Sunday, 16 August 2015

10+ Jamaican Books That I Would Consider a Must Read - Fiction Edition


An educator of educators challenged me to name my Top 10 Must Read Caribbean Books. I am not a reading or library professional, so by asking me, she is reaching out to the man-in-the-street.

When I thought about the task, my mind did a black, green and gold switch, and I decided that it would be fun to do a list of 10+ Must Read Jamaican Books first, and decided to limit it to the formats of novel, short story, and memoir/ autobiography/biography.

I have not included children's books/ YA I my list as this activity is just for fun, I do not want to be frivolous with those important genres in this article.

Lists can be useless, but they can also be useful - it depends on your interests and what you might already know. The most passionate lists and rankings that I have heard are in the realm of sports, where fans debate who is the best and/or the greatest of an era, or indeed of all time. There is usually no agreement among the discussants, but arguing around the matter brings a general awareness of what people care about.

Mr Owen Gleiberman in a BBC World interview about a ranking "What is the greatest US movie of all time" that was posted online on July 23, 2015 said "people's ideas of greatness is about what people's passions are."

In sports, we oftentimes hear about contemporary athletes being declared as the greatest or the best over athletes of some time ago. So on the KLAS ESPN Sports Radio FM89 programme Sports Desk with Orville Higgings, he will say that Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest sportsman of all time based on his stats and listeners will go apoplectic and declare that Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt were greater athletes. These discussions are not really so in the realm of the arts, it is said that "time sanctifies".

There is a common area, however between creative work and sports. In sports the discussion sometimes turns on which was the best and also greatest team that played in a particular era, and many will safely say, and not be admonished in the West Indies, that the performance of the West Indies cricket team under Sir Clive Lloyd in the 70s and 80s is still unmatched. The same may be argued that the body of work of a group of creative people during a particular era - call them a team - made a far greater impact than any single writer or painter or film maker of that era. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It may be argued that the books of Caribbean writers from the self-rule/independence era of the 1930s to 1960s found great resonance in the region more than any other era.

I approached creating this list acknowledging a few things that have shaped me, and that will affect how I read books. These are labels that I do not mind giving myself. I have a faith-based orientation, I am cis-woman, have not rebelled my education in a religious girls school, matters of the home and the family define my activities, and have lived most of my life happily in the Caribbean. 

Having sharpened my mental pencil and licked the point, I decided that my list will have books that meet the following criteria:
  1. I must have read the book;
  2. I appreciate the craftsmanship in the writing, and the art of storytelling;
  3. Book illuminates an aspect of Jamaican society and lifestyle.
The Most Hon Marcus Mosiah Garvey, National Hero
The Caribbean's most far-reaching philosopher, Marcus Garvey, is sadly not on my list of authors to read. Garvey was a journalist, the publisher of an international newspaper and author of books on his philosophy, and he had an anthology of poems. He delivered speeches across three continents over a span of about 30 years. He is revered in Jamaica where there is general agreement that his teachings of self reliance, and self pride to persons of African descent, should be infused in school curricula from early childhood through to tertiary education.

His brilliance in writing, I think, was very well delivered in short phrases.
Examples are:

"If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started."

"Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men."
"Up you mighty race, accomplish what you will"
"We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind"; which directly influenced international reggae songwriter and performer Bob Marley to write "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds"
The writings of Marcus Garvey have directly inspired the emergence of the Rastafarian religion and reggae music.The reason why I have not read Garvey is that I found that his extended works were not enjoyable to read. He is not on this list because not one of my advisors nominated him.

Garvey would have been a winner in the age of micro blogging on sites like Twitter; and a genius for photo sites where image is important on places like Instagram. For the longer format, we probably need a New International Revised Version of some of his famous books.

Having done the list, here is a summary of themes that are explored in the books that I have selected. I accept that this list does not adequately cover the complete Jamaican experience, and I have to read more. I have included photos of cover art if I liked it and thought that the art matched the text. I am surprised that Nalo Hopkinson has not been suggested and she probably should be as she has written several books in the genre of speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy).

  1. Impact of prevailing economic systems, the family, and religion in pre and also post independent Jamaica;
  2. The point of view of a young person making his or her way in the world;
  3. Injustice and prejudice wherever it exists (rural vs urban; differences in social status; differences in shades of skin; what religion tells us is right and wrong).

10 + Must Read Jamaican Books
(Short Story Collection/ Novel/ Biography Autobiography and Memoirs)

Autobiography and Memoir
It Can Be Done by Professor, the Hon Henry Lowe
I needed to read this book as research for a project, and bought it at Pelican Publishers which is the Dr Lowe's publishing house. This book is not a trial over troubles story, it shows the effect of good nurturing of the human soul. Dr Lowe's love of life is an optimistic voice throughout. He traces his story as a resident of Kingston, so we get to see it from about the 50s to the 2000s.

Drumblair and Slipstream by Rachel Manley
I bought Slipstream from Sangsters Bookstore for what felt like a princely sum shortly after it became available. It was getting major publicity at the time. For me, it was worth the read on two points: the writing was gently entrancing and the story was interesting as the memoir opens up the private lives of persons who were political leaders of Jamaica. The book deepened my overall appreciation for the history of the country at the turning point of independence. A few years later I read Drumblair which was in my father's collection.

Whispering Death by Michael Holding
This book was a gift from my husband to his father and so it is in the family home. This is about growing up in cricket. I am not a fan of the game, but the respect and love of Holding for the game of cricket shone through, and the writing made it a pleasure to read. This book records an important part of Caribbean sporting history as it details emotions and actions on the matter of the temptation to play cricket in South Africa during the era of apartheid. The book carries beautiful insights on trust, team building, determination and honour. It will not tell you the difference between a leg-break and an off-spin.

From Harvey River by Lorna Goodison
This is a poetic biography of the parents of Lorna Goodison that I believe that I bought from Bookland on Knutsford Blvd. I enjoyed the book because of Goodison's mastery of the language, and it is really even better when read aloud.

Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home by Erna Brodber
I read this as a teenager during a holiday period, another find in father's collection. I did not understand it then, but the language style opened up new and unforgettable ways to read English and to understand rural Jamaican society before the age of the Internet.

The Painted Canoe by Anthony Winkler
I bought this from the second hand section of Readers Bookstore in Hi Lo plaza, in Matilda's Corner. Thank goodness for that store as I found many treasures there, including this book. This story is beautifully written with unusual characters and full of pathos. I read it in my 20s and again in my 40s and it gave me the same level of satisfaction on both occasions.

The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair Thompson
I got this as a gift and was a bit overwhelmed with the scope of history and the detailing of the characters. These matters make it absolutely worthy of being on a must read list. The structure of the book and the language is sophisticated, and it attempts to harness multiple perspectives between the covers.

Stone Haven by Evan Jones
Bought second hand from Readers Bookstore, Matilda's Corner. This book can be placed in the memoir section as it is the story of the author's mother in Jamaica. I have this on my list because it presents the legacy of the remnants of plantation society and a dominant single religion. Some will not like this book on a must read list because the perspective is is that of the overlord and not the peasant.

 Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer
I bought this book from a Sangster store and from the opening pages it was a breath of fresh air from what I had been reading before. It brought adventure, style romance and gave a lot of joyful love to black women. This is not a book about the burdens we carry from history and the trials of modern day society. Channer was also the first writer whose work became popular and loved because he invoked reggae music into cosmopolitan writing. For these reasons, this book is on my list.

Dew Angels by Melanie Schwapp
I bought this from Schwapp herself after I carried her book in my unnamed 2013 Kingston Book Fair booth. Anyone who saw the book and had read it gave it high laud and honour. I enjoyed the read and admire the structure and the writing of the book. Schwapp brought a well-known story of triumph over hardship into the realm of art, handle it with dignity, and give it a satisfying ending. I also loved how she gave garden plants meaning and a place in the story.

The Mountain of Inheritance by Carol Dunn
I bought this from Dunn after I carried her book in my 2015 Kingston Book Fair booth, which was the first time that the YA Readers booth was open. This is a true family saga and, again with sophistication, the characters are lovingly detailed and the dialogue and writing are skillfully handled. This book brings in sickening realities of family life and the decisions that parents make. It spans pre and post independent Jamaica and puts up for examination, the role of religion. I enjoyed the read.

Turn Back Blow by Roger Williams
I call this my wild card choice. I laughed out loud as I read this and detained my husband to listen to me read sections to him. This book may not be a national hit because Jamaicans are not natural animal lovers, and most of the dialogue is among wild and domesticated animals who are trying to survive the carelessness and cruelty of humans. What makes this book special is that indeed all the animals can be found right where the story is situated, on the banks of the Rio Cobre in St Catherine. I also really liked the real boy at the centre of the story. I bought this as an e-book on Amazon in 2015 after reading a Gleaner newspaper article that the book got Turn Back Blow from the Ministry of Education.

Short Story Collection
Fear of Stones by Kei Miller
I bought this book in Matilda's Corner from Bookophilia. It does not explicitly name the matter of sexual orientation, but much of the book very lightly alludes to and explores thoughts and behaviours that are related to this topic. As can be expected, the writing of Miller provokes attention, and his writing is a memorable pleasure.

Wake Rasta and Other Stories by Garfield Ellis
Ellis is the only former mariner who I know who is a writer, and that unique perspective gives him a place in my list. Ellis' stories are lively and enjoyable, even when they are detailing a horrible situation. I think that I bought this book at an early Calabash International Literary Festival.



Voices Under The Window - John Hearne
I bought this book at the 2005 staging of the Calabash International Literary Festival that was held in Treasure Beach. The tension in this novel is unrelenting as it deals with rising social discontent that leads to violence on a couple who believe that their social standing is enough defence. This book delivers masterly writing to tell of how social inequalities and perceived injustice can lead to anarchy. I had this book on display at the YA Readers Hangout in the 2015 Independence Village and one reader dismissed Hearne as being a colonial apologist. I have to read the book again with this in mind. Wikipedia says that Hearne was a white Jamaican. I saw him many times on the UWI, Mona campus in the 70s and 80s and he did not look like a white person to me. I remember him favouring the fashion of blue jeans and boots, and he smoked a pipe. If this is not the same person, I hope that someone will correct me.

I discovered this in my father's collection on a summer day between Grade 12 and Grade 13 and fell down a rabbit hole into back-a-wall. The language and the story is terribly beautiful. This book presents the starkest view of depraved urban poverty in Jamaica through the eyes of persons from differing backgrounds. Many Jamaican authors seem compelled to approach storytelling with protagonists from different social settings.

Song for Mumu by Lindsay Barrett 1960
A most unusual book. I first heard of it when I met the author's son, writer A Igoni Barrett who travelled from Nigeria to read at the Two Seasons Talking Trees Literary Fiesta in 2011. The Librarian of the National Library of Jamaica said it was one of the best books that she had read, so on her recommendation I bought a hardcopy through Amazon. Parts of the novel are written in the style of a saga poem, and parts are written as if it is a chorus of a Greek tragedy. Sensual pleasures drive this story. The characters deeply enjoy lovemaking in the paradise of the Jamaican countryside. Tragedy is never far as it shows unprepared innocence, yearning for enlightenment, colliding with unconcerned worldliness. The high style of writing sits so naturally with the speech and lifestyle of the poor rural folk, that this gives it a place in the Jamaican oeuvre, for me.

A Brief History of Seven Killings 2014
This novel is written in the English language as spoken on the streets of Kingston. It is a graphic novel where the attempt on the life of a celebrity forms the fulcrum around which insights into organised crime and one unconnected young woman are revealed. Contains expletives that will be offensive to many persons, and also and graphic descriptions of manslaughter, gay sex and drug use. The book won the 2015 Man Booker book prize

END OF MY LIST - Three books on this list were written by past students of St Andrew High School. The school seemed to have had a strong English Language department between the 60s and 80s. I hope that it still does.

Here is a top 12 list published by The Gleaner in 2015

Gleaner list of children's books. Article published in 2014

Helen Williams lists books for children ages 8 - 14 by Jamaican authors

Hazel Campbell lists Jamaican books for children

European blog about the best Jamaican writers

Popular Jamaican books as listed on Goodreads

Here is a list of Jamaican YA books

Geoffrey Philp's list of poetry books by Jamaicans

To help this list along, I asked other readers about books that they would have on their lists and I have set them out below. If a book appeared on my list, I excluded it. All of the respondents are Jamaicans living in Jamaica and they are currently between the ages of 40 and 50. Any artwork placed is just because I liked it.  This list includes books for tweens and teens as so many persons had them near the top of books that they enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of reading.

"Editorial Board" of this list:
PR Practitioners K Cadien, A Lambert, C Taylor, M McDonnough, M Thomas, C Benjamin, Lois Grant
Atty-at-law J Wilcott 
HR Practitioners T MacMillan Spencer, M McDonald
English Teacher A Davidson
Corporate Services Director S Wright
Policy Analyst P Wadsworth


Non Fiction / Philosophy

The Most Hon Michael Manley - philosophy
  1. Up The Down Escalator
  2. The Politics of Change
  3. A History of West Indies Cricket
Professor Patrick E Bryan - commentary
Edward Seaga and the Challenges of Modern Jamaica

Professor the Hon Mervyn Morris - literary criticism
  1. Making West Indian Literature
  2. Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture
Malcolm Gladwell - inspirational (I think that this author is more recognised as Canadian rather than Jamaican, but we latch on to him)
The Tipping Point

David Buckley
The Right To Be Proud: Selected Jamaican Heritage Sites

Autobiography/ Memoir
Morris Cargill - memoir
Jamaica Farewell

Judith Falloon Reid
Here is One Hundred Dollars, Go Buy Yourself a Life

Sonia King
Jacket or Full Suit? Paternity Testing from a Jamaican
Claude McKay - memoir (lived in the USA)
A Long Way From Home

Children's Literature (secondary school)

Cyril  Everard Palmer - children's literature (quite a bit of his work was written in Canada)
  1. My Father Sun Sun Johnson
  2. Man from Jamaica Hills, Elkanah Rhule
  3. A Cow Called Boy
  4. The Cloud With A Silver Lining
  5. The Wooing of Beppo Tate
Jean DaCosta - children's literature

  1. Sprat Morrison
  2. Escape to Last Man's Peak
Victor Stafford Reid - children's literature
  1. Peter of Mount Ephraim
  2. Sixty Five
Andrea Levy - novel (I think this author is more recognised as British rather than Jamaican, but all of her books are about Jamaica and they are so good that we are latching on to her)
Small Island

Anthony Winkler - novel (now living in the USA)
The Lunatic
The Great Yacht Race

Duane Blake - novel (not living in Jamaica)
Shower Posse

Garfield Ellis - novel (now living in Canada)
For Nothing At All 

Pamela K Marshall (living in the USA)
Barrel Child 

Kei Miller - novel (now living in the UK)
Last Warner Woman

Patricia Powell - novel (now living in the USA)
  1. Me Dying Trial
  2. The Pagoda
Margaret Cezair Thompson - novel (now living in the USA)
The Pirate's Daughter

Ezekel Alan - novel (now living in Asia)
Disposable People

Marlon James - novel (now living in the USA)
  1. John Crow's Devil
  2. A Brief History of Seven Killings
  3. The Book of the Night Women
Olive Senior - novel (now living in Canada)
Dancing Lessons

Leone Ross - novel (now living in the UK)
  1. All The Blood is Red
  2. Orange Laughter
Erna Brodber

Kerry Young

Michael Thelwell
The Harder They Come

Short Story
Olive Senior - short story  (now living in Canada)
Summer Lightning and Other Stories

Veronica Carnegie
The Tie Came Back

Trevor Rhone - play

  1. Smile Orange
  2. Old Story Time
Dennis Scott
An Echo In The Bone



Claude McKay - novel  (migrated to the USA)
Banana Bottom

Herbert G de Lisser - novel

  1. Jane's Career
  2. The White Witch of Rose Hall

Roger Mais - novel
Brother Man

Claude McKay - poetry (lived in the USA)
Home to Harlem