Caribbean Beat Magazine

Bookshelf (Jul/Aug 2020) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging; One Year of Ugly; Fatboy Fall Down; Frying Plantain; and Crossfire: A Litany for Survival

  • Shame on me
  • One Year of Ugly
  • Fatboy Fall Down
  • Frying Plantain
  • Crossfire
  • Photograph courtesy the Barbados National Cultural Foundation

Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging

by Tessa McWatt (Scribe, 272 pp, ISBN 9781925849011)

“I am not your yellow lotus, your angry black woman, your Pocahontas.”

Multifarious are the demands placed on the female self, and fissures crack even these exhortations when the body under scrutiny comes from not one source, but many. Novelist Tessa McWatt — born in Guyana, raised in Canada, living in Britain — excavates the disturbing ore, the precious matter emerging from this fractalling plain of identity, and frames her findings in a bold, honest memoir. This is hard work, to be clear. To examine the influences of race (and racism), class (and classism), xenophobia, and desire on the human soul, McWatt points the interviewer’s tape towards her own mouth, her own cache of family, her secrets. Her narrative, which mirrors the form of an anatomical experiment, begins by invoking her ancestors: Chinese grandmother; Indian, Arawak, Portuguese, French foremothers; African great-great-grandmother; Scottish great-great-great grandmother. Their presence matters, in this journey of research, inquiry, sociology, and historical analysis embarked upon by the memoirist. Their stories, which we receive in factual detail and in fragmentary speculation, lend the book something both reassuring and richly symbolic: if not its spine, then some of its courage.

McWatt channels these women’s genealogies and battles, but puts herself — her childhood, her comings-of-age, her romantic, professional, and reading lives — into the vortex of deconstruction, of discovery. The revelations aren’t always beautiful: at thirteen, in Alberta, the author flinches after being unwantedly prodded by a local boy observing her, a boy who proceeds to call her “dirty squaw,” mistaking her for a First Nations girl. When is a woman not “dirty,” asks Shame on Me: when can a woman reclaim herself from the past’s hatred, the present’s complicity? Now, this memoir responds. Now is the time to do all we can, unashamed.

One Year of Ugly

by Caroline Mackenzie (The Borough Press, 378 pp, ISBN 9780008347079)

Armed with a silver tongue and literary ambitions, Yola Palacios knows la vida no es un carnaval: her family fled Venezuela for a better life in Trinidad, a chaotic, cosmopolitan island where crime and beauty collide. Now that the sins of her dead, dearly beloved Aunt Celia have come to haunt the entire Palacios clan, can Yola keep her head held high amid the triple threat of drugs, displacement, and human trafficking? Or will the needs of her heart knock that bacchanal for six? Mackenzie’s debut novel is an assured thoroughbred in plotting, pacing, and hilarity, made for overnight gobbling with a bottle of tequila or a tray of steaming hallacas at your side. You’ll laugh, you’ll grimace, and then you’ll laugh some more — and this is just what Mackenzie intends: for you to grin, thoughtfully.

Fatboy Fall Down

by Rabindranath Maharaj (ECW Press, 272 pp, ISBN 9781770414525)

Orbits, with all the poetic unkindness of which Trinidadian vernacular is possible, might be described as a cunumunu: blighted, ridiculed, frequently the oversized butt of the joke in any given room. Life has dealt him a hanged jack of a hand. How does this man carry the attention of an entire novel? In gently interrogative prose, Maharaj centres Orbits in our affections by showing how solidly he clings to the fringes of his life. It’s a slanted way to guide a novel, requiring no small skill to expose just that — the smallness, the unremarkable minutiae that make up an existence, and how this, if well-examined, is its own wonder, too. After receiving some nasty news, Orbits trains his gaze skyward to the jigsaw puzzle of the clouds. So too does Fatboy Fall Down look up, equanimous despite all adversity.

Frying Plantain

by Zalika Reid-Benta (House of Anansi, 272 pp, ISBN 9781487005344)

Kara Davis, the central character in the sequential, linked short stories of Frying Plantain, carries more than her own dreams within her. Generations of Jamaican women perch on her Torontonian shoulders: her devout Nana, who transmits love through overstuffed margarine containers of leftovers; her stern mother Eloise, full of sharp ambition she presses into Kara’s hair, manners, clothes, university applications. As Kara navigates the familiar shops, schools, and secret hideaways of her Eglinton Avenue world, life comes at her quick: whether she’s fibbing about a severed pig’s head she allegedly decapitated herself, listening to her estranged grandparents squabble in colourful invective, or reminiscing on her first kiss while poised on the threshold of a sexual milestone. In between the sounds of 90s dancehall, kissing teeth, and everyday gossip, Reid-Benta writes Kara, girl-child to young woman, with intense depth.

Crossfire: A Litany for Survival

by Staceyann Chin (Haymarket Books, 216 pp, ISBN 9781642590258)

Jacqueline Woodson keeps her foreword to Crossfire brief, not so much rolling out the red carpet for Staceyann Chin’s poems as throwing down the gauntlet. Be aware of this, Woodson warns: this is a world about which you know everything and nothing. She’s right: Chin’s long-awaited debut collection is a treasury of loving, mothering, globe-traversing, home fleeing-and-finding, sexing, resisting, and creating. The poet’s politics are achingly, insistently intersectional — and have been long before that word became hashtag-worthy fodder. She brings them to bear in these poems that span 1998 to 2019, letting us into a world of childhood abuse, of societal scorn, of the bloodied and wrung-out wars of antagonism and attrition fought against the black queer immigrant female body. When you walk into the world having read this work, even your stride will be better-purposed.

Bookshelf Q&A

Each year, Barbados’s National Independence Festival of Creative Arts — NIFCA — runs a literary arts competition seeking out talented new writers, with winning entries published in a series of biennial anthologies. Ayesha Gibson-Gill, cultural officer at the National Cultural Foundation of Barbados, talks to Shivanee Ramlochan about the most recent in the series, The ArtsEtc NIFCA Winning Words Anthology: 2017/18 (ISBN 9789768265722).

This anthology convincingly balances styles, themes, genres: what challenges did you surmount in assembling these tales?

Some writers are reluctant to participate [in the competition], thinking that to be awarded they must write a postcolonial tale of island life — preferably a nostalgic one. When they do engage, they realise that all we’re looking for is good writing.

The other practical challenge is seeing how everything fits together. We’ve been fortunate that the shapes of the anthologies have suggested themselves based on content, recurring themes, and pressing socio-cultural concerns — not to mention literary ones. The evolving contemporary Bajan aesthetic has been influenced by everything from Kamau Brathwaite to indigenous folklore to comics.

How do the voices in this collection speak to each other?

When putting together readings from the yearly competition, I group work into themes and then have fun putting together the kaleidoscope of perspectives.

For example, love is a universal and regular theme. A poem by the name of “Love” is a pulse-racing description of falling in, out, and back into love written by fifteen-year-old Abayomi Marshall. The poem can be seen as the contextual bracketing of the short story “This Could Be It”, by multi-award-winning writer and filmmaker Shakirah Bourne, which deftly explores the effect of money and material aspirations on romantic relationships. 

Which Barbadian narratives do you feel are the least told today?

Investigations from and intimate engagements with the points of view of minorities — the obvious ones, like those of religious and ethnic groups along with the neuro-atypical, those who don’t conform to gender and other social “norms,” the “outliers in thought” who blend in in most other ways — those may be the stories that are being written but perhaps not as seen or heard. We remain open to them.

Robert Sandiford and Linda M. Deane, the sponsoring publishers from Arts Etc Barbados, contributed to the answers