Archive for the ‘Caribbean 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 Olive Senior through a friend’s recommendation. I was very excited to read my first book by her, ‘The Pain Tree‘.

The Pain Tree‘ is a collection of ten short stories. The title story ‘The Pain Tree‘ is about a young woman who comes back home after a long time and thinks about her childhood, especially about someone who brought her up. It is a beautiful, haunting story and one of my favourites from the book. In ‘Moonlight‘, the narrator likes getting up at night and going out in the moonlight, but one day she sees something that she is not supposed to, and her world turns upside down. ‘Silent‘ is what happens to a kid and his family who get caught in the middle of a gang shootout. In ‘A Father Like That‘, the narrator almost sings the story in Jamaican English, and it is such a pleasure to read. ‘Coal‘ is about a young woman, her housekeeper and a silent boy who works in their home. I learnt from this story that we can make coal out of wood, but the process is delicate and complex. I always thought that coal is only there in coal mines. The longest story in the book which runs to more than forty pages is ‘The Country Cousin‘. It has everything we’d expect from a long story – a wonderful start, interesting characters, conflict between characters, people plotting against each other, good characters suffering at the hands of the bad, a surprise ending. Whether the ending is happy or sad, you have to read the story to find out. The last story ‘Flying‘ is beautiful, sad, haunting, and has folkoric and magical elements in it. It made me think of one of my favourite books, ‘Root Magic‘ by Eden Royce. There are more stories, but I won’t say anything about them, but will let you discover their pleasures when you read them.

I’m glad I read my first Olive Senior book. I loved it. Hoping to read more of her books.

Have you read ‘The Pain Tree’? What do you think about it?

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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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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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