"And my mind was empty—or it was as though my mind had become one enormous, anesthetized wound."
"I was guilty and irritated and full of love and pain. I wanted to kick him and I wanted to take him in my arms."
"The end of innocence is always the end of guilt."
I finished Giovanni's Room a few days ago. This book has been on my shelf for years, but the title and description felt so elusive. The mystery didn't entice me. I was only afraid to read it. Having finished it now, I can see the way that this outward elusiveness defines the novel itself. This is the story of a closeted man who cannot come to terms with himself. And in the process of denying his sexuality, he denies everyone around him. Shrouded in deceit and betrayal, he has to constantly save face. At the heart of the novel is his secret romance with another man, Giovanni. The forced subtlety of their taboo romance is this story's key strength. Unable to flaunt their relationship in public, it can only be expressed in Giovanni's tiny, decaying bedroom on the outskirts of Paris. Baldwin writes within these tight physical and societal restraints. He relies wholly on subtle clues like glances, shifts in tone, and slight body language to convey their love. What results is a frenzied, high-stakes, super-magnified depiction of forbidden love. In so many works, lovers exist in a bubble, unconcerned with the outside world. In Giovanni's Room, the lovers are constantly aware of the homophobic, bigoted world because they have to be. Even within the rigid constraints he writes within in, Baldwin uses this opportunity to portray human relationships in a thoroughly insightful way - giving names to unspoken feelings and depicting things that often go unsaid. For this reason, I loved Giovanni's Room. I admired how Baldwin zoomed in so closely and astutely. It reminded me that big, sweeping narratives and gimmicks aren't what make books great, it's the storytelling and the craft. This is writing to aspire to!
Review by Leila Green
This is a really easy book to spoil, so I won't summarize much. If you want to read a summary, click here. What I will say is that I only wish I had read it sooner. Published way back in 1993, it's wild that most of Butler's speculations about America's future still seem incredibly possible. This book put into words a lot of the feelings I have about human nature, civilization, and the deeply disordered way that we live on this planet. Namely, seeing Lauren's home community insist that things would be fine and that the fires burning outside their gates would not touch them reminded me of how a lot of people prefer to stay tightly wrapped in cushions of delusion. We often have to choose between comfort and truth. I think truth will bring us closer to this earth, to each other, and to ourselves. I do not know what to say to those who do not want to "wake up" and at least just admit when things are not working. I think of things like global warming, the fact that we have to pay for food, and the fact that most of our basic needs have been monetized. In Parable of the Sower, inflation was a key theme; necessities like water were extremely rare and expensive. What else, in our future, will we have to pay for? Air? Love? As you can see, this book made me think. I am going to read the sequel, for sure. If you have not read this, please please do yourself a favor and pick it up. 5/5 stars ✨ ✨✨✨✨
"My son was only an agent, executing the long-simmering dark desires of his race. Burning hatred for the oppressor possessed his being...My son, the blind but sharpened arrow of the wrath of his race."
Review by Leila Green
In 1993, a white Fulbright scholar named Amy Biehl was murdered by a young man named Mxolisi in a South African township. Mother to Mother is a fictional re-imagination of this event; it's a hypothetical letter from Mxolisi's mother to Amy's mother. Mxolisi's mother aims to answer the key question: why was Amy killed? The reasons dig deep into history. This book is phenomenal. It is so touching, yet heartbreaking to see how an innocent boy can become corrupted by poverty, racism, and violence and inevitably fall victim to his circumstances. This quote is just a snippet of the mother's "explanation" for her son's action. This book is about reconciliation, compassion, and ultimately justice. 5/5 stars.
Review by Leila Green
I realize I'm about 17 years late with this one, but things can be appreciated in hindsight, too. In the beginning, I thought that was such a strange title for a book. Now that I've finally finished it—all 400+ pages of it—I see exactly why Zadie Smith titled it so. White teeth are things we aspire to and things we take for granted. They're a symbol for health, wealth, beauty. They are a clean slate with no stains; no iffy history. History: the thing the many characters in this multi-layered novel seem to grapple with so awkwardly. The history of family, of country, of self. I finished this book thinking about history and then thinking about fate. I questioned the ways I seem to cling to fate at convenient times. I thought about how it is, indeed, there. But it can also be turned on its head. This novel is one of my new all-time favorites. I don't say that lightly. I loved it and its messy yet endearing characters very, very dearly. It is now close to my heart. This is writing to aspire to. 5/5. ✨✨✨✨✨
Review by Leila Green
This novel about the strange, yet perfect marriage of a black American woman and a white British college professor in a liberal New England college town is gorgeously written. Smith weaves an expansive tale about the Belseys and their equally angsty children—who constantly try to figure out how to fit in on competing social and cultural spectrums. This novel is peppered with Smith's typical wit and elegant, wonderful prose. As much as I loved this novel and its endearing characters, I could not help but feel that something about it just felt...distant. This was clearly a book about ideas. And it seemed like the characters were mostly meant to be vessels for certain ideologies. I craved for them to stray from their assign roles, exist outside their ideological boxes and develop as robust, boundary-breaking individuals. Instead, they tended to stick to their scripts, which was frustrating because it hindered their development as not just characters, but as people. Other than the characterization flaw, I cackled countless times while reading and I deeply admired Smith's ability to weave an infinitely complex tapestry of a narrative. Despite feeling the characters were detached, I grew to love the Belsey family—and to hate their adherence to things for the sake of it. I enjoyed the novel's many references to art, and the exploration of the irony of "benevolent" liberal institutions. I just wish we could have seen the outcomes of these lovely, yet unfortunately slightly typecast characters. Nonetheless, I do recommend giving On Beauty a read. I give it 3.7/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Review by Leila Green
It is impossible to talk at length about this book without spoiling the ending, which I really do not want to do. This is a solid and spirited debut novel about a Cameroonian couple's efforts to make their "American Dream" come true in Recession-era New York City. They move to the city with stars in their eyes, but must soon confront the harsh realities of adjusting to American culture and price-tags. It is not long before they learn that the Dream is not necessarily a nightmare, but something more akin to, well, being awake.
Stylistically, I found the pacing to be quite slow. I skimmed through many sections that were stuffed with unnecessary details or needlessly flushed out conversations. But although slow, the story was a treat to follow. I enjoyed how Mbue cleverly wove the two families together. But I did not enjoy how much focus was put on making the white Edwards family seem more "human." I also did not enjoy how uncritically Neni's love for serving and appeasing whites was written. This book had its moments, but it was mostly very realistic, which I appreciated. What I liked most was the glimpse it gave to the harsh realities of working class immigrant life in NYC.
Overall, I'd recommend reading this book not just in the context of "immigration" but also in the context of dreaming. It made me wonder how to discern between a legitimate dream and a fleeting goal. It made me consider my own dreams, and if they're just image-based fantasies or real, attainable visions. Lastly, I connected with this book on a personal level because I have just experienced something very similar to the Jonga family: I had to reexamine a dream of mine. I thought it was what I really wanted, but it turns out I was mostly just attracted to the idea of it. I was clinging so tightly to this idea of what I thought I wanted—what I thought would be best for me—that I had convinced myself that it was the only way I could be successful in life. Reading Behold the Dreamers made me see that sometimes abandoning a "dream" invites the possibility for other realities—things more life-giving and true to who we are. 3/5 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Review by Leila Green
The Gurugu Pledge explores the ongoing migrant crisis that has desperate African men and women risking their lives to try to gain asylum in Europe. This urgent, tense story is set on a mountain that overlooks Spain. The migrants, all from various African countries, try to make a living and pass the time as they await uncertain futures. Will they get into Spain? How much longer can they stay on the mountain? Who will take advantage of their vulnerable status? This book was an eye-opening testament to the ways these people are failed by governments and history.
Review by Leila Green
This chilling memoir about the impact of trauma on the body was incredibly personal and revealing. At times I felt I was intruding. I'd recommend this one. If not just to learn more about writer Roxane Gay's incredible life, then to learn how to better understand the ways that trauma can shape people. While luminous and awe-inspiring, some moments in this memoir felt repetitive. 4/5 stars.
Review by Leila Green
A Kind of Freedom tells the story of a black family in New Orleans and their tragic generational legacy. The young and naive protagonist, Evelyn, chooses to marry a controversial man in the 1940s. The aftermath of this choice trickles down to her daughter's life and then to her grandchildren's lives, showing how self-interested desires can haunt for generations. Kirkus Reviews called this book "A multigenerational exploration of systemic racism in America." But to me this book is more about how the choice to love someone has lasting repercussions. I really liked this book a lot. It is subtle and succinctly written. Sexton handles sweeping ideas in personal, intimate narratives. The story was robust and heartbreaking—it all felt too real. I give this one 4.5/5. I think it left some information out and ended kind of abruptly—even though the ending was perfect. Read this book!
"The necessity of rendering the slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one's self as normal."
I finished this gem about "othering" in literature in two sittings. Morrison draws from U.S. slave narratives, antebellum literature, African literature and her own works to discuss how racial othering dominates the white literary imagination—and makes for very lazy narrative devices. Color, race, and "foreignness," for Morrison, are built-in plot anchors that reinforce cultural perceptions of blackness, and keep black people in their "place" in the white imagination. I especially loved Morrison's discussion of Camara Laye's The Radiance of the King, a 1954 novel that subverts literary tropes of Africa. I've never heard of Laye's novel before, but I really want to give it a read. The Origin of Others is a slim, focused book that deftly handles a wide scope of literary topics. It's a treat to read. 5 stars.
Review by Leila Green
Review by Leila Green
I finished We Were Eight Years in Power a few days ago. It took me nearly two weeks to read. This is essentially a round-up of all the essays Coates has previously published in The Atlantic. I admit I was slightly disappointed about this, because I was expecting new essays. Of these eight essays, I had already previously read five of them online. However, Coates did write an introduction for each essay. These were like diary entries; meditations on who he was and how he wrote the essay. These new personal essays were insightful. As a collection, all of these essays flowed effortlessly together. They complimented each other extraordinarily well and made the book itself feel like a solid argument. Reading these essays in conjunction with one another really allowed for a deeper mode of understanding. My favorite essay was and still is "The Case for Reparations." This essay, to me, puts Coates' value as a writer on full display. His dedication to research, to history, to hard facts and undeniable truths makes vague arguments into solid possibilities. My other two favorites were "My President Was Black" and "Fear of A Black President." My only critique of this collection is that it sometimes seemed that Coates could be inhibited by his own, rigid perspective. His critiques of Obama, in particular, seem to be rooted in a constricting understanding of the multitudes of blackness. I think for Coates "black" is synonymous with "struggle." It is surely a synonym, but I don't believe it's the only one. Anyway, this book was a delight, a massive achievement. A gift to your shelves. 5/5 stars 💫💫💫💫💫
Review by Leila Green
I finished Stay With Me a few days ago. This novel is basically a picture of a marriage in crisis: the wife can't have children, and the husband and his family constantly pressure her to conceive. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Adebayo weaves a complicated tale full of twists and turns, identifying and critiquing cultural marriage practices and notions of masculinity. It hurt to read a woman try over and over again to be a "good wife." It was torture to see how a character could be boxed in by so many restrictions and taboos. This novel was solid and tightly woven. But at times the melodrama was a tad too much, and the pacing was often uneven. Nonetheless, this novel made me think. Mostly about how I never want to get married. I'm giving it 4.3/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️. Cannot wait to read more from Adebayo. She's a truly gifted storyteller.
Reviewed by Leila Green
Sing, Unburied, Sing is essentially a story about a parallel journey: one takes place in the present, one takes place in the past. In the present, a drug-addicted mother named Leonie takes her children, three year old Kayla and 13 year old Jojo, on a long car ride up to Parchman—a viscous Mississippi prison—to pick up her just-released boyfriend. Leonie abuses her children, and she also has a complicated relationship with her parents. Her father is also tormented by Parchman, and her mother is dying. Throughout the car ride and the story, the past bleeds into the present. The ghosts of Parchman haunt Jojo and his grandfather. And a ghost from Leonie's past haunts her, too.
This story wonders what happens when the dead don't reconcile with earthly wounds. It also wonders what happens when we don't reconcile with the dead. What Ward argues is that these time-separated journeys aren't distinct from each other; they are happening at the same time. Her writing style is incredibly lyrical and vivid. Her writing adds living texture to the story. Ward summons the spiritual world, fashioning ghosts as natural consequences of history. I loved this book. I mostly loved Ward's portrayal of boyhood. Jojo clung so awkwardly and tenderly to his youth. He was a sentimental, emotional boy. It reminded me of how men should be allowed to stay that way. I loved how the book was a compact, perfectly weaved tale. I loved the way she made the past indistinct from the present. And I love how she payed homage to all the Black people who've been murdered in this country. All those lynched, beat, maimed. Millions. We can't forget them, their blood or their songs.
If you combined Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Walker's The Color Purple, and added a sprinkle of Toni Morrison's Beloved, you would have this book. It was really a magical, awe-inspiring, and soul-quenching read. 5/5 stars. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Tormented by past sin, an HIV-positive man in South Africa must choose drugs or redemption.
Review By Leila Green
61 pages, Two Dollar Radio
“Telling too much about yourself can leave you feeling broken into, as if your head were a conquered city offered to the circle for pillaging”
In 2004, the South African government declared lifesaving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) free for all its HIV-infected citizens. Prior to this, many HIV-positive people subsisted in the shadows, scavenging for expensive treatments. The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, is set in this period. It focuses on Nathi, a delirious HIV-positive young man who struggles to reconcile with his past. Guilt overwhelms Nathi; literally and figuratively infecting his body and his choices. He narrates the story and spends most days in this early 2000s Cape Town getting high and he earns a living by selling excess ARVs on the blackmarket.
For Nathi, HIV is like a death sentence that seems more than welcomed. He drops out of school, quits his job, and becomes an avid drug user. He spends his days shuffling around the city with his equally lost friends in a daze; huffing glue and scrounging coins. Nathi doesn’t seem to care about his fate. At first, it seems his HIV diagnosis is the cause for his self-destructive ways. But harsh, conjured memories trace the origin of his ways to a single, unforgivable deed.
In The Reactive, guilt is the gravitational force that pulls everything down into ruin. In Nathi’s world of shame, he deems his body so worthless that he poisons it; ingesting and sniffing toxic chemicals. Nathi’s relentless quest to punish himself contradicts his line of “work”—selling lifesaving drugs. While others resist HIV’s probable death sentence, Nathi seems to embrace it. But even after Nathi resigns to fate, a strange series of events forces him to make a choice: be prisoner to his past or work toward forgiveness.
Ntshanga's frenetic, often unfocused story is colored by its narrator Nathi's drug-induced tendency to zoom in on strange details. Nathi lingers on certain moments or images just long enough to make them distorted. In this way, we see the world through his lens: twisted. From Nathi’s viewpoint, a standing, swaying man is like “a supporting character excerpted from a malfunctioning video game, now stranded in a different reality.” A dull sky looks like “the screen of a malfunctioning cell phone.” And an overcast sun spills out light that is “as gray as bath water." Jumps between thoughts and events aren't always logical, but Ntshanga handles the first person present narrative incredibly well. These little, woozy touches make The Reactive shimmer in refreshing light. Disturbing and visceral—yet tender and political—The Reactive achieves two impressive feats: it tells the heartbreaking story of a single man’s redemption and it draws from the palette of a fractured “rainbow nation” to paint an essential portrait of pre-ARV South Africa.
The Secret of the Purple Lake
Review by Leila Green
Release Date: October 6th, 2017
An illustrated and interlinked collection of five globe-hopping stories that follow bold creatures from Ghana to Thailand.
132 pages, Cassava Republic Press
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to tamper with your destiny?”
In this enchanting collection of fables, Ghanaian filmmaker Yaba Badoe crafts a fabulous, eccentric world in which the sea is a hippopotamus and “rainbows drip honey.” The five tales are linked together; beginning in a Ghanaian fishing village and ending in ancient Thailand. Water is the force that Badoe uses to link these unlikely places together. Her characters use the ocean to traverse the planet and encounter mystical beings like fish-men, dancing octopuses, singing walruses, and mutated snakes. Badoe brings the animal kingdom to dazzling life; these stories practically dance with their assortments of colors, birdsongs, animal cries, fish, flowers, tastes, and scents. What results is a charming, whimsical collection that blurs the lines between the human, animal, and spiritual realms.
Review by Leila Green
Release Date: July 18th, 2017
A potent debut poetry collection from the 2016 winner of The Academy of American Poets's "Most Promising Young Poet Award" that excavates the many facets of grief, longing, and belonging.
"there are many ways to pull a weed
but only one will keep the garden
clean come the end of summer"
— "The Orphan Performs an Autopsy on the Garden"
Towards the end of Donte Collins’s debut poetry collection, autopsy, he offers a keen explanation for his approach to the project: "i mourn in metaphor." This mode of mourning anchors this powerful collection, which was written after the death of Collins’s mother. Beyond mourning, autopsy explores the very act of grief; depicting it as an undertaking of strenuous, body-breaking labor. Collins manages to spin this horrid labor into splendid metaphor, imagining and reimagining the grieving process in striking, totally inventive lines. For Collins, grief is “a paper cut at every bend in your body.” Grief is a separate, insidious entity; a thing that “shaves each bone down to a shriveled white flag.”
Collins’s picture of grief courageously includes the shame often left out of eulogies. He writes of forgiveness, (which is "a fertile thing—is what makes tomorrow grow") and interrogates absence in a candid, unflinching way. In “Five Stages of Grief,” he wonders what it means to confront tainted longing: “come back. even if it means your hug is a hand around my throat / even if your kiss is delivered with a fist." Collins’s version of an autopsy is honest; it reconciles the angelic, acceptable renderings of the dead with the sometimes harsh, yet honest memories we can’t seem to shake. This poem, in particular, invites a uniquely nuanced understanding of loss, resentment, and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Aside from astonishing meditations on death, family bonds, adoption, and whiteness, Collins, a 21-year-old queer black man, offers these gems:
"they'll build the closet for you
& spend the rest of their lives begging you to come out"
“to be queer & black is to walk out of the closet
into a casket.”
These lines, in particular share the similar, biting poignancy found in the work of Danez Smith and L. Lamar Wilson.
Standouts in this collection include the self-assured “New Country (after Safia Elhillo),” the wistful and stylistically epic “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Thirteen (after Patricia Smith),” the surprisingly haunting “Don’t Tell Your Uber Driver You’re Going to an Orgy,” and the goosebump-inducing “What the Dead Know By Heart,” the masterpiece that won Collins the Academy of American Poets’s “Most Promising Young Poet Award” in 2016.
Review by Leila Green
Release Date: June 13th, 2017
Armed with a camera, a pen, and the rare ability to see the unseen, Teju Cole points his looking glass around the world, resulting in a stunning, genre-defying blend of images, observations and revelations.
352 pages, Random House, $40
"What is seen is greater than what the camera can capture of it."
In 2011, Teju Cole went blind. As he would soon find out, this blindness was temporary: the result of papillophlebitis, a retinal vein occlusion. After a corrective surgery, Cole, photography critic for the New York Times Magazine and author of the 2011 novel, Open City, and the 2016 essay collection, Known and Strange Things, said: “The photography changed after that. The looking changed.”
Blind Spot is, at its core, a genre-bending collection of images juxtaposed with text. The texts—illustrious captions—tend to be poetically brief and to generally unearth something unseen in the image. However, this is no hidden object puzzle; Cole is not telling us what to uncover. Leaning away from instruction, he invites us into his own, fascinating way of seeing and interrogating the world. Part travelogue, part theoretical text, part historical excavation, part memoir, part poetry, Blind Spot follows a deeply visual trio of releases concerned with sight. In Open City, the main character, Julius, roams New York City and comments gratuitously on what he sees. In Known and Strange Things, curiosity leads Cole around the globe to pen essays on the peculiar, the political, the seen, and the inevitably unseen. Blind Spot contains both the same kinds of revelations about the seemingly mundane that punctuated Open City and the boundless inquisitiveness found in Known and Strange Things. In Blind Spot, Cole, an avid traveler, criss-crosses the planet, making crisp, intricate photographs in locations both often seen and rarely noticed.
Cole’s preoccupation with the unseen drives him to a startling array of places. Some, like Brooklyn and Berlin, are well-known. Others, like McMinnville, Wannsee and Brienzersee warrant pinpointing on the book’s accompanying world map. Cities, in particular, invite a certain visual aloofness; an inability to engage intimately with images and others thanks to overstimulation. The conundrum of the city still entices Cole, who is fascinated by its endless intersections of life, space, and memory: “In the city, there is no shortage of stories, no scarcity of divulged secrets, only (it sometimes seems) a dearth of ears.” Aside from cityscapes, in Blind Spot Cole often points his flawless lens towards the periphery—the deliberately unseen—exposing ironies and meditating upon topics as varied as giraffes, longing, rage and dining.
Blind Spot redefines travel photography, which tends to be concerned with capturing touristy landmarks, “exotic” peoples, and arresting landscapes. Shunning typical, obviously poignant photos of people or landmarks, Cole instead highlights ambiguous landscapes and peculiar structures; things you see everyday, but rarely notice. Committed to his unearthing of the earth, Cole opts to illuminate global “blind spots”—concentrating on detail, singularity, form, and memory. He photographs the quotidian: the pile of rubble, the obscured tip of a mountain, the ironic sign. These images, in their presumed plainness, do more work to connect us than a photo of the Statue of Liberty. They invite an ambiguity that suggests universality. There is no Arc de Triomphe in Selma, but like every place, there is wind, stone, and history. Cole has compiled a catalogue that evidences a startling sameness, splayed across borders, that undoes expectations of what we should see and know about ourselves, others, and the world.
Cole has a keen ability to distill meaning and conjure memory from images that are, at first sight, meaningless. His way of seeing fills in our own blindness. A vacant, graffitied road in Rome prompts a reflection on the intimacy of translation. A hodgepodge of light and darkness in Milan becomes a symbol for the trauma embedded in cities. A shadow of a ladder inevitably signals a pathway to heaven. A mangled bush of flowers rekindles the memory of an awkward bike collision. A photo of a drowned ship turns into a deeply felt cataloging of things left behind by the dead. These photos evoke physical and emotional memory for Cole, who traverses complex intellectual labyrinths and emerges with impressive philosophical quips. Often, these lines are so devastating that one can only close the book and set it down for a moment; let the blind spot bloom with gratuitous knowing.
This is a pseudo-theoretical text. Most notably, it requires a more complex understanding of literal darkness. Seeing into shadows, Cole breathes light into darkness, for “darkness is not empty, it is information at rest.” There are more stunning revelations about perception—“It is not only the leaves that grow. Shadows grow also.”—and the spectrum of light: “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.”
Despite the slightly dizzying array of topics, ideas and visual information contained by Blind Spot, there is a singular vein pulsing throughout; a sense of commonality, eternity, and—accordingly—hope. Blind Spot is a reckoning with presence and absence; a sturdy bridge between known and unknown, a fierce manifesto for a revolutionary way of encountering the world.
Preoccupied with the synthesis of meaning from form, and the serendipitous resemblances between supposedly dissimilar things, Cole stands poised and alert with his lens, finely tuned to the echoes in an empty valley, gleaning insight from the shadows. Cole claims that “resurrection is far too close to death.” But this proximity, as with most of his revelations, is no accident. At one point, he compares the reflection of a tree branch into a murky puddle to his own retina. This is either an allusion to his past ocular trauma, or a comment on the disorderly origins of sight. From hectically assorted nerves and veins emerge surprising visual sense: a sky, a field, a smiling face. Out of chaos comes sight, comes understanding, comes meaning and memory. How can we trust this chaos? In what tangled vein lies truth? Vision begins and ends with us—or does it? As Cole puts it: “The soul cries wolf often, or has wolf cried it.”
Trinidad Noir: The Classics
Edited by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni
Classic and contemporary authors from the Trinidadian canon offer haunting stories rooted in mythology, community, and tradition.
248 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96
"One of the ways in which our literature has sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” — Earl Lovelace
Between 1942 and 1977, a whopping 52 African nations gained independence from Europe. However, unlike the African decolonization boom, Caribbean decolonization was much more temporally scattered. Haiti gained independence from France in 1804. Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902. There was a only slight surge between 1962 and 1981, when 11 Caribbean nations became independent.
Decolonization’s jarringly negative impact permeated the African literary imagination. Renowned works by Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and even the contemporary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explore themes either stemming from or directly related to colonialism. Considering the impact that the colonial moment has had on African literature, it would only make sense for the experience of being colonized to also impact the texts that emerge from formerly colonized nations like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominica and, of course, Trinidad and Tobago.
Aside from sparking an entirely new literary genre—the “postcolonial novel”—colonization in Africa and especially in the Caribbean forged particularly hybridized societies. Like many other Caribbean nations, Trinidad and Tobago experienced a cultural hybridity—the exchange of language and customs—and a literal hybridity; the result of relations between European colonial powers, indigenous peoples, Africans, Chinese, Syrians and a large number of Indians who primarily came as indentured servants. This creolization rooted in colonialism is still firmly planted in Trinidad’s memory. It is also still brightly reflected in its modern society; independence was only gained from Britain in 1962. Today, Indians make up the largest group of Trinidadians, with blacks and whites trailing closely behind. This assortment of colonial history, languages, cultures and customs has shaped modern Trinidadian society and—as evidenced by Trinidad Noir: The Classics—greatly informed its literature.
Trinidad Noir: The Classics is an expansive retrospect of some of the best literature to emerge from Trinidad in the last century. With a major focus on place and Trinidad's colonial history, renowned writers like Derek Walcott, Sharon Millar and V.S. Naipaul cast a bright light upon Trinidad's complex cultures, values and vernaculars. Greatly informed by the colonial moment, its 19 stories begin in 1927 and end in 2015. It features an assortment of writers either directly from Trinidad or with deep ties to the country who offer quirky and mysterious tales of family and community. In order to emphasize colonialism’s prominence within Trinidad’s literary imagination, Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni, the editors, separate the collection into four useful chronological sections: Leaving Colonialism, Facing Independence, Looking In and Losing Control.
Standout stories include Earl Lovelace’s “Joebell and America” (1988) a lively and affectionate take on one man’s less-than-realistic goal of moving to America. V.S. Naipaul’s “Man-Man” is an eccentric character study from 1959 that echoes Robert Antoni’s introductory claim that Trinidadian literature has “sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” In fact, many of Trinidad Noir’s stories reflect a deep societal furrow between rich and poor and between city and rural. There is a clear division between the haves and the have nots, further evoking the nation’s recovery from and canon’s ties to colonialism’s devastating racial and class-based oppression. Sharon Millar’s “The Dragonfly’s Tale” (2013) is a sweeping contemporary narrative on violence and corruption that illuminates the more hidden, less colorful aspects of Trinidad’s vibrantly exported culture. In a way, Millar’s story, as well as Shani Mootoo’s haunting “The Bonnaire Silk Cotton Tree” (2015) exist in direct opposition to the jovial ding of Trinidad’s famed steel drums, embodying the collection’s eponymous “Noir.” Other highlights include Robert Antoni’s hilariously zany and vulgar “Hindsight” (1992) and Derek Walcott’s poetic masterpiece, “The Schooner Flight” (1979).
One of this collection’s many highlights is the use of the local vernacular, known officially as Trinidadian English or Trinidadian Creole. This natural use of language helps transport us right to the island, into people’s homes and lives.
With the assemblage of these stories on a timeline from pre to post colonial, Lovelace and Antoni have crafted a meaningful portrait of colonialism’s impact on the nation’s literature. From beginning to end, a palpable thread of division can be traced and seems to grow more urgent and profound; the final story features a young woman obsessed with fame and social ascension. Perhaps most importantly, this collection lays a solid foundation that establishes a glimmering hope for Trinidad’s literary future. With all its stunning history, variation, syncreticity and vibrant focus on humanity, Trinidad Noir: The Classics makes it clear that Trinidadian literature must be more globally examined and elevated.
Trinidad Noir: The Classics is part of Akashic Books' popular Noir Series. This series features anthologies set in distinct places. Previously released titles include Barcelona Noir, Addis Ababa Noir and Rio Noir.
Written by Donika Kelly
Winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and long listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, poet-scholar Donika Kelly’s debut collection binds the human and animal worlds inextricably together.
70 pages, Graywolf Press, $16.00
“A golden light hails me, pulls me like a worm from the earth.”
Covering Donika Kelly’s debut poetry collection, Bestiary, is the mid-13th century artwork of an unknown painter titled: Adam Naming the Animals. In this painting, a chaotic assortment of watercolored animals inhabit the same, barren space. A leaping horse collides with a fox. A monkey squats atop a snail. A flamingo looks to be waltzing on top of an owl with its claws around a shriveled rat. This hodgepodge of animals reflects the same vivid assortment of animal life clawing its way out of Bestiary’s pages.
In Bestiary, Kelly—a current Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure University—summons the wilderness of self. Both in her own reflection and in the rendering of other bodies and functions, she writes poems that unite the unmistakably similar human world and animal kingdom. Kelly's exquisite rendering of each realm makes them seem totally indistinguishable from one another. Her father is “a tree in bloom.” In “Bower,” she compares herself to a hen. Her first cry? “A beating of wings.” She thinks herself “lion and serpent,” demonstrating how supposedly "savage" tendencies can inhabit, question and even corrupt our own “civility.” Bestiary is basically a literary zoo. Animals from each corner of the kingdom make appearances. Kelly summons imaginary animals too, like a minotaur and a centaur. But perhaps the most powerful poem is the brave, multi-paged “How to be alone”— an off-kilter kind of requiem for her dogs, her parents and, simply put, death.
Kelly’s animal-centric poetry contains a rawness that can be described as feral. Yet, her terse lines and sense of restraint contradict this rawness, forging a literal tension that mirrors that of the separate, yet highly fluid human and animal realms. Despite the frantic desire to be civilized, the threat of savagery looms directly under the skin of each poem, wherein lies, “The iron smell of blood,/ the sweet marrow, fields of grass and bone.” Bestiary sits at the intersection of our civility and our primal instincts; at the strange junction of forgiveness and rage. It humbly and beautifully reminds us that we are the ones that inhabit the animal kingdom—and vice versa.