Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Daily Literary Sustenance non-negotiable as far as I'm concerned.

But not just any old food can spark the engine that drives my imagination.  What I fact, what I crave, is the challenge of an intelligently crafted plot.  Realistic dialogue, and engaging characters that stay with me long after I've marked the page and the closed the book (or powered down my Nook) ...not to mention the thrill of being introduced to new and exceptional authors uniquely skilled in the use and presentation of the Language Arts.

I'm definitely not talking about Fast Food consumption here.  What I want is the really, REALLY good stuff.  The type of discriminating, gastro-literary treat that would easily be on par with Momma's made-from-scratch Peach Cobbler and Coconut Cake.  Or Copper River Salmon shipped in fresh from the Pacific Northwest, drizzled with Lemon Butter and Capers while it's still hot on the Grill.  Or how about some Artisan, hand-made chocolates; like the ones you can get from Ayza on West 31st near Madison Square, served up with a 71' Dalva Porto Colheita?

Sounds good, right?..and trust me, it all tastes good too.  And when it comes to the stuff I read (and aspire to write), my number one goal is to experience and produce content that leaves me feeling satisfied, nourished and refreshed; extremely grateful for the experience, and looking forward to that next opportunity to indulge every facet of my creativity.

...and as recent luck would have it, I was thusly blessed.

After a lengthy evaluation, I made the decision to go completely electronic and picked up a Barnes & Noble Nook - a Christmas gift from me to me - and since then, I've set out on a furious pace digesting new books.  Embarking on that next great read is just a few "clicks" away, and with the added exposure to Discussion Groups and other Book Shelves through my Shelfari Account, I've had some really excellent options from which to choose.  If I didn't have to work or sleep, I could do more, but right now I'm on track to knock out somewhere around 50 Novels this year...compared to the 37 I completed in 2010.  What follows is a list of some of the 2011 titles that have stuck with me so far - plus a few brief comments to leave you with my overall impressions.  For a full scale review, Amazon,, Shelfari, or any number of Author/Publisher Web Sites can more than adequately provide the detailed 411.

In the meantime, here's a summary of my most salient thoughts:

This novel was poignant and compelling.  With Discretion, Elizabeth Nunez gives us a provocative take on the meaning of true freedom, and (through the protagonist's eyes) hints at a distinction between discretion and truth.  She employs lyrically descriptive prose to pull the reader into the character's internal struggles over what they can and cannot have...and what they have, and think they want.  I first met Ms. Nunez at a panel discussion, and later during a reading of her latest novel, Anna In-Between, at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival, and since that time she has remained one of my favorites.  In Discretion, I've discovered another masterpiece that will stay with me for some time to come.

In The True History of Paradise, Margaret Cezair-Thompson offers the reader a searing glimpse into that tumultuous period of Jamaican History, when the Island was struggling to break free of the constraints of its colonial past, and face the challenges that come with true independence and self-governance; all this, while absorbing the demands of competing internal visions for the country's future, juxtaposed against those of its West Indian neighbors and the not so subtle efforts of the super-power West, to protect what were considered to be its "vital interests".  The narration is delivered on a grand scale, embracing a multi-ethnic (and generational) presentation that further clarifies the meaning of "Out of Many, One People".

In this literary gem from Diane Mckinney-Whetstone, incredibly rich and moving characters leap from the page to take the reader on a West Philadelphia journey through the highs and lows of their dreams, foibles and untapped potential.  Blues Dancing is a story of enduring love, exploring what happens when we test the boundaries of friendship, as well as the challenge of navigating the complex and unpredictable dynamic of human relationships.  This was my first gift from Ms. McKinney-Whetstone, and now I'm anxious to add more of her works to my bookshelf.

Well, after completing Grace, my growing admiration for Elizabeth Nunez has erupted into a full blown crush, and I was impressed with how deftly she weaved such a compelling tale about one couple's attempts to confront the challenge of their divergent opinions over what constitutes stability, happiness and fulfillment in their respective careers.  The backdrop for much of their marital discord is colored by the cultural differences that have shaped their respective upbringings: she an optimistic and creative African-American mother and Kindergarten teacher; and he, a socially traditional, Ivy League PhD graduate of West Indian (Trini) descent. This holds particular resonance for me, since the majority of my blog posts (not to mention a consistent theme underpinning the dramatic thread of my first novel, Sangster Fi' Manley), are presented with this premise in mind. Ms. Nunez is ALWAYS a treat, and this sprinkling of her literary talents was no exception.

All I can say about this one is WOW!  With Unburnable, Marie-Elena John exposes the reader to a haunting and beautiful story about one woman's search to understand herself and her past - the love that was denied her, the love she squandered and the desperate actions she will undertake in a last ditch attempt to reclaim all that has nearly been lost.  Unburnable's imagery is at once disturbing and compelling, and the exquisite prose and fantastic descriptions of Dominica's lush, tropical surroundings and cultural heritage left me thirsting for more.

This was my first Colin Channer novel, and I loved taking the literary return-trip to Jamaica that he offers...particularly via Portland Parish and the hillside cottages, panoramic vistas and immediate area surrounding Rafter's Rest where my wife and I exchanged our wedding vows.  Lyrical and lush, the novel reads like one big poem.  Channer has a distinctive and commanding voice, with a style (in my opinion) that is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Jerome Dickey.  In Satisfy my Soul, he did a good job of juggling the presentation of the psyches of several complex and troubled characters with overall believable effect, and I look forward to sampling more works from this talented author.

Just a few observations and recommendations... from this Yank's perspective.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Collard Greens and Calalloo, Grits and Corn Meal Porridge…
Banana Groves to Sugar Cane,

and Fields of Cotton and Tobacco…

Gunga, yes and Black Eyed Peas…. From Charleston to Kingston Harbor.

Two dimensions of a single Diaspora that have so very much in common…and yet, they’re nothing alike.  So what’s up with that?

It’s a question I ask myself all the time, and one that surfaces frequently in my writing projects. One example being a previous post in which I tackled the subject of Double Consciousness: That extra baggage many Black Americans carry around which forces us to constantly manage an awareness of our personal identities – identities that have been qualified in terms of what the ‘majority’ culture thinks it means to be Black in America. My intent was to explore the cumulative effect of Double Consciousness on the contemporary Black American experience, and how that influence might factor into our political and social discourse during the age of Obama. As a child I definitely felt it; as a young Elementary and Middle School student who was the first person of color to ever attend my school. I was a kinky-haired, Brown-skinned Island in a sea of Pink and White faces; a young Protestant unexpectedly thrown into what was for me, a strange and unfamiliar world of Incense, Holy Water and Rosary-beaded Catholicism. And yet somehow I managed to survive with my identity and self confidence mostly intact; imbued (I would like to believe) with the same instincts for survival that strengthened and sustained my parents and grandparents before me. At that point in my life, I’d never heard of Double Consciousness, and I’m not sure I would have had the capacity to understand the essence of Dubois’ original argument if I had. But all these years later, with the benefit of life’s challenges and character building experiences, I can look back on that period and comprehend beyond the shadow of a microscopic doubt, that it was my burden of Double Consciousness that made my journey into adolescence all the more difficult, and established the emotional and psychological frame of reference for my subsequent interactions with the Caucasian world.
Since initially tackling the subject, I keep coming back to what it means, and just exactly how I feel about it. Now, having benefited from the passage of time and by adopting a more nuanced perspective, I feel compelled to revisit the topic in light of a recent (and purely accidental) revelation that came to me earlier this year. While watching a PBS/Masterpiece Theater presentation of Sandra Levy’s Small Island, I was struck by one scene in particular that for me, encapsulated the difference between how Black Americans have traditionally viewed themselves and their place in the world, verses persons of color who have emigrated from the Caribbean Islands. Small Island overtly promotes an exploration of racism and racial identity; but beyond the Black-White, Colonizer-Colonized dichotomies, I tuned in to a more subtle (and I imagine unintended) message emanating from Ms. Levy’s dialogue and plot. Gilbert - a Jamaican RAF volunteer in London during the Second World War - attempts to enter the Cinema with a British Woman (Queenie) with whom he’s recently developed a friendship (Queenie has scandalized her neighbors by renting Gilbert a room). Without hesitation, the young man approaches the main-floor entrance with the intention of purchasing his ticket. Incensed by his blatant disregard for what they view as the prevailing rules of social engagement, a group of White Soldiers voice their displeasure, strongly suggesting that the young soldier needed to move his ass over to the colored line. In the face of this challenge, the Jamaican Soldier immediately argues that (a) he isn’t a Black American; (b) They were not in America, and (c) he was free to move about as he damn well pleased etc. etc. I’m paraphrasing here because I don’t exactly remember how Gilbert formulated his response, but for the most part that was the uncompromising position he chose to stake out. I remember perking up at this point, struck by Gilbert’s choice of words, and curious about what was going to happen next. Unburdened by the albatross of Double Consciousness, and (I would argue) incapable of identifying with American standards of Jim Crow social stratification, Gilbert never even stopped to consider the possibility that access to a certain venue might be denied him.
Of course, Gilbert’s character represents a populace undoubtedly affected in other ways by the lingering influence of colonialism that continues to shape relations between the Crown and her former Jewels; but on the specific question of American-style segregation, Gilbert the Jamaican had never become psychologically invested in the notion that his choices or movements would in any way be limited. Most interesting for me, is how Gilbert does not hesitate to differentiate himself as not American when addressing the White Soldiers, while nearby, a group of Black American GI’s (waiting in the Colored line), shift uncomfortably and began moving towards the commotion; anger and solidarity (with a brother who is being abused) evident in their postures and facial expressions; this, after the Good Ol’ Boys contemptuously hurl a couple of N-Bombs in Gilbert’s direction.
The scene marks a critical juncture in the film, and in my opinion also serves as a metaphor for various pockets of misunderstanding that sometimes manifest across segments of the Black American and Jamaican social continuum…and it is here that I’ve purposely chosen to speak in terms of Jamaican Blackness in the larger context of how it is generally regarded in America, because therein lies the root of much unnecessary conflict that sometimes crops up between Black Americans and our Afro-Caribbean cousins. As you can imagine, this is a compelling topic for me, and something I’m eager to cover in more detail. In a future post, I’ll explore some of the cultural and historical determinants that have contributed to those ‘pockets of misunderstanding'; why American and West Indian Blacks view the world through such a different contextual lens and what those differences mean for the state of ongoing relations in America and abroad.
An observation…from a Yank’s perspective.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Porridge or Grits...which do You prefer?

Here's how you make them...
They're simple and inexpensive to prepare; nothing more than White Hominy combined with boiling water.  Then, just add a touch of Salt and a 1/4 stick of Butter...and more Butter plus a teaspoon of Sugar sprinkled on top when the Grits are served.
This one contains Milk, Milk and more Milk!
It's Yellow Corn Meal flavored with Vanilla Extract and aromatic Nutmeg.  Constant stirring is required until the proper texture is achieved.
The Porridge is definitely more time consuming (and tricky) because of the ease with which the Milk can burn.  Like most African Americans whose families have roots in the South, I grew up eating Grits. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings to the smell of Hominy and sizzling Fatback emanating from our kitchen - that not-quite-awake dreamscape punctuated by the sound of my Mother's footfalls causing the linoleum tiles to creak as she moved from sink to snack bar to stove...and finally the small white (fridge) that my Brother and I used to chart our growth as adolescents. I've always taken my Grits with Butter and Sugar. Preferably not runny, but on the substantially thick side - to the point where a clump of the creamy mixture will slide slowly off the spoon. Most of the adults in my family preferred theirs with Pepper or a little cheese, mixed with bits of Country Sage sausage; or as a side dish to Fried Perch or Whiting - typical for Up Country South Carolinians - from which my lineage is derived - as opposed to those Low Country folk who who like to garnish their grits with Shrimp or Crab Meat instead.
I remember the first time I ate Porridge - can't remember if Jamaica Girl and I were in Chicago, or if it was one of the Christmas/New Years Holidays when I travelled to NYC for a visit when we were still undergrads. What I do remember is that she offered to make some and I fell in love with it instantly. Porridge is typically sweeter than the Grits, with a thicker, heavier consistency that is most likely attributed to the abundance of Whole, Condensed and Evaporated Milk it contains.
I'll never loose my passion for Grits, but sometimes I find myself specifically craving the unique taste of Porridge. Jamaica Girl is an excellent cook, but she's never been big on Breakfast, while for me, the First Meal happens to be a very big deal - arguably my favorite of the day, and not just because of the memories I associate with my mother. As I result, I'm usually the one who takes the initiative to get up and set out an early morning spread; especially on weekends, or the rare occasion when I'm not traveling to a client site. Early on, I tried my hand at concocting the mixture - which was tricky because invariably I'd end up with too many lumps of Corn Meal and/or I'd burn the milk on the bototm of the pot. But after a lengthy period of trial and error, Jamaica Girl eventually showed me a nice little trick that allowed me to get all the Corn Meal smoothed out before adding it to the Milk and spices warming on the stove. She was coy when she came up off that little piece of information - half smiling and half frowning as if to posit wheter I was worth it...a complex message wrapped up inside all her cautious hesitation as if to say she was handing over a cherished family secret and I'd better respect it as such. "Naa problem dat", I thought (inside my head only), for while I can understand the lyrical rhythm of her Patois-based Lingua Franca, I have yet to master its authentic sound, and prefer not to come off sounding like a corny excerpt from The Mighty Quinn. Besides, I don't mind telling you I felt the same way when she asked for my Mother's Pound Cake recipe, so as far as I'm concerned, we're even.
The three youngest members of our Tribe - consistent with the multi-cultural threads that define them, have always been equal opportunity consumers. But over the years, I've gradually detected slight preferences in their choices. Our daughter leans more towards the Grits, while the Boys will lobby for Porridge every single time. Usually, I'm in such a rush that the Grits win out more often than not; but on those occassions when I do take the time to get out all the lumps and keep the Milk from burning, the result is not half bad - even if it's not as good as Jamaica Nanna's - which is what my eldest son once told me after sampling a batch that I'd prepared. But his comment didn't offend me; in fact, I actually took it as a compliment that he would even think to make the comparison in the first place.
Besides, when he got up from the table, there was nothing left in his bowl...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cuba has the ball

The US doesn't need the world reminding it about the misguided, punitive nature of the Cuban embargo. That sentiment is alive and well (and has been for some time), right here in the States. Whether it's the more moderate stance being taken by conservative elements within Miami's Cuban enclaves, the dogged persistence of some members of the Congressional Black Caucus or the eagerness of the country's Business community to engage with the Cuban market, a chorus of suggestions for change is now flooding the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Most agree that the embargo should be lifted, and my sense is that it's a question of when, and not if. But from a purely tactical perspective, I can understand why the President is not yet willing to do so.

President Obama has been very clear in his remarks - both prior to, and during his appearance at the Summit of the Americas, cautioning that US-Cuba relations would not change overnight. Forces of resistance continue to exist on both sides - a situation that will likely get worse before it gets better (at least in this country) in the face of vocal and sustained criticism from Latin America and the Caribbean. There are those who continue to view our leader's grace and humility only through the prism of their outdated sense of entitlement - conditioned as they are to getting their way, and certainly not being told what to do. So they will push back, and seek to frame the normalization process as one of capitulation and a sign of the country's (i.e. Obama's) weakness.

So that is a political reality that will have to be managed - with delicacy and a proper amount of time. But it should not be forgotten that it takes two parties to engage in a negotiation, and the time has come for Cuba to frankly put up, or shut up. Irrespective of what has happened (or not) with previous administrations, our current President has made a good faith effort to initiate respectful channels of communication. The fiery rhetoric of the past (some of which was on display this weekend by some Latin American leaders who just couldn't help themselves) has no place in the current dialogue - any more than the foolish assertion that an American interpretation of democracy and free market capitalism will spring up inside Cuba overnight - if at all, as posited by Robert Pastor, a former advisor who worked in the Carter Administration while making remarks that compared potential relations with Cuba to those we currently enjoy with Vietnam. But some changes will surely have to take place, and the president is justified in expecting a certain degree of reciprocation from the Castro Brothers.

And here, I think, is where the leaders of Caricom and the Union of South American Nations have a decisive role to play. As they continue to aggressively voice their support for a complete lifting of the trade embargo, it would be instructive to see them also applying pressure to Raul Castro, and the Cuban government to at least meet the United States halfway. My Mother always used to tell me, "You won't get something for nothing." Never has this been truer for the Cuban government and its people.