Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel explores living on the island of Jamaica.  Masquerading img_3150behind a jovial gay cover in bright orange, yellow, and green, Here Comes the Sun, starts gently and insidiously goes places we aren’t prepared for.  The novel revolves around three unlikable main characters – Delores, Margot, and Thandi, who form an unforgettable trio.  Delores is a mother preoccupied with money and not enough to the real well-being of her daughters.  Margot her oldest daughter is motivated to work in the hotel and she gets to the point of selling her body to hotel guests to earn enough money to pay for Thandi’s education and the family’s house expenses.  Thandi, Delores’ youngest daughter, is 15 years younger than Margot.  She’s brilliant in school and is searching to be loved and accepted.  All the family’s desires of escaping poverty in River Bank are tied up in the hopes of Thandi succeeding at school and eventually going to medical school to become a doctor.

The setting of this novel is River Bank a quiet little village situated near a resort hotel, where cruise ships make frequent stops with nonchalant tourists.  Life in poverty on an island can make people do things they would have never thought of doing to survive.  The way Dennis-Benn uses light and darkness to convey the moods of the characters and to set a scene is masterly.  Told with luscious language and poignant analogies, she accurately paints the picture of the horrific situations facing Jamaicans in little sleepy towns near luxurious high-rise resorts.  As I was reading this novel, it made me think of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid and the rage that ran through the novel.

“The darkness claims her, encircles her with black walls that eventually open up into a path for her to walk through.  She takes a few steps, aware of the one foot in front of the other; of the strangeness creeping up her spine, wrapping itself around her belly, shooting up into her chest, The scent of the bougainvilleas that line the fence is like a sweet embrace. The darkness becomes a friendly accomplice. Yet, the familiar apprehension ambushes her: Can she be seen?  She looks over her shoulder  and contemplates the distance it would take for her to walk to her house from here.  A good mile.  She stands in front of the bright pink house that emerges from the shadows.  It seems to gloss in the dark….”(Here Comes the Sun, pp. 15-16)

Here Comes the Sun is a novel that mixes a good plot with excellent character development. It’s obvious that Dennis-Benn set out to depict a story showing the sociological implications of the difficulties people on the island face, while balancing the plot with pertinent themes such as homosexuality, mother/daughter relationships, colorism, sexism, class, race, missing fathers and of course the long-lasting effects of colonialism on the thoughts and behavior of the island people.  You’re probably thinking that this sounds like a lot to put in a 345 page book, but it’s brilliantly balanced, paced, and speaks clearly to the reader.

Having four generations living under the same roof was Dennis-Benn’s way of having the reader follow and understand the difficulties of each character.  Dolores is a horrible mother but her discourse is obviously that of the after effects of colonialism.  Money is the only thing that she believes will get them out of where they are.  She would subscribe to the expression – You gotta do what you gotta do.  Delores’ voice and a few of the other secondary characters like Charles, Miss Ruby, and Maxi are always in Jamaican dialect which roots the reader into the tradition of life in River Bank.  The dialect isn’t hard to understand.  Saying the lines out loud can help you understand the meaning better if you struggle with reading dialect.  Margot hiding her homosexuality, her deep hatred for her mother, and her desire to earn enough money to leave River Bank and set up elsewhere drive her throughout the story and the lengths she goes to make this happen are mind-blowing.  Thandi who has the weight on her shoulders to succeed in school to save her family from poverty and at the same time doesn’t feel accepted in her school;  has seemed to take in all the derogatory things she hears about dark skin.  “Tsk, tsk. Well, God played a cruel joke on you.  Because, chile, if yuh skin was as pretty as yuh hair, you’d be one gorgeous woman.” (Here Comes the Sun, p. 25)  Sadly, she is so sure that she’ll be accepted if her skin is lighter.

You’ll be glued from the moment you begin to read this story, anxious to find out what’s going to happen next, shocked as you’re pulled through all the twists and turns.  All the secondary characters are just as memorable as Delores, Margot, and Thandi.  The only real problem I had with Here Comes the Sun was the ending, to be exact the last chapter.  I was really disappointed to not get the closure I was hoping for once the novel was finished.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters.  Chapter 40 left me dissatisfied.  I really enjoyed all the other parts of the novel and felt they were perfect.  Unfortunately, the outcomes of the characters are left hanging and inferred.  It felt like she had no idea how to finish this book or maybe she was reluctant to end the book with all the loose ends perfectly tied up.  Could she have felt that ending the book this way shows that life goes on, as if we the readers were just witnesses to a part of these characters’ lives?  I’m wondering if maybe she plans on using these characters for another book.  That would make a great second book. 😉  So, have you read this one and if not are you interested in trying it?

My copy:   Here Comes the Sun, 345 pages

Rating: ****

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Krik? Krak!

img_2994I’d never heard the words Kirk? Krak! and wondered what they meant when I picked this book up.  Reading the back cover, I learned that storytellers say Krik? and listeners say Krak! in Haiti.  Krik? Krak! is a poetic collection of connected short stories that explores the Haitian community in the United States and in Haiti.  The tradition of storytelling is a way of passing down moeurs and is an important part of Haitian culture.  This is specifically treated in this collection – passing culture from mother to daughter.

Krik? Krak! opens with a short story of Haitian refugees that are attempting to escape the political strife and horrors of their country and are floating out to sea desperately trying to reach Miami, while shedding their personal items along the way and in some cases their lives.  Each story is told from the poignant point of view of Haitians however surprising these stories have a strong sense of universality about them as well.  Everyone has a sense of home, a sense of family, of culture, and a desire for a good life.  Danticat does a brilliant job of integrating the recurring themes of water, suffering, and hope.  Water is often portrayed as a barrier.  The barrier that surrounds the island of Haiti and separates it from the Dominican Republic.  Just as the ocean must be crossed to attain a hopeful life in the United States, water is the notion of escape along with the reminder of all the Haitians that didn’t/don’t make it.

It’s very hard to read these stories and not think about the refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria and immigrating to Europe.  Leaving one’s country and having to find the balance between acceptance into a new country and preserving the culture that was left behind.  Danticat’s writing is infectious with a dynamism of superstition and it enlightens the reader to Haitian history.  I strongly recommend reading this short story collection to learn more about Haiti and its people but mostly to experience the passionate manner in which Danticat evokes the honesty, courage, sensitivity, and authenticity of their stories.

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American writer born in Port-au-Prince in 1969.  She was raised in Haiti by her aunt and uncle.  She finally joined her parens, who had left for the United States earlier, at the age of 12 in Brooklyn.  Danticat began writing at the age of 9 years old.  Her move to Brooklyn was difficult so she turned to literature for comfort.  Her first published writing in English was A Haitian-American Christmas: Cremace and Creole Theatre.   Some of the major themes that are dealt with in her writings are mother-daughter relationships, national identity, and Haitian diaspora.

She has been decorated with  countless literary awards and honorary degrees.  Having earned a Masters of Fine Arts from Brown University, Danticat has gone on to write many well-known titled books such as The Farming of the Bones, The Dew Breaker, and her latest novel Claire of the Sea Light.  On a high note, a young director named Easmanie Michel fell in love with Krik? Krak! and is working diligently to bring Edwidge Danticat’s short story Caroline’s Wedding to the big screen.  She believes that Danticat’s work will translate well on-screen and she has been entrusted to make it happen.  If you’re interested in keeping up with the new developments on this film project head over and check out Easmanie Michel’s Facebook page Caroline’s Wedding.

 

My Copy:  Krik? Krak!, paperback 224 pages

Rating: *****

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Daughter

Have you ever read a book that evoked so much emotion that you felt it was familiar and it made you shed a tear?  That hasn’t happened to me in ages.  Daughter begins with the story of Miriam and her daughter Aya.  They are keeping things together and getting on the best they can with no other family links.  One night Aya goes out for her usual run and doesn’t come back.  She is shot down by a police officer who mistakes her for a young black male suspect in a recent robbery in the area.  Aya is IMG_1798wearing a hoodie and listening to music, so doesn’t hear the officer approaching her.  As she turns and sees the officer she reaches in her pocket to turn off her music and the officer assumes she is reaching for a gun and shoots her.  From there the story of Miriam and Aya unfolds.

Miriam is a beautiful woman who is no longer living life to the fullest.  She is overwhelmed by life’s disappointments.  It’s as if she has made a pact with God to keep her and Aya safe if she upholds the highest standards of living – work, school, and church.  This means she expects the same from her daughter.  Problem is her connection to her daughter is minimal.  Miriam doesn’t have time for the attention that her daughter so craves.  Aya on the other hand finds her mother cold without feeling.  Aya doesn’t think her mother listens to her and secretly wishes for her father’s return.  Miriam wants to speak with Aya and understand her, however she refuses to tell Aya the complete family story, specifically about her father because she wants to protect her.  Nevertheless, this has its consequences.

Daughter is a perfect story about the roles of black women and men in the family and mother-daughter relationships.  It covers the difficulty of blacks to be seen as human trying to get better jobs and support their families.  Police brutality is a constant underlying theme, along with its impact on families and the black community.  Currently, there are often stories on the news and online about unarmed black men and women who have fallen victim to unmindful police officers.  This is nothing new in the U.S..  It’s been going on for a long while now.  “Since 1990, at least 2,000 people have been killed by law enforcement in the U.S.  Most of these people were black or Latino.  Most were unarmed.” (Daughter, p. 260)  The author, Asha Bandele, writes about the fall out from police brutality, through the development of Miriam’s character.  We see her change so much – from the naive over-positive adolescent to hard-working, silenced mother to destroyed and finally redeemed.

The structure and language of Daughter help depict the emotions and reality of the story.  The utilization of italics is inner thoughts and poetic passages, while blank pages after certain sections show a shift in the story or show something important is about to happen.  Bandele’s writing style flows beautifully and paints an exact picture of what she wants the reader to see.  This could easily be based on someone’s life story because it’s told with such attention to detail that nothing seems to be out-of-place.

Asha Bandele is a journalist(editor for Essence magazine) and writer.  She wrote her first memoir in 1999 called The Prisoner’s Wife, which is about her relationship and marriage to a prisoner serving a minimum sentence of twenty years.  She also wrote short stories like The Subtle Art of Breathing and short story collections and poems, Absence in the Palm of My Hands and Other Poems.  I’m looking forward to trying any one of these just to experience the quality, relevance, and sensitivity of her writing again.  Check out the video below to hear Bandele talking about writing. It’s really pertinent.

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1. Annie John

Yesterday I spent a pleasurable day reading Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid.  Wonderful quick read, only about 148 pages and beautifully written!  This book was recommended to me by a friend who told me to start with Annie John but that she prefered other titles by Kincaid instead.  I also have Lucy on the TBR shelf so it will most likely be one of my 50 books of 2012.

Annie John is a coming of age story which takes place in Antigua.  Annie is young when the story begins and it continues on through her adolescence.  Annie and her mother have a close loving relationship that  slowly but surely develops into hate and despise.  What I loved about this novel were all the little stories that are recounted by Annie that illustrate what life is like on an island at this time.  Colonialism and strict education are the background of this story.  You practically feel the breeze and sun on your face. I can’t say any more than that because I’ll give everything away.

Elaine Potter Richardson is the real name of Jamaica Kincaid.  She was born in 1949 and grew up on the island of Antigua. In 1973, her family’s disapproval of her writing led to her name change. Kincaid writes on recurring themes in her books such as Caribbean tradition, mother-daughter relationships, shaping female identity in a male dominant society, and the lack of Antiguans to fully achieve  independence because of colonialism to note a few.  If you’re interested here is a list of some other interesting novels by Kincaid At the Bottom of the River, My Brother, The Autobiography of My Mother, A Small Place….