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Archive for the ‘Jamaican Literature’ Category

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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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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