The award-winning Pamela Mordecai's new novel is Red Jacket, which is about a girl growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Chris who never feels like she really belongs. Although her large, extended family is black, she is a redibo. Her skin is copper-coloured, her hair is red, and her eyes are grey. A neighbour taunts her, calling her “a little red jacket,” but the reason for the insult is never explained. Only much later does Grace learn the story of her birth mother and decipher the mystery surrounding her true identity.
In keeping with our theme of "Writing the World" this month, Mordecai shares with us this fantastic list of novels of the Caribbean.
I had three criteria for this list of nine books: that the writers be Canadian-Caribbean women; that the setting be entirely or in large part, the Caribbean; and that the books be published in (roughly) the last 15 years. That I claim most of these women as friends is a huge privilege. Give thanks.
At the Full and Change of the Moon, by Dionne Brand
As my daughter says, this is an amazing book. My scholar-poet-friend wields a magical pen to craft a terrible story with a strange beginning, the 19th century mass suicide of slaves on a Trinidadian estate, arranged by one of them, Marie Ursule. Only Marie Ursule’s daughter, Bola, escapes. The story of Bola’s progeny spans centuries and locations, as succeeding generations struggle to unhinge themselves from history. The language is quintessential Dionne—textured and lyrical.
The Spirit of Haiti, by Myriam Chancy
Haitian-Canadian Myriam Chancy’s first novel is here because I want to read it, as the first of three by her that I intend to read. Like Brand, Chancy is a novelist and scholar. As an anthologist who has worked on four collections of writing by Caribbean women, I value Chancy’s two 1997 book-length studies, one of novels by Haitian women, the other of novels by Afro-Caribbean women. Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women helped to install Haitian women’s studies as a field of specialization in the academy.
The Swinging Bridge, by Ramabai Espinet
This novel, Ramabai’s first and only one to date, is an early and important contribution to the burgeoning body of fiction by Indo-Caribbean women, long a matter of scholarly concern to the author. Returning to Trinidad to buy back family land, Mona Singh, a filmmaker, uses her journey to retrace ancestral history and catalogue the social contours of contemporary Trinidad and Tobago. In so doing, she lays bare carefully guarded family secrets and more important, reclaims the story of her cast-off great-grandmother, Gainder, to celebrate it.
The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson
I’ve known Nalo since she was four! Plus, my writer-husband, Martin, and I were part of an online writing group where we met and eventually made friends with two other Canadian writers of fabulist fiction, Hiromi Goto and Larissa Lai, as well as brilliant and hilarious US fantasy author, Jennifer Stevenson. (Without Jen, my novel would never have been written.) While the group was going, Nalo worked on this novel (inter alia), while I worked on Red Jacket, so I’m in the acknowledgments. Like a couple other novels here, it is set on a made-up island. Also like a couple others here, the story concerns an older woman. Why wouldn’t I affirm a plump, menopausal woman heroine? I’ve been there, done that.
Slipstream, by Rachel Manley
Memoir hasn’t up to now been a widely favoured form in Caribbean writing, so Rachel’s three memoirs are important contributions to a genre that is just building. This book, second of the three, is written from her famous father’s bedside in the last months of his life. Having also watched a father die (and written my first published story about it), I can empathize as my friend tackles this difficult time with courage, honesty and grace—and a pen that’s fearsome in its fluidity.
He Drown She in the Sea, by Shani Mootoo
I am now reading this story set in continental Canada and—a fictional Caribbean island! (Why do we do that? It’s a matter that I return to, below.) Shani Mootoo’s prose goes down like the best rum, strong, clear, and warm inside afterwards. Her Trini East Indian characters are folks I know, having lived in Trinidad and Tobago for some years. And it’s a next story about old people. This thing must be catching!
Dancing Lessons, by Olive Senior
Olive, too, is a friend who’s helped me learn the fiction trade. Veteran of three short story collections, with a fourth to appear in April, her first novel is another tale with a protagonist who is older. Gertrude Samphire is a senior. Her daughter, Celia, sends her to a retirement home to await repairs to her house after a hurricane damages it. The snobby retirement home biddies fancy themselves as better than she is. (I’ve been on the receiving end of that.) She survives oppressive days by keeping a notebook in which she rehearses and tries to sort her history of hurts—poverty, abandonment, deceit, neglect, and loss of her children. Might literature be the fruit of notebooks such as this?
The Heart Does Not Bend, by Makeda Silvera
Written by my friend and first Canadian publisher (at Sister Vision Press), this novel was #1 in African Canadian books on amazon.ca at time of writing. Brava! Set in Toronto and Jamaica, it’s an unsparing tale about a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who has succeeding generations in her grip—a too-familiar figure from my own childhood. The story exposes the strength and livity of Jamaicans, women especially, as well as the yoke of narrow religious attitudes and homophobia with which far too many of us are still burdened.
Red Jacket, by Pamela Mordecai
So I owe this book to a few people here, as I’ve said. I am deeply grateful! Set on another fictive Caribbean island, St Chris is one of several locales in Red Jacket. A friend suggested that I ought to set aside the pretense and admit that St Chris is Jamaica, since being coy does not become me, but I am clearly not the only coy one. And ever since I described “the Mona moon” as rising “out of the sea” in a poem (it doesn’t, but I wanted the rhyme), and my friend, Kamau, tackled me about it, I have grasped the virtue of fictive places. Lack of accountability!
Pamela Mordecai was born in Jamaica. She has published five collections of poetry and an anthology of short fiction. She has also written many textbooks and edited or co-edited groundbreaking anthologies of Caribbean writing. Her poetry for children is widely anthologized. Her poems have been shortlisted for the Canada Writes CBC Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize (U.K.). She is the recipient of the Institute of Jamaica’s Centenary and Bronze Musgrave Medals, the Vic Reid Award for Children’s Writing, and the Burla Award. Pamela lives in Kitchener.
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