Caribbean bookshelf (January/February 2014)

This month’s reading picks

  • Wishing for Wings, by Debbie Jacob
  • A Cloud of Witnesses, by Ian McDonald
  • The Festival of Wild Orchid, by Ann-Margaret Lim
  • Kingston Noir, edited by Colin Channer
  • Bolo the Monkey, by Jonathan Burke, illustrated by Nicholas Martin

Wishing for Wings, by Debbie Jacob
(Ian Randle Publishers, 236 pp, ISBN 9789766378028)

The Youth Training Centre on Golden Grove Road in Arouca, Trinidad, houses boys in remand. It seems a forbidding place, a cautionary tale against the perils of juvenile criminal pitfalls. In 2010, writer, journalist, and librarian Debbie Jacob entered those grey, creaking gates for a purpose she had not imagined likely: to teach CXC English language to a group of convicted boys. Wishing for Wings chronicles the remarkable journey that Jacob and her YTC charges made together, including generous selections of the boys’ written essays, reviews, and personal letters.

Jacob conducts the narrative in honest, simple terms: a third of the way in, she frankly acknowledges, “No teaching can take place without trust, and that was a slippery slope that both my students and I had to climb. My students were very short in trust in general, and I suspected it was even more difficult for them to trust me because I was . . . a foreign, white woman with strange notions of teaching.” Eschewing “boring textbooks filled with irrelevant material,” Jacob proceeds to teach English language outfitted with life purpose, and the results range far beyond modest gains: her students gradually share not just their best work with their teacher, but their best selves.

These are the stories of imperfect, industrious young men, whose passion to learn and reverse their ill fortunes is so fiercely eager that it prompts both deep introspection and teary praise. Wishing for Wings is transformative reading: the work of life at its fullest, its most desperate and triumphant. Jacob’s students — Ashton, Miguel, Peter, Ralph, Shawn, Kheelon, Vaughn, Marc, Olton, Jahmai, and others — will be far more than a list of names once you’ve turned the final page. They will be affirmations, testaments, promises: they will be real to you, and unforgettable.

Shivanee Ramlochan,
Bookshelf editor

A Cloud of Witnesses
, by Ian McDonald (The Caribbean Press, 343 pp, ISBN 9781907493379)

Though Ian McDonald considers himself to have written “in the margins” of his life, those margins have accommodated the definitive idyllic Caribbean childhood novel (The Humming-Bird Tree), several poetry collections, a play, and the editing of literary journals and poetry anthologies. McDonald’s Sunday column in Guyana’s Stabroek News has, for the last quarter-century, represented newspaper writing at its finest, and A Cloud of Witnesses collects one hundred of his best, picked by McDonald himself. No matter the subject — his flooded office, poetry, atheism, the batting of Brian Lara or Rohan Khanhai — these are small essays you savour. If Caribbean Beat editor Nicholas Laughlin is correct that Caribbean newspaper columns might be “literature,” and Matthew Arnold is also right in suggesting “journalism is literature in a hurry,” then A Cloud of Witnesses stands as literature that is not at all in a hurry.

B.C. Pires

The Festival of Wild Orchid
, by Ann-Margaret Lim (Peepal Tree Press, 80 pp, ISBN 9781845232016)

Framed by a generous sense of poetic legacy, richly influenced by — but not derivatively siphoning from — the sensibilities of Derek Walcott and Sylvia Plath, Ann-Margaret Lim’s first collection explores ancestry, the feminine Self, and the legacies of history. These reflections are not immune to the persistent dread of the modern age. In “A Lesson for this Friday”, the poet laments, “knowing Walcott’s fear and near nausea, I sink to think that my daughter is belonging to this world.” Points of melancholy are touchingly counterpoised against frequent, blooming verses of revelation: “The Women in White” signals that the poem’s subjects “are no virgins, but women who know to wear their white in the dark heart of a Caribbean night.” Frequently foraying into the past while confidently scouring the future’s horizon for fresh purpose, Lim’s poems are well-outfitted for battle in fractious territories.


Kingston Noir
, edited by Colin Channer (Akashic Books, 288 pp, ISBN 9781617750748)

Drop your energetically touted “best of” Jamaica brochures and sink your teeth into noir that bites back: the eleven wicked, wild, and unrepentant stories in Kingston Noir feature the talents of eminent voices in Jamaican fiction. The endeavour is steered by Calabash International Literary Festival co-founder Colin Channer, whose contribution, “Monkey Man”, offers nary a sliver of redemptive light in its examination of a bound BBC documentarian and the complex personal psychology of her unlikely rescuer. And Kei Miller’s “The White Gyal with the Camera” engineers a sanguinely told anti-fable that pits an August Town community against a girl photographer who’s seemingly devoid of scruples. In Miller’s story, as with so many others in this collection, darkness is reshaped not as some distant bogeyman but as the monster on your doorstep, offering ruin with your reggae, revelations in your rum punch. The line-up of contributors also includes Marlon James, Patricia Powell, and Thomas Glave.


Bolo the Monkey
, by Jonathan Burke, illustrated by Nicholas Martin (Blue Moon Publishing, 20 pp, ISBN 789769543638)

Bolo, a clever forest-dwelling monkey possessed of a particular ingenuity, finds great opposition from within his community of fellow furry friends when he endeavours to grow sweet potatoes. Dissatisfied with the paw-to-mouth characteristics of a foraging lifestyle, intrepid Bolo persists, experimenting with distinct farming methods, encountering disappointments when his initial processes fail to yield produce — yet the monkey on a mission plows on. The bespectacled, quietly ambitious Bolo is a stalwart companion for young readers set on harvesting their own dreams. Burke’s gentle rhyming cadences of poetic prose are vividly accompanied by the illustrations of Nicholas Martin: the result is a lushly imagined forest, and a monkey-farmer with an irrepressible spirit certain to be appreciated by the adults reading this tale aloud to their little adventurers.


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