“No one sound speaks for all” Jamaicans, the novelist Marlon James says. Here are the books he recommends for readers who want to see the island’s many facets.
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For better and for worse, Jamaica is the Texas of the Caribbean. The third largest island in the region, we nonetheless act as if we’re the first, thinking swagger is the ammo that proves it. The jury is still out on whether this attitude is why we punch so far above our weight culturally, or if it’s the punching that causes the attitude, but to live in Jamaica is to believe (yet again for better and for worse) that there is no place like it.
And yet, if there is one literary obsession common to all Jamaican writers, it is figuring out what exactly this place is — particularly Kingston, which somehow manages to be five different cities at the same time. To find the land of my literary imagination, I had to take on my mother’s old job and play detective. Kingston came to me from unexpected places: in the quietly exploding hearts of “Summer Lightning and Other Stories,” by Olive Senior, and Lorna Goodison’s “Heartease”; in the unseen Asian immigrant histories and uncommon gender identities in Patricia Powell’s “The Pagoda”; in the fever dream of Rastafari and ghetto life in “Brother Man,” by Roger Mais; in the ragamuffin poetics of Marcia Douglas’s “The Marvelous Equations of the Dread”; and in the metafictional bait and switch of “Wide Sargasso Sea,” by Jean Rhys.
Try to find one Jamaican voice and you will get lost in many, since no one sound speaks for all of us. It’s why, every time I try to tell a story of Jamaica, I need a sea of voices to do it.
“The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament,” by Orlando Patterson.
There will come a point, most likely on the flight back home, when a visitor will be hit by the realization of how perplexing Jamaicans are. A Jamaican might be most infuriating person you have ever told your life secrets to, the most frustrating person you will introduce to your mother and perhaps the most maddening human whose name you will give to your firstborn.
Edward Long took on the mission of trying to figure us out in 1774, but, after three volumes of history, he came away more flustered and confused than when he began. Patterson wisely knows which questions he can answer (why are we such great sprinters?) and which he can’t (why do Jamaicans love mushy music?). This book grabs hold of our contradictions and finds the common line connecting them all. Patterson honed his storytelling chops on fiction and it shows, particularly in a conclusion that declares that one can never conclude; after all, how could such world-changing creativity and jaw-dropping violence come from the same neighborhood, at the same time? He doesn’t shy away from our past, but he also explains why we are still some of the happiest people on earth. A book full of answers leaves you with questions? Sounds Jamaican to me.
This is a country that will turn any book into a beach read. The best advice is to stay away from anywhere you find people in cargo shorts, cocktails with umbrellas or T-shirts that say “Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go to Jamaica.” People will hesitate before giving you directions to Winifred Beach — mostly because they suspect that you might have just bought that T-shirt. But ask again nicely, and they might even take you there.
But instead of reading for yourself on that day off, how about scoring some island cred by reading for others? Jamaica has libraries all over the country, all of which host a weekly children’s storytelling hour, and all of which would jump at the chance of having a storyteller who is not a regular volunteer.
Kei Miller’s “Augustown,” and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
In “Augustown,” old and young people on the outskirts of Kingston find themselves in a curious and frustrating state of flux, without knowing that history is the cause. The history in this case is an infamous moment that one used to hear about only in whispers — even though, when it happened, it was a national sensation. Alexander Bedward — lay preacher, cult leader and possible maniac — convinced his followers that, like the prophet Elijah, they would fly to heaven alive; they only had to climb the nearest tree and jump. It sounds like the opening of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” except that this really happened. Nobody flew but Bedward, and that flight was over the cuckoo’s nest. But what if he had flown? What if he was talking about a different kind of flight all along? “Augustown” does what great novels always do: It forces to you to look at history differently, and then reveals what happens to characters who are unaware of that history but still reel from it.
In “Here Comes The Sun,” the city is Montego Bay, not Kingston — but, if the reader is a tourist, she will more likely see that city first anyway. Sure, tourism is the lifeblood of this country’s survival, but it’s a stranglehold as well, and right behind the sand and sea are the struggles and impossible choices that Margot and her sister must make to survive. And yet, a fate that spells doom for others might be the one chance for Margot to finally live the truth that she has hidden all her life. Paradise comes at a cost, and it is not the ones who settle the checks that pay.
Kerry Young’s “Pao.”
Don’t be surprised if you didn’t know that Kingston once had a Chinatown: Chances are your Jamaican friends have never heard of it either. In the mid-1800s, hundreds of Chinese immigrants were shipped to Jamaica to make up for the post-emancipation labor shortage, and, as happened everywhere they landed, they built their own neighborhood to survive. The novel opens in 1938, 100 years after the abolition of slavery but decades before independence, in a Jamaica nobody would recognize today. Pao, the book’s namesake, flees the Chinese Civil War to land in Kingston and faces no prospects and little future. Quick as a stray thought, he turns to small-time racketeering and petty crime, eventually rising to become the Godfather of Kingston’s Chinatown. But Pao is no ordinary gangster, and the humanity he shows doesn’t fit with the brutality he needs. Kingston is no ordinary city either, throwing off its colonial past but hurtling toward an uncertain future — what is the place of a Chinese man in this new order? There’s very little trace of this Chinatown in the city that survives, but the novel takes the reader back to when it was both tumultuously and thrillingly alive.
Kingston is always changing. Kingston is stubbornly the same. To know this city is to realize that both statements are always true.
“Summer Lightning and Other Stories,” Olive Senior
“Heartease,” Lorna Goodison
“The Pagoda,” Patricia Powell
“Brother Man,” Roger Mais
“The Marvelous Equations of the Dread,” Marcia Douglas
“Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys
“The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament,” Orlando Patterson
“Augustown,” Kei Miller
“Here Comes the Sun,” Nicole Dennis-Benn
“Pao,” Kerry Young
Marlon James is the author of five novels, including “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” about politically tinged gang violence in Jamaica, which won the 2015 Booker Prize, and “The Book of Night Women,” about an enslaved woman on a sugar plantation in 18th-century Jamaica, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, among other accolades.