Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Big Island, Small by Maureen St. Clair :: A Critical Book Review


 Big Island, Small by Maureen St.Clair presents a story of two girls, laid bare on paper, as they fight a familiar battle of self-discovery. Set half on a fictional Caribbean small island, half on a large island in North America, the main characters face one of the most daunting battles of life; the battle to be brave enough to discover and be who they are, while they lean hard on the precipice of adulthood.  St. Clair uses imagery, dual perspective, language, flashbacks and severe contrasts to discuss issues of racial conflict, colorism, sexuality and self-discovery in a contemporary climate. 

The plot is largely rooted in the main characters journey towards identity and how their continued interactions with each other, both verbal and non verbal, help them along the way. Through shared socio-cultural background and the challenge to accept each others different reactions to it, both Sola and Judith learn more of what they want from their conflicted lives. 

Sola, s a dark skinned girl who has taken proudly to her use of the Standard English language and wears this accomplishment as a badge of honor, while she pursues her studies on Big Island. Her youth, has been riddled with struggles and advantageous experiences that have catapulted her into a figure of strength in her young adult years. It is a strength her character has had to adorn herself with like a suit of armor. It is strength so brazen that anyone who first encounters her seems to glide over the still young girl sternly holding to bravery. Until, she meets Judith.

Contrastingly, Judith who shares similar origins strikes within Sola an irresistible friendship and is everything opposite to Sola. Judith is a mixed race, fair skinned girl who has privilege thrust upon her. This has made her resentful and rebellious in the face of personal choices that she was never allowed to own. Her youth is sprinkled with an excess of freedom that leaves her longing for a sense of belonging to a crowd that always seems to stand apart from her. Judith, uses her Caribbean English variety like a badge, taking Sola’s disuse of it almost as a personal affront.  Judith’s own earlier years are not without struggle but they are the kind of struggles the majority of children her age, that were within her immediate company, could not readily understand. This reality keeps her lonely in a crowded room. Until, she meets Sola.

Judith aches to fit into skin, history and Caribbean culture while Sola is desperate to stand out despite it. Jointly, they find joy in all things that draw them together and set them apart from the masses. However they also find themselves disagreeing, in seismic proportions, on various world views. “We supposed to meet. It’s fate. Maybe we supposed to argue too. Who knows?”  Judith foreshadows very early in the novel.  

St. Clair places colorism up for discussion continuously throughout the novel with Judith asking "You talking like you know me, you know me?" defensively, when the way she speaks is challenged by Sola. When Judith shares "Later Sola tell me lighting a splif in a crowd isn’t a luxury she has. And I tell she, “I not white. I black too even if you can’t see past my skin.” But I know I not the kind of black she means.” We see again a relevant nod to the present day social injustice marked by race and skin colour.

Their relationship is an open challenge to aforementioned themes of the book. Judith’s choice to embrace her ancestral right, as a mixed race girl, to wear her hair in dreadlocks despite her fair completion causes many disdainful and intrusive personal questions.  Sola’s detainment by public forces, which Sola does not question, also draws focus on racial conflict. Yet, these are questions the two main characters dare at each other and by extension; questions that the author dares the reader to contemplate through the vehicle of their edged dialogue. 

For a moment, their differences and the way the world reacts to them seem big enough to divide the characters forever and a lack of being taught how to communicate their feelings openly, thrusts them into many long, dangerous, uncomfortable silences. It is then we see how culture, paired with the unbending desire to love and be loved in return is spotlighted in the plot.

When words fail, they then bond through touch and music, as seen when Sola muses “She gives me a cd called Throw Sown Your Arms by an Irish woman singing old-time reggae. I never heard of a baldheaded white Rasta before. The first time I hear her voice I lay down on my bed, spread my arms and legs like I am balancing on water, like I am floating to the thunder of her tender, angry voice. The power I feel in my bones is a power unfamiliar and yet it spreads through my body like it belongs there, like it was there even before I was born.”  

They reconnect through food, cultural experiences and the comfort of a shared language popular to their past. “He smiling at me while telling me to try some black cake and a glass of sorrel. I inhale the Christmas vibe…” The author uses beautiful imagery to describe cultural treats such as tamarind balls "burnt brown sugar wrapped in sweet sour flesh.”  submerging readers in a deep sensory experience.  These coping mechanisms allow the characters to grow closer to their personal truths, slowly and with a level of gentility.  

 Eventually they find their way back to each other after devastating changes and traumas they were not prepared to deal with alone and also were not sure to whom they could turn for help. Their personal traumas creep with the passage of time, through their journeys of self-discovery, as the characters creep too towards their hand crafted personal identities.

The author’s use of dual perspective aids the story as the reader is taken along each character’s unravelling interpretations and personal perceptions of major conflicts happening throughout the story.   St. Clair’s use of flashbacks allow us to never lose sight of the constricting, beautiful, small island background where "neighbours missing you if only a day past since they see you last’ and ‘Everybody knowing somebody who know someone who know you."  It is a uniquely ‘Small Island’ Caribbean past that is navigating their understanding of a vast, ‘Big Island’ world.

The reader bears witness to young girls facing issues of sexual assault, violence, racial precedence, anxiety, victim blaming and the questions that come with sexuality and sexual discovery in a way that is made all the more compelling by the events of our current world chatter. Big Island, Small by Maureen St. Clair serves as a Caribbean literary reminder that maybe this big world isn’t so big after all, especially through the small, intimate lens of our shared experiences.


My Personal reaction to Big Island, Small by Maureen St. Clair:

When I first started reading the book I honestly had a hard time. I had a hard time because I thought it was going to be 'just another love story' which it is not. My personal reading tastes don't see me reading many books where the central focus of a plot is a romance, so after a very early plot twist happened in the novel I found myself wondering what I'd gone and got myself into.

As time passed I returned to the pages of the novel because I was still curious. It is very hard for me to DNF a book and fortunately this remained true with this one.

What really caught me is the authors beautiful writing style. I am an absolute sucker for a beautiful, artistic writing style. She wrote vividly about self discovery, identity and Caribbean culture with this book. She spoke of questions that people have been for decades pretending that we do not have and this drew me in. I had to know where that journey of self discovery took those characters. I had to know even more because their setting and origins so readily reflected my own island. Underscoring the importance of representation.

I am not mixed race, for example but I've had mixed race friends and loved ones and I have found myself at the cross hairs of mistaken identity because of colourism myself. So, watching two young girls deal with those issues amongst others, in a setting that is written similarly to my own life setting, loving the food I love at Christmas and treasuring the parts of culture I have treasured for years was great.

This book wont be for everyone, it has some graphic themes, events and language. It is categorised as women's fiction (on goodreads) but really I find it slips easily into the still budding genre of new adult.  I like that the words are sharp around the edges some times as I find that true to life and to find this truth reflected in contemporary literature I think is necessary. I am grateful that this story too found a place in the world.

I'm going to also take this moment to address the elephant in the room: yes, there is a 'controversial kiss' scene and you will notice that I have not said much about it. This is intentional. I leave it up to every reader to have their own reaction to this issue because for me, my reaction was very important as a person. It was only till an informal conversation with the author herself when she said the words 'but....its not about the kiss' that the way i engaged with the text changed swiftly and deeply. I don't believe literature and it's personal meanings and relevance should be forced upon any reader. I believe everyone has a write to have a personal reaction to literature based on their own experiences. It is not something I seek to take away from anyone. 

Thank you to the author for providing a copy of the book for review. You can purchase Big Island, Small by Maureen St.Clair here.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Journey to NOAH CON 2016 :: Albinism in the Black Community

It's Albinism Awareness Day again and today I want to talk about a topic I've been thinking about for a very long time; having albinism in the black community. This is a topic that for me never seems to grow easier to write about. It is without a doubt that we live in a time that is incredibly racially charged.  So, what does it feel like to look like one race and be another? I think this a plane of existence most people can understand, especially if you are mixed raced.

Both my parents are black. I am a black girl with white skin living on an island where a white person is the exception not the norm. More often than not, a white person is a tourist, that has descended upon our land by ship or plane in hopes of having a tropical experience.

Now, growing up it was not particularly hard for me when it came to race. I never considered myself white. I was however called 'whitey' at every turn and I DID look like most of the people on my television screen at the time.

Can you imagine the annoyance of a child to a name like that, whitey, reds, yellow girl, white girl, pinky, during a time when developing identity is paramount? Still, I knew and understood who I was and I think that was made easier by the fact that I lived on an island with a vastly black populous.

Now, here is when it got interesting.

Consider this dear reader, running around in blonde pigtails and big puffy princess dresses in oversized glasses (that didn't work but we'll get to that part) at the age of oh lets say....zero to five. Everyone considering thee the belle of the ball. The notion of a little white child is new, it is accepted then, it is considered the standard of beauty to be pale, blonde, blue grey eyed and twirling. It is so rare to have a child who 'came out that prettily pale'
It is the image, then, presented on television screens. It is what the population says is " so pretty, so pretty!! " aren't her parents so lucky?!

7 years old now, let us imagine it:
Off to school in the city. Different, suddenly different isn't as cute to your pairs. Different is scary to many many children. Different is tourist isn't it? Different is the reaction it pulls from little eyes and from little boys and girls you hope will be your friend but who are scared of you because you are different and you don't belong here. How could you possible? You belong where the people on TV are surely.

Maybe this can start making a seven year old wonder if there is something to be afraid of after all. It can make a seven year old little girl start to notice that when she looks at family photos, she doesn't look like her parents or her siblings in a way that she never noticed before. It can make a seven year old girl have questions nobody is prepared to answer because no adult around her yet knows the answers to them.

Enter Puberty!
Enter curves and rebellious spirits and thick lips that can now be a sexual focus without people thinking to very much of it. Suddenly, we are beautiful again. We are African hips under milk white skin, we are eyes like the ocean and hair like sand on the beaches of our island. We are hip hop rhythm and drum beats pulsating through almost every model and lead actress on television screams then and we are beautiful beautiful oh so beautiful because we are just...sooooo....white and isn't that something to be excited about?

Consider this hurricane thrown at a child who is every standard of beauty personified then but is also the same girl who is whispered at and yelled at and followed and mocked in the streets and called names that define her o
nly by the attributes that where THE MOST beautiful thing about her a few years ago.

Consider black people making the mistake of calling her, demanding of her that she admit she is a white girl because she has white skin after all.

Having albinism in the black community is a strange thing. Having albinism in the black community in the Caribbean may be even stranger. Consider having to wonder if the affection shown, the want and longing for a body is due to the fact that she is the befits of the black race without the harsh reality of looking it. Consider the moment she realises that the slogan for pride in ones blackness, hashtag melanin, excepts her too.

Consider the rationally charged world, as she sits amongst justifiably angry friends who discuss their anger of the injustice dealt the black rage white racial slurs of their own. Who bite back at an entire race of people by pointing out what they look like and speaking in loud tones of aggression. Those moments, after a police killing of an unarmed black man, those moments after watching 12 Years A Slave and Driving Mrs. Daisy where she is angry and her friends are angry and everyone is okay with being vocal about it and she wants to be too because she is not white but she looks down and her hands still are.

Now, I will be honest with you. I have felt all of those things and so much more in varying degrees. I have not written this post to grasp at pity. My intention is to warn of the dangers of colourism to any person's identity. To warn that the way we speak, to tell a person that they are beautiful because of or as a result of the colour of their skin, regardless of race, ultimately does more harm than good for our goal of acceptance. I was very blessed too you see...I got to be that girl who grew up to find the answers to give to the teachers who didn't have them when she was little.

I am the girl who grew up the woman to understand and tell the world with the full force of her words that beauty isn't even skin deep. Beauty is subject to the beholder and what we ascribe to social class.

I am that girl who grew up to be the woman who was financed in part by her entire nation to go to a conference and stand in a ball room with nine hundred and minty nine (maybe more I don't have the exact number but it was the first year after they pushed past one thousand ) who finally looked like the girl she was in the mirror. The girl who turned woman and stood there with who were black and white and had questions and answers.

I am not that girl anymore with confused notions of how beauty can appear and disappear even though skin colour says the same. I am that woman who will spend her life making sure that that girl, the one who is led to feel those things ? Does not have to exist if I can help it.

I am that woman who explains now the dangers of colourism in the black community. How we speak about the shade of our skin to ourselves and to each other is very important. I was very blessed. My parents taught me that I was beautiful not because of the colour of my skin but because of the strength of my will. My friends taught me that I was beautiful because of my kindness and willingness to give and be generous, Time taught me that beauty comes wrapped up in all skin tones and is not the property of one group or the other.

The NOAH Conference helped me to experience that in real time. While I was there I took the chance to ask a new friend with a type of albinism you are probably not used to seeing, a few questions that might shed some light for you. He and I spoke about being and having children that don't look as you do, the impact of others with the same and or similar conditions and much more. Check out my interview with Torey bellow!

 Thank You so much for the interview Torey!

For more on my experience growing up with albinism in my country check out my barnacle interview here.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

On Beauty is fleeting and Second Chances | Horizon Exhibit By Amy Cannestra. at the Susan Mains Gallery

For me, one of my favourite things about attending art exhibitions is that you scarcely know what you'll get. Some days you will get drummers and live poetry and other days you will get sunsets and up-cycled shells wrapped in human made shine. I had the opportunity to attend an art exhibit at the Susan Mains Art Gallery on the, 16th March, 2018 that was quite a bit different from ones I've gone to in the past.

In the privileged opportunity I had to speak with the artist Amy Cannestra, I got a first hand encounter with her artistic process and a fine art conversation about the exhibit titled Horizon. We spoke of creativity and awe inspiring moments of life caught, perhaps better worded, framed in pieces of art. 

Amy and I spoke of the ease of her creative process as she ventured simply to capture a landscape in an a moment. It's colour, composition, the vibrancy of that moment's every move whether slow and whimsical or passionate and evasive. We conversed of it's ability to steer in you feeling of appreciation, astonishment and respect, all at once. Something she has artificially put to paper in the pieces showcased in Horizon.

Who has not felt that awareness of extraordinary fortunate to be alive to bare witness a scene, so heavy in its tangible beauty, that you can do little but look on in both shock and surprise. When you are afraid to do anything to compromise this moment of being wholly alive in all of your senses. Unable to catalogue it because what if you move and you miss a sliver of brilliance? Surely, that cannot be allowed! Is that a feeling only brought to the surface by Caribbean sunsets? 

I don't think so... I know I have felt it just looking at cityscapes too far away too... The point I'm trying to zero in on here is that excitement of total appreciation of beauty not seen the same way by all. A unique perception perhaps, we do not readily acknowledge until we see it represented. Something that art, whether visual, musical, or literary in my experience, always helps us to see faster than if left to our own devices.

Amy and I spoke of how sometimes just the action of bringing the art to life by letting it be simple and real and three dimensional can be it's own artistic voyage. In the exhibition she used acrylic paint on both paper and a plastic over covering, that when left to sit atop each other, created a sense of movement and depth in the painting for the eyes. 

Her bright choice of colours made the pieces even more captivating and really how could you look away even if you wanted to do? Amy's use of a horizon line also works to give the eyes a safe harbour upon which to dwell in her pieces, so that the paintings, though bright and full of motion are not completely overbearing for the viewer. 

When we spoke of her other pieces, made of conch shell and chocolate wrappers, I could not help consider the relevance to our Caribbean environment. She has taken two pieces of inexpensive material the world deems trash or excess and given them an opportunity to adorn a new purpose of beauty. 

The ocean has spit up conch shell and humanity has spit up snack wrappers and these waste materials have been made, through her artistic expression, to sit next to each other. Neutral beside shining tint, in a minimalist expression of second chances due to the visionaries hands. This, is a lesson I continue to enforce however I can as a global citizen; the notion of social responsibility to the lands we inhabit, to see the beauty in the original even in this modern day eminence of the change. 

As human beings, with only one planet to our name we must continue to hold to the relevance of the reuse, reduce and recycle approach. Art continues to show us that these concepts extend even to reshape our concept of what is visually appealing. Amy's use of natural materials as an agent that does this simply; it is a small movements that makes a big statement through the vessel of fine art. Her pieces remind us of a commitment to finding too renewed purpose for all that serves us, so that beauty both natural and man made is not lost to us due to hazards caused by us. 

It was wonderful to talk with Amy as a fellow artist and to appreciate what a moment and second chance for a piece of material can do to create beautiful things, if we dare to think outside of the norm and to take the risk of working with what we have now. It is a message I hope we pass on to generations, if not through our warnings then through our artistic recordings and representations. Especially, as Caribbean citizens, directly affected by climate change and poor waste management.

This post has been published today in conjunction with the international celebration of World Environmental Awareness Day (June 5) and World Oceans Day, June 8.

Peace. Love. Protect.
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