Caribbean Tourism and A Brief History of Seven Killings

Ocho_Ríos-Jamaica

When the 2015 Man Booker Prize was announced, and I saw that it was a Jamaican author for the first time, and an LGBT author to boot, I knew I’d need to investigate. It was partially the desire to be a cheerleader for diversity at the highest levels of the literary mountain, but also an interest in deepening some of my past experiences.

I’ve never been to the Jamaica that James talks about with A Brief History of Seven Killings. But I have been to Jamaica. When I was younger my family took a once-in-a-lifetime Caribbean cruise, and I remember our guided adventure clambering up the Dunn’s River Falls — one of the popular tourist attractions in a curated section of the island. The experience was magical, yet I was also uncomfortable with my clearly delineated tourist role.

A Brief History of Seven KillingsOn this same trip our boat stopped in Labadee on the island of Haiti, another part of the Caribbean that’s carefully guarded to keep tourists happy and keep most locals out. I remember going out into the ocean alone at the Labadee beach. There was this little area that was roped off as the place to swim and across the water I could see the rest of Haiti, not just the little section that we were on.

I had a pool chair and lay floating on top of it. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. The sky was this ridiculous blue and the water was so clear that it looked like glass and shadows. It was paradise to a T. And at the same time I had an inkling of how carefully constructed it all was.

At the time I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s powerful investigation into the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, who had been working on bringing medicine for infectious diseases to Haiti for years. I knew that what I was seeing on my vacation was so much different than the reality lived by Hatians and Jamaicans beyond the borders of the resort. And because of that, I couldn’t settle. I felt guilty and I wanted to learn more about this place. Years later, A Brief History came my way, with it’s gritty depictions of Jamaica’s Eight Lanes and Copenhagen City neighborhoods.

Marlon’s book is an epic work of fiction that’s clearly grounded in years of research. It looks at a particular period of time, when Bob Marley was everything — the god of Jamaica who kept it real and didn’t lose touch with the people he knew before he was famous. And yet, Marley was also the subject of an assassination attempt by his own people, which is the historical point that the entire books spins into and out of.

It was a challenging read, since each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, and much of the book is in Jamaican patois. But what kept me moving through it was the fantastic job that Marlon did in bringing out the various voices — male, female, rich, poor, Jamaican, American, etc. — and layering the various actors together in a way that reveals no clear right or wrong.

Parts of the book aren’t dissimilar to The Wire, where you have government officials and politicians working to quell the violence of poor, gang areas, while always looking after their own interests. The drug trade is a prominent aspect of the story as well. I definitely came away from A Brief History with a bigger picture of Jamaica than when I went in, and I’m happy to now hold that more complex impression, instilled by a master of literature.

Header Image: Wikimedia

Open City Wanderings

Open CityI couldn’t remember what life was like before I started walking.
—Teju Cole,
 Open City

I read Teju Cole’s Open City while traveling through India. It was a bizarre yet wonderful experience, because Cole’s book starts off all about New York City, which is strikingly different from the environment I found myself in at the time. But it’s also a book about exploration and connection. The magic of Open City is not in what happens, but rather in how the main character experiences life. And those fictional wanderings called up memories of my own experiences walking without a clear destination.

Open City follows a Nigerian American doctor who is in the midst of his residency at a Manhattan hospital. The doctor finds himself with lots of unstructured time in his odd periods of respite from his demanding work schedule, and so he walks. He walks all throughout NYC, and eventually his wanderings take him to Brussels and beyond. He encounters all manner of people —rich, poor, white, of color, young, old. And throughout his adventuring he maintains a persistent and alluring internal monologue that shows an uncanny self-awareness and depth of mind.

Back while I lived in Washington, DC, a close friend of mine was located in NYC. So, when I had free weekends, I would sometimes take a bus up to the Big Apple to hang out. I had a great experience in DC — it’s an interesting city and it fit my lifestyle at that point. But New York was even more intriguing to me, because it isn’t just interesting, it’s an endlessly interesting place.

One of the first times I visited NYC my friend had to work all day. I wanted to see what the city had to offer, so in the morning I left the apartment and took the subway from Queens to Columbia University in north Manhattan. I admired the campus for a little while and then wandered to a deli and then a park nearby to eat lunch. From there, I figured I might as well see some of Harlem and so I wandered over to 5th Avenue and started to make my way down alongside Central Park. And after that for lack of much else to do, I simply… kept walking.

Columbia’s manicured haven had opened into the grittier streets of Harlem, where I experienced the feeling of being both at home and on edge at the same time. I saw Central Park change, as I walked from its more vacant end toward museums, the ritzy area, and then the hubbub of the central city. I ended up at Wall Street and the former site of the World Trade Center, absorbing that end-of-the city feeling as evening blew across the water and into the grid of streets.

The approximate route I took, minus a few meanderings

The approximate route I took, minus a few meanderings

I’ll never forget the tender sense of accomplishment I had at the end of that day. It was just like the closing of a book, the sense that I had fully opened myself up to the city and what it had to offer. I had seen so much, felt so much, encountered so many different people and blocks in one day. I may never experience New York in that same way again — it was a lot of walking after all — but I’m grateful for the memory.

I have some confusion about Cole’s choices for the very ending of Open City that I can’t really get into without spoiling. But otherwise, the writing is truly graceful, and I’m glad Cole reminded me what it feels like to give in to the beautiful sensation that is wanderlust.

The Kolkata Flyover and Sustainability Politics

Trafficjamdelhi

I returned last Thursday from a three-month trip in and around India. The first thing I did was sleep. A lot. And then the next day I turned on my computer to see that a flyover collapse in Kolkata had just killed more than 25 people.

I’m sometimes guilty of reading quickly past international tragedies. They can seem so far away and unconnected to my everyday world. But I spent a week in Kolkata during the month of February. Having been in that exact city just over a month ago makes the pain palpable. In one image I saw the yellow and green backs of two autorickshaws buried in the rubble, and I thought about how much time I spent getting around the city in that type of vehicle. I could have been there when it happened.

The collapse makes me think of China, which for many years now has been on a rapid infrastructure expansion and construction boom. While China may now be slowing down its rate of construction. It’s also not unheard of for similar collapses to occur at building sites within the country.

Both countries get mentioned a lot when it comes to conversations of global development. And talk isn’t always flattering. For instance, the media is all over the serious pollution issues in parts of India and China. And it is a real concern. My introduction to India was Bangalore, a city now renowned for its bad air. Careening through oppressively crowded streets in a rickshaw, I often saw heavy black soot coming out the exhaust pipes of trucks or other vehicles ahead. I felt the visceral relief of spending time at tree-filled Lalbagh Park to get away from the crush of traffic.

In many ways, so-called developing nations struggle to keep up with the sheer size of their populations (as of 2013 India was at nearly 1.3 billion and China had almost 1.4 billion residents). The rapid pace of their urbanization means that planners, engineers, and builders are racing to redesign Asian cities under this huge pressure of people.

It does seem like a tremendous task to keep up with the rapidly urbanizing parts of India, as well as the roads, trains, electricity, broadband, and other infrastructure to connect them. Environmental concerns might often be getting shoved under the rug. But we’re missing some things also, aspects that are less sexy to report on, in declaiming “Oh, poor India,” and thinking of it only as an environmentally-challenged place. We miss the reality that there are also ways in which Indian culture is radically ahead of the game when it comes to sustainability.

I’m thinking of how ridesharing is nothing new to India for instance. Whole families often commute through cities on motorbikes, and rickshaws taken by locals are frequently stuffed to the brim. Uber advertises all over India (where it takes cash to adjust to infrequent use of credit cards), along with similar services already based in India. But their model seems much less innovative or necessary in a place where it’s already quite common to be riding in a vehicle with several other people.

Another example is the strict use of resources. From what I could see during my travels, hardly anyone seemed to own water- and electricity-guzzling appliances such as clothes washer/dryer sets or dishwashers. Most people bathe using buckets of water (not always heated either) rather than employing the use of water-guzzling showers. It’s something that a lot of travelers coming from the Western world have to get used to, given that we are so used to having these comforts.

Not too long ago, however, Western countries didn’t look so different. And while I’m not going to be the first to replace my shower in California with a bucket bath, I do have to wonder if it’s possible for India to grow and change differently than other industrialized countries have? Could it hold on to some of its more sustainable ways of living and at the same time embrace the things that would help increase environmental health, life expectancy, gender equity, and all the other markers that some places are arguably closer to? At the very least, it’s clear that sustainability isn’t always a clear cut issue.


Image by NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

JuventudIf I know one thing in my life, it’s that your father is a good man. But I also know a few other things.
from Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

I love when a publisher reaches out to me with a book that is right up my alley, which is exactly what happened with Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud. I could tell when I first read the description that this was going to be a layered novel that expanded my understanding of Colombia and what it means to have grown up there during a particularly turbulent period of history.

I want to give a completely-unsolicited shoutout to Curbside Splendor, the company that published Juventud. As someone who reviews books by/about people of color and with an interest in the changing nature of cities, it’s a rare pleasure to find a publisher that puts out several books from those interests. I’d seriously recommend sifting through their catalog for works that pique your interest.

But back to the book. In my writings and work in urban planning so far I’ve been mostly focused on issues like gentrification, economic revitalization, and the intersection of race and poverty through a U.S. lens. So it’s a treat to read something that takes me to a completely different context with some of these same issues.

Juventud takes place in the complex political landscape of Colombia after the fall of Pablo Escobar, renowned cocaine-trafficker. The main character, Mercedes, is “the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Santiago de Cali, Colombia.” She’s a teenager who falls in love with a radical activist that voices out against militarized groups, terrorism, and corruption in the government. But Mercedes also has a complicated family history that she’s seeking to unravel, involving an American mother who she has never known and the dark secrets of her father’s maybe not-so-clean past.

The care and depth of Blakeslee’s research into Mercedes’ world is really evident from the beginning. From the geography to the food and the social structure of the time, Blakeslee paints a world that’s mysterious but also realistic. I really appreciated that she took equal care with the setting of the novel as she did with her character development.

In reading the book I found myself reflecting on how the children and teenagers who grow up in conflict areas or turbulent homes are often so much more mature than those who grow up in relative safety. You can see that even though Mercedes is a teenager, she acts in many ways as an adult. She quickly grows very wise about love, sex, what she wants, and her role in her society’s social structure.

In a painstaking way, Juventud blurs the categories of good and bad when it comes to family, politics, and searching for oneself. And it was an adventure I enjoyed following.

See a full list of my book reviews here, and my book review policy here.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifeThings get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.
from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So I’m gonna admit right now that I picked up A Little Life mostly because people kept talking about how sad it was. It was kind of like a jalapeño pepper eating contest to me. I wanted to see if it was really as sad as people said it was and if I could take it. I know. It was a bit of a strange impulse. Maybe I thought it would make me a stronger person.

Short story: yep, it’s a pretty sad book. The saddest book I’ve ever read? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s pretty high up there. I think what really brings it up to the top of that list is the level of hopelessness that just sort of hangs over the whole thing and over the main character Jude.

Jude is a messed up person. Pitted against other troubled protagonists of literary fiction he would win prizes for Worst Childhood, Worst PTSD, and Worst Self-Esteem with absolutely zero question. So where’s the story? Well, Yanagihara is really skilled at creating the world of Jude’s friends around him. She develops out his best friends Willem, JB, and Malcom, as well as several other characters who basically spend their lives trying to save Jude from the ghosts of his horrific past.

One of the reasons that this book spoke to me despite being incredibly heavy was that I do know Jude. It’s real that some people have turned inward on themselves with such violent self-hatred and a fear of being close to others that simply getting through a day is near-impossible at times. Having an author really illustrate this character in such a relentless way I think actually helped me better understand the people in my life who struggle with similar demons, even if those demons come from different places.

I don’t want to say too much more, because a lot of this book is about how much information Yanagihara lets you have access to and when. You don’t get to learn about Jude’s past until she says you can, and even then you only get parts of the story until nearly the end of the book. But I will say that I appreciated the fullness of this book, that it truly tried to capture a life in all of its torturous complexities, pains, and simple joys.

I’m very curious to read her other novel, The People in the Trees, which I’ve heard is actually pretty different from A Little Life, but I’ll definitely need to take a long breather first.

4Stars24/5 stars

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.