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Pamela Mordecai: Novels of the Caribbean
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Pamela Mordecai: Novels of the Caribbean

By 49thShelf
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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. Pamela Mordecai writes: 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. **Also included on the list: The Spirit of Haiti, by Myriam Chancy, and The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson
At the Full and Change of the Moon
Why it's on the list ...
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.
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A Daughter Remembers
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Why it's on the list ...
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.
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He Drown She in the Sea

How Madam’s Mouth Runneth Over
It was not yet the end of the rainy season, and the air in the house bristled with all manner of trouble. Even though Piyari had already cleaned everything that same day, Madam took up the dust cloth and wiped counters, pictures, ornaments, and furniture as she spoke. Perspiration glistened on Madam’s forehead and upper lip. Rivulets of it escaped from under her uncoiffed hair, slipped down her greying temples, and pooled about her neck, causing the plain gold-plate chain she wore to shimmer.

“Who would have thought, Piyari, that so late in life a person could get another chance? Look: I have two adult children, and with no warning whatsoever, in what should be the downward slope of life, a light light up, brighter than the sun, to point me in a whole new direction.”

Madam crumpled the dust cloth into a ball, took a quick and deep breath, and pressed the dirty rag to her face. Piyari, startled, leaped forward and as quickly withdrew, realizing at once that it wasn’t really possible for Madam to suffocate herself in this manner. She grimaced. How could Madam talk of happiness in one breath, she wondered, and in the next bury her face in that dirty rag full of dust and that white powdery mould that covered everything in the muggy months? But she was becoming used to the unusual behaviour. Madam dragged the cloth across her face and, in so doing, erased the thick application of reddish-brown colour from her lips. A dark wetness blossomed about the armpits of the yellow silk blouse Piyari had ironed for her just that morning.

“Let me say once and for all: from the day I left my mother’s house and got married, nobody has bothered to ask me what I think or what I feel. Nobody in this country can imagine that I might have feelings. Not all those people who like to take pictures of Boss and me and put them in their papers, not even Boss, and certainly not the children. I pass my whole life in the service of those two children, and now look: I wouldn’t see Jeevan unless I hand out formal invitation to him and his wife. And Cassie? You could understand why my only daughter had to go so far away, on the other side of Canada, to live? Well, if I didn’t know better before, better and me have at long last become acquaintances. Everything change, Piyari. I am not stepping backward – I cannot go back to the way it used to be. Is time for a fresh start, in truth.”

Piyari had learned to spot a story coming. She slid one of the caned high-back chairs away from the dining table and plopped herself down. An hour or two could pass like this: Piyari sitting, turning her whole body sometimes, sometimes just her head, to face Madam as Madam hustled, cleaned, and talked. And the more Madam provoked her future with stories of the summer past, the harder, the faster she swept, dusted, and polished furniture, cleaned cupboards, threw out old and long-unused household items. Madam’s confidences bestowed much importance upon Piyari, but she knew well that such a privilege had the potential to one day prove burdensome. Still, this revolt brewing in her employer’s house, right before her very eyes, she relished. And besides, the house, Piyari noticed, had never — at least not before that summer of which Madam babbled — been so spotless.

Madam put down the cloth and picked up a ceramic vase rendered in the shape of a fish that had leaped out of the sea high into the air and was captured by the artist just as it hit the water on its arched back. She lifted her head to the ceiling, closed her eyes, and ran a finger along the pale, curved belly line of the fish, and a fingernail into the deep blue iridescent grooves of its well-wrought tail fin. The high-pitched squeal of fingernail against glazed ceramic broke her reverie. She squeezed the unyielding fish with both her hands, then shook the vase. There was a sluggish, guttural swish of old water. It had been almost a month since there were fresh flowers in the house. The water was at least that old, and surely, bitter with the odour of rotted chrysanthemum remains. Madam put her nose to the gaping mouth of the fish and sniffed. Piyari straightened herself, ready to answer to the accusation, ready to get back to her business of housecleaning, of doing chores like washing out that vase. But Madam did not even wrinkle her nose. Instead, with sudden swiftness, as if she had smelled a revelation in the belly of the fish, she gathered up and twisted her shoulder-length hair into a bun. With pins fetched erratically from the pocket of her skirt, she secured the bun, whipped the cloth off the table again, and began wiping, wiping, wiping every ornament in sight. Piyari made a mental note to wash out the fish vase.

Madam executed a sharp about-face and marched into the kitchen. Piyari jumped up and followed. Madam opened the door of the freezer compartment and stared for a long time at its contents. Piyari knew if she stayed still long enough, Madam would begin to reveal more about that holiday on the west coast of Canada and that the refrigerator/freezer would be as clean as the day it was bought, without her having to lift a finger. When Madam started pulling out frozen packages of meat and plastic containers of leftovers and piling them up on the kitchen table, Piyari leaned up against the counter and relaxed.

“What we keeping leftovers for? Throw them out. Look at this fridge. Throw everything out. Don’t keep a damn thing. I have to say it yet again? Is time for a fresh start.”

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Why it's on the list ...
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!
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Dancing Lessons

Dancing Lessons

A Novel
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
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?
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The Heart Does Not Bend


What Is Said over the Dead Lioness’s Body Could Not Be Said to Her Alive

Everyone is sitting at Grand-aunt Ruth’s breakfast table in Kingston -- Uncle Peppie and Aunt Val; Uncle Mikey; Glory, my mother and the executor of my grandmother’s estate; the grand-aunts, Ruth and Joyce; cousins Icie, Ivan and Vittorio; and my daughter, Ciboney, and her eleven-month-old baby. Uncle Freddie is the only one missing.

The muttering around the table gives way to the crackling of the papers in Glory’s hand. Except for the three youngest, we are nervous. Ciboney, just fifteen, looks bored, but the hint of malice around her mouth makes me wonder what she is thinking. Vittorio, handsome at nineteen, idly plays with his brick-coloured, shoulder-length dreadlocks. Aunt Val has an arm protectively around Uncle Peppie’s shoulder. Uncle Mikey crosses and uncrosses his legs. Grand-aunt Ruth wipes sweat from her face with an old washrag, and Aunt Joyce fans herself profusely with a rattan fan she brought back from America. Cousin Icie and Cousin Ivan sit like tin soldiers. My thoughts are a muddle, and my heart is thumping so hard that I am convinced everyone can hear it.

“Okay, we all here?” Glory asks.

“Uh-hum,” we respond as one.

“Well ah think we should just get it over wid,” Glory says as she straightens the papers once more.

“‘I, Maria Maud Galloway, of sound mind and body, make this my Last Will and Testament.’”

“‘I hereby revoke all my former wills and other testamentary dispositions of every nature and kind whatsoever hereto before made by me.’”

Glory pauses, inhales heavily and says, “Dis is not Mama’s first will. Dis is about de tenth. De lawyer dem love her.”

“‘I nominate, constitute and appoint my daughter, Glory May Galloway, to be the sole executor of this my will.’”

She pauses again. “Ah skipping some of de legal talk.”

“‘To my grandson, Vittorio Oliver Galloway, I bequeath the properties known as 100 Pear Avenue, in the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, Canada, and the fifty-five acres of land in the township of Muskoka free and clear of all liens and encumbrances whatsoever, for his own use absolutely.’”

“‘To my grandson, Vittorio Oliver Galloway, I also bequeath the property at 3 Wigton Street, in the City of Kingston, Jamaica, free and clear of all liens and encumbrances whatsoever, for his own use absolutely.’”

A loud gasp escapes from Uncle Peppie; Aunt Val strokes his shoulder. Glory sighs. Uncle Mikey uncrosses his legs and plants his feet firmly on the ground, his face an ugly mask. Uncle Peppie slumps further into his chair.

“Lawd God Almighty!” Aunt Joyce shouts.

“Calm down. Quiet, Joyce, mek we hear de rest of de will,” Grand-aunt Ruth commands.

Glory’s mouth is clamped tight as she reads the rest of the will silently.

“Go on, Glory,” Grand-aunt Ruth says, gently resting her hand on Glory’s arm. Glory takes a sip of her coffee, as if to help loosen her mouth.

“‘To transfer my hope chest to my great-granddaughter, Ciboney Galloway, for her own use absolutely.

“‘To transfer all other household items on the properties to my grandson, Vittorio Oliver Galloway.

“‘To transfer all moneys from my bank account in the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto and in the City of Kingston, Jamaica, to my grandson, Vittorio Oliver Galloway.’”

Glory is still reading. By now I am only half listening. I see Maria, Mama to me, in the hospital bed, me changing her soaked diaper. She grips my hands, her eyes pleading, the words coming out with difficulty.

“Molly, tek mi outa dis iron coffin. Tek me out, carry mi home. Mek mi dead in mi own bed.”

“‘Should my said grandson predecease me, or die at the same time or in circumstances rendering it uncertain which of us survived the other, or die within thirty days of my death, then I direct my Trustee to give my grandson’s share of my estate to charity, for the charity’s use absolutely.’”

Glory’s voice breaks. Her body sags from the weight of the will. Uncle Mikey offers her a glass of water.

“Here, Glory, drink dis.”

“Dis is madness. Dis is plain, outright madness,” Glory says. “Ah should have certified her a long time ago.” Her voice is full of contempt and she is trembling.

“Ah wonder if Maria was in her right mind for truth?” Aunt Joyce adds, shaking her head in disbelief.

Uncle Mikey’s voice is bitter. “Mama is a wicked, revengeful ’oman. How she could do dis? Wherever she gone, she won’t find peace.” He pushes his chair back, ready to leave the table.

“Mikey, tek it easy. Sit down. Yuh not massa God. And only Him can judge,” Grand-aunt Ruth says. He opens his mouth to argue, but one look from Grand-aunt Ruth and he changes his mind.

“Ah try mi best all dese years to be a good daughter, and for what? Ah use to parcel up de whole of Canada and send home to her.”

“Yes, Glory, yuh give her your best, and she did love you very much. Don’t cuss and don’t harbour bad feelings. God not sleeping and Him work in mysterious ways. Dis is why life and death is a mystery to us all,” Grand-aunt Ruth says.

I remember Mama at the hospital, her eyes wild, her panicked whisper pleading with me to take her home.

“De man calling mi, Molly. Him ready to tek mi.” Her breathing was harsh, her mouth caving in without her dentures.

I didn’t have to look across the table at Uncle Peppie to feel his shame. He was Maria’s first-born, the faithful, obedient son. It’s as if she’s in the room, sitting at the table, and he won’t say anything bad about her. Like me, he never stood up to her, and her death changes nothing. When Uncle Peppie finally speaks, he doesn’t mention the will.

“Well, at least she get her final wish. She bury right next to Mammy, in Port Maria Cemetery.”

“You too kind-hearted, Peppie,” Uncle Mikey jumps in, sucking his teeth.

Glory, in full agreement, cuts her eyes across the table.

“Is Peppie save her. Is him give her a second life.”

“Dis is her idea of revenge,” Mikey spits out. “She was always harbouring some anger. Freddie right fi nuh come.”

“Molly remember de dresses,” Uncle Peppie quietly reminds me.

They have forgotten Vittorio. It’s as if he weren’t there. Grand-aunt Ruth comes to his rescue.

"What time is yuh flight, Vic?"

"Soon, Aunt Ruth. I should get back to packing." He pushes back his chair, eager to get away.

"Let we hold we head in prayer before yuh leave, Vic. Dis bickering and bad feeling toward de living and de dead nuh good," Grand-aunt Ruth says, determined to bank the fire. "Okay, let we all hold hands. 'Please, dear Father, help us to bury dis hatred and to ward off de temptation of Satan. Let us receive not de spirit of de world, but de Spirit which is of God.' " Her eyes are closed. She doesn't need her Bible for this. "Praise de Lord and may Him Spirit and de goodness of Him be wid us."

Uncle Peppie slowly pushes back his chair and excuses himself. Aunt Val follows. Vittorio mumbles something about finishing his packing. Uncle Mikey says he needs fresh air. Glory follows. The great-aunts retire to the kitchen. Cousin Icie and Cousin Ivan escape to the backyard.

I nurse my cold cup of coffee. Just Ciboney, the baby and I are left sitting there. We stare out the window, oblivious to the flies swarming the table. She looks like me when I was her age: tall and willowy, molasses complexion, full lips and ackee-seed eyes. I want to fold her in my arms, tell her I love her, but it seems too late.

How could Mama do this? How? I was her only grand-daughter. I was there. I was always there. Vittorio never was, and what did he know of Wigton Street?

Outside it's bleak. It rained all night and the clouds are just hanging. I don't know what I expected from my grandmother, but if I am not careful, I might say things I'll regret, especially to Vittorio. But I want my daughter back and he is the only person who can get her back for me.


Early the next morning I leave the house, hire a car, take the dresses to the cousins, and then drive out to the cemetery.

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Why it's on the list ...
Written by my friend and first Canadian publisher (at Sister Vision Press), this novel was #1 in African Canadian books on 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.
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Red Jacket

Red Jacket

also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
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!
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Why it's on the list ...
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.
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