Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

Walk Good: A Year of Reading Across the Caribbean (Part 4)

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

The second installment of Caribbean book recommendations from an award-winning Jamaican author.

By Donna Hemans

I’m drawn to stories that explore home and identity, much like my forthcoming novel, The House of Plain Truth, does. In my novel, Pearline returns to Jamaica to help take care of her dying father. His deathbed requests to Pearline—to be his memory and to find siblings Pearline hasn’t seen in 60 years—leads Pearline to uncover what divided her family and the true meaning of home.

Like Pearline, many of the characters in the books below are largely diasporic and struggle to identify what ties them to a particular place or group of people. Belonging to one group—whether it’s a family unit, a new community in a new country, socio-economic classes, a religious sect—also means separation from another. In these seven books, the authors approach home and belonging in unique ways that often point back to a colonial past rooted in division.

Cuba: The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older

In Older’s The Book of Lost Saints, Ramón is haunted by his aunt Marisol, who disappeared during the Cuban Revolution. Ramón knows little about his family history, and his mother shuns his attempts to gather information about his aunt and the family’s painful story. Marisol, who floats through the story, appearing like a ghost shadowing Ramón’s every move, forces her nephew to peel back the layers of buried history and reveal what happened to her during the revolution and her imprisonment. For Ramón, unearthing Marisol’s story also means uncovering the secrets his mother has carried and the saints who helped Marisol during her imprisonment.

Bahamas: My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales by Robert Antoni

In Antoni’s My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, an old woman regales her grandson with tales from her early life in Corpus Christi, Trinidad. Set during World War II, when U.S. servicemen were stationed on the island, the grandmother’s tales center around a boarding house for the servicemen. The stories blend folktales and images from the old woman’s colorful life to show a widow who survives and thrives because she knows how to skirt tricksters.

St. Kitts and Nevis: What Start Bad a Mornin’ by Carol Mitchell

When a stranger steps up to Amaya Lin’s car and professes to be her sister, Amaya blacks out. Amaya encounters the woman a second time and is driven to understand her reaction to the stranger and any possible relationship. But Amaya has few concrete memories of her earlier life in Jamaica, and her aunt Marjorie, who is suffering from dementia, cannot help her piece together her past and unlock the memories she has repressed. Mitchell weaves together Amaya’s life in 1970s Jamaica, Trinidad, and the United States to uncover the violent trauma that shattered Amaya’s family and pushed Amaya to find new places to call home.

Jamaica: Broughtupsy by Christina Cooke

In Cooke’s Broughtupsy, Akúa returns to Jamaica with her younger brother’s ashes, intent on reuniting with her estranged sister. Akúa wants to understand why her sister, Tamika, preferred to live in Jamaica rather than stay with her family in the United States and then Canada. With no direct answers forthcoming, Akúa and Tamika visit several places, including their mother’s grave and the home they lived in before their father took the family north. At each location, Akúa spreads her brother’s ashes. During the two weeks she is in Jamaica, she becomes bolder, exploring Kingston with a stripper as well as her sexuality in a country that isn’t always kind or open to queer people.

Jamaica: How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair

Poet Safiya Sinclair grew up in a strict Rastafarian household in Jamaica with a lot of restrictions: she is forbidden from having friends, wearing pants, combing her hair. Her life is shaped by her father’s obsession with his daughters’ purity, his efforts to protect his family from Babylon, his unpredictable rage, and constant movement to new homes. Sinclair’s mother introduces her to poetry, and it is through her poems that Sinclair finds opportunities to experience the world outside of her father’s hold, first in Kingston where she studies with a poet and later in the United States where she fully embraces a life without the restrictions her father had placed on her. How to Say Babylon celebrates the idea of self-determination, and of becoming the woman Sinclair wants to be without the patriarchal views of Rastafari.

Jamaica: The Islands by Dionne Irving

The women in Irving’s The Islands often live in places where they don’t have strong roots. All immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Jamaica, they are making lives in various locales—London, Paris, New Jersey, Florida—and discovering their rootlessness. In “Some People,” American-born Kerry, who thinks of herself as a city girl, hasn’t quite figured out how to fit in her new home in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. She isn’t the Jamaican lady the fellow mothers at her daughter’s school imagine her to be. And in “Florida Lives,” Crystal regrets moving from San Francisco to Apopka, Florida. The last line of “The Gifts” sums up the yearning for home that connects the collection’s ten stories: “She won’t get out and call the boy until she understands what it means to be home.”

Trinidad: The God of Good Looks by Breanne Mc Ivor

Bianca Bridge wants to make her name as a writer in Trinidad. But when her affair with a married politician is exposed, her fledgling career falters and she turns to modeling to make ends meet. Through a modeling job, Bianca meets Obadiah Cortland, a well-known beauty industry entrepreneur, who offers her an opportunity to write for his company’s magazine. Their unlikely alliance exposes Trinidad’s class system and the façade Obadiah builds to be accepted in society. Alternating between Bianca’s journal entries styled as self-interviews and Obadiah’s first-person narrative, The God of Good Looks is a playful romance that asks questions about the masks we don to hide our true selves.

Donna Hemans is the author River Woman, Tea by the Sea, and The House of Plain Truth (forthcoming from Zibby Books in 2023). In 2015, she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature for the unpublished manuscript of Tea by the Sea and was named co-winner of the 2003-4 Towson University Prize for Literature for River Woman. Donna’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Slice, Electric Literature, Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, Crab Orchard Review, among others. Donna lives in Maryland and is the owner of DC Writers Room, a co-working studio for writers based in Washington, D.C.

You might also enjoy…