Caribbean Tourism and A Brief History of Seven Killings


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.

Reflections from Yosemite and Infinite Jest-ing

Ansel Adams-style

Spending half a week in Yosemite allowed me to pause.

Just a forest, two travelers, and a tent. Well, we brought more than that with us, but the emphasis was on the basic and essential things we needed for a few days away.

I left home intending to conquer, to see Yosemite Valley from the top of some peak. Instead, I learned an important lesson from the woods: It’s not always about how far you can push yourself.

When it came down to planning our hikes, I just didn’t feel up to the ones labeled “very strenuous” that would have positioned us for those heady, breathtaking views. So over a few days we hiked the valley floor and spent a luxurious day on the shore of Lake Tenaya. It was a gorgeous and needed experience, even as I had to battle feeling guilty for not climbing something tall and unwieldy to tell stories about later.

At our campsite and hiking around I noticed that we were some of the only people of color around, which, while not a surprise, has me thinking about the culture of outdoorism and how different kids grow up. My partner and I chose to explore the woods by buying camping gear and picking campsites and choosing routes and planning tiny stove meals. We taught ourselves, it wasn’t something we remember from childhood. During this trip, I was amazed at how many white families had chosen to camp with small children, probably wanting to instill some sense of the great outdoors from a young age.

I’m wondering how the woods can become that familiar and accessible to families of color also. Without idealizing the concept of “nature,” I would hope that its concrete benefits like stress reduction, fitness, and emotional development are something that one day all people will feel comfortable enjoying. Professor Carolyn Finney has a book that I would love to read on this topic called Black Faces, White Spaces, where she explores “the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America.”

Speaking of books, I started reading David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest on my trip, and so far have been blown away. Not too long ago I saw End of the Tour, the movie produced about an interview Wallace did with a Rolling Stones reporter before Wallace’s death. While I found the movie itself a little slow, it sparked my interest in him again as an author and was the impetus I needed to finally start Infinite Jest, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time.

I was surprised at first to find myself wanting to write about Wallace, a white male, on this blog which is most often about diversity and social justice. But I think what really intrigues me about his writing, aside from some astoundingly well-crafted prose, is the fact that he sought so deeply to universalize the human experience. It’s easy to go too far in that endeavor — trying to be race-blind or gender-blind, or any other kind of blind that doesn’t really further our understanding of ourselves as people — and I’ll of course be keeping an eye our for that. But as for now I’m really looking forward to giving it a more full review once I get through the 900+ pages and 200+ footnotes. Onward.

Oakland’s Old and New

canon 50mm

From a young age my mother instilled a love of photography in me. I remember playing around with her 35mm film camera in high school photo class, developing the rolls of film by hand in the dark room and waiting to see what shadows and highlights would magically emerge from the paper in the process of moving it from one chemical bathtub to another.

Ever since then photography has been an on-and-off hobby of mine. I’ve found over the years that getting behind the viewfinder of a camera often sparks my creativity in writing and my work life. I also feel that taking photos helps me focus in on (no pun intended) the place justice issues I care about.

In reading The Artist’s Way recently I’ve been animated to play around with photography again. And since I just bought a prime lens for the first time (the standard Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM for any fellow photo hobbyists who want to know), I decided to take a spin out to Oakland’s Chinatown and Old Oakland districts to see what I could capture.

Every time I walk through the area my senses are deluged by the mix of gritty urban elements, established culture, and newer changes to the neighborhoods. This mixture seems similar to so many other cities where demographics are changing but established communities are still trying to hold on to their identity and ownership over space.


IMG_2588aNote: After first publishing this post it was brought to my attention that both the dragon painted on the mailbox and the Malcom X portrait are works done by Dr. Dragon of the Dragon School. You can check out some of the other amazing works from this awesome group here: Wrist Ship Supply , Spittin’ Fire, OMWB White Elephant Sale Building and Cat Town Cafe Wall 1 and Wall 2.

vegetable boxes

I once took a walking tour of Oakland Chinatown where the guide told us this building wasn’t actually built according to Chinese architecture — it’s a “fake” in a sense, a fetishism perhaps of Asian art and design as the builders tried to add what they saw as a sense of authenticity to the neighborhood.

Chinatown building

On a different note I’m not sure whether the person who posted this sign was an older resident or a newer one, but I appreciate the acknowledgment of the unconscionable police oppression of black and brown bodies that happens across the nation. Notes like this give me hope that people are starting to understand how America’s cities large and small are connected in this way. Cities themselves can be platforms of protest. May Michael Brown and too many others rest in power and peace.

michael brown



Signs of the new…

pointing hands

restaurant tables

All in all I’m quite happy with the new lens so far. I’m looking forward to more adventures with it, and hoping that practicing photography will spark more thoughts of place justice along the way.

A Trip Across the Bay

telegraph hill

Doing a photo walk of San Francisco’s North Beach area has me contemplating that age-old Oakland vs. San Francisco rivalry. I’ve been through so many versions of this conversation — the one where someone says anything great about the city they live in and then those living on the other side of the bridge have to come back with a reason for why their city is better. Back and forth.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone — I’ll defend Oakland’s awesomeness to the end. (Seriously though, it’s 10 degrees warmer here — is there really still a question?) But under the friendly rivalry about Oakland being better than San Francisco there are some complicated truths, some realities that make it hard to see this banter as just a game, especially from the Oakland perspective.

Truth One: San Francisco is an undeniably pretty city.

San Francisco Financial Districtdoorplantcoit towerfog hill marketstairs

The water. The bridges. The hills. The architecture. The greenery. From an aesthetic point of view there’s a lot to love about the city. There’s a mystery and quaintness to all those little alleys and 45 degree streets.

But all that beauty is tainted by the reality of how hard it is to afford to live there, especially the parts that make the front of postcards.

Which brings us to Truth Two, one most Oaklanders have understood for quite a while: San Francisco is an exclusive city.

When I see a building like this, with a balcony overlooking the Bay Bridge, I wonder who lives there. Probably either someone with a lot of money or someone who is in rent-controlled unit and has been there for a very long time. You could even put your money on both.

San Francisco view

And when I see a rare empty lot in the area I have suspicions about who owns the land and how much money they will make in selling it or putting up some real estate.

empty lot

What I struggle with in being in San Francisco is a feeling of alienation, that I am not meant for any of the city’s residential space. Instead I am relegated only the occasional entertainment or shopping. Or perhaps I am only meant to pass through. It is not a city I find easy to be comfortable in.

It’s not that San Francisco has zero affordable housing or that Oakland isn’t struggling with the same challenges of rising costs. Most of Oakland is quickly skyrocketing in price toward comparable levels, and we’re rapidly losing our diversity. I think all of us in Oakland realize how much of a cautionary tale our sister city represents across the Bay.

But for now there is still some integrated diversity in Oakland, even as it declines and we struggle to hold onto what’s left. Oakland still very much feels different from its completely gentrified counterpart. Things are changing, but there’s a hope that not everything will change if we plan our cities smart enough and quickly enough, if we protect the people who are most vulnerable to being pushed out.

So maybe there is a little bite to those conversations about which city is better. On the Oakland side maybe there’s a defensiveness and a fight to protect the diversity and the affordability that Oakland has known in its past.

And I can’t speak firsthand, but perhaps on the San Francisco side it hurts to acknowledge what one might be losing by living there. Even as you relish the charm and beauty of your neighborhood, I wonder if you might feel the absence the kinds of people you don’t meet because they can’t afford to be your neighbor.

golden gate

So Oakland vs. San Francisco? Let the debate rage on. But be gentle to us over here in Oaktown. We’ve got a lot to lose.