Evolving Opinions on Literature

Is a love of books innate or cultivated? Can it be nurtured given the right set of conditions? Can it be groomed, guided and trained? Can it be pruned? Should it be pruned? Can it be destroyed?

I came of age in a reading household. Romance novels everywhere. John Grisham and James Patterson were staples (confession: I found them hopelessly boring). To this day my mother will probably still swoon over a good Ken Follett novel. My aunt, despite health challenges, will still use her limited energy to stay up late reading her latest acquisition (Michelle Obama’s Becoming). Even my father had a stash of Clive Cussler books and Marvel comics, in a society where reading was frowned upon as ‘unmanly’.

Nature or nurture?

My primary school evenings were spent hunting down old newsprint children’s books on dusty classroom shelves. Stories that were ubiquitous to public schools in Jamaica, with morals like ‘shortcut draw blood’ and tales that encouraged us to respect our elders and love our neighbours.

In high school, I was forbidden to read romance novels, so naturally I hid and read them any way. I started speed reading out of necessity so I could finish a borrowed bodice-ripper before the last school bell rang at 2:20. The ones I took home stayed hidden among school things, retrieved on lengthy trips to the bathroom. My parents always wondered what on earth I could be doing for so long. I was encouraged to eat more vegetables.

My high school library was under-served, but came with unexpected classics like a collection of Isaac Asimov stories that I discovered shortly after the release of I-Robot, and which piqued my interest in science fiction.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, ten years after leaving high school, a worn and faded copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. A novel which, according to the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, sparked the genius of several literary leading ladies. I can’t remember ever seeing it during my tenure, but I’m sure the tepid cover wouldn’t have caught my attention anyway, focused as I was on colour and excitement. Interpret that how you will.

Aside from romance novels, paranormal romance novels, historical fiction romance novels and comedic romance novels (are you sensing a trend here?) my appetite extended to comedies, autobiographies, science fiction, young adult and contemporary novels. All illegally downloaded because books are expensive and the esoteric ones (in Jamaica, this means anything that isn’t of the Mills & Boon variety) are hard to come by. My collection included books by Jenny Lawson, Neil Gaiman, Christine Feehan, Michael Crichton, Roxanne Gay, Cheryl Strayed and Eoin Colfer.

Why did I gravitate toward these authors? Was it some combination of genetics, escapism, and excellent taste? The answer to that is about as complicated as the answer to why some people love Nutella (spoiler alert: it’s disgusting).

My literary interests grew like weeds, unfettered and sprawling. True, there was the semblance of a pattern, but it only noticeable in the negative spaces, in what was missing. After reading A Child Called It (Dave Pelzer) in third form, I knew I never wanted to read another story of abuse ever again. And after valiantly finishing The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) I knew for sure first person stream of consciousness and the bildungsroman were not for me. Though I did enjoy A Separate Peace in literature class (I am nothing if not inconsistent).

Still my choice of books could never be described as ‘cultivated’, more like a potpourri of covers, quotes and authors that caught my fancy.

I was perfectly happy to dabble in this hodgepodge of literary entertainment until about my 4th year of medical school, when I decided I wanted to be a writing intern for an online magazine. I showed up for the interview, excited to finally take a step into the real life world of books, and my future editor asked what kinds of books I liked to read. I shared a few samples from the list above (to my credit, neglecting to mention the hundreds of romance novels) but I was wholly unprepared for her next question.

“Do you read any literary fiction?”

I’ll spare you the painfully embarrassing details of me asking what the hell literary fiction was and then struggling to remember the last ‘serious’ book I had read (Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, if you were wondering).

Now I know there are readers who are capable of excelling in medical school full time while maintaining a steady 5-6 books per month batting average, but I am not one of them. After labouring through eight hours of mind-numbing Physiology lectures, deciphering delicate metaphors in a stream of consciousness narrative is not my idea of a fun time.

That encounter in 4th year shifted my reading trajectory entirely. Before, I would devour four or five romantic or otherwise light-hearted novels per month. After, I put myself on a strict literary diet: romance novels were the fast food of the reading world and if I wanted to cultivate a healthy literary appetite I needed to stick to the ‘serious stories’.

I refused to read anything that couldn’t be described as ‘literary’, and ironically I spent a lot of that time re-reading my Jane Austen novels. I love Austen but her books are by no means ‘literary’, just old. I spiraled all the way down to four maybe five books a year, and started to feel guilty every time I saw my blog title.

That editor wasn’t to blame for my literary anorexia, at least not entirely. But there was an unspoken cultural rule that I was slowly becoming aware of, one that dictated which books were worth reading, and segregated readers in caste-like fashion based on the types of books they enjoyed.

This rule revolved around literary awards and the strict boundaries of genre. Much like a social hierarchy, the genre of a book determined the limits of its audience and in turn its perceived quality. Books and the people who loved them were snipped and cookie-cuttered into neat little labels, easy for publishers to target, but overall stifling the sprawling love of literature to which I had grown accustomed.

We readers of fantasy and YA novels can face disparagement for not being ‘serious readers’ and this pushes us to the margins of literary circles. Truth, I felt like an outsider during university when I attended functions in the Dept of Literature, though there was no real discrimination. Teens who spend hours poring over comic books and graphic novels instead of dense volumes of glorified classics get criticized for ‘wasting time’ instead of being encouraged to keep reading.

The delicate sprouts of curious literary leaves are easily crushed by censure. If society claims to value people who read, then why does it matter what they read, as long as they’re expanding their imaginations and honing their critical thinking?

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man

Damn straight, Sir Francis Bacon

And I’m not drawing any lines in the sand either. All forms of writing are useful in this regard: Shakepeare, Sandra Brown, badly written Supernatural fanfiction. When people are discouraged from reading what they like, they’re just discouraged from reading. Pruning practices that ought to be prohibited is literally a quote from a Harry Potter villain.

On the flip side, if you’re concerned that your ten year old has a morbid fascination with Stephen King you may want to suggest something you’d find a little more age appropriate and save the Master of Horror until the teenage years (or, you know, never). It’s like training pets, instead of punishing the unwanted behaviour, distract and replace it with something more desirable.

At the end of the day, reading should be encouraged full stop. The ridiculous competition of ‘literary’ vs ‘genre’ fiction is best left to snobby book critics and publishers with a cranio-rectal inversion. Everyone else should just be glad your child/loved one/own damn self who reads has a way more useful hobby than policing other people’s bookshelves.

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the Beginner’s Guide to Calabash Literary Festival

Disclaimer: This post is unofficial and unaffiliated with the Calabash Literary Festival, and not endorsed by the producers either. Just my own opinions and reflections. 

Who else loves literature? If you raised your hand, you’ll probably agree with me that book fests are the new music fests. Let’s face it: comfortable seats and soft spoken word beats standing for hours having your ears screamed off any day.

After about a dozen years of impatience and envy (bruk pocket and bad mind) I finally managed to attend the Calabash Literary Festival, the best little festival in the best little village on the best little island in the world.

A brief introduction

Calabash (as it is affectionately known) was started in 2001 by Jamaican founders Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell. After being staged annually for a decade, Calabash now draws crowds to Treasure Beach every other year. And the wait makes it even sweeter.

The Locale

At first look, Treasure Beach is a happy sleepy little town on Jamaica’s south coast. Driving down from Montego Bay my first sight as I rounded a corner and began the downhill drive was a gorgeous green plain that melded right into the Caribbean sea, dotted with houses and tiny lakes. It was breathtaking.

Treasure Beach is friendly to the pedestrian and avid step-counter. It’s much easier to walk around than it is to drive and the scenery is so pretty you’ll constantly be stopping to snap pictures. One weird element – at least weird in my north coast opinion – is that the sand is actually a dark colour, nothing like the white sand beaches I’m used to. But it still has a rustic beauty to it.

Lodgings

Places to stay are hard to come by in Treasure Beach around the time of Calabash. Most hotels are fully booked out months in advance but we luckily got in touch with an AirBnB host and managed to secure a hut for the weekend. Yes, a hut. A ‘comfortable hut with options’ as the listing went, and it was pretty comfortable. Once we got past the outdoor shower (cold!) and strange scratching noise in the thatch roof at nights (despite my worst fears, we did not get eaten).

Food

For a Jamaican village, Treasure Beach has a wide variety of meal options. Tourism does that to a place I think. Aside from Calabash itself which sold breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are a number of restaurants along the village road. We tried unsuccessfully to eat out at a different place every night – Jack Sprat kept drawing us back in – and for the most part the food was pretty good. I was amused that everyone served pizza! And being Jamaica naturally jerk chicken was the most common topping.

For breakfast there was only one option: Smurf’s Cafe. I still have mouthwatering daydreams about this eatery, which is right behind a bar of the same name. They serve home brewed coffee and a delectable selection of local and continental dishes. I can’t sing their praises enough. Their reputation speaks for itself though, because every single morning of Calabash there was a large crowd of people waiting for tables to free up.

Festival Grounds

Walking into the Calabash venue you will pass stalls featuring a variety of entrepreneurs and artisans. Even though Calabash boasts no admission fee, you should walk with plenty plenty pocket money to spend on the jewelry, accessories, clothing, natural products and more that are all for sale on site.

And the books! Of course a book festival comes equipped with its very own bookstore, and the Kingston Bookshop came prepared with titles from all the speakers and then some. One complaint – the books were so expensive. It would have been a nice gesture to offer a festival discount so that those with less well-lined pockets could still buy a book and get it signed by their favourite writer.

The Festival!

Saving the best for last it seems. Calabash prepared such a refreshing blend of creative voices: novelists, short story authors, poets, writers who defy genre, artistes and DJs came together in a delicious pepperpot soup that I imagine left the audience feeling satisfied and sated.

Confession: I didn’t attend every single event. I was waist-deep in exam preparation that weekend, and I really love sleeping in. But the beauty of Calabash is its buffet style presentation. You can pick, choose and refuse events and sections without feeling like you’re missing out, especially since hashtags keep you in the loop from a distance with Twitter. It’s casual, a la carte and tech-friendly so it fits right in with the ethos of today’s evolving interconnected world.

One complaint: directions on the festival grounds would have been super helpful. The first night I ended up waiting in front of the main stage when the festival was going on at the adjacent property. Long time attendees may be in the know, but us newbies can get lost pretty easily.

Verdict

Am I hooked on the Calabash bug and totally enamored of Treasure Beach? Guilty as charged. The festival delivered, and was every bit as #LitUp as the producers promised. The Open Mic sections sparked my muse and now I’m excited to start writing again. Next time I’ll be up on that stage too.

Here’s to Calabash 2020, I can’t wait!

 

Starting Fires

While I was at home in Montego Bay the Riverton dump in Kingston started burning and continued to burn for more than a week. Social media grabbed the disaster and ran through the streets with it, even as print media dragged their feet on the reporting. Fingers were pointed, no one was punished and the annual nine-day-wonder fire was swept under the carpet along with issues like political corruption and the human rights debate. People don’t stay angry for very long, it seems.

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular YA series, about the start of a revolution and the fire that was starting to rage in hearts across Panem. It was a book about social and political change, and the kind of rebellion that one girl in a really fabulous dress can inspire. The oppressed in fiction get angry and stay angry. (And then they kill people).

Jamaica needs radical change, some kind of blazing revolution that razes everything in its path and leaves the land empty. Not barren, but fertile. Waiting for some clean, new, un-corrupted, pure of heart phoenix to spring from the ashes. But this is an ideal.

Our reality is slogging away at back-breaking jobs for bank-breaking pay all the while cussing this government and that government and hiding our faces in embarrassment at our leaders, and hoping someone else will be the change we want to see.

I’m guilty. There’s no excuse for not standing up and pushing back against the undesirable reality. There are start-up ideas and innovations everywhere, little inspiring stories about changing things one life at a time. People bounce back from tragedy with overwhelming determination; people triumph in big and little ways.

But what to do with the pervasive feeling that if you don’t go big, go home? That my small change won’t make any real difference? How to coalesce all the small changes into some grand overarching movement toward a better Jamaica? How to reach the whole country instead of just one small part?

We would need to have small changes everywhere, instead of concentrating them in our urban centres. The disparity between urban centres and rural communities is discouraging, the lack of resources is debilitating and (personally) my capacity for hope and faith is insufficient to sustain the grassroots efforts that we would need to experience change in a major way.

And there needs to be a deep affinity for the cause you’re getting behind in Jamaica, because it takes everything you have. Fighting battles on the fronts of gender equality, human rights, even education is an exhausting process. Carla Moore after discussing gender issues with two male friends commented that “Doing gender-based interventions as a woman is a form of abuse”.

I want to do something but I’m terrified – of failing, of being targeted, of not having the resources, of not caring enough, of caring too much, of burning out, of becoming bitter. I shy away from advocacy and cheer them on from the sidelines when I know I should do more, do something. But what can I do, what can I do?

Sometimes this question plagues me, chases me down the street and demands money. I falter, dig around in my mind for a response, dig through my chest for a semblance of emotion to spur me forward, to start a fire. But I’m not a fire-starting kind of girl.

When I was at community college, I started a Book Club which I ran for one year as President before graduating. We would meet once a week and talk about whatever short story or poem I had printed out and I like to think I was encouraging an appreciation of literature but truthfully I have no idea why people continued to show up week after week (but I was  grateful that they did).

When I left, the club continued. Only now, they had branched into outreach and were delivering books to basic schools and orphanages. Is this an example of my humble literary efforts catching fire?

From reading flash fiction to sharing the gift of literature – if one little effort can evolve like that, what more can my love of books accomplish? If I can’t start a fire, can I at least fan some flames? I believe the right book can change a life, can rewrite generations of hardwiring, can catalyse personal and national revolution. And that sounds like a cause I can get behind.

**

My friend Tricia (Tricia T Allen) and I are planning to start a writer’s club in Montego Bay as soon as I move back home, and we’re looking for dedicated writers to come and join in. If you’re from the Western end of the island and you have a fondness for words, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! More details will be posted as soon as we hash them out. 

You Don’t Want it Enough

When something you want desperately lies just out of reach, all the muscles in your frame stretch a little bit further, risk spraining an ankle or dislocating a shoulder just so your fingers will close around it in triumph.

That’s how it goes when you want something badly enough. You stop at nothing, risk everything, try anything to get it. And if you haven’t exhausted all your options and your mitochondria then you simply didn’t want it that much in the first place.

I first heard about Calabash in third form – 2005, the early part – and how elated I was to find out that an event purely about books and writers and writing was happening on this island, my island, which I had come to regard as sort of a prison that kept me from being truly literary.

I was fourteen at the time, and therefore required supervision for the cross-island journey. The only family member who showed any interest was my aunt and she suggested that we drive on down to Jake’s-on-Treasure-Beach-St.-Elizabeth to soak up some literature.

She has been suggesting that every year since, and suggesting is pretty much as far as it gets (through no fault of hers – because she reads this blog and hello Aunty, I’m not blaming you).

The fact remains that I have never been to a Calabash festival in any of its incarnations, and I have never overly exerted myself to do so, beyond the usual pestering by a child of a disinterested adult.

Q.E.D., I did not want to attend the Calabash festival badly enough.

And yet.

I feel cheated by time and circumstance and academic obligations and finances. I rage against a universe that perpetually sets me back in this one specific regard: that I will always have an uphill battle with literature. That it will never be enough to merely want it, that I will always have to want it so badly I cannot breathe, or else I am condemned to a Sisyphean sort of life and my boulder will never breach the hill.

In the day-to-day choices I have to make between the literary life and the medical one where every decision leaves me riddled with guilt over conflicting obligations, the question is never whether I want it badly enough; it’s whether I can afford to.

fangirling | The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

In bullet point format. Because bullet points are cool now.

  • This was my first Sue Monk Kidd book. I had been interested in reading her work since The Secret Life of Bees hit bookshelves. But I can’t remember why.
  • Truth: Ever since high school I’ve had this story floating around in my head of two girls being raised on a plantation, one a slave, the other the owner’s daughter. The story would have been told from both points of view and would follow their life stories: rebellions, heartache and the pains of becoming and understanding one’s self. This novel is that story.
  • I feel a kind of grief? over the story that I never wrote, like losing an unborn child and then seeing her face suddenly one day.
  • The amount of research behind it bleeds through in the compelling realness of the traditions and atmosphere SMK describes.
  • The author’s note confirms that this story is actually based on fact – most of the characters were real people and several of the incidents described in the book actually happened. But it is layered heavily with fiction.
  • The imagery was beautiful and heart-wrenching. The themes of enslavement and freedom went so much deeper than the literal shackles the novel described.
  • I love a book that paints people as they are: with faults and failings, trying to survive the best they can. This book does that.
  • My first book about slavery, and I think I’ll read more.

Image not mine. Obviously.

Kingston Book Festival starts with a Love Affair

The annual Kingston Book Festival, hosted by the Book Industry Association of Jamaica, began last Sunday at the 3rd annual Love Affair with Literature symposium, a joint event put on by the BIAJ and UWI Mona Department of Literature.

The affair was a delightful brunch of poetry and prose, featuring the likes of American-Trinidadian Robert Antoni (who has just launched his new book Like Flies to Whatless Boys), Richard ‘Dingo’ Dingwall (of Poetry Society of Jamaica fame), Kendel Hippolyte of St. Lucia, Monica Minott and the UWI’s own writer-in-residence Dr. Erna Brodber (a grandmotherly dear with a cotton candy puff of white hair whom I had the pleasure of being seated beside).

It was my first love affair and I can tell you it won’t be my last. For a comprehensive review (filled with delectable adjectives), see Tallawah Magazine’s article Verse and Verve.

Festival Chair Kellie Magnus, speaking at Love Affair, announced that this year’s Book Festival activities would be year-long since they have heeded their criticss cries to take the festival around the island. The previously week-long celebration of all things literary usually culminated in the Kingston Book Fair, but the event has now been shifted to take place later in the year.

The calendar of events for this week is already underway and includes activities such as the National Library Open Day (today from 9-4) and a Writer’s Workshop for children and young adult writers delivered by Richard Scrimmer and Diane Brown. The workshop is hosted by a Canadian literacy NGO, CODE, as part of the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature.

The BIAJ also has plans to conduct a National Reader Survey to get an inside look at the literary market – what readers want and they’ll actually purchase. The survey can be tracked at CaribLit.org.

Credit: BIAJ

This is what happens when you let me go to a Philosophy lecture

This one is a wall of text, guys. Apologies in advance, unless (like me) you like words. In which case, you’re welcome. 

I was a third year medical student pretending to be a first year Literature major, sitting beside a final year Philosophy major from Germany.

It was the best day of my life. 

Some of my classmates are using the four weeks’ holiday we’ve been granted to rest and reflect. Some have been using to to prepare for the annual third year production, Smoker. Some have been using it to prepare for their upcoming clinical rotation.

Today, I used it to sit in on lectures in the Faculty of Humanities and Education. And it was amazing. My ardent admiration for Literature, notwithstanding (Austen fans, see what I did there?), today I discovered the dearth of possibilities that lay open to most other university students (with the possible exception of students from the Faculty of Law): the almost limitless variety  of classes and courses that can wind up creating a one-of-a-kind bespoke first degree, and not just the one-size-fits-all paper that most students leave university toting.

I am absolutely green with envy at the students in Humanities and the Social Sciences who are restricted in the course decisions only by credit allowances. UWI is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and medical students are on a water-and-lettuce-leaf diet. Everyone else is given a plate and told to fill it as much as possible. So many of them waste so much of their plates, just leaving the space empty, when they could have topped it up with the study of languages, culture, psychology, gender, literature. Or is the lettuce leaf just greener on that side of life?

I want to rail against the university for the vacuum they’ve given us to study in, for how limited our options for real enlightenment are. These foundation courses that are meant to give students the benefit of a multi-faculty education are compulsory, true. But they have a pass mark of 40%. They only require 4/10 of the effort. They only need you to know 4/10 of the concepts and information that are being rigorously dissected by some other student doing some other major in some other faculty.

I am upset that we are allowed, encouraged even, to study one subject exclusively. Is a liberal education the opposite of this? Where can I get one of those?

I think the well-rounded university graduate is a myth. Called into being by some employer who wants a business grad with a working knowledge of computers and human behaviour.

The issue at heart is the cycle of invalidity: the undergrad freshman wants to make money when he/she graduates, the university needs marketable graduates to maintain its credibility, and of course society stigmatizes the liberal arts graduate as un-properly-educated and unqualified.

When will we recognize the relevance of every subject? When will we stop subjugating one discipline for the veneration of some other? (Philosophy-for-Science, I’m looking at you). In short, when will universities, as social institutions, create an environment that is suitable for developing the cornucopia of human minds it professes to cater to, instead of trying to jam every peg – square and otherwise – into one round hole?

Perhaps when philosophers stop teaching philosophy and start leading governments. Perhaps when doctors stop treating bodies and start healing psyches. Perhaps when students stop being simple mind-jugs waiting to be filled and start being critical leaders of social change.

Most likely I’m asking for too much, and much too soon.