I will get to the thesis of this post in a bit but first, what have I been reading? This will be linked up with The Caffeinated Reviewer’s Sunday Post, after all. You know the drill. I’ll also be sharing to The Sunday Salon for the first time in forever.
This section will be short as neither my lack of reading nor lack of writing fever have broken…with the exception of my CREATIVE SPACE column which this week features a conceptual artist you don’t have to be local to appreciate.
I finished listening to the abridged audio book version of the Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other by British author Bernadine Evaristo and posted my thoughts (I did go back and add this to last week’s post as I finished it on Sunday after posting). It’s one of those books that’s worked its way in to my conversations because it’s one of those books.
I also watched a stage adaptation of the Caribbean modern literary classic and Orange Prize winner about the WWII and post-War period Small Island, set in Jamaica and the UK, written by Andrea Levy, who died in 2019. This book has been on my TBR for a while, long enough for it to have been adapted for TV/film and the stage – the latter having become freely available during the COVID-19 era. I will still read the book; I should have already. But the story as presented on stage is a revelation about the treatment of Black Caribbean soldiers during WWII – as with the Vietnam War and Black American GIs in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods recently reviewed on this site, I’m glad it’s being told in the mainstream (we’ve always known though perhaps not like this); and about the Windrush Generation (literally people from the British West Indies travelling on the ship ‘Windrush’) which went over to rebuild England post-war and build a new life for themselves and the racism that greeted them there; about culture clashes and the white woman (well meaning though she doesn’t always get it right) who took them in to her home – her life and dreams and one great love and sacrifice; about classism and colourism, and overt and polite racism. Frustration is a feeling you’ll have often as you watch (or read) this but you’ll also laugh and hope and dream with and for the characters – all very imperfect and sometimes unkind and oblivious in their own ways. And as they delight and frustrate, their narratives speak to our intertwined history. Heavy as I make it sound, it’s a delight.
“Mrs Queenie Bligh works out what’s for dinner during conjugal relations with her husband but this woman, this woman pants and thrusts and bites and yelps; this woman is far far gone.”
Watch it here.
People looking for books to better understand why #BlackLivesMatter has become a primal scream, so loud and so necessary in this moment, American and yet global, is a thing. So much of a thing, it’s landed Black British author Reni Eddo-Lodge atop the UK book charts, a first (in a time, sidebar sort of, where another of the articles I read re-examined the legacy of white American writer Flannery O’Connor, in light of racist comments in her private letters, since released). Interesting times, even or especially for book lovers.
If anyone reading this is among the people looking for #ownvoices literature that speaks to the moment or at least provides context for it, there’s a books post I read this past week that I thought I’d share. It’s from grow.learn. connect and is the Schomberg Center’s recommendations of books on the African American experience. It includes many that I need to read and some that I have and would also recommend – the latter list including The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (I understand there’s a new audio book or will be shortly narrated by Olivia Pope’s dad); The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (in fact, almost anything by Toni Morrison), who is a Nobel Prize winning author; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which I’ve reviewed here on the blog, and which is more about the Jamaican experience though America is certainly a huge part of it; The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison the audio book of which I just finished listening to and highly recommend especially for lovers of fantasy fiction; The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and again more Baldwin, including the Academy award nominated 2017 documentary I am not Your Negro; I know why the Caged Bird Sings by the great Maya Angelou, and there’s a film of this too, if you can find it, and a whole series of memoirs that follow; A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry, of which there have been several adaptations of which the most notable stars young Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee; one of my all time favourite books by Harlem Renaissance legend Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes were watching God (this too has a movie, starring Halle Berry and Michael Ealy); and, by another Harlem Renaissance legend Langston Hughes, the story collection The Ways of White Folk, also do yourself a favour and check out his poetry; We should all be Feminists by the great Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also check her Ted talk on the danger of a single story. Which is why we need a diversity of stories.
I feel like I should end this section with a father-themed rec; it is Father’s Day after all. There’s the father, both the fathers in their way, in Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage and father figures Uncle Wellie and Pappy in my books Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Musical Youth, respectively.
“What you want, Boy?” Uncle Wellie griped.
Michael just stared at him, his stance a little tentative, and he saw Uncle Wellie’s eyes soften with a kind of resignation. “You need to find another sanctuary from your mother instead of intruding on people’s Sundays,” Uncle Wellie said, stepping aside to let Michael in.
Annnd that’s all the segue I need to return to the thesis of this post – books are not bread. It’s something I say: books aren’t bread, they don’t go stale. It’s my (mostly to myself) response to the publishing industry and the anxiety it gives us writers about our books’ shelf life::Get Advance (though per the #publishingpaidme twitter hashtag not as big an advance as other, centered, groups of writers). Advance buzz if you’re lucky – ARCs to critics and tastemakers. Get picked by Oprah (a girl can dream). Open strong, sell well. Hey, why not, we’re in lala land territory anyway. Everything is on a clock to literary stardom or irrelevance, depending on the swing of the pendulum. The latter means being pulped, dropped, going out of print. Two of my books mentioned in this post (The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight ) have been out of print. A local book store bought up a bulk of the remainders after the publisher said they were going to pulp them – I remain grateful to them for keeping the book in circulation and for helping me make the connection with at least one of the publishers who helped me get one of the books back in print. Eventually, I was able to get both back in print after reclaiming the rights. One is on my local schools’ reading list and schools’ reading list in at least one other Caribbean country. It hasn’t been smooth sailing from there by far, there are things I would like to be better as far as the publishing experience is concerned, and neither book has become a bestseller. But in the year 2020 both continue to find new readers – publishing is what it is, but the stories haven’t become stale and moldy if recent reader reviews can be taken as an indicator.
As noted in a recent post, it’s Caribbean Heritage Month in the US and, as a result, around social media. On YouTube, activities include #CaribATHon, and, as I’ve mentioned, Musical Youth got a shout out there by #booktuber ComfyCozyUp, who said:
“Musical Youth…Loved it…this is juicy. I love when you have young adult books that have a bit of romance, enough for the age group but has like a message of following your dream and doing things that might not be in your favour as far as your parents and everybody else around you, but you follow your guts and do what you want to do, and it’s musical. This was really good. Loved it.”
Also the #readCaribbean photo hashtag on Instagram is getting a workout and amidst the activity, a reader review by _lalabear, who also read and posted on The Boy from Willow Bend (see below), described it as “a sweet coming of age romance”.
Recent reader reactions to Willow Bend and Dancing Nude, as noted, have also surfaced on #bookstagram.
“I did finish reading ‘Dancing Nude in the Moonlight’. I love Joanne C. Hillhouse’s writing so much because she doesn’t shy away from talking about deep issues in our Caribbean societies.”
This was posted by ladyinsaeng, who also said on instagram that Musical Youth was her favourite read of 2019, with this image:
Dancing Nude in the Moonlight was also included in an instapoem. by Nadine Tomlinson:
Finally, as far as #bookstagram is concerned, there is this take (included with the image below) from _lalabear on The Boy from Willow Bend which is my first book everrrr and this reviewer’s “first book for read Caribbean”. They described it as “a great read. …a relatable read about childhood experiences in Antigua. …Reading this book also brought some nostalgia of how life differs now.”
Finally-finally, there was this message to my email inbox (shared with permission): “I’ve just read your book [The Boy from Willow Bend] this morning and was so extremely moved! I cried quite a few times throughout. It’s so moving and beautiful. I know it’s a book about an Antiguan boy, but some of the hardships and joys of Vere reminded me of my own childhood in a poor small mining town of East Ukraine. Great fiction is universal! And all the unique details about the Antiguan life were a joy to read. Thank you for this profound experience! I’m now very keen to read your Dancing Nude in the Moonlight …” – Vera Monotti Graziadei, actress and filmmaker
What I’m reading today
I was just asked to lead a discussion, part of an upcoming radio series on To Shoot Hard Labour, an Antiguan and Barbudan book (pictured right back row, below, in another _lalabear insta image). I won’t have time to re-read it in full but I’ve already begun revisiting it.
I also hope to read more from my pile. It’s been there for a while, the pile. Good thing books aren’t bread and don’t go stale.