I took a lot of world lit classes in undergrad. American lit is home to me. I read through that canon by high school. I love American culture and all things Americana. I also think American literature is so enduring and dominates so many reading lists because for so long we had the 1st amendment. In so many cultures writing and artistic expression in general had to please a governing body whether it was royalty, religious dictatorship, or a communist regime, in America we could write whatever we wanted.
However over the years I’ve also become quite fond of Russian lit and Latin American lit. Beyond taking a class on each in undergrad I have done extensive amounts of self-study in these genres as well. And then I’ve done some literary traveling to other parts of the world as well such as The Middle East, The Caribbean, Ireland, France, and Britain.
In February of 2008 I moved to Denver. My older sister had started school there and I needed new scenery. She and I are barely even 2 years apart, and while we are close we couldn’t be more different. She is type A to an extreme, everything stresses her out, and she takes things very seriously. The word best used to describe how I feel about most things in life is; ‘meh.’ I am extremely disillusioned by this world, and I don’t think many things are worth the stress. This is frustrating to many people in my life, but especially to my older sister. So even though I went out there to be near her, we both knew we couldn’t spend a lot of time together without annoying the hell out of each other. She of course helped me move in, showed me around, we met for lunch occasionally, she introduced me to people, sometimes we’d play trivia together at a bar and clear the board like it was nothing (she is incredibly sharp), but mostly we went our own way. I’m not shy, but it takes me a minute to warm up and usually by that point everyone else has moved on, so I was pretty alone. My sister knew how lonely I’ll let myself get without trying to remedy it, and she brought me a box of books that the library she worked at was getting rid of. I got home to my apartment one night and saw the box with a note from her saying; ‘you’re never alone with a box of new (used) books’ and a note that reminded me to call Mom because I’ll go weeks without talking to someone and not even realize I had been neglecting them. She’s great. I opened the box to find that it must have been a Caribbean theme at the library or something because it was all Island literature and authors.
The first author I jumped into was Jamaica Kincaid from Antigua and Barbuda. I had the book Lucy and a collection of short stories from her called At the Bottom of the River.
Lucy was interesting. I can’t say I loved it, at times I almost felt like I wasn’t really enjoying it. But the main character in there has stuck with me over the years, and years later I still remember little details about that book. Her short stories were alright; hit or miss.
Goodreads Description: “Lucy, a teenage girl from the West Indies, comes to North America to work as an au pair for Lewis and Mariah and their four children. Lewis and Mariah are a thrice-blessed couple–handsome, rich, and seemingly happy. Yet, almost at once, Lucy begins to notice cracks in their beautiful facade. With mingled anger and compassion, Lucy scrutinizes the assumptions and verities of her employers’ world and compares them with the vivid realities of her native place. Lucy has no illusions about her own past, but neither is she prepared to be deceived about where she presently is.”
Next from the Cuban born author Alejo Carpentier I read The Kingdom of this World about Haitian liberation. Ummm..it was interesting? Voodoo erotica kinda? Hmmm, well anyways it had elements of magical realism which always delights me. It’s a good history lesson as well and it was a quick read.
Goodreads Description “A few years after its liberation from French colonialist rule, Haiti experienced a period of unsurpassed brutality, horror, and superstition under the reign of the black King Henri-Christophe. Through the eyes of the ancient slave Ti-Noel, The Kingdom of This World records the destruction of the black regime–built on the same corruption and contempt for human life that brought down the French–in an orgy of voodoo, race hatred, erotomania, and fantastic grandeurs of false elegance.”
Next was Dominica with The Orchid House by Phyllis Allfrey. I wanted to like this more than I did because it sounded like a good premise, but it was pretty dry. The characters were flat for me, I just kinda wanted it to be done.
Goodreads: “The story of a white Creole family in 1930s Dominica – the Master is a broken man after World War I, reliant on his drug supplier, who has leeched most of the wealth out of the family. Near neighbour, Andrew, is dying of tuberculosis.
And then the three grown-up daughters return separately to visit: lovely Stella, bringing her little son from America; Joan, with her child from England, eager to continue her political activism among the poor of Dominica. And finally Natalie, a rich widow.
Narrated by Lally, the old black nurse – herself ill – who has been re-employed to care for the children, this book promised great things.”
From Grenada I had a short story collection by Merle Collins called Rain Darling. Jamaica gave me Claud McKay with Songs of Jamaica and The Selected Poems of Claud McKay and then The Capeman by Derek Walcott.
And finally Trinidad and Tobago where I met a certain Mr. Earl Lovelace who has fun with words, and takes great joy in spinning a tale, and dabbles in magical realism ever so slightly and I fell in love. That year from him I read Wine of Astonishment and The Dragon Can’t Dance. These two books got me out of my melancholy and infinite sadness thing I had going on then. No, really I was listening to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins at the time. I just felt good when I was done with these two and started accepting social invites and went out and actually made friends some of whom I’m still in touch with.
Goodreads Description “Carnival takes on social and political importance in this recognized classic. The people of the shantytown Calvary Hill, usually invisible to the rest of society, join the throng and flaunt their neighborhood personas in masquerade during Carnival. Aldrick, the dashing “king of the Hill,” becomes a glorious, dancing dragon; his lovely Sylvia, a princess; Fisheye, rebel idealist, a fierce steel band contestant; and Philo, Calypso songwriter, a star. Then a business sponsors Fisheye’s band, Philo gets a hit song, and Sylvia leaves the Hill with a prosperous older man. For Aldrick, it will take one more masquerade—this time, involving guns and hostages—before the illusion of power becomes reality.”
“All of it was there but nothing had substance. It was as if they were all shadows, as if her leaving had taken the life out of the living things and left them shadows. he himself was a shadow.he felt no weight in his step, ,no sound to his voice, no solidity to his gestures. he forgot time. he felt the ache of a pain whose depth he could not fathom no whose end anticipate” Salt Earl Lovelace
“A powerful and moving chronicle of the different ways in which members of a small Trinidadian community, Bonasse, hold on to their identity as they find themselves caught up in change and corruption. Bolo is a champion stick fighter, tall, good looking, and the fastest, strongest, and bravest of al the young men in Bonasse. When time and time again he sees his people humiliated by American troops, his instincts as a leader prevail. But the stand he makes takes on bizarre and tragic forms.”
I only stayed in Denver for a few months before I moved to Austin. I moved a lot that year, that was my most restless year to date. In November of 2008 I had the chance to go to the Caribbean. I lived on the island of Dominica for a while, and spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic and the island of Saint Marteen. In Dominica I hiked to Sari Sari Falls on more than one occasion.
I ate pepper shrimp almost everyday and drank rum punch and mojitos on white sand beaches on various islands. But I also got to go to some of the places I had read about earlier in the year.
In 2015 I took a literary trip around the world and I met back up with Earl Lovelace and read Is Just a Movie and remembered how much I enjoy him. Then I went (in a literary sense of the word) to Jamaica and found this book called Pao by Kerry Washington. I read 70+ books that year and it’s kind of hard to do favorites as it is apples to oranges in a lot of cases, but Pao would definitely make the top 5. I never extensively got into the history of Caribbean literature or the literary theory, but I have read my way through a lot of it. I enjoy islands. I don’t love them and have no desire to permanently reside on an island. I’d prefer the mountains or the woods, but the flavor is worth trying.