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.

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!

A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

We Mark Your Memory

Hey everyone! 2018’s already proving an exciting year!

I’m happy to announce that I have a short story called “Homecoming” published in We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture.

“Homecoming” depicts a young Indo-Trinidadian couple visiting Kolkata in India, the motherland, for the first time and experiencing confusion, bewilderment, and displacement there.

The anthology is edited by David Dabydeen (Guyanese-born poet, novelist, and academic), Maria del Pilar Kaladeen (associate fellow of the School of Advanced Study, University of London), and Tina K. Ramnarine (author and professor at Royal Holloway).

It chronicles the experiences of the indentured Indian labor diaspora across the globe, from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean to Fiji in the Pacific. It also features other Caribbean writers: Gaiutra Bahadur, Kevin Jared Hosein, and Gabrielle Hosein to name a few.

Here’s a blurb from the publishers:

“To mark the centenary of the abolition of the system in the British Empire (2017–20), the volume brings together, for the first time, new writing from across the Commonwealth. It is a unique attempt to explore, through the medium of poetry and prose, the Indian indentured heritage of the twenty-first century.”

Customers in North America can pre-order from the University of London or their local bookstores. Customers everywhere else can pre-order from The School of Advanced Study (SAS). It will also be available on Amazon worldwide from April 30th.

#WeMarkYourMemory

Are you excited to read We Mark Your Memory? 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: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There

“It is the expectation itself that robs a bit of authenticity from the destinations we seek out.”

– Rolf Potts

One of the best ways you can travel meaningfully is by reading travel fiction/non-fiction on the country/countries you intend to visit.

I got interested in Rolf Potts when I heard he was the “Jack Kerouac for the internet age” and had written an essential travel book called Vagabonding. Truth be told, I didn’t find Vagabonding very helpful but I picked up his collection of 20 short stories to see whether it would change my mind. The book spans his real-life adventures in several countries and arguably his most famous piece, Storming the Beach, is about planning how to storm the movie of the same name on location in Phi Phi Leh, Thailand.

Some of the stories show how the best stories come from being open to the road like Road Roulette or from misadventures like Turkish Knockout, Be Your Own Donkey, and Up Cambodia without a phrasebook. I especially liked the shattering of preconceptions in Tantric Sex for Dilettantes.  It was also nice to see a travel story on Grenada: Seven (or So) Sins on the Isle of Spice although it wasn’t as juicy as the others.

What I liked most about his stories were the endnotes. Here, Potts explained why he had to write his story in a certain way or leave out certain details for his narrative arc. I think this shines a light on how writers have to create a story from the tangled strands of a real lived experience.  The endnotes also sometimes explained his motivations for writing the story. It felt very behind the scenes and I totally loved it.

Verdict: great read!

Have you ever read Marco Polo Didn’t Go There? What did you think about it?

5 books that inspired me to travel

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of travel fiction/non-fiction but there are some books that remain dear to me. Some I read during my formative years before I was old enough or could afford to travel abroad. I read two of them while I was at university and they inspired me to push the boundaries of my travel experience further.

If you look closely at the header photo, you’ll only notice four of the books I mention below. That’s because I failed to keep the original copy of the fifth and never got around to buying another to replace it. In spite of this, the story is still in my heart. Here are the 5 books that inspired me to travel abroad and changed the course of my life.

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Say what you want but fantasy fiction is the ultimate escapist’s tool. After reading about the adventures of Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund, I yearned to find my own magical wardrobe that would transport me from my hot little island to cold climates with lots of snow, fauns, and talking animals. I also secretly wanted to try Turkish Delight, Edmund’s Achilles heel.

“Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”

2. Men and Gods by Rex Warner

While growing up, I enjoyed reading about ancient Greek mythology. In Men and Gods, I especially loved the stories about Perseus, Ceres and Proserpine, and Daedalus and Icarus. These tales transported me to a realm where anything could happen. I especially admired the powerful female goddesses like Diana and loved that not all the stories had happy endings, just like in real life.

“My advice to you, Icarus,’ he said, ‘is to fly at a moderate height. If you go too low, the sea-water will weigh the feathers down; if you go too high, the heat of the sun will melt the wax. So you must fly neither too high nor too low. The best thing is to follow me.”

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Although Jane Eyre is one of my top books of all time, it was the other Bronte sister’s Wuthering Heights that made me ache for England and her moody moors. This was the first story I read that delved into the complexities of anti-heroic protagonists like Heathcliff and really captured the connection between character and landscape in a vivid way.

“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”

4. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I know it sounds like a cliché but this book really got me excited about independent travel. I read it just before I set off on an overland trip across Egypt and Jordan and despite the circumspect behavior of some of the characters, I really enjoyed how Kerouac translated his open-hearted attitude to life in his stream-of-consciousness writing style.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

5. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This was one of the books that really made me fall in love with the writer’s perception of her home country. Not the dusty, Taj Mahal version of the subcontinent but the fecund, South Indian part of it. Although it’s largely a tragic story, I wanted to live in Kerala just to try Mammachi’s illegal banana jam and watch the Kathakali dancers do their epic performances.

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst…But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. “

What books inspired your wanderlust? Share in the comments below!