Review: The Bells of Old Tokyo

As a fairly new expat living in the land of the rising sun, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of seasoned expats who have called this place home for several years.

Anna Sherman moved to Asia in 2001 and The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations of Time and a City is her first book. In this part-memoir/ part travelogue, Sherman retraces the steps taken by composer Yoshimura Hiroshi in his book, Edo’s Bells of Time, listening for the chime of the old city’s bells in the silent spaces of her loud, 21st century metropolis. Her prose is both lyrical and clipped, as she meditates on seasonal time-keeping in old Edo and contrasts it with digital time-keeping in modern-day Tokyo.

She shows how the traditional Japanese conception of time as non-linear is constantly at odds with Japan’s adoption of progressive, mechanical Western time, a push and pull struggle that mirrors Japan’s juggling between its slick, contemporary image as a postmodern mecca and its ancient Eastern roots. This conflict is also evident in Tokyo’s constant reinvention of itself, forever destroying and rebuilding its spaces so that nothing ever remains permanent, even the author’s beloved coffee shop in the bowels of the enigmatic capital city.

Overall, The Bells of Old Tokyo is a fresh take on a much-admired and much-misunderstood city and highly recommended for anyone who wants to probe into what really makes the Japanese capital tick.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Cuba Then, Cuba Now

Firstly, I found Cuba Then, Cuba Now, the title of the Vintage Short by travel writer Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, to be a bit misleading. It promised reflective essays on Cuba – then and now, but the bulk of the book spoke about another Caribbean island, Jamaica. In fact, Cuba Then, Cuba Now included many excerpts from Shapiro’s first book, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.

Shapiro’s three chapters on Jamaica certainly brought the island alive with keen observations of its people, history, and culture. I liked that the narrative voice was attuned to Jamaican patois, particularly the brand spoken by its Rastafarian community.

The introduction and the chapter on Cuba, however, somehow didn’t make much of an impact on me as a Caribbean-born reader and writer. That said, I enjoyed reading this title and would really like to read Island People next.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read it?

Review: Homeland

“He saw him standing on the shore of the Vistula Spit, scanning the sea with his binoculars – ‘When are they going to come and get us?’ – while behind him the refugee wagons rumbled from the east to west and west to east. Jonathan pounded the armrest with his fist and the words kept hammering in his brain – all for nothing! ALL FOR NOTHING! He didn’t mean the death of his mother or of his father, who’d had to ‘bite the dust,’ or the sofa beds his uncle manufactured, but the suffering of all creatures, the flesh lashed to the stake, the calf he had seen bound and gagged, the torture chamber in the Marienburg, the shuffling procession of mankind beneath the condemning sky.
It’s all for nothing, he thought again and again. And: Who’s to blame?” –
Homeland by Walter Kempowski (Granta, 2018)

I’ll be honest. Before I received Homeland from the publishers, I had never heard of Walter Kempowski before. However, the good thing about reading literature in translation is that you discover voices from all over the world, not just from the English-speaking and writing world. The novel was translated from German by Charlotte Collins. In Homeland, the story is set in 1988, pre-Berlin Wall fall. We follow Jonathan Fabrizius, a writer who goes on a press road trip from Hamburg to former East Prussia/Poland and ends up revisiting the homeland he never really knew. A common theme that runs throughout the work is an existential angst associated with the futility of war, violence, suffering, and death. Reading this work, I was also sharply reminded of my short story “Homecoming” in We Mark Your Memory that explores similar themes of identity, homeland, and belonging. He’s definitely a writer I’d like to read more of.

Review: Exterminate All The Brutes

Exterminate All The Brutes is written by Swedish author Sven Linqvist. It was originally published in 1992 and in 2018, it was translated by Joan Tate and published by Granta Books. This collection of essays include travelogue-style entries on the author’s journey through the Sahara while he researches the social, political, and economic context of the world of author Joseph Conrad. It recounts the theories that were the rage around the time he wrote Heart of Darkness.

In particular, this book delves into the European attitude to the “inferior races,” summed up in Kurtz’ horrible but pithy statement, “Exterminate all the brutes.” The author also intersperses his historical research and reflections with snippets from his personal life including childhood memories and dream-like sequences. Although at times his ruminations can appear disjointed and fragmented, overall, the book offers rich historical details regarding European imperialism on the African continent, particularly how they justify their rapacious and cruel behavior with reference to the “white man’s burden” to civilize the uncivilized world. It’s great critical reading, especially in the world we live in today.

Have you ever read it? What did you think?

A literary travel guide to T&T

If you’re a book nerd like me, then you’ll absolutely adore the idea of literary travel. What is it, exactly? It’s a form of tourism where you visit places that inspired or featured in certain fiction/non-fiction books. For instance, if you loved Anne of Green Gables, then you’ll definitely appreciate visiting the real Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an established industry when it comes to literary travel in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. That’s why I decided to comb literary fiction set in T&T to pinpoint locations you can visit to enrich your reading experience. Of course, many of the locations may not reflect exactly what’s presented in the literature but it’s always nice to compare and contrast the real with the art.

Here are 12 places you can visit on your literary travel tour of Trinidad and Tobago.

1. Black Rock

Black Rock is an actual location on the eastern coast of the island of Tobago which inspired Black Rock/Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange, the debut of Amanda Smyth, an Irish-Trinidadian author. The seaside location forms the backdrop of Celia’s coming of age story in the 1950s.

“The water here is usually calm. A large black rock jutted out of it, like a little island on its own. On the sand – as fine as dust – I found shells and pieces of driftwood thrown up like old bones and I usually came across a sea pussy or two, shaped like a half a moon and soft like jellyfish.”

2. Chacachacare Island

Located dong de islands (as the locals say), a few kilometers off the northwestern coast of Trinidad, Chacachacare Island is a place where lepers were historically quarantined. It stars in Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter, a very Caribbean interpretation of The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

“They say the Amerindians named the island for the cotton they used to grow here. I like the other story better, the one about the Indians naming the island after a bird.’ Cha-ca-cha-ca-Ree. I heard it now everywhere, and in between the greenery I saw the flash of yellow feathers, then blue, then red.

We wound around sharp bends in the road. More precipices, more flashes of blue sea, black rocks, white froth curling on the edges of glistening waves. More thick greenery. Color. Flowers, birds.”

3. Chaguanas

This Central Trinidad town in one of the focal points of Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas. In fact, the novel’s Hanuman House was directly inspired by Lion House still standing in the western part of the town. Lion House is still owned by Naipaul’s maternal relatives, the Capildeos.

Among the tumbledown timber-and-corrugated-iron buildings in the High Street at Arwacas, Hanuman House stood like an alien white fortress. The concrete walls looked as thick as they were, and when the narrow doors of the Tulsi Store on the ground floor were closed the House became bulky, impregnable and blank.”

4. Couva

The rural atmosphere of this Central town is highlighted in Nobel Prize Laureate Derek Walcott’s poem, The Saddhu of Couva. Although you may not experience the same milieu there today, you can still feel the poem’s vibe in rustic Central Trinidad villages like Felicity. Here’s an excerpt:

“When sunset, a brass gong,

vibrate through Couva,

is then I see my soul, swiftly unsheathes,

like a white cattle bird growing more small

over the ocean of the evening canes,

and I sit quiet, waiting for it to return

like a hog-cattle blistered with mud,

because, for my spirit, India is too far.”

5. Laventille

Although this North Trinidad urban community is maligned for gang violence today, Laventille is still the birthplace of the country’s national instrument, the steelpan. The community is immortalized by Derek Walcott in his poem, Laventille, and Earl Lovelace in his novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance. Here’s an excerpt from Walcott’s Laventille:

It huddled there

steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,

tempered in violence, like Rio’s favelas,

with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as

its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall

from its miraculous hilltop

shrine,

down the impossible drop 

to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St. Clair

6. Princes Town

The South Trinidad town of Princes Town has been featured in more than a couple books written by Canada-based Trinidadian authors. Ramabai Espinet talks about Manahambre Road in The Swinging Bridge and Lengua is preserved in Rabindranath Maharaj’s A Perfect Pledge. Here’s a quote from A Perfect Pledge.

This village is a real trap. Bit by bit it will eat up every single person who remain here. This place will never change.” 

Here’s another about the protagonist’s family home on Manahambre Road in The Swinging Bridge:

We lived in a rambling board house set back from busy Manahambre Road. Facing the traffic was Muddie’s flower garden, which she had lovingly planted as a new bride and which, years later, continued to reseed itself into a spectacular array of zinnias and sunflowers. On one side of the house was a massive celamen tree and a chenette tree with spreading branches. At the back, the land sloped downwards, and the structure rose on high pillars, leaving a clean dirt area underneath where we played, with a washtub at one end and a little tin bathroom standing next to it.”

7. Mayaro

This quiet fishing village has been celebrated in many of Trinidadian author Michael Anthony’s novels, including Green Days by the River and A Year in San Fernando. Both are coming of age stories where the protagonists deal with a loss of innocence. Here’s an excerpt about Mayaro in A Year in San Fernando. 

“Somehow, the knowledge that I was going away made Mayaro look very strange. The lime trees looked greener, for one thing, and the sudden down-sweep of the land towards the ravine, rising again at the far, grassy hills, seemed to make the place look unusual this morning, and rare.”

It’s also memorialized in The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj.

 “Remind me of the place. The wind breathing through the trees and the sound of coconuts dropping on the mud. Ta-dup ta dup. The hairy mangrove crabs and the turtles. The evening sky looking like a big mash up rainbow with all these colors leaking down on the sea. The fresh smell of fish and sand in the mornings. Cascadura jumping up from the ponds like living clumps of mud. Dew skating down from the big dasheen leaves as if they playing with the sunlight. A horsewhip snake slipping down a guava branch as smooth as flowing water. Cassava pone and seamoss drinks.” 

8. Plymouth

Plymouth is also located on the eastern coast of Tobago, next to Black Rock. It’s featured in British-Guyanese author Oonya Kempadoo’s Tide Running.  The novel details the dark underbelly and sex tourism industry of this “island paradise.”

“Just visiting from Trinidad, we could have never seen the darkness of this island. The strength of it overpowered and silenced you. Only after moving here did the calm become unsettling. Traces of resentment glowing under the skin of proud faces, in the gait of mobile bodies. The house, our holiday haven from Trinidad city life, seduced us into its womb, promising peace of mind, crime-free living, and the blue Caribbean Sea. Once Peter’s work in Trinidad had finished, we moved. And now the haven sheltered us from things unknown and deep. Always mothering, giving space for mistakes and meditation, watching over our sleep.”

“The sea rolling and swelling up itself down by them rocks on Plymuth Point. Breathing out, sucking ‘e belly back in. Everytime it spuff slow, li’l crabs stop and hold on tight to the rocks. It fooling them. Only snorting and slurping back in, snuffling and bubbling.”

9. Port of Spain

Many Trinidadian authors write about the capital city with equal amounts of disdain and admiration. VS Naipaul wrote about it in his famous collection of short stories, Miguel Street, Ismith Khan in The Jumbie Bird, Sam Selvon in A Brighter Sun, and CLR James in Minty Alley. In The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey describes the city like this:

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor, blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

10. San Fernando

The country’s second city is canonized in The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet as well in as A Year in San Fernando by Michael Anthony. Here’s a quote about the city in The Swinging Bridge:

“San Fernando. An ordinary little city, hardly more than a town when I grew up in it, though it possessed a mayor, a cathedral, its own general hospital. Driving along the southern highway into San Fernando you can easily miss its quiet, distinct charm. The beat is its own, not frenzied or hustling like Port of Spain, a city that hits you over the head with its rushing intensity, its goods, its people, its kaiso music hawked continuously in the streets. No, not that percussive beat, but a steadier, more monotonous rhythm, anchored perhaps to a securer set of values, shored up by habit, by persistence, by the flow of unchanging time.”

“The city of San Fernando housing its twin but separate populations, African and Indian, each lacerating the other, each tolerating the other’s crossovers, the strayaways, the inveterate mixers seduced by curiosity and a taste for difference, whose blood and semen and juices would solidify and form a rickety bridge across which others might begin to cross the rapids that they feared would wash them out into the open sea. My place, this fertile, exuberant, wounded city. Its lovely shadowed hill; its stinking wharf.”

11. St. James

St. James, a suburb of Port of Spain, was the final resting place for Mohun Biswas, the protagonist of VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. Biswas was modeled on Naipaul’s father and you can visit the same house ennobled in the novel, now a historical landmark known as Naipaul House.

“The house could be seen from two or three streets away and was known all over St James. It was like a huge and squat sentry-box: tall, square, two-storeyed, with a pyramidal roof of corrugated iron.”

 12. Quinam

I’ve only come across this popular South Trinidad beach in one poem by Eric Roach entitled On Quinam Bay. However, the location’s a bit macabre because the Tobagonian poet actually committed suicide there, by drinking insecticide and swimming out to sea. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

Soparee Mai is still maintained

in her south town of quiet ways

and modest means; and south from there

beyond Mendez, in a green plain

of old oil wells and planted teak,

it is land’s end in Quinam Bay.

The road’s a black canal to sea

where Colon’s schooners rolled off shore

and his boats were lugged to land

cleaving the indifferent wave.

Have you been to these places or read these books? Please share in the comments below!

Review: Oh Happy Day

Self-published in 2017, Oh Happy Day is a debut collection of short stories written by Trinidadian author, Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali.

Oh Happy Day features many popular Trinidadian traditions, customs, and language and spans the length and breadth of the island, from Sea Lots to Siparia, Mayaro to Talparo.

In general, the stories deal with the struggles and adventures of young Trinidadians from working-class families. Their themes range from young love, yearnings for parental care and affection, rising above social circumstances, getting lost or stranded, and making moral choices.

In the preface, Ragoonanan-Ali mentions being inspired by Ways of Sunlight, a well-known collection of short stories by Trinidadian author, Sam Selvon.

This inspiration is clearly reflected in the close-knit communities featured in her work as well as the author’s use of dialogue peppered with Trinidadian Creole English rather than Standard English. This is a joy for native speakers to read but may take some adjusting on the part of international readers not accustomed to the Trini tongue.

If you’re an expat Trini and haven’t been home in a while, these stories may provoke an intense sense of nostalgia for the birthplace you remembered.  Many of the stories also have neat endings so you’re bound to feel a sense of completion at the end.

Have you read Oh Happy Day? What did you think?

Photo courtesy Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali

Review: Americanah

You can’t talk about international travel without talking about immigration.

Yes, they are related.

So what is immigration? Immigration has been happening way back when. It happened when nomadic people decided to leave a place and settle somewhere else that promised a better life. Ain’t nothing wrong with trying to improve your lot. Just do it the legal way, if you can afford it. If you can’t, sucks to be you, says the world.

Lately, immigration has been causing a lot of chatter, especially among people who think that their country belongs to them, not to God or anyone else. Little do they know that “country” and “nation” are artificial constructs designed to keep certain people out and let certain people in.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is set in Nigeria as well as the US and the UK. It grapples with the ugly issues surrounding the migration of black people from the “Third World” to  the “First World” as well as the reintegration of folks who’ve been abroad back into their “home countries.” Issues like interracial relationships, racial stereotyping, diversity, ideas of homeland, you get the picture. I could hardly put down because it was so quote-alicious. With that said, here are some of my favorites from Americanah.

Americanah 3

“But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past. Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder.”

Adichie

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.” 

Have you ever read Americanah? What did you think of it?