Hello! Welcome to my portfolio. My best reviews from the Stabroek News are arranged below for your perusal. I also included one health journalism article from when I was a student at the University of Guyana.
Originally Published in the Stabroek News on February 14, 2021 When I saw the cover of The Deep by Rivers Solomon, my mind immediately bounced back to the 2013 Animal Planet docufiction Mermaids: The Body Found. A friend of mine had told me that The Deep was more about memory and history, but still with the image of that mockumentary in …
Originally published in the March 13th, 2022 edition of the Stabroek News Last July, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing This One Sky Day/Popisho by Leone Ross. I love this book, and its masterful medley of magic, mystery and melancholy still lives in my head rent-free to this day. Just last week, on …
I don’t read self-help books very often, but last October, my good friend, the artist Maharanie Jhillu of artful.592, introduced me to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. At the time, I was stressed about a writing project that was not going well. While I was grumbling to her, she recommended Big Magic. …
Originally published in the April 10th, 2022 edition of the Stabroek News April finds me in a mischievous mood, the joyful memories of Easters past working their way around my subconscious. It’s a season of quick laughter and a hunger for fun, which made me crave a book about tricksters and mischief-makers, and the chaotic …
Originally published in the June 6th, 2021 edition of the Stabroek News June is Pride Month. Throughout this month, members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Asexual, Interest and Queer communities and their allies – both in Guyana and across the globe – recognise, acknowledge, and celebrate the influences and achievements of the LGBT+ community …
Hello! Welcome to my portfolio. My best reviews from the Stabroek News are arranged below for your perusal. I also included one health journalism article from when I was a student at the University of Guyana. Thank you for reading. – Nikita.
June is Pride Month. Throughout this month, members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Asexual, Interest and Queer communities and their allies – both in Guyana and across the globe – recognise, acknowledge, and celebrate the influences and achievements of the LGBT+ community through the millennia. These communities also use Pride month to highlight the problems they are striving to overcome both within their communities and within society.
There are many stories, both from and about members of the LGBT+ communities, which focus on the problems that they face: discrimination, inequality, violence, and the traumatic repercussions these negative experiences have on both individuals and the wider community. Sharing these stories are important because they can help people to understand and empathise with the struggles that LGBT+ people endure, thus aiding in their push for equality. Unfortunately, while there are stories out there about queer joy, success, innovation and growth, the trauma stories can often be prioritised, which reduces queer people to only their victimhood, without exploring the fullest extent of their humanity.
As such, for Pride Month, I wanted to choose a book that did both: show the struggles of a queer person while also exploring their joys and triumphs to present a portrait of their complex humanity. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (they/them) seemed to be the perfect choice for this month’s readings. This young adult memoir-manifesto is about Johnson’s reminiscences about their life growing up as a Black queer child and teenager in Plainfield, New Jersey, and a young adult in Virginia Union University. As they tell their life stories through a series of funny, heart-breaking, and richly candid retellings that refuses to shy away from heavy topics, such as sexual abuse, homophobia, and racism, they show how their two identities shaped the way they navigated through their school and family life, and how these experiences combined to turn them into the activist and writer they are today.
Simultaneously, Johnson lays out their manifesto by seeding their narrative with the vocabulary, historical and sociological contexts and explanations, and mental health coping tools so that their queer youth readers can understand themselves and their society while also protecting themselves, learning to cope with trauma and learning how to have agency over their lives and identities.
“In working on this book, I’ve brought to life a lot of stories involving a Black family dynamic that isn’t often talked about, a family that is queer-affirming while still learning about and navigating difficult spaces.”
There are three main things that stood out to me about Johnson’s book. Firstly, they wanted to show readers an example of a Black family doing their best to love and support the queer child in their midst. The sad reality for many LGBT+ youth is that their families often prefer to disown them, kick them out or even kill them rather than loving them for who they are.
I got a sense that Johnson harbours some amount of survivor’s guilt as they reflected on their family’s attitudes toward them and their other queer family members. “Why was my Black queer experience one of unconditional love when several others have become the standard of hate and familial violence?” they question. “How could one family get so right what the world has gotten so wrong? We should have been the rule. Not the exception.” (p. 138)
Throughout the book, Johnson details just how much their family supported them. For example, when their grandmother noticed that they were struggling to fit in and find friends at school, she started carrying them everywhere she went so that they could have company while learning business and life skills. Johnson’s older cousins were willing to get into fights to protect them. Johnson’s mother chose their Aunt Audrey, who happened to be a lesbian, to be their godmother, ensuring that they were able to have a queer-affirming support system around them.
Most importantly for them, however, is that Johnson watched how their family interacted with and accepted their transgender cousin, Hope. They detailed how their family discussed Hope as she transitioned. The family was not condescending. They just accepted Hope as she was, willingly adjusting their pronoun use and continuing to support her throughout her life. Johnson explained that seeing this acceptance and love gave them an example of what it was like to have a supportive community, and Hope gave them an example of how they could explore their gender and sexual identity safely so that they could settle on a label for themselves. All of these positive experiences helped to shape Johnson into the activist they are today.
“Masking is a common coping mechanism for a Black queer boy. We bury the things that have happened to us, hoping that they don’t present themselves later in our adult life. Some of us never realize that subconsciously, these buried bones are what dictate our every navigation and interaction throughout life.”
Unfortunately, one of the lessons Johnson learns the hard way was that their family’s love and support couldn’t protect them from learning and internalising the homophobia from the children and adults throughout their school years. Johnson explained that as a child, they were an effeminate boy who preferred the company of girls. By the time they were 10 years old, they were being called slurs by the boys in their school. While they were able to protect themselves from bullying through their competency in sports, their teachers and school administrators later made them feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. These lessons, which Johnson learns outside of their family, unite taught them to shut themselves down and pretend to be something they were not in order to survive navigating within spaces where their very existence was seen as offensive and threatening to the status quo.
When Johnson was leaving high school, they developed this urgency to leave home, move as far away as possible to escape the restrictiveness they associated with New Jersey. They thought that if they could go to a new place, they would be able to live their life authentically and freely. What they didn’t anticipate was the baggage they brought with them from the many masking lessons they learned as a child and teenager.
“There was no magical awakening,” they reminisce, “There was no boost of courage that I thought would come with the fresh Virginia air. There was this boy who had always feared the consequences of coming out.” (p. 236)
Through Johnson’s writing about these experiences, they show that they carried the baggage of previous homophobia with them, which lead to depression and anxiety in school later. However, throughout these chapters, they showed how they dealt with these issues, found their communities, and came to understand that manhood is not a monolith and that they could define masculinity on their own terms to live their truth, define themselves and be happy.
“But the most valuable thing I hope this book will teach others, as it has taught me, is that there isn’t always a solution. That sometimes some things just end the way that they end. That some processes are always going to be an ongoing thing…But I have my story. The story that has now been told. So, if nothing else, we now have a start.”
The element of Johnson’s book, and the one I appreciated the most, were the many snippets of advice they left in this memoir for their young readers and adults who may be caring for queer youth. They tell their readers about what it means to have agency over their names and decisions they make for their own safety, comfort, and happiness. They encourage them to find their own communities where they can feel loved and accepted. They talk about sexual abuse and assault and advise their readers that they do not owe their abusers empathy, but – if they can – they should hold them accountable. They advise parents and school administrators to ensure that their children get comprehensive and inclusive sex-education to prevent the harmful consequences of ignorance. Most importantly, through telling their family’s story, they show that it is possible for people to be loving, kind and just respectful to the queer people around them.
Johnson also talks about the complexity of “coming out” and how it’s not as simple as many people may think. They note that one misconception that both straight and queer people have about “coming out” is that you only have to come out once and it’s over. They disagree.
“Notice my confusion in how strong I was in some moments and how weak I was in others because that is what coming out truly is. It is not a final thing. It’s something that is ever occurring. You are always having to come out somewhere. Every new job. Every new city you live in. Every new person you meet, you are likely having to explain your identity,” they write on page 237. Through this quote, we get a sense of Johnson’s exhaustion of having to constantly explain themselves and having to decide whether coming out is safe or not, whether being their authentic self can put them at risk of harm or not.
Lastly, and most importantly, Johnson admits that they don’t have all the answers, hinting that the reader has their own journey of gender and sexual identity to travel. Johnson’s memoir can only give them some of the vocabulary they need to navigate through tricky parts of their journey, but ultimately, everyone has to walk that part on their own. The most important thing they advise their readers to do is to educate themselves.
“The greatest tool you have in fighting the oppression of your Blackness and queerness and anything else within your identity is to be fully educated on it,” they say. “Knowledge is truly your sharpest weapon in a world hell-bent on telling you stories that are simply not true. (p. 104).
All Boys Aren’t Blue is a beautiful memoir that explores how families can support their queer relatives, and how, in spite all of that love and support, society can still beat queer people down and make them suppress themselves. Johnson candidly explores the pain of this suppression and how, through their journey to accept themselves and be free, they found peace and happiness and the tools they needed to heal some of the traumas they accrued over a lifetime. In doing so, they created a book which I would recommend for queer youth, because of the way it validates young people’s experiences and acts as a teaching tool so that navigate through their own journeys for self-discovery, healing, and social and mental health.
Want more information about George M Johnson’s memoir? Check out this interview with Tamron Hall.
Want to read more LGBT+ books for pride month? Here are my recommendations:
April finds me in a mischievous mood, the joyful memories of Easters past working their way around my subconscious. It’s a season of quick laughter and a hunger for fun, which made me crave a book about tricksters and mischief-makers, and the chaotic energy they radiate.
For this reason, I am returning to the first Caribbean science fiction novel I have ever read: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord. This book never fails to make me chuckle. It combines a folktale, folklore characters, metaphysical concepts and science with Lord’s quick wit, humour and masterful rendering of traditional oral storytelling. This blend makes Redemption in Indigo a delightful and entertaining read.
“There was something else about Paama that distracted people’s attention from any potentially juicy tidbits of her past. She could cook. “An inadequate statement. Anyone can cook, but the true talent belongs to those who are capable of gently ensnaring with their delicacies, winning compliance with a mere suggestion that there might not be any goodies for a caller who persisted in praying. Such was Paama…Besides [her cooking] kept Paama busy enough to ignore the nagging question of how she was going to tell Ansige she was never coming back.”
Paama is an ordinary woman who lives with her parents and younger sister in Makendha. However, there are two things that make her stand out to the villagers: her exceptional talent as a cook, and her tactful silence about the state of her marriage. Paama left her husband, Ansige, two years prior to the events that open Redemption, and since then the villagers have been trying to find out why.
Unfortunately for Paama, Ansige decides to come search for her himself. Unfortunately for Ansige, there are forces working in the shadows – the djombi (pronounced ‘jumbie’) as Paama’s people call them – intent on making his sojourn and arrival in Makendha an eventful one. When Ansige shows up one week behind schedule, he has a series of misadventures, all stemming from a gluttony so ferocious, that he often runs belly first into the shenanigans ranging from silly to dangerous.
Paama tries her best to use both her cooking and wit to sate the gluttonous Ansige and bail him out of trouble, but ultimately Ansige is forced to leave Makendha in shame while Paama stays behind.
The djombi have been trying to influence Paama as well, trying to urge her into laughing at Ansige or gossiping about him with her nosey neighbours. However, either Paama ignores the urges or is immune to their influence. This tact earns her respect from the villagers and from the senior djombi who have been observing her from afar. Satisfied that Paama is not one to be influenced by the meddlesome junior djombi that provoke Ansige’s antics, they choose her to wield a strange power by offering her an artifact called The Chaos Stick and teaching her how to use it.
But the power within the Chaos Stick once belonged to another senior djombi, known as the Indigo Lord, who is intent on finding it and retrieving it. Thus begins Paama’s bizarre adventures, as she’s meets both benevolent and malevolent djombi, each intent on using her and her new power for their own devices. Chaos follows. Lives are changed and reshaped, and Paama is forced to embrace new knowledge, roles and possibilities.
By the end of her misadventures, there is a chance of redemption for Paama and everyone involved in her chaotic story.
The Narrator as a Character
A part of the reason I enjoyed Redemption in Indigo so much was because of its narrator. Lord renders oral story techniques on the page through a narrator whose voice is so distinct and powerful that they become a character themself. In doing so, Lord creates a novel that is both told and shown. The narrator blends a third-person recounting of the story with several second-person interjections. Sometimes they tell the audience a little about themself, or they interrupt to directly clarify plot points, or give justifications for their narrative choices.
In doing so, Lord is sneaking in a second story into the narrative: firstly, there is the story being told to us by the narrator; secondly, there is the story of the narrator telling the story.
For example, the opening lines of the book read “A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one.”
This sentiment about untidy endings to stories is referenced several times as the story goes on, especially when characters make unexpected decisions, or there are bizarre plot twists. The narrator is especially sensitive to criticism about having open-ended story conclusions, seemingly ready to fight their audience at some points. Amusingly, though, they begrudgingly relent to add an epilogue, but only because the audience demands it. Together, these clues hint to the reader that the narrator has a life beyond telling us this story, full of its own conflicts.
The narrator’s wit, sass, analysis and mild self-indulgent grumbles shape Redemption in Indigo by making it an engaging and dynamic retelling rather than a stagnant recitation of events. In doing so, Lord honours the oral storytelling traditions that shaped the folktale the novel is based on, while also making the book immensely entertaining.
Redemption in Indigo is a retelling of a Senegalese folktale about Ansige Karamba the Glutton. It was interesting to see how Lord used the source material as a base from which to expand outward, encompassing more characters, themes and concepts.
Lord opens with an embellished retelling of the original folk story, using it to introduce us to the world and its characters. She also gives us the sense that humans are not this world’s only occupants, having to share it with the mysterious djombi who impact everyday life in both simple and monumental ways. Ansige owes some of his trouble to their direct and indirect influences, which helps us to understand the way some of them work.
Afterward, the story focuses mainly on Paama and her interactions with the djombi. The djombi themselves are agents of metaphysical and scientific concepts such as patience, chance and probabilities, and chaos. The djombi power Paama wields is called “chaos”, but it manifests as entropy around her, rearranging the particles around her — the dust on the village paths, the ripples in the river as she does her laundry, and even the patterns of candy she makes — into its rare patterns that couldn’t just be formed by the random chaos in her universe.
Metaphysically, there are djombi who stand for more abstract concepts. For example, one of the djombi who helps Paama calls itself “Constancy-in-Adversity” and “Senseless-Resignation-to-Suffering”, which reference a specific kind of patience. I also found Lord’s version of a baccou (baccoo) interesting since in the story, it is an entity that eradicates self-absorption by forcing literal self-reflection. While it does deviate from its many renditions in Caribbean folklore, the rebrand feels natural in Redemption in Indigo, and fits in well with the rest of the djombi.
Playing in Space-Time
Lastly, I really love the way this story played with space and time, both within the core story and its narration. The narrator themselves note that they cannot tell whether the events within Redemption in Indigo happened in “a time that was, or a time that is, or a time that is to come”. When introducing the first character in the book, the narrator is equally vague about his origins, identifying him only as a man “born in a certain country in a certain year when history had reached that grey twilight in which fables of true love, the power of princes and deeds of honour are told only to children.”
Time and Space are further complicated in the story. During Ansige’s journey to Makendha, he uses a mule caravan at one point, and then an omnibus – which could either mean a large bus or a large horse-drawn carriage – during the last stretch when he is alone. Paama uses mostly coinage during her adventures, but has to pawn her gold coin for bank notes and dull coins during one part of her travels with the djombi. Then, when interacting, the djombi themselves move beyond the restrictions of space-time, being able to move through time and space non-linearly, and even see past, present and future almost concurrently.
Throughout the reading, we get a sense of the universality of this story. It can truly be about anyone from anywhere during any time. This makes the story simultaneously as simple and complex, like any traditional fairy-tale or folkstory. Although, the science fiction elements and metaphysical concepts divert the story slightly from its traditional roots, thus making the reading experience pleasantly trippy, diverting somewhat from those traditional roots.
I admit that before my first reading, I seriously misjudged Redemption in Indigo. I had expected something high-brow and dense and tough to get into. I am glad that I was so terribly wrong because the book was a pleasant surprise. The narrator all but welcomes you in, offers you a seat and snacks before easing you into an easily bingeable story full of vibrant characters. It’s truly the kind of story that would put anyone in a good mood.
So, if you’re like me and April has you craving a good laugh or just a fun read, I highly suggest you adding this one to your collection. I promise it will make your day a little lighter.
Thank you, Karen Lord, for answering a few of the questions I had about this novel. Your input made this review possible.
Curious about the folktale at the heart of Redemption in Indigo? Check out this video about the original folktale.
I don’t read self-help books very often, but last October, my good friend, the artist Maharanie Jhillu of artful.592, introduced me to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. At the time, I was stressed about a writing project that was not going well. While I was grumbling to her, she recommended Big Magic. She told me it had helped her work out some of the kinks of her artistic process and, since Elizabeth Gilbert is a writer, she thought that the book might help me solve my writing problems.
She was right. It did help me.
Mind you, Big Magic is no step-by-step guide promising to change your life in just five steps and guaranteeing that you’ll make it big as a creative in a week or two. No. Gilbert’s book is a five-part examination and critique of the common assumptions about the creative life and language, and a book of suggestions on how a person can defy these assumptions to live a playful, healing and less anxious creative existence.
While I don’t agree with all of Gilbert’s advice and theories, I enjoyed the book and have begun to reshape the way I think about my own creativity. If you are a creative – no matter what type – I think this book might be able to help you too.
Five Steps to Divinity
Big Magic is divided into six lessons: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. In each section, Gilbert uses autobiographical references and anecdotes to explain how the first five lessons can help creatives live a more fulfilling and less anxious creative life, and how such living can push them toward finding what divinity means for them.
The first step Gilbert proposes is to have courage. Gilbert doesn’t propose that creatives should be fearless. After all, our fear is a necessary part of or psyche to help us avoid trouble. Fearlessness can make people take wild, nonsensical risks that can only hurt them in the end.
Instead, Gilbert suggests that we acknowledge a vital truth: fear and creativity are like conjoined twins, but while fear is a base instinct that just yells at us to “stop” when we are faced with the unknown or new situations, our creativity is more inquisitive.
Therefore, to lead a creative life without fear, Gilbert suggests bringing your fear with you, but never letting it control your creative endeavours. Instead, let your curiosity and intrinsic desire to make things lead the way.
Once creativity and curiosity are in control, and fear is sufficiently contained, Gilbert suggests opening oneself to creative enchantment. This is the exciting part, where ideas begin to choose you, sending chills up your spine or keeping you up at night fixating on the weird and wonderful of the world.
What I found interesting about this part of the book was this suggestion that ideas do not come from within us but are sentient entities of their own.
“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest.”
Gilbert went on to explain that for thousands of years, people believed that inspiration was outside of us. In fact, both the Greeks and Romans believed that creative people had an external spirit of creativity that lived within the walls of their creative spaces who would occasionally aid them in their creative endeavours. The Romans called these spirits geniuses.
During the Renaissance, as a more human-centred view of life arose and gods and superstitions fell out of fashion, the label of “genius” fell upon creatives themselves. Gilbert says she finds it lamentable that we now put the full weight of creative success or failure on the shoulders of our creatives. Consequently, the language of creativity has become riddled with toxic individualism. Creatives either view themselves as masters of their creativity, or slaves to it.
Gilbert suggests going back to basics by thinking of yourself as a collaborator with another sentient, witty force that is outside of yourself. The thinking, she notes, saves the ego, but also protects the artist from the corrupting influence of praise and the corrosive effects of shame. In so doing, creative people can find enchantment and joy in the process rather than anxiety.
This is where the Big Magic begins.
So many creatives believe that they need to be granted permission to create through acquiring official credentials through expensive university programmes or by attending prestigious workshops. In doing so, many creative people plunge themselves into debt which, as Gilbert notes, ends up stifling their creative processes altogether because they often ask their creativity to pull them out of that debt.
She therefore suggests that no one should put so much pressure on their creativity to serve them monetarily. After all, creative success is a part of a huge gamble, and the industry is deeply subjective. Instead, she encourages creative people to develop a personal sense of creative entitlement, a belief that one is entitled to exist within one’s chosen creative label (writer, painter, photographer, etc.). If one proclaims this title to themselves daily, forever, and work diligently toward that title, then it is all the permission they need.
But courage, inspiration, and self-given permission are not enough for a creative life. One must be persistent and dedicated to the craft. Once an idea chooses to manifest itself through you, you need to show it that you are wholly dedicated to bringing it into the world. Every beginning is hard, especially when one is just starting on one’s creative journey and the images in your head don’t quite match you render on the page or canvas. That’s okay though. Frustration is a part of the process.
Gilbert also notes that persistence will help you to understand the psychological patterns of your creativity. In her case, she has learned how to identify, endure, and safely navigate through the inevitable cycles of anxiety she goes through whenever she works on a project.
As a result, she is also able to let go of her perfectionism to finish what she starts. Perfectionism, after all, is a form of procrastination. She therefore suggests that the best way to combat the perfectionist impulse is to “learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass”. Push through those bad beginnings, knowing that your creations will never be perfect, no matter how long you have been in the business. Done is better than good in some cases, as you will go through all the stages you need to learn how to complete a creative project.
As you continue to complete projects, you will improve.
“Far too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure and to put their faith in struggle alone. Too many artists still believe that anguish is the only truly authentic emotional experience.”
Lastly, Gilbert says that we need to trust our creative process. Many people love being creative, but few believe that creativity loves them back. In fact, the language around creativity is twisted and violent, suggesting that to create something worthwhile, one needs to suffer in some way. Otherwise, one’s craft is not authentic.
Gilbert is one of the many contemporary creatives who openly critique this position. As mentioned in the “Enchantment” section, Gilbert suggests viewing oneself as a collaborator with creativity. She also suggests learning to become a trickster with your creativity, and finding ways to be playful with your creative processes so that you can enjoy yourself and make it less like “work”, even if the work centres on heavy topics.
In doing so, one counteracts the narrative of the Tormented Artist, which not only saves ones’ sanity but also further reduces the anxiety associated with creativity and the creative process. This doesn’t mean that the anxiety and frustration will go away completely, but it means that one will no longer suffer to create. After all, the idea chose you to help it manifest into the world. Why would it want to destroy you?
So, trust your process and have fun with it, and then leave the rest to fate.
I loved Big Magic. I loved Gilbert’s advice on how to reduce a lot of the anxiety that constantly creeps into creative life. Nevertheless, I have three criticisms of her ideas in the “Permission” section.
Firstly, Gilbert noted that one of the things that calms her the most is that she believes that human artistic expression is nonessential to life and living, and it stands as proof that she doesn’t live in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Firstly, if the pandemic has taught me anything, art can be lifesaving. During the worst of the pandemic, people streamed more movies and series, read more books, and listened to more music just to cope. We would have had none of these things if not for human creativity. Secondly, apocalypses and dystopias are relatives. Native Americans and African Americans have gone through multiple genocides due to the horrors of colonialism, and yet they have produced some of the most riveting, thought provoking art I have ever consumed. And that’s just a perspective from her continent. While I understand her sentiments, I think that this perspective is woefully limited.
Secondly, Gilbert encourages creators to explore any idea that comes to them. While this is an admirable statement, I do believe that there are many bad ideas out there, or good ideas that can be executed by the wrong people. In either case, the idea may be fantastic, but it can genuinely hurt people. I think, therefore, that Gilbert should have advocated a bit more for artists to be responsible with their creations and to think about the repercussions of their art, especially if that art centres on vulnerable peoples or groups.
Lastly, I take personal issue with Gilbert’s proposition that formal writing education or workshops are unnecessary. While I agree that it is not a good idea to go through expensive programmes just to prove to yourself that you ARE an artist, I believe that such programmes can help people to become creative educators. I also believe that going to workshops or short classes can help expand your creative perspective. Workshops can help you develop the language for the type of creativity you want to immerse yourself in, thus giving you words for what you want to do and pointing you toward resources that can help you improve. Lastly, both formal programmes and workshops can help you enter a community of creatives that can help you as you continue your creative journey. While it is possible to do all of this on your own, sometimes that jump start is critical for your growth.
There are so many more insights that Gilbert proposes within Big Magic that are not covered in this review. Nevertheless, this book is a good resource for creative people seeking to overcome the many fears and anxieties connected to creative living. It not only proposes some radical notions on how to re-examine one’s approach to creative life, but it also gives suggestions on how to make the creative process more fun and personally rewarding. While there are some parts that I personally disagree with, I still think that the lessons contained within this book can benefit any creative person who explores this book.
Last July, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing This One Sky Day/Popishoby Leone Ross. I love this book, and its masterful medley of magic, mystery and melancholy still lives in my head rent-free to this day. Just last week, on International Women’s Day, I was delighted to learn that the novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Ross certainly deserves the accolades and I wish her the best of luck in the competition.
About a week after writing the Popisho review, I attended a veranda chat with Ross, hosted by Rebel Women Lit in Jamaica. There, I learned about Ross’s short story collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway. In a short section of the veranda chat, Ross confirmed that her story “The Mullerian Eminence” was the precursor to a pivotal scene in Popisho, and there was a brief comparative discussion about the story within the novel’s context. Curious, I decided to get my own copy of the collection, mostly because of that one story, but also because I was curious about Ross’s short-form work.
Come Let Us Sing Anyway is a collection of short stories which mostly centre Jamaican women or women of Jamaican ancestry. The collection undulates through both genre and theme as Ross uses realism, magical realism, science fiction and poetry to write about women’s relationships (platonic, familial, romantic, and erotic), beauty standards, racial identity, motherhood, queerness and homophobia, and childhood innocence. She dives into the darkness of the past, dreams of wholesome futures, and challenges the realities of our present through 23 beautiful entries.
Most of the stories in this collection are about love. Some are about pure joy, others bitter-sweet or deeply sad. Her stories “Drag”, “Art for Fuck’s Sake” and “And You Know This” are the most joyful love stories of the collection. “Drag” and “Art for Fuck’s Sake” centre on the beauty of women’s erotic experiences and adventures with their partners and the joy they get from being explorative and creative.
“And You Know This”, one of two science fiction stories in the collection, is about life-long friendship and elderly love between two women as they take a last ride through Jamaica.
“Breathing”, “The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant” and “The Heart Has No Bones” are the bitter-sweet stories in the collection. “Breathing” begins as a hopeful tale of second chances, when a man’s wife appears on his doorstep seventy-six days after passing away. It turns out that she is one of thousands of people who came back from the dead following a global resurrection event, and he tries his best to take advantage of the extra time they have together.
“The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant” is about a bizarre love triangle between a chef, the woman he loves, and the jealous restaurant he owns and loves. Who should sacrifice their career and who should sacrifice their love, the story asks? The restaurant decides.
Lastly, “The Heart Has No Bones” is about a foreign surveillance specialist working at an embassy in Jamaica who falls in love with an activist he’s tasked with monitoring. He soon finds out that loving from a distance is one of the hardest things he can do.
Finally, there are the sad stories about love, most of which dealt with infidelity. In “Love Silk Food”, the opening story of the collection, Ms Neecy Brown has to endure the consequences of her husband’s infidelity. The signs that he’s falling in love with someone else are all around her, making their wallpaper sticky, soaking through the calendar and turning all of her food to mush. As she tries to disassociate, she ends up on an unfulfilling adventure along her train route with a fellow Jamaican.
“Velvet Man” is one of my favourite stories in the collection. In it, a recent divorcee is doing her best to maintain the façade of a well-put-together adult while battling loneliness and depression. When the Velvet Man comes to her and asks what he can do for her, she doesn’t expect him to take her requests seriously, until he helps to give her a fresh start and put her back on her feet.
Lastly, “What He Is” is a flash-fiction story about the last few moments of a woman’s life as she walks through a market in a district her last lover convinced her to move to before abandoning her. Her rage about the abandonment, isolation and new debt blinds her to the dangers around her.
Not all of the stories about women’s sexual experiences in this book are happy ones. In fact, Ross uses some of these stories to talk about sexual abuse quite pointedly, despite packaging them amid gorgeous imagery and wordcraft.
Her flash-short “Phone Call to a London Rape Crisis Centre” begins with an immediate juxtaposition of its title, opening so wholesomely and cheerfully that one can almost be fooled into thinking that the protagonist is reminiscing about finding their soulmate. That is until you reach the end of the story, where the title and the protagonist’s identity combine for a devastating effect: showing the reader the insidious nature of child grooming.
“The Mullerian Eminence” also deals with sexual assault. What made this story special was that while the story was about women, the protagonist is a man. The story opens with a direct quote from Henry Gray’s anatomy textbook, in which he states that the Mullerian Eminence – the fetal structure that grows into the testes in males and the hymen in females – has no function in adult women. The entire story then subverts this quote when Charu Deol, a janitor, begins to find fallen hymens in his various places of work. When he picks them up, he finds that each hymen is a receptacle for its owner’s sexual experiences, and just touching them bombards him with their stories and emotions. As days pass and he finds more, he realizes a terrifying truth: one-third of them hold a history of sexual abuse. He tries to take matters into his own hands, begging other men to be more mindful of their actions. But he is a poor immigrant, and the stories are driving him mad. Despite his best efforts, he’s ignored.
There are two stories in the collection that dealt with the consequences of unrealistic beauty standards set for women, and the ways the beauty industry exploits its workers.
“Roll it” is another of my favourite stories from the collection because it examines the dark side of the modelling industry. In it, a nameless model is preparing for the final performance of her career: a folklore themed fashion show organized by her designer husband. As her final walk nears, she remembers her history, but not her name. As she watches the other models and reflects on her past, we learn the sad truth about her circumstances. Her beauty should have been a gateway to independence, but instead, she’s constantly exploited and hurt.
“Breakfast time” is Ross’s exploration of the absurd consequences of fatphobia on otherwise healthy, ordinary women. In this story, a woman named Tina is recovering in hospital from bariatric surgery. She hopes that with a smaller stomach and an extreme limit on her food intake, she will be able to lose the stubborn belly fat that has plagued her throughout her life. Her recovery seems to be going well until she has an unexpected psychological reaction when offered her first solid food post-op.
There are three stories that don’t fit neatly into the broad categories above: “President Daisy”, “Covenant” and “Mudman”.
“President Daisy” isa lovely story about Mary Ezmereleena Brown. Her Aunt Greenie has sent her on her own to catch a train from Kingston to Montego Bay to go live with her uncle Barney. She’s terrified to take the trip alone because of the duppy stories her cousin told her before she left, and her own uncertainty about what life will be like with her uncle. Just when she thinks that she’ll have to go on the trip alone, an eccentric, lanky man calling himself President Daisy sits beside her and accompanies her throughout her journey. It all goes well until one of the passengers attacks Daisy, confusing and frightening Ezmereleena. As adult readers, we understand that it was a homophobic attack, but through the eyes of a child, the bigotry looks both absurd and unwarranted, especially when Daisy’s only intention is to make sure Ezmereleena gets to her destination safely.
“Mudman” is about a father’s love for his son and the lengths he would go to make sure he was happy and comfortable. In this story, Matthew is a kind and gentle soul who migrated from Jamaica to live in the UK. There, he settles and marries Leila and they have twin children, Suzan and David. When the children are eight years old, they go to their first birthday party. The host promised Matthew that she would drive them home once the party is over, but something goes wrong, and the children are forced to walk home by themselves. On the way, David is kidnapped and in the aftermath of his disappearance, the family begins to fall apart. Matthew slowly begins blaming himself for the tragedy and tries to change the future to correct the past, which complicates his family life further when David finally finds his way home.
Lastly, “Covenant” is the scariest story in the collection. It’s about a woman named Sarah who has always struggled to fit in and be seen as an individual. When she was a child and adolescent, she developed a delinquent streak in an attempt to get her father’s full attention and to shake him out of the idealized, stereotyped perspectives on femininity that he tries to project onto her, becoming more sadistic and twisted in the process. As an adult, she tries to curb her behaviour and settle into a relationship with her husband Abe. All goes well until they try to have a child, discover that Sarah is infertile, and ask their maid Hagar to be their surrogate. Hagar’s pregnancy and Abe’s contentment and satisfaction with the situation triggers a resurgence of Sarah’s delinquency; motherhood makes it worse. Just when Sarah thinks she cannot take it anymore, she’s approached by an organization called The Covenant and finds an ominous kind of peace within a like-minded community. This retelling of the biblical story of Abraham’s tests is a chilling, modern twist on the original tale that will leave you spooked for days.
Come Let Us Sing Anyway is a gorgeous collection of short stories in which Ross flexes her range and style in genre, form and theme. I especially loved the way she played with language to create pockets of magic across each story, coaxing her readers in and making them laugh, cry, shudder, and bauk. Her work is magnificent, and I look forward to seeing more shorts from her in the future, and wish her the best in the Women’s Prize competition. She’s a phenomenal woman and creator, and she deserves her flowers.
When I saw the cover of The Deep by Rivers Solomon, my mind immediately bounced back to the 2013 Animal Planet docufiction Mermaids: The Body Found. A friend of mine had told me that The Deep was more about memory and history, but still with the image of that mockumentary in my head, I somehow thought it would have been something else, a deep-sea adventure story involving mermaids and whales.
I was wrong, of course, and my friend did manage to undersell the book just enough for it to surprise me. The Deep is more than just about memory. It is a poetic rumination about the nature of memories, our individual and communal experiences with our histories and healing transgenerational trauma. Within its 150 pages, this novella managed to be so complex, that I delayed this review just so that I could have an animated bookclub discussion to process everything it contained.
Even the circumstances of this book’s creation turned out to be an intriguing story. Solomon, who certainly did a good job and deserves all the award nominations and wins they have garnered, did not come up with the base premise of The Deep on their own. The origins of the concept started with a 1992 techno-electro album and, over the last 27 years, the concept went through a game of telephone, as actor and musician Daveed Diggs puts it, culminating in the novella that’s available for us to read today.
So, in this review, I will try to unpack the core theme of The Deep and to explain a little bit of the fascinating history that led to its creation.
“Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the ocean floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers.”
– P 28
The historical record of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is written in blood, detailing the multitudes of atrocities against various peoples stolen from various African Nations. One of the more insidious of these atrocities was the fact that during the Middle Passage, pregnant women – deemed troublesome and sickly cargo – were thrown overboard to drown or be eaten by sharks.
This fact forms the base of Solomon’s novella. They take this horrific event and make an interesting speculation: what if those pregnant mothers gave birth to water-breathing babies at sea. What if these babies, free from slavery and ignorant of the horrors of their ancestry and of the ugliness of the surface world, went on to form communities and live peaceful lives in the abyssal depths of the ocean?
These people are the wajinru, the “chorus of the deep”, and the protagonist, Yetu, is one of these mermaid-like beings. Yetu is special. Unlike her fellow wajinru, whose memories fade within weeks or months, Yetu has a more intact long-term memory and her brain chemistry is more flexible than the others. As a result, when she was 14 years old, she was chosen to become the wajinru’s Historian. It’s her duty to hold the entire History of her people – every memory, sensation and emotion from all the wajinru from the past 400 years or more – so that once a year, during a three-day ritual called The Remembrance, she can return the history to the people so that they can remember who they are and where they come from.
But, there is a problem. While Yetu’s brain chemistry makes her a good Historian, she is easily overwhelmed by the weight of her people’s history. She loses herself in unsolicited Rememberings for weeks, and the process erodes her individuality and her sense of self-preservation. What makes it worse is that she’s lonely. No one around her, not even her own mother, remembers enough to understand how painful the History is to keep, and the wajinru themselves have developed a culture to be more dismissive of the past.
When the time for the Remembrance rolls around again, Yetu finds herself at a crosscurrent: should she continue to preserve the History to her detriment, or should she protect her health and individuality and leave her history behind?
“One can only go for so long without asking who am I? Where do I come from? What does all this mean? What is being? What came before me and what might come after? Without answers, there is only a hole, a hole where the history should be and that takes the shape of an endless longing. We are cavities.”
– AMAMBA ABOUT THE REMEMBERINGS, P 8
For such a slim volume, Solomon managed to pack in quite a number of themes. Most of these themes revolve around individual and communal relationships to history and memory. Yetu’s character and her role as a historian seems to pay homage to the hard and oftentimes thankless work that the world’s historians do in order to keep our histories from fading away. The wajinru’s method of history keeping – tasking a single person to keep generations worth of pure memories in their head – seems reminiscent of the fragility of oral histories and oral storytelling traditions. In a way, Solomon advocates for sharing these stories more widely, preserving them in duplicates so that should something happen, they won’t fade away for good.
More importantly, however, Yetu’s journey is about transgenerational trauma. Yetu suffers throughout much of the book under the weight of her people’s history. While she understands why she is suffering, the people around her who have long forgotten their own histories, only have vague impressions of trouble and thus cannot fully relate to Yetu’s struggle. This lack of understanding – compounded by the wajinru’s tendency to dismiss the past unless it’s time for the Remembrance – means that Yetu is a part of a community, but isn’t supported by that community. This often leads her to have mental health crises that her people do not understand and chastise her for, which compounds her suffering.
There are so many of us struggling under the weight of personal or even generational history that we don’t fully understand and which we can’t truly process because of the lack of context. On a grander scale, there are so many societal ills that confuse us because of histories unspoken or undistributed. As such, we, as a people, cannot truly heal unless we confront these problems together. I genuinely appreciate this message in Solomon’s work.
“They each held pieces of the history…They shared it and discussed it. They grieved. Sometimes they wanted to die. But then they would remember it was done.”
Healing, both on the individual and communal levels, is possible. But the journey to confront history and to heal is often painful and can be overwhelming, especially when the truth is laid bare and raw.
There are parts of the book where the perspective changes from first person singular to first person plural as Solomon immerses her readers in two Remembrances. It is through the collective voice of the ancestors and the living wajinru that we understand some of the painful history haunting Yetu.
We also get to see how she heals personally and how her community heals as well. Once everyone is on the same page after the Remembrance and once, they can all talk about it among themselves and embrace each other through the worst of the pain, the entire community is able to heal.
I think the best part about this is that once the Remembrance is over, Yetu and her mother are able to discuss the History together, and her mother even gives her insight into the history that she never thought about before. In doing so, she unlocks more potential from Yetu in the end, which leads to a brilliant finale.
“The Deep has gone through three major rounds of Telephone to find itself now in book form, and might continue indefinitely, happily taking on the adaptations of each new interpreter, into the future”. – clipping.
The Deep is a brilliant novella. The story locked within its covers left me reeling as I thought about my own relationship to my personal and community histories.
But the story of how The Deep came to be is equally fascinating for lovers of music, fanfiction and trans-medium collaborative productions.
Back in 1992, James Stinton and Gerald Donald created Drexciya and the trippy instrumental album series “Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller”. They, along with a few fellow musicians and illustrators created the original Drexciyan mythology. According to Daveed Diggs, they reasoned it out as such: Foetuses are alive in the aquatic environment of their mothers’ wombs. During the middle passage, pregnant African women were thrown overboard during labour. Therefore, could it be possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?
The project revolving around this mythos lasted for 10 years until Stinton’s death in 2002, but the concept lived on. Fifteen years later, the hip-hop band Clipping (stylised as clipping.), led by Diggs, of Hamilton and Snowpiercer fame, sampled from the Drexciya mythos to create the Hugo-nominated song The Deep. This song imagined a Drexciyan uprising against the surface world in protest of climate change and destructive deep sea seismic surveying for oil. It was interesting to hear the way they sampled from Drexciya, turning a more utopian and trippy sound into a song about environmental protection and nature’s rage.
“Y’all remember when the first blast came
And the beat fell off and the dreams got woke
And the light bent bad and the fishes belly up
And them coral castles crumbled ’cause they wasn’t quite enough
And conversation used to break like the floor quake
Like the bleached bones and the fin friends fled from they home
But the blasts wouldn’t stop ’cause they wanted black gold
And them no-gills had to feel it ’cause they couldn’t be told”
– EXCERPT OF THE DEEP BY CLIPPING.
Finally, in 2019, Rivers Solomon published their take on the Drexciyan mythos, but based their iteration mostly on clipping.’s song. They took the song, split it in half and used it as the base for both the Rememberings and for the voices of two important wajinru ancestors: the first historian and the avenging historian who passed the role and the history onto Yetu. Solomon combined the song with their own unique prose, while also creating both the wajinru and Yetu as inlets into her imaginings of memory and history.
It was beautiful to see the progression and how each artiste and writer built on each other’s work to expand the original universe Drexciya created back in 1992.
The Deep is a fantastic book that takes a painful part of history, makes a utopian speculation, and then takes the result to process the relationship many people have with their personal and communal histories.
The Deep is a great read for Black History Month because even though it deals with trauma, it also ends with suggestions for healing. It is also a great Republic Day/Mashramani read as it focuses on history and community, which have always been essential parts of our Republic Day celebrations.
I would like to thank Aurelius Raines, Elena L. Perez and Emiko of the FiyahCon Support Group Bookclub for indulging me in an animated discussion about The Deep. I could not have written this review without your additional insights into the themes explored in this book.