Category Archives: Caribbean
The third Women in Translation month is about to begin and I’m tempted, so very tempted. I haven’t made much progress on my reading of books in translation this year so this would give me a bit of a much needed nudge. Only question is how to fit it in with so many other reading plans.
But it’s only for one month so I should be able to manage at least one shouldn’t I?
With optimism in mind I trawled through my TBR spreadsheet in search of possible candidates and narrowed it down to three options.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Skansen. This is the fourth novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer and was much lauded when it was published last year for its chilling account of occupation in Eastern Europe in 1940s. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself but haven’t found the time to read it yet. Wish my cover was as stunning as the image above shows.
Although the title says girl singular, this is actually about three young women, all college girls who live in a boarding house somewhere in Brazil. they have formed an intense friendship over the years which is tested by the political upheaval resulting from a coup in 1964. Publishing this was a brave move by Telles since it came out at the height of the country’s military dictatorship and is a strong critique of the country’s political repression.
My third choice is a bit of a cheat since it’s already on my 20BooksofSummer reading list. But needs must if time is short. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. The novel tells a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class. The Chicago Tribune called Tree of Life “a grand account of the Caribbean, the politics of race and immigration, and the intricate, often sordid legacy of colonialism”.
I’ve you’ve read these do let me know what you thought so you can help me make up my mind which to choose. And if you are also going to join Women in Translation month don’t forget to tell me what books you’ll be reading.
Every now and then you find a book which demonstrates that good storytelling doesn’t require pyrotechnics or literary gymnastics. Of course there will always be room for authors (and their readers) who want to push the boundaries and experiment with time frames, point of view and punctuation (or lack of). But if the story is as good and the characterisation as sharp as Yewande Omotoso has delivered in The Woman Next Door, then there really isn’t any necessity for uber stylisation.
This is the story of two women. They are neighbours in the upmarket enclave of Katterijn in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia James is black. Marion Agostino is white. Both are successful career women. Both are recently widowed. Both are strongly opinionated. They hate each other.
Hortensia is a renowned textile designer originally from Barbados but who has lived most of her life outside her native land. In the opening chapters we meet her as a prickly octagenarian whose husband is close to death. She joins the Katterijn residents’ committee knowing that as the only black member she will not be welcome. The meetings themselves are dull but Hortensia keeps returning “to mock them, to point out to them they were hypocrites.”
At the meetings her chief antagonist is Marion Agostino, the chairperson and her next door neighbour. Marion has made the residents’s committee her personal fiefdom, dominating the discussions and silencing all challenges to her authority. Having grown up in South Africa she has strong beliefs in the segregation of the country’s black and white population. To her:
…. most black people were dangerous and they were causing trouble…As a young adult she had explained her country to herself in a way her children were refusing to adopt. With all their prodding it became difficult to see only what was comfortable, to keep looking away from what she’d rather not see. It was in this battle that Marion lost all possibility for happiness.’
When a legal claim is submitted by a black family that they are entitled to part of the Katterijn estate the scene is set for a battle between the two women. Marion sees the claim as threatening the stability of house prices. Hortensia believes such comments are driven by little more than bigotry.
The attitudes of these women are so diametrically opposed that it seems hardly likely they could ever learn to accept each other let alone find a way towards friendship. But an unforeseen event does force them to reconsider their relationship and to begin pulling down the armoury of sniping and bickering. As they progress towards acceptance and perhaps the beginning of a friendship of sorts, they are forced to reconsider their lives and the forces that have made them so angry and bitter.
For Hortensia we discover that the acerbic, scathing comments she dishes out to everyone is the persona she’s constructed to protect herself from the past. It had started when, taken to England as a small child, she experienced suspicion and hostility. In college for example she was frozen out by her fellow students:
Hard stares from fellow students and lecturers alike; stares from people who looked through you, not at you; stares intent on disappearing you; and stares you fought by making yourself solid. People found it civilised to imitate the sound of a chimpanzee whenever they passed Hortensia in the corridors.
Success as a designer, a loving marriage with a successful corporate executive and a life together in Nigeria had slain those dragons. But they were reawakened when Hortensia discovered her husband’s infidelity.
She went from just resenting Peter, to the housekeeper, the driver, the market woman. People were slow, simple-minded; they all harboured ill intentions, seemed determined to be unhelpful, especially when their jobs required being of service… She got good at chopping the legs off people, with no knife, only words. She was always angry and while, initially, she noticed it … it slowly became what was normal. … Hating after all was a drier form of drowning.
For Marion, the face of control she presents to the world hides the fact that she is deeply worried about her financial situation. A highly successful architect in her own right she had given up her practice business to raise a family. When her husband died she discovered he’d mismanaged all their affairs. Instead of living out the rest of her life in the style to which she has become accustomed she now faces a string of creditors, poverty and public humiliation. Unsurprisingly she feels angry at what she considers is a betrayal by her husband.
Neither of these women are very likeable characters initially but as we move through the book we do get a deeper appreciation of why they are as they are; and begin to find sympathy for them. The Woman Next Door doesn’t however fit squarely into the category of a ‘feel-good’ novel. Yes it’s bursting with humour, warmth and sensitivity but it also brims with finely nuanced themes about the experience of the outsider and the nature of man’s capacity to forgive.
Omotoso adroitly places the story of reconciliation between two individuals within a broader theme of reconciliation with the past of a nation. Marion in particular is forced to confront the reality of how the white population treated the country’s black residents. Her researches into the ownership of Katterijn lands reveal some uncomfortable facts about its former existence as a slave estate.
There was a page with names, the script nuclear, smudged. Marion read through some sentences at the bottom, Her teeth came together in her mouth and she tasted something unpleasant at the back of her throat. There were sketches of the different contraptions, straps and turning wheels. In a neat hand someone had explained how far to turn the handle before the first bits of bone would start to break.
It’s Omotoso’s deft handling of the personal and the ‘political’ themes that lifted The Woman Next Door above the ordinary for me. It’s a page turner in the sense the plot is well constructed and the dialogue between the two women so finely tuned that you feel compelled to read on and on. But the almost casual interjections of broader ideas cause you to pause and to reflect.
This is Omotoso’s second novel. It’s well worth reading. It would also make a really good film. I have Judi Dench or Maggie Smith in mind for Marion. Still struggling to think who would be a knock out Hortensia.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso was published May 2016 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing. Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a copy via NetGalley
Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados. She grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 1992. Yewande trained as an architect and is a designer, freelance writer, poet and novelist. After completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, her debut novel Bom Boy was published in 2011 by Modjaji Books. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa as well as the M-Net Literary Awards 2012, and was the runner-up for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature.
Welcome to the world of books. For our next port of call in the View from Here series we are travelling to a land of sunshine and sand. Our guide to the literary heart of the Caribbean is Joanne C Hillhouse, a local writer and blogger. You can find Joanne in several places on the Web including http://jhohadli.worpdress.com and http://worldvoices.pen.org/ah-write).
Let’s meet our local expert
A popular local calypso begins “in Antigua, we wake up to the sun…” and we do. We are a land of sunshine and beaches, in the heart of the Caribbean. But we are also a country – Antigua with sister island Barbuda – of varied people with real stories, real journeys, not just the postcard moments. I am a writer from Ottos, Antigua and my people, my country, who we are, who we want to be, have always fired my imagination as a storyteller; and the belief that stories about the human condition resonate with people anywhere provides the motivation for me to share my stories beyond my shores. I write to understand, to engage with, to reflect my world. My name is Joanne C. Hillhouse, and I am a writer. I blog about my writing life – my books, my experiences as a writer, my services as a writer and editor and more, including the littscapes of Antigua and Barbuda at http://jhohadli.worpdress.com (named for a nick/pen name that’s a blend of my name and the popular version of my country’s Amerindian name, Wadadli); and I blog at http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com – there’s that Wadadli again – about the literary scene in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean and primarily about the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which is a writing programme I started in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts among young Antiguans and Barbudans. One of the features of the latter site that I am most proud of is the bibliographies of Caribbean and of Antiguan and Barbudan literature, the research component that’s turned the site into a resource for people interested in that sort of thing. I’m an avid reader and consumer of all things artistic, really, so I blog about books, film, music, TV, whatever catches my interest, really.
Q. When we think about authors from these islands, our minds might go to Jamaica Kincaid. Who else would you recommend – in other words, who are some of the people that we could be missing out on?
Jamaica Kincaid is a favourite writer of mine. In fact, discovering her book Annie John years ago was one of those steps on my journey to accepting that it wasn’t so crazy to want to be a writer. Because when you come from a small place, it seems the most impractical thing. Outside of the calypsos – because I do count the calypso writers of my childhood among the greats of Antiguan and Barbudan literature – she was perhaps the first local writer I discovered. Others like Althea Prince, D. Gisele Isaac, Marie Elena John, Floree Williams, Dorbrene O’Marde, and others have added to the fiction writing literary canon out of Antigua and Barbuda. There are my books as well – The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and forthcoming Musical Youth – which was second placed for the 2014 Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction. So I’m excited to be a part of that narrative as well. I also hope BookerTalk readers will check out the bibliographies I’ve put together and posted to the site where you’ll see that though most of the publishing has been necessarily independent, there has been quite a lot more of it than one might expect from a place which, when you combine both major islands (we also have a number of uninhabited offshore islands), is 170 square miles.
Click here for a list of local writers (the list can also be viewed according to genre)
Q. The literature that you focus on in your blog (Antiguan, Barbudan, Caribbean) seems to cover a wide variety of cultures and geographies. How much difference is there between the three island groups in terms of way the writers focus on and show they write?
Well, there’s a common history among the islands and countries of the Caribbean – Africa to the Caribbean via the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, migration (in and out, and within) and the huge social impacts of moving people and cultures, independence, re-defining self in the post colonial age. There will be common themes but I think people coming to the Caribbean and to Caribbean literature, who really pay attention, will find a lot of variation within these broad strokes. There are regional differences, even within countries, even within communities – differences in terms of language, food, ideologies, dress, values, expression, variations as relates to ethnicities and histories etc. That is before you even get to personal narratives and the imagination, the compulsion to create not just regurgitate. I think the beauty of what art, not just literature, is doing is re-discovering and sort of re-mapping for ourselves a self that’s too often been defined by the Other. I think there’s a new wave of literature as well, a literature born of people who do not have direct experience with colonial rule and what all of that means, but have come of age in a Caribbean feeling the growing pains of self-rule, and influences other than the traditional influences, with all of the hopes and limitations that come with that. Because each island is different, each person is different, the result of that exploration – the art that comes out of that – will be different. One of the things I challenge the participants in my annual Wadadli Pen Challenge to do, because we’ve been so much influenced by things outside of our direct lived experience, is to find the stories within our space. Because we have so many stories, and so many varieties of stories to tell, still…not to mention different (sometimes quite inventive) ways of telling them
Q. How much is the literature from this part of the world influenced by its past history of connections with West Africa and with Britain?
Well, it’s like I just said, the influence is there but part of the interesting thing about the Creole experience is that it is this new thing born of all of these influences of which Britain and Africa is only a part, a significant part, but still just a part of the whole. As far as literature goes, we were certainly in the school system in which I came of age, exposed to what’s called the Classics, Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond; and, frankly, didn’t read enough of our own world, though it did exist. And notwithstanding the efforts of slavery and colonialism to totally erase our African identity, it remains in some of the language influences, some of the food, and expressions, music and philosophies handed down orally, whether in local sayings or Anansi stories. In my own book Oh Gad! – Africa is there in the coal pot making tradition that’s a central motif, it’s there in the local sayings, and in the spoken dialect, but there’s no denying the influence of English, and in fact, America as well in ways I’d be at pains to pick apart. But Caribbean is neither of these things explicitly, it is its own thing, and the art and literature reflect that.
Q. What books are currently getting a lot of buzz right now? What are your friends reading perhaps?
Caribbean books, you mean?… Lord, I don’t wan’ get into trouble…understand that this isn’t definitive okay, not even the tip of the ice berg, just what comes to mind…but if I think of the Caribbean writers that have been personally recommended to me in recent years, Marlon James and Kei Miller come immediately to mind. Ah, other names I think which would be part of discussions on modern Caribbean literature include people like Junot Diaz, Monique Roffey, Roland Watson-Grant, Barbara Jenkins, Oonya Kempadoo,Tiphanie Yanique, Colin Channer, Elizabeth Nunez, and, of course, one I’m always recommending, my literary crush Edwidge Dandicat. There are also Robert Antoni who won the Bocas prize for literature this year, and former winner and a legend of Caribbean literature in his own right Earl Lovelace who is still very current and relevant. Among the poets, Lorna Goodison, while she’s not new relative to some of the other names I’ve called, still gets a lot of love; Derek Walcott, as a Nobel Laureate and someone still producing respected work, is an icon; I have much respect for one of my former mentors now poet laureate of Jamaica (also not new but still relevant) Mervyn Morris, and among the newer poets, again relatively speaking, you’ll likely hear names like Miller, Vladimir Lucein, Christian Campbell, Loretta Collins Klobah, Kendel Hippolyte… But honestly we still don’t read ourselves enough so we, including me, still have a lot to discover among our own writers.
I would like to also direct you to the bibliography put together by John Robert Lee and shared on my blog and to various discussions on my blog on Reading the World, the Caribbean leg and Caribbean favourites . My ‘blogger on books’ series which granted is not Caribbean exclusive does include some Caribbean literature as well.
Q. Which authors would you consider to be in the classical canon — the kind that you had to read at school?
More trouble…okay… George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Lovelace, Walcott, V. S. Naipaul are without any subjectivity considered among the Caribbean classics… but among my favourites in school would have been Michael Anthony and Sam Selvon, and from Antigua, in addition to Kincaid whose earliest works can be counted among the newer classics, the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour. I’m assuming you’re referring here to the published Caribbean literary canon and even more specific to books from that canon that would have been read in school, and up to secondary school specifically, because if you broaden it calypso writers like Antigua’s Shelly Tobitt would be part of the conversation for me and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a couple.
Re the Caribbean canon, the Lee biography mentioned earlier would also be instructive.
Q. As an author yourself, what experience have you had trying to get your work published for an international audience?
I wrote about the journey a few years ago in a much-travelled piece entitled ‘Writing Off the Map’ which you can find here among other places. Long story short, it’s been a challenge; a slow climb, one step forward, two steps back, paying your dues, and all such clichés. It hasn’t been easy and I remain a writer on the hustle. But it hasn’t been without its high points – for instance, just this year I would have been invited to participate in a Commonwealth panel at the Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow, Bocas as a Burt finalist in Trinidad, the PEN World Voices festival in New York, I would have had a story published to positive reviews in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, among other journals and anthologies, I would have had the opportunity to edit a special on Antiguan and Barbudan literature for online literary platform Tongue of the Ocean I just received another invitation for a festival next year that I would not have been invited to a year ago, quite recently my book Oh Gad! – the mass market edition of which came out this summer – has recently been added to a course on Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and was recently discussed on National Public Radio [NPR] in the US . I’m far from being where I want to be, from having the resources I need to have just to make life, but I’m writing, I’m moving, and, thanks to social media, I continue to push my books and tap into opportunities to keep writing, keep moving.
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