What’s Good Today, Joanne? This Review, World; That’s What’s Good!

This is a review I found just today and my spirit is dancing. The original is in French so I hope the OG author will forgive me sharing an English language translation with you (linked back to them) – no copyright infringement is intended. I appreciate said author’s deep read of my book Musical Youth.

The blog is My insaeng, ma vie (My insaeng, my life) and the post title is “Musical Youth”ou une adolescence caribéenne du 21ème siècle (“Musical Youth” or a 21st century Caribbean teenager), and this is what google translate says it’s saying:

I continue to read regularly, but I do not report anything that I read. I publish flash reviews and I keep the blogging reviews for the books that made my heart vibrate and transformed me.

My first love novel of 2019 is “Musical Youth” (2013)* by Joanne C. Hillhouse. I stumbled upon it by doing research for episode 3 of Karukerament** about two months ago … Since, Zahara and Shaka, the two main characters, spontaneously visit my daydream moments (this word is cooler than daydream, no ?).

“Musical Youth” lasts only one summer’s time. A summer where Zahara and Shaka participate in a musical project, the opportunity for them to discover themselves, to wonder about what they want to become and to make their first significant steps towards adulthood.

If I had to qualify this story … I would say it’s authentically Caribbean.

Authentic as their family model

One day, we may be able to normalize the Caribbean family where the father is present and assumes his role. Maybe someday. In the meantime, it is always possible to qualify the negative portrait of Caribbean paternity. This is what Joanne Hillhouse does by humanizing the two fathers whose absence is precisely explained. At the end of the novel, there is no more unsaid, which allows Zahara and Shaka to continue to build. They have all the cards in their hands to manage in their own way their relationship to these fathers who will never be part of their lives … Zahara can count on the love of his (her) grandmother, Shaka on that of his mother and his grandmother -Father.

Authentic as their everyday

The plot takes place in Antigua and Barbuda. The characters express themselves in patois. No need for long page descriptions to bring to life the Caribbean character and beauty of food, green spaces, architecture and music. But “Musical Youth” is above all a way of approaching life with resilience without losing the hope of making a difference.

Zahara comes from the lower middle class, goes to a private Catholic high school. Shaka comes from a modest background, goes to a public high school. Their daily lives are limited to classes, extracurricular activities and the family home. There is nothing flamboyant in their environment. Their happiness and well-being never depend on the material.

No flashy car, no frantic race to be the most fashionable, no alcoholic parties while parents are on the move, no drug use … In short, they are not looking for extreme thrills usually described in the teenagers of the year 2010. Or say rather that they are looking for another type of sensations. Those brought about by putting into practice their passion for music, by the love they feel for their surroundings.

Their use of the mobile phone is so small that I identified myself by projecting myself at the time of my adolescence in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, some recent cultural references like soca diva Claudette Peters or Skype, YouTube allow register history (and the Caribbean) in our present for 2010 …

Another strong and current time marker: the question of colorism.

Authentic as the suffering caused by colorism

From the first pages, we are witnessing the ravages of colorism. It plays on the perception we have of ourselves, it plays on our perception of others and on the perception that others have of us. The subtlety of Joanne Hillhouse has been to address the issue from several points of view by highlighting different aspects depending on the character involved.

Before being called Shaka, he bore the nickname Zulu. Initially launched as an insult because of its dark skin, the character reappropriates the nobility of this nickname when his grandfather tells him the story of the Zulu people. This is an important scene for me because it emphasizes the awareness of an Africanity in its Caribbean dimension. Shaka knows where he comes from and draws on the power of ancestors to assert himself. In addition, this scene shows the care taken by an adult to reboost a boy’s self-esteem. I have the impression that black men are rarely placed on the side of the victims of colorism. Shaka is not considered a handsome kid for his physique. He does not consider himself a handsome kid. “I am black but cute”, he shouts as a joke as Zahara begins to realize Shaka’s perception of society. The self-esteem that his mother and grandfather have cultivated at home help him deal with the moments when he is confronted with colorism and suffers from it.

Zahara’s skin is clear enough to fit into the desirable black category. This does not preclude the fact that she has no confidence in herself and does not consider herself beautiful. Here again Joanne Hillhouse gives the opportunity to the character to become aware of its place on the spectrum of colorism to free itself thereafter. Zahara’s naivety about it at the very beginning of the novel illustrates what is called the “light-skinned privilege”. Her awareness is through a voluntary approach, by empirical evidence that she takes the time to analyze. Besides, Zahara and Shaka have a brief but frank conversation about it. I reread the scene several times so much I was moved. She wonders if he loves her just because she’s clear. He wonders if it’s because of his dark skin that she does not like it … Once their worries verbalized, they take the time to think about their feelings straightforwardly. The balance of their relationship is based on the fact that they help each other to become a better version of themselves. Zahara takes confidence in herself and her music. Shaka’s appearance trust becomes real as he defines his identity as an artist. They can do nothing against colorism, but they have the honesty to question their own prejudices before getting rid of them. They choose themselves knowingly.

A classic in the making?

The romance between Zahara and Shaka is the driving force but not the end of “Musical Youth”. My carefree side can only be satisfied with the softness and “slow” at which their relationship develops. However, what has conquered me is the dynamic between the different social classes, between the different generations, as violent as it sometimes can be.

What touched me was cultural pride, it is the highlighting of our problems without falling into judgment.

What made me tickle was the talk of being Black, about being a young Caribbean girl from the 21st century.

To my knowledge, there is no French translation available, much less Creole, but I hope that “Musical Youth” will become a classic of literature for generations to come. And why not an audiovisual adaptation to immortalize this illustration of our time?

–END–

*publication year of Musical Youth was actually 2014, the year it won second place/first runner up in the inaugural Burt Award for teen/young adult fiction.

**Karukerament, according to my research, is a podcast, produced by this blogger, analyzing the representation of the Caribbean in audiovisual fiction (it seems to be discussing or reviewing independent Caribbean film or Caribbean representation in film generally, or maybe both).

-I have crossed out a couple of errors re the book itself (possibly things lost in translation) + a glitch in the matrix that resulted in some repetition while trying to render the blogger’s words accurately.