Literature may not be amongst the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of the Caribbean but our writers are the pearls of the world. In this list are the books that asked the most from me and rewarded ten fold; the books for which re-reads would only increase their lustre; the books that amused, saddened, aroused, amazed—that offered a true incomparable experience.
Shell by Olive Senior
Olive Senior's historian skills are on mighty show in this collection as she mined several bodies of knowledge to describe the different Caribbean experiences, including the Taíno, which is often ignored. Through several motifs she pushes one to consider how to read the history of the different peoples and their legacy passed down through stories, bodies, artefacts, economies, and spiritualities. There is a novel length's worth of themes in this 90+ page poetry collection—a testament not only to the form's continuous relevance but Senior's intellectual, emotional writing prowess.
The Merchant of Feathers by Tanya Shirley
Tanya Shirley’s sophomore release reminded me that poetry was my first love. It gifted me with one of the most thrilling reading experiences I've had in a long time. Skilfully executed, accessibly rendered, complex and curious in recollection and observation. There is so much life in this book from childhood to death and an inviting intimacy that will make your hair stand. (Can I eat grapes again without thinking of kissing?)
You need this book in your life. Don't deprive yourself.
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Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chavet translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur
Lovers of translated fiction will declare that readers do themselves a disservice if they only read what is originally written in English. The same holds true for Caribbean literature. I learned of Marie Vieux-Chavet this year, an exiled Haitian writer from the mid 20th century whose suppressed Amour, Colère, Folie (1968) resurfaced with a French edition in 2005, ushering in the 2009 English translation. The three novellas together form an incendiary work that overshadows much of what is presented as Anglo-Caribbean canon in school: incendiary in political critique, emotional power, and stylistic breadth. Claire, Love’s protagonist, fits comfortably in current trends of “unlikable” women protagonists; Anger throws doubt on Claire’s assurance that all suffer equally; and in Madness the text simulates the society’s destabilised, chaotic reality.
Windward Heights by Maryse Condé translated by Richard Philcox
I don’t know why we don’t hear and read more about this novel. It is glorious, messy, shocking, and explosive, with a narrative that strode beyond its predecessor’s confines into new spheres. Everything Wuthering Heights hinted at Windward saturates in technicolour: racism, classism, white feminism, misogynoir, sex, toxic masculinity, homosexuality, and even a few glances at genderqueerness. If you considered historical fiction to be a soft genre meant to neatly carry you through specific highlights as you cry and tut tut at humanity’s cruelty before it ends with the usual bromides about love, family, and the resilient human spirit, drink the tea before you start this book. I don’t want you to mess up your copy.
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart translated by Barbara Bray
This novel is a “dream in broad daylight” and my best read of the year. Simone Schwarz-Bart, through Barbara Bray's translation, created a novel unique in its cohesive vision, its imbricate integration of beauty and brutality, masterfully patterned through imagistic storytelling. It is special beyond measure and not a fairy tale, despite the parent publisher’s categorization, but an honest expression of a particular AfroCaribbean culture and beliefs. It made the reader nominated 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation--a more than well-deserved honour.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
A damning critique on Britain's racist colonialism into the 20th century and beyond paired with a nuanced look at how that legacy influences and is perpetuated by Jamaicans in Jamaican society. With this novel Levy emphasised the historical fact that the Anglo-Caribbean at that time was Britain. From the Anglo-Caribbean peoples' perspective at that time, they were not "affecting" British identity—they were British. Anyone who tells you this book is a light take on colonialism is clueless or lying to you (and themselves).
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
A step away from the expected rebellion stories in alternate historical fantasies about colonialism, this book arrived in November and sped past others to become one of my most memorable reads this year. For Queen of the Conquered it may be best to put aside its description and take the story and its heroine page by page. With its tragic arc, haunted plantation scapes, and blood soaked spirit filled fields, Callender addresses privilege, internalized racism, and the destructive intoxication of abusive power systems in a slow burn mystery with an unforgettable climax. After this I am doubly eager to read the next in their Islands of Blood and Storm series as well as The Lesson, the debut from fellow USVI writer Cadwell Turnbull.
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Even Caribbean readers may think that Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf was the first Caribbean writer to attempt a kind of African fantasy. Not so. Karen Lord, inspired by a Senegalese story, produced a book that doesn’t feel like anything else in the genre. In under 200 pages a lively narrator shares a story that moves like folklore with psychologically complex characters existing in that intangible space that feels “African” but is populated with shak shak trees, as they are known in Barbados. Give thanks to writers who can entertain and provoke in equal measure.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Dennis-Benn levelled up in her sophomore title to produce an imagery laden, emotionally precise novel about two characters who exist outside society's prescribed bounds of womanhood. If your eyes glaze over at the prospect of another “immigrant novel” read Patsy and let it strip you of your comfort, push you to reckon with uncomfortable truths as it reframes motherhood.
Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo
The simplest plots can take on the world. With two families Mootoo charts cultural, political, social, and sexual histories and identities. She broaches topics specific to a particular Trinidadian context. In dialogue with V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, Mootoo goes beyond its limits, using gender, sexuality, and aspects of T&T's colonial past, to emphasise the multiplicity that can and does exist in the most conservative East Indian families.
The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas
Arranged in a reggae music vernacular, steeped in myth and spirit, each "track" is a character's story, a dream from an angel's book, or glimpses into the lives of the ordinary like Leenah, a deaf Rasta woman, and the legendary, such as His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I and Bob Marley—all of equal importance. The living and the dead exist side by side as both try to connect in order to uphold a future that is good for all. You will have to open your mind in fullticipation of how Douglas, Rasta woman novelist, takes our country's language, music, and poetry to capture its beauty, its sufferation, its power.
"Listen now. Listen. They are calling your name."
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