I know a place…

…where we can carry on 🎵.

Ah! The blogging goes in fits and starts but I have found redemption in books again. My original goal for the reading challenge was 12 books in the year. It’s near the end of April and I’ve read 10.

  • Here Comes the Sun – Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch
  • The Akata Duology: Akata Witch and Akata Warrior – Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Binti Trilogy: Binti, Home, and The Night Masquerade – Nnedi Okorafor
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
  • Prudence – David Treuer
  • The Marvellous Equations of the Dread – Marcia Douglas

Prudence proved to be a bit of a headscratcher. I turned the last page and thought to the ether, What was all that about? Treuer, why did the white character get so much play in your book and why did you silence the title character, introduced to the reader as a corpse, until the very end and I knew, just knew there was something about these WWII novels, we never gel.

Clarity can come from unexpected places. As an anime fan and a feminist I support a site called…Anime Feminist. The staff run a podcast and its currently doing a Watchalong: a series in which staff members plus invited guests watch a legally available anime show, and share their critiques. The current show is Michiko & Hatchin, set in Brazil, and one of its prominent themes is the desire for whiteness and how that affects black/brown characters like Michiko vs Hatchin who passes for white.

Certain things about Prudence started to click. Frank, a gay white kid from Chicago, visits a mountain town every summer because his parents own a vacation property there. He forms his closest personal relationships with Felix, the property’s caretaker, and Billy, a Native American local who assists Felix on the property. They remain close over the years until a violent disruption in the woods creates an irreparable fracture which WW II enlistment and time widens.

Frank’s perspective anchors the first half and he is rarely absent from other characters’ inner thoughts. His mother overthinks everything, including his well-being; Billy is ardently in love with him; he is something of an adopted son for Felix who lost his own family to disease while he fought overseas in WW I.

His presence barely dims in his absence, fuelled by Prudence’s obsession with him in the second half. It’s an obsession that doesn’t make sense until near the end when she takes over the story. Yet it doesn’t quite make up for what came before. Frank, simply by being, with his awkward scrambling at performative masculinity, his naïve/oblivious privilege, his closeted desires, ultimately acts as a destructive force that wrecks many lives.

It was so frustrating to read! But the frustration served a purpose. The book’s substance increases as it lingers in my mind but I don’t want to reread it. (Sorry, Treuer.)

Prudence matched the “book written by an author who is Indigenous, Native American or First Nation” prompt for my reading challenge. Lit Hub led me to more native writers with Hawaiian Authors on the Island’s Literature. It’s good to be reading again.

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I did it!

This must be how Elle Woods felt after graduating from Harvard Law. Better because I’m an overachiever and finished not one, but two novels in the year of our Lord 2018. And di year just start.

Here Comes The Sun” left me in a stunned mess. Nicole Dennis-Benn took all my mixed feelings about Montego Bay, went beyond it, and allowed me to look at the town anew. (The view didn’t improve.) Odd fact: the book recently got nominated for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award.

Edward Stanford established his map-making business in the heart of London and at the height of the British Empire. His maps fuelled a passion for adventure, exploration and foreign travel, which in turn led to an explosion in travel writing.

Over 160 years later, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards exist to celebrate this most exciting of genres and seek to celebrate the best travel writing, and travel writers, in the world.

…right? If you’ve read the novel you know it is not about providing that kind of excitement. (Let’s not even get into the colonialist trappings–it’s probably difficult to find a UK anything without them. The blood runs still.) Further reading lead one to recognise that Nicole Dennis-Benn’s book was shortlisted for “Fiction, with a Sense of Place” category, which made it all less bewildering.

Go buy it, it was so good. My review barely touched on what made it such a memorable and poignant read. For Jamaicans, current events make it a prescient one.

The other novel I finished was The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch. Lawd a mercy, nooooooo. It was a peculiar, unsatisfying, occasionally repulsive experience. It felt contradictory in spite of itself. Yuknavitch presented gender and even humanity as fluid, yet her takes on femininity and masculinity were at times binary, banal and pedestrian.

What must it be like to carry the burden of humanity–and its end–around in a woman’s body when a woman’s body was made to create life?

Wasn’t a man’s body made to “create life” too, Lidia? And Yuknavitch keeps dropping lines like this

…in her mind’s eye she can feel how near rage and love are in us all. We try to pretend they are opposites or at far poles from one another, but really they meet and bridge at the center of a face.

as if they are profound insights rather than conventionally expressed clichés. She repeated this thought a lot with the same earnestness. It was weird.

I can’t give it a proffer a review. It’s something of a Big Idea book and I have no intention of rereading it in order to give it just deserts. But it will get a separate post, partly because the only black person in the entire novel is a random soldier Joan wants to bone for about a second or so.

Ayuuuuuup.

I’ve started on my second novel for the Rebel Women Lit Challenge: Prudence by David Treuer; my pick for “a book written by an author who is indigenous, Native American, or First Nation”.

Here Comes The Sun review

Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shineth.

That line is a poetic explanation of the symbolic colours in the Jamaica national flag; black, green and gold. In 1996 (according to Wikipedia) the government changed the meaning for black; it now represents the citizenry’s strength and creativity. With “Here Comes the Sun” Nicole Dennis-Benn creates a tangible palimpsest of this “black” double-meaning. In the end, which narrative will emerge most visible beneath the white-hot sunlight?

The song “Here Comes the Sun”, written by George Harrison of Beatles fame, is an optimistic ditty that fits in with the commercial Sun, Sea, Sand image the Jamaican government officially flogs to tourists. Here is a welcoming warmth to melt cares away. Locals like the character Alphonso Wellington, of the landed gentry, work with or sidestep government, to create and enjoy this modern plantation paradise. They have villas perched to enjoy the seascape; elegant bamboo fans that whirl over artwork, not unlike the novel’s cover art, as they listen to jazz (perhaps Nina Simone’s “Here Comes The Sun” cover) and savour local sweets. And what of our strong, creative black people? (Rest assured, no major hotel owner in Jamaica, to this day, is black.)

Screenshot_20171211-160638

No modern plantation is complete without exploited labour. Our tourism model’s origins can be traced back to the Jamaica International Exhibition in 1891. Foreign owners, incentivised to import foreign goods and material, built massive estates on the advice of foreign consultants, with enthusiastic governmental support. It’s not that different now. Left out of the official narrative, except as grinning natives presenting our goods and ourselves on a platter for consumption, Dennis-Benn centres the hotel clerk’s, housekeepers, vendors, taxi drivers in this dark paradise. For them, the sun is a harbinger of suffering: from the daily punishing rays that draw sweat from every pore to a life-stealing drought that drives farmers to tears and drink.

Yet we still dream. The story starts at night with Margot, an ambitious, enterprising head hotel clerk who supplements her small salary with sex work. Hers is a service the hotel offers with the owner’s full knowledge–he coerced her into from his first day on the job.

At first she despised herself for letting him touch her. But then she despised herself for the pride that made her believe she had a choice.

Delores, her mother, is one of the architect’s of Margot’s self-loathing. A produce and craft vendor, she herself had a poor relationship with her mother Merle. In Delores’ flashbacks Merle is an angry, verbally and physically abusive figure. Delores continues the tradition: every encounter with Margot is marred by conflict, underpinned with dark secrets barely restrained. With their dreams for themselves either dead or mutated, they place all their idealistic hope in Thandie, Delores’ daughter and Margot’s half-sister. She’s a high school student with impressive artistic talent whose forceful spirit strains against the notion that there is only one successful path for a poor, black girl like her: a traditional education and a proper profession as a doctor.

Margot and Delores bank on Thandi as the one who will make it. Like the old mattress, Thandi is that source in which they plant their dreams and expectations.

As you read the novel that image will resonate and take on even worse implications than you may now imagine (trust me). What I love about Dennis-Benn’s novel is how she deftly delineates the horrific and dehumanising while making it personal. She brings a sense of clarity, urgency, and heart-wrenching emotional realism to the oft-repeated arguments worn out online, in the opinion pages, and summarised in year-end statistics.

And this is a book that will wring your heart out. Verdene, a returning resident from the UK, is Margot’s secret lover. Secret, as Verdene already deals with regular harassment for being a witch who will prey on the neighbours’ daughters. Secret, because Margot herself is conflicted about the relationship; one that is a saving grace for both of them in so many ways but which Margot can’t quite treat as real. Thandie finds succour in her childhood friend’s brother who everyone tells her to avoid. They may live in the same place but her elite high school places her a rung above a working teen out of school.

The myriad intersections at which status is calculated is as complex as any 19th century English novel. It may only take a single exam to launch one above or pitch them below. There are parts of one’s identity that may make one vulnerable and others that protect. And the conventional wisdom that hard work and ambition guarantee ascension, or at least stability, is crushed beneath a bulldozer.

Chicken merry, hawk de near and when him de near yuh must beware

In this illusory dreamland, these characters struggle to love, to flourish. In what ought to be abundance, they battle for the freedom to realise their own stories in a space that for some is too, too narrow.

Part way through my journey under the sun

IMG_20150412_125034_1I’ve completed 41% of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes The Sun. She takes the reader over treacherous terrain, exploring, discerning, lovingly dissecting Delores, Margot, Thandie, and Verdene, as they traverse Montego Bay, burning under the sun.

It’s a story about women in whom Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” manifests. So far. Cyaan see how it can go otherwise…at this point. Delores has no dreams for herself, has helped to kill Margot’s, and only has a stringent hope for Thandie. Margot’s dreams have mutated into the darkness she constantly fears will envelop Thandie. And she just made her best effort to kill Thandie’s. It’s a wretched cycle with no happy end in sight.

Mi still want the happy ending tho, God know. Nicole, do sup’m fi dem and mi nuh 😅😌?

Parts of this book evoke claustrophobic feelings. It’s like they’re living in the middle of an active volcano with the lava bubbling beneath and the sky visible but too far away. Maybe they are the lava. Maybe they’re the volcano.

I love Thandie most of all, partly because she is the one I can relate to the most. (Hi, ego.) Your heart can’t help but ache for this sweet, artistic, high school student, still so young, who has to reckon with a mother and sister whose love is hard, scaly, oppressive, barely likkle juice left in the heart. Not because dem wicked but because of what humans have done to humans in paradise, whether it’s emotional abuse at home or sexual abuse everywhere else.

I don’t want to do a review now but I already plan to gift this book when she visits in a few months. There are so many things Dennis-Benn gets right about Mobay, making connections to different occurrences that never occurred to me–Mobay, born and raised–that I wanna place this book in every politician hand.

Yuh nuh tink dem know already tho? 🤔

Next section is entitled “Chicken Merry Hawk Deh Near”. I hope di chicken is Alphonso, one of those tired white Jamaicans, because hawk reach di rest already! Nicole, think of my heart.

Rebel Woman Lit Challenge

This is the reading plan that should shock me back into…some kind renewal, reemergence, reconnection, re re re.

I selected the Light Reader’s Plan with a couple prompts substituted from the Avid Reader’s. RWL seems a little too US-centric sometimes (more in the social media presence than actual book selections). It was easy to drop the gentrification prompt for “a speculative fiction written by a Caribbean author”. I may still get The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang for my “chick-lit featuring persons of colour” but may swap it for ” a book that takes place in North-East Asia”. I have a lot of Japanese lit yet to be absorbed. I appreciate that the prompts have more global focus.

About half of my selections are books I started last year but never finished, or I intended to start but never turned a page. One of them I tried more than once. Only manga managed to retain my attention, besides one or two romance books. There’s nothing wrong with manga but it gets old.

RWL revealed its official selections up until May. Besides the Akwaeke Emezi title, I don’t imagine our lists will intersect at all. A few of mine were 2017 group selections.

Kiki’s Light Reader’s Plan

  1. A novel with an LGBTQIA+ main character – Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn
  2. A book by an Indigenous, Native American or First Nation writer – Prudence by David Treuer
  3. Speculative fiction by a Caribbean author – Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
  4. A book with a neurodiverse main character of colour – Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  5. A chick-lit featuring persons of colour – The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
  6. A memoir by a woman of colour – Hunger by Roxane Gay
  7. A debut novel by a person of colour – The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  8. A book with an elderly main character – Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
  9. A book inspired by traditional African beliefs – The Akata series by Nnedi Okorafor (or Zoo City by Lauren Beukes)
  10. A recent poetry collection by a woman of colour – A Merchant of Feathers by Tanya Shirley
  11. A book set in a Caribbean country – How to Escape from a Leper Colony and Other Stories by Tiphanie Yanique
  12. A book under 200 pages by a person of colour – The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

 

First blog post

My love for literature was a defining feature of my life. Yet for the past few years, it became more of a surface affectation. Why?

I felt myself regress. I imagine withered brain cells; stunted vocabulary; wholly regurgitated aphorisms; copycat insight.  Others take on life’s complexities as I retreat into a trite, hackneyed, comforting, utterly unsatisfying imagined life.

Halfway through 2017, I subscribed to the Rebel Women Literature newsletter. For half of last year, I lurked over all their doings, got some books, didn’t read a damn thing (except one or two Safiya Sinclair poems).

It’s the new year. The grandest pronouncement I can imagine for myself in this stasis is the RWL 2018 reading challenge. I used to read 50+ books a year. I’ll start with 12.

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