Apologetics: My Strange Fixation with White Women

Alternative title: Navigating my Reader Identity

When I was a little girl and just starting to flex my writing muscles the first story I ever wrote was called Cottage on the Hill. It was about two young white girls from London who went to spend summer vacation with their grandparents in rural England. Of course, I had never seen a cottage or spent a summer with my grandparents or been to rural England but as so often happens with young black writers the stories we write are the stories we have read about.

It never occurred to me at that age to consider Jamaican characters or settings. I had never read about home outside of those little chapbooks from primary school (you know the ones with the newsprint and sketches) that tried to impart Serious Moral Lessons through Anansi stories and others. But that wasn’t what I wanted to write – I wanted to write proper short stories. And proper short stories were about people from outside of the Caribbean.

I grew up, of course, and developed a thirst for Caribbean literature despite the disinterested way it gets tacked on to high school syllabuses. I actively seek out Jamaican writers and as many women writers as I can. Colonialism may have dictated my preferences but I can change that if I try hard enough. And sometimes the trying is hard. What I want to read isn’t always available, but often what is available ends up being what I want to read.

Transition with me from books to the online world of blogs; most of the ones I’m familiar with (and like) are written by upper middle class white suburban housewives. What the hell is this demographic? I have no idea. Okay, maybe I have a little idea. But as I grapple with this proclivity and the desire to see myself represented in internet writings, guilt often bubbles up. It feels like consuming all this content from a foreign culture only pushes me further away from my own.

Another issue is that I have more in common with these women than I do with people I actually live and work with. Cue identity crisis! Cue questioning my life choices*! This is why I read those blogs, this is why I feel distanced from my own culture: camaraderie and the quest for acceptance. But what is the solution, lock myself away from the world and read only content produced by Jamaicans for Jamaicans?

No, xenophobia isn’t the answer here. It isn’t automatically bad to be intrigued by alternate ways of life. On the contrary, globalization is accepted and encouraged. Where it crosses the line into acculturation is a little blurry, but we’re working on that.

These days I berate myself less and less for my tastes, but unlearning decades of stigma for being ‘the weird one’ is hard. I will probably never stop liking The Bloggess or Neil Gaiman, but I am gradually unwinding myself from the notion that these interests make me less Jamaican. In reality I will always be Jamaican, just a Jamaican who is open-minded, liberal and a little more day-dreamy than expected.


*Life choices like watching Doctor Who, listening to The Chainsmokers, and reading yet another Jenny Lawson/Elizabeth Gilbert mental health guidebook cleverly disguised as a novel.

 

fangirling | C’bean Writers and New-ish Novels

This may come as a surprise but in between the bonfires, spring fairs and medical conferences that have marked my weekends for the last few months I have actually found the time to read a book or two (or five).

I was recently tapped to write a set of book reviews for Susumba.com, an opportunity I leaped at (perhaps too hastily) which is partly why I come bearing book recommendations. In no particular order, here are three books you should definitely add to your collection for this summer and beyond.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

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Nicole Dennis-Benn is an expat Jamaican living in Brooklyn. Her wedding ceremony at a private resort made local headlines some years ago for the triviality of their being a lesbian couple. Only in Jamaica. Awkward home country reception aside, Dennis-Benn’s first novel is a keeper. Here Comes the Sun is a multi-generational narrative that exposes and shames the tourism industry in Jamaica for its exploitation of the working class and poor at the same time as it deeply considers the damaging standards of beauty to which we subject our girls.

Excerpt from my review:

Emboldened by the objectivity of distance, Dennis-Benn unflinchingly chronicles the troubling reality of the Jamaican feminine experience. She furthers this discussion by giving glimpses of the taboo – Margot’s love affair with the out lesbian Verdene Moore. Dennis-Benn’s handling of their relationship is understandably delicate, dancing nimbly around author surrogacy and Jamaica’s homophobic climate. The result is an intimate and acutely human portrayal of an oft-ignored struggle, woven beautifully into the tapestry of the wider work.

Delores, Margot and Thandi are moulded by the tragedies of their youth in a seemingly never-ending cycle that will be unsettlingly familiar to a Jamaican audience. In light of recent events regarding the abuse of girls and women, the timing of this novel is especially crucial. Often the story of sexual abuse victims is narrow and oppressive. In her novel, Dennis-Benn attempts to expand their narrative.

Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh

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Full disclaimer, this is a YA novel. But don’t let the genre fool you – Baksh’s debut novel (which won the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature) is a fast-paced adventure that will keep you hooked until the last page, no matter what your age. Imam Baksh is a master of pace and plot and the eerie, menacing characters practically crawl off the page.

The novel centres around Mayali, a fugitive from the sulphur-and-brimstone world of Zolpash where her people are subjugated under the rule of Spiders and their Brethren. She escapes to our world (Guyana, to be precise) and enlists the reluctant help of Joseph, an Amerindian Deaf-Mute techie, to warn the Guyanese president that the evil Spiders are trying to take over the world.

I loved this story. It was so exciting to see Caribbean tropes (the bumbling policeman, the cranky taxi driver) be represented in fiction, and Baksh weaves mythology into contemporary Caribbean life the way Gaiman did with Norse mythology in American Gods (who else is excited for that premiere?!). Children of the Spider is almost definitely the adventure book of 2016.

In the Morning Yah by Sheldon Shepherd

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Known more popularly as the lead singer of the roots-reggae-dub collective No-Maddz, Sheldon Shepherd published his first collection of poetry in 2016. Including some original pieces by his father Keith Shepherd, the anthology also features the works of five visual artists who contributed pieces to complement the poems.

Shepherd’s poems are mostly observations on daily life and the hustle of making ends meet interspersed with reflections on sociopolitical issues and the occasional whimsical meditation on love. Reading dub poetry presents a Shakespearean challenge however because while Shepherd’s work is delightful and entertaining on stage the poems on page lack the energizing metre that brings them to life. Still, the book is an excellent repository for performance poems with a distinctly original voice.

Did you read any of these books? Know/love the writers? Have recommendations of your own? Feel free to share your comments below. :)


Here Comes the Sun is published by Liveright, and available at Bookophilia in Kingston as well as online.
Children of the Spider is published by Blouse and Skirt Books, available on Amazon and very likely Bookophilia.
In the Morning Yah is published by Pelican Publishers and available wherever Nomaddz is performing, I think. Also probably Amazon.

My Cup Runneth Over: Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded

The artistic scene in Montego Bay is very well-nourished, or so one would think from the sizable crowd that squeezed into Blue Beat Jazz and Martini Bar last Saturday night for the poetry-and-music affair. I am acutely aware that the coverage is also sorely lacking, as I sit here penning this write-up almost one full week later.

Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded is the sequel to Lyrical Eloquence, a night of poetry and fashion where poets, musicians and designers gathered to share their craft and mingle with like-minded creatives. This iteration, with less fashion and more music and poetry, was thematically centered on Black History – apropos of the month of February.

Like so many events in this country, Lyrical Eloquence could not escape the trap of island time, and the programme didn’t start until an hour after the scheduled 8:30pm. Nevertheless the ensuing performances were at turns delightful and thought-provoking.

MC’d by the gracious Brian Brown, whose quick pace did much to move the evening along, Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded featured performances from Montegonian talent and some further afield. For me, the surprises of the night were two as-yet-undiscovered gems: Kali Grn and D Reblz, and Jeeby Lyricist.

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Kali Grn and D Reblz

Kali Grn brought me the humbling realization that I am more than a little out of touch with the Mobay Art Scene. He and his band are much beloved on the hotel circuit and based on the responses of the audience have garnered quite the local following. Though there are clear reggae influences, their sound is authentically millennial with clear melodious harmonies, dynamic instrumentals and clever thoughtful lyrics.

But if I talk about lyrics, I have to talk about Jeeby Lyricist, who by day is a student of law in Kingston (perhaps this is why he manages such quick-witted vernacular). The back-up singer was a little vocally disappointing (especially coming after those Reblz) but Jeeby weaves superb double entendres — his last song a tongue-in-cheek nod to masculine attempts at flirtation in this modern dancehall environment.

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Jeeby Lyricist in action

There are so many honorable mentions: Jah Meikle – whom I had the pleasure of first meeting some years ago in Kingston – is an excellent drummer and poet who makes combining rhythms look much easier than I imagine it would be. The dub poets Mentor and Fyah Marley, among others. Brian Brown himself. And the ineffable, inimitable Carla Moore who closed the show.

My greatest vexation about this event is that I missed Carla Moore’ performance. For those who don’t know, Carla comes to us from UWI’s Western Campus where she lectures in the Institute of Gender and Development Studies. Before that she was in Canada, keeping touch with Jamaica through her vlog countryfromlongtime. Now she mostly Instagrams @mooretivation. I find her to be unerringly in tune with the ethos and angst of this millennial generation, and her unexpected words of inspiration have never failed to comfort me.

My quarrel, of course, is entirely with myself. My bedtime is around 10 o’clock these days and by midnight (when there were still five more performers) I was fighting sleep hard. I was overwhelmed, in a good way, by the crowd that populated Blue Beat’s modest open air terrace and that swelled with appreciation for the spoken (and sung) word. Next time I will know to wear comfy shoes, bring snacks/coffee, and stake-out a good seat at least an hour in advance.

//

All image credits to Di Foto Shoppe

 

Sankofa: Critiquing our Coverage of Culture

I have been remiss. Too often I forget that this is a space of growth, questions and a conscious quest for truth. It is too easy to descend into aggravated polemics without stopping to consider and critique. It’s the writer’s equivalent of chewing with your mouth open.

In pursuit of critical discussion I have stumbled across The Nassau Guardian, the oldest and largest newspaper in The Bahamas. More specifically, their Arts and Culture segment where thought-provoking essays by Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett and others are fanning new flames into discussions on race and identity.

It’s a Lifestyle section with more life than style, where the arts and culture pieces actually talk about art and culture. Dr. Bethell-Bennett delves critically into post-modern theories surrounding the manufacture of the Caribbean identity. His deconstruction of post-colonialism and its impact on Afro-Caribbean societies is not new but it’s so refreshing to hear someone wax poetic on the subject in a national newspaper.

I contrast our top two national newspapers: The Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer. The lifestyle section of both newspapers is filled mainly with light and fluffy pieces that don’t provide much food for thought. The Gleaner admittedly digs a touch deeper in its Arts and Leisure section, in that they comment on culturally relevant events. But the coverage is bare bones at best and leaves so much to be desired.

Is it merely that the first-world Bahamas with a supposedly higher percentage of tertiary-educated readers can easily devote segments of its newspaper to largely academic rhetoric? What is the interplay between economics and social commentary? Is socio-cultural criticism merely a luxury that Jamaicans cannot yet afford?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is that the discussions on race, culture and identity highlighted in The Nassau Guardian are critical to the future of Caribbean development.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, culture and origins is like a tree without roots.
–Marcus Garvey

fangirling new loves | Nayyirah Waheed

can we speak in flowers.
it will be easier for me to understand.

–other language

It seems trite to say that Nayyirah Waheed’s groundbreaking (and self-published) first collection of poetry, salt, changed my life. Just like it seems cliche to say that I couldn’t choose just one poem as the introduction of this reaction post (incoherent praise doesn’t really count as a review). But salt oozes with a tumult of emotions that speaks to every woman, man, feminist, realist, human being. And every poem is, like she says, a whale in the body of a tiny fish.

there is you and you.
this is a relationship.
this is the most important relationship.

–home

In late 2015 when I first joined Instagram, Waheed’s poetry popped up on my feed and I was instantly intrigued. This poet who could capture a whole year of heartbreak and healing in two or three lines, she was magic to me. I was sold. Fast forward to this December when I finally purchased both anthologies – salt and nejma – weighty by both shipping standards and emotional depth. And I fell further in love with her words.

you
are
my favourite kind.
nothing
that i can
name.

Does she bring a whole new set of standards to poetry? Is she brimming with innovative concepts? Does she push boundaries, if only to blur the lines? Does she drip words on the page like warm honey, scattered ash, shattered glass?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

unharm someone
by
telling the truth you could not face
when you
struck instead of tended.

— put the fire out (unburn)

She writes from a place of incredible self-honesty (or perhaps a place of enormous self-delusion?), tearing away the veils of social construct to access deeper inalienable truths. She reaches for our innermost humanity with gentle probing fingers. Her poems are like sunshine, coaxing our souls toward growth. She writes about issues of womanhood, manhood, feminism, activism, the struggles of a dispersed people. She writes about healing and how hard it is to get there.

if i write
what you may feel
but cannot say.
it does not
make
me a poet.
it makes me a bridge.

–from grateful

Poetry hasn’t really managed to tap into the mass market but for those of us who love discovering new (old) poets and their work, Nayyirah Waheed brings a welcome splash of novelty.

Salt and its successor Nejma are available on Amazon. They were on sale for Christmas but I think that ended. Good news is they will be on sale again, probably sometime soon. Maybe.

Pax.

 

fangirling old loves: redlipsandcitylights

(You know I love my black girl poets).

Nneka Ayana is back after a months-long hiatus with more salves for the broken-hearted. Her poems aren’t always soothing, though, and it behooves the lovelorn to remember that alcohol too stings as it disinfects.

Three new poems from her untitled archive are about the pain of love, even while you’re in it, and the tragedy of watching it slip away. redlipsandcitylights is nowhere near as overly-emotional as I’m painting it because Nneka’s words beat back heartbreak like Smokey the bear at a bushfire. Calm. Cool. Collected. Even while unraveling at the edges. And that’s why I love her.

Her poems read like private invitations into a misery shared that can never really be halved. They read like clinical observations on the loss of one’s arm. Detached and yet strikingly poignant in the contrast of unemotional words and the very emotional events they describe. She says it best.

i wish the word love couldn’t be translated in so many ways
i wish it was as warm and gooey and intentional as
every time i say it.
but sometimes it’s cold
and flat.
empty.

untitled archive I 

Wade through the entire archive of her brushes with affection here.

What Would Robyn Read: on Love

In real, real life when I’m away from the computer I’m having six hour days on the surgery wards getting all sorts of despairingly complex and maddeningly simple information thrown at me. When I retire to the internet, I delve into the quirky and non-medical. I figure (depending on who you talk to) the business of love is as far away from science as you can get.

For those who don’t know (aka me, three weeks ago) The New York Times runs a segment called Modern Love which publishes essays from readers on that most chemically and emotionally confusing topic. Curated by editor Daniel Jones, there are essays written by range of subjects as diverse in their demographics as they are in their content.

I started reading the top ten list one lazy Saturday morning (that really should not have been lazy) and I liked it enough to share with you here.

Have a look at the top ten best Modern Love columns ever.

I used to think that elder love, if it even existed, was confined to rocking chairs or golf carts, that it had to be a dull business because of the physical limitations of age. -Nora Johnson, 2013

Review | Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I started watching the HBO hit series Girls because I needed some hipsterification in my life. I had just watched Juno for the umpteenth time and was craving some fast talking esoteric geek-speak when my friend Dr. Gargamel recommended it to me.

I disliked the pilot because it was awkward and unfunny and had a weird sex scene (taking into consideration that I am weird about sex scenes in general). I didn’t finish watching it and didn’t watch any more episodes.

Not That Kind of Girl makes me regret not sticking it out.

I’m addicted to knowing what other people are doing with their time, so for me the best memoirs are story after story after story with occasional footnotes of introspection. Not That Kind of Girl lives up to my expectations.

In the book Dunham is self-critical and self-congratulatory, often at the same time. She recounts every story with the openly-admitted bias of the self-involved and this ironic honesty had me glued to the page. Here is a girl who is totally confident about herself and determined to kick ass but who also spends most of her time warring with insecurities and waffling about major decisions.

It’s dangerous to consider memoirs (especially those of famous people) as presenting any kind of insight into the lives they are about because there’s nothing stopping the author from glossing over unseemly details or even outright lying. The very basis of a memoir is that it’s founded on fact, but are any of us really reliable narrators? Dunham points that out early on [SPOILER] when she recounts an ambiguous sexual encounter that may or may not have been rape.

Ultimately the only absolute truth a memoir has to offer is a comment on the mind of the person who wrote it. There’s no questioning the truth of the things that happened (not that their truths are unquestionable, just that there’s no point to questioning them). What we should be examining critically is the lens we are looking through and not the view. Why has she drawn the picture this way? What is she holding back? What has she covered in rosy overtones? What does the way this story is told tell us about who wrote it?

Dunham is unflinching when she talks about her youthful experiments with sexuality, nostalgic and wistful when she speaks about school; her tone hardens to an edge when she talks about the sexism of Hollywood and softens to a sweet poignancy when she talks about her family. She talks about sex with clinical detachment and talks about her mental illness (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) like she’s writing from the frontlines of a battlefield, trying to understand the carnage but mostly just trying to survive it. She uses light-hearted lists like palate cleansers in between the heavy stuff and some parts of the book (like What’s in My Bag and My Worst Email Ever) can only be filed under the ever-expanding category of oversharing.

Not That Kind of Girl isn’t life-changing or earth-shattering. It’s not even the first of its kind (the style is reminiscent of Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened). But it feels like a natural extension of Dunham’s work as an artist, her fight to bare [sic] it all. As part of the advance guard in this wave of millennial feminism, she plays her part admirably and Not That Kind of Girl just proves that she’s not the kind of girl who gives up the fight.

Review | Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

First thing, this is Neil Gaiman so my bias is about to get very obvious.

Second thing, does anyone even review anthologies? Google says yes. I plunge ahead.

Gaiman published Fragile Things back in 2006, his third short story collection. (I have only read two and he has written five. Prolific authors are very expensive to be in love with). Most of the stories were printed elsewhere previously and some of them won their fair share of awards.

The introduction explains the background behind every story, their genesis, a theme Gaiman explains in more detail with Inventing Aladdin where he deconstructs the story of Scheherazade. This book took longer than usual to read because I kept flipping back and forth between the introductory explanations all the way at the front and whichever story I was reading at the time.

I’m really stalling until I can write something resembling a coherent review instead of just fangirl oohs and ahhs punctuated by superlatives.

From the introduction and this list on Wikipedia, the book sounds like a motley crew of stories and characters who just never had anywhere else to fit in. Gaiman mentions that he belaboured a bit on the order but I (in my infinite obliviousness) haven’t been able to see an overt movement of themes of structures.

There are scattered poems and outtakes, short short stories and long short stories. There is dark fantasy and light fantasy and children’s books are dealt with with a firm hand.

Hang on, I should probably be writing about the actual stories.

For the record, they were all good. Gaiman has the enviable twin talents of having a story to tell and being able to tell it with panache. But there were a few I didn’t like, and I’ll focus on those because that list is just way shorter. Trust me.

I didn’t like most of the poems – unfortunately. Either they were dealing with subject matter unfamiliar to me and I just couldn’t connect (Going Wodwo), or they just didn’t sit well. I’m picky with my poetry though.

I thought Good Boys Deserve Favours was a bit on the boring side and Strange Little Girls would probably make way more sense with the accompanying CD. The Fairy Reel (poem) fell sort of flat and The Flints of Memory Lane was (in Gaiman’s own words) unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, How Do You Think it Feels, Harlequin Valentine and Other People were shocking and disturbing (in a good way). The Problem of Susan was particularly poignant, Feeders and Eaters creeped me the hell out (again, in a good way) and Sunbird was just about the best birthday present anyone could ever ask for.

I am exceedingly partial to the American Gods novella, The Monarch of the Glen, because I love Shadow and missed him dearly. He definitely needs some lovin’ in real, well fictional, life though.

See how short the list of less-than-awesome was? I could go on forever about the ones I did like.

I really want to mention Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire because (1) WTF is that name and (2) I love the way he plays with Story here.

And I think this is already too long for a simple review so I’ll just stop myself from going on like the sock monkey in My Life. (I don’t even need alcohol).

Pax.

fangirling | Kathryn L Christopher (round ii)

She’s back. Kathryn L Christopher, aka Woman in the Rainy Season is back in all her Caribbean-seasoned, Trinidadian expat glory. She brings us tidings of displaced island struggles, black woman struggles and matters of the heart. She brings us calypso eloquence, and sun-browned nostalgia. She brings us herself.

Her latest poem Hajj opens with a childhood memory and snakes through human anatomy in its dissection of love. It is good. It is so good I cannot come up with anything but praise in response. And I am waiting with bated breath for someone to publish this woman’s work. Peepal Tree Press? Blouse and Skirt Books? Anyone?

In the meantime, if you don’t know Kathryn’s work please go read any/all of her poems right this instant and bask in the untamed wildness of the rainy season.