘George Headley : Nascitur Non Fit‘, another is called ‘Alma Mater : Lars and Penates‘. We take it in our stride, of course, and we continue reading, and we feel that we are in the presence of a master. James thoughts on the great Learie Constantine, on how the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team was appointed, and on the great Frank Worrell, are a pleasure to read. James also shares his love for books and reading and places them in a cricketing and cultural context. It is not often that we find discussions on William Hazlitt and William Makepeace Thackeray in a book on sport.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is one of the greatest books on sport, society and culture ever written. It is a love letter to the West Indies and to the game of cricket. It deserves to be more widely read.

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