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Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross – a writerly review by Pete Kalu

  Black Rain Falling is a cracking crime novel by Jacob Ross, the second in his ‘Digger’ Digson series, set in the fictional Caribbean island of Camaho. Crime writers occupying the highest plinths of the crime fiction pantheon – Mosley, Neely, Hammett, Highsmith and Chandler – might give Ross a nod for his achievement: he has a consummate talent for balancing the various energies needed for a contemporary crime story – action, suspense, sustained multi-faceted evolution of major characters – all the while weaving a yarn that engrosses. It helps that Ross has an indecent raft of sheer writing verve. This writerly review looks at some elements of what Ross does. Setting, Modernity, the crime novel and Black Rain Falling The term modernity was coined by Baudelaire in his essay, The Painter of Modern Life. He saw it as inextricably bound up with the city and the shock of the new: ‘the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis’. One of crime fiction’s earliest pioneers was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s short story Murder at the Rue Morgue is often advanced as the very first detective story, and is set in the city. Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes stories lifted many ideas intrinsic to our understanding of ‘the city’ from Poe and from the French pioneer, Gaboriau. So it came to be that detective fiction and the city became linked in the popular imagination. When this genre history is hooked to black presence, which in the UK and in USA has often been clustered around cities, then it is no surprise that the major black practitioners of crime fiction – Barbara Neely, Walter Mosley, Attica Locke in the USA; in the UK, Dreda Say Mitchell, Courttia Newland and Mike Phillips, among others, have invariably set their novels in a fictitious or actual city. Ross’s ‘Digger’ series is different. The action takes place on the fictitious Caribbean island of Camaho (pop. 100,000). Ross himself was born in Grenada, and his love of the Caribbean permeates Black Rain Falling. His Camaho world is a particularly Caribbean mix of the urban town/city, and the village. Ross’s other works (particularly his novel Pynter Bender, but also many of his short stories), evidence a keen poetic sensibility and, in venturing into crime fiction, Ross has not abandoned this gift: a sense of poetry infuses his crime novels. Nowhere does Ross’s lyricism ride higher than when he describes the Camaho natural environment. There are sentences other writers would die for in the descriptions. Here are a few examples: ‘All month it had been like this: dry, dusting, sapping; the air filled with the lament of suffering livestock that were hugging the shadows of he forest receding all the way to the hilltops. With all that dryness a pusson felt afraid to strike a match.’ ‘The slope of a hill, the type and thickness of the vegetation made a sound when the wind ran over it, that a pusson heard nowhere else in the world. Up here, among the ferns and bamboo and ancient thick-headed trees, the Belvedere mountains sobbed and mourned.’ (Shades of Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) ‘Old Hope village spread out across the hillside on which we lived. Directly ahead were the foothills, pulling my gaze all the way up to the Mardi Gras mountains – purple-dark in the early light.’   Western rationality, African Cosmology and Black Rain Falling Western rationalism has often been the go-to default for crime fiction, indeed there are aspects of the  crime genre, especially its centring of science, rationality and logic, that make crime fiction in many of its iterations a paean to Western Progress and rationalism. However, there are other cosmologies in existence, and black writers have often explored the literary potential of giving the narrative breath of life to non-Western ways of seeing the world (egs: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Bluebird; many of the short stories of Leone Ross and Ironesen Okojie). Black crime writers do this while still maintaining some of the genre’s standard detective tropes of logic and rationalism. Where is Black Rain Falling positioned in this Western materialism – Africanist cosmology dialectic? Early on in the novel, a glimmer of non-Western cosmology is given. Digson tells of how his grandmother, who raised him, described the world to him: ‘Olokun is the god-woman of the Dark waters. She rule the bottom of the ocean, yunno. The only one who know what happen to all them African who never reach this side of the Atlantic.’  As with Digson’s grandmother, the Camaho rural women are the major repositories of knowledge based on an alternative cosmology. They carry a spiritual connection with the land and the history of the people within their customs, manners and oral stories. When Digson sees a group of women gathering urgently: ‘They brought to mind my grandmother, who had mothered me, muttering in a closed room with other women that she’d gathered around her. I remembered the secrecy of their ritual cleansing – women, preparing one of their own for the trouble to come.’ ‘These elders would be carrying in their heads the family tree of every person on Kara Island and their connections to each other. They still named their children...

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly: a writers review, and notes by Pete Kalu

  When 15-year-old Nathan’s older brother Al (17), kills himself, Nathan is distraught. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to his brother’s act. And The Stars Were Burning Brightly follows Nathan as he navigates his grief and tries to uncover what pushed his brother over the edge. Framed this way, And The Stars follows the classic ‘victim-of-crime’ crime novel genre dynamic as expounded by two masters of the genre  Boileau and Narcejac (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boileau-Narcejac for more on them). As they put it: ‘One becomes a victim as soon as one is present at events whose definitive meaning one is unable to decipher … The crime story, instead of signalling the triumph of logic, has then to consecrate the failure of rational thought: it is precisely for this reason that its hero is a victim’.  The victim-of-crime novel is a study in the anguish of the loved ones who survive the victim’s death.  And the survivors’ attempts to find a reason why is of course doomed to be unsatisfying since, on an existential plane, nothing discovered can ever bring the victim back. Specifically, Nathan’s quest is a means for him to wrestle with his sense of culpability: he had not noticed trouble brewing in his brother’s life. What part did I play in his death? Nathan asks himself: could I have done anything differently and prevented it? The tale is told in the first person through three viewpoints: that of Nathan, of Al’s close friend, Megan, and, using phone messages and other epistolary devices, that of Al himself. It is a victim novel, but there is also a very sweet love story swirling around the fraught issue of Al’s suicide, a love story delicately stitched and sensitively developed. As the plot thickens, some topical Young Adult themes come to the fore. On of those is the nature of identity, particularly, the strange way in which one person can know and yet completely not-know another person. In the eyes of Nathan, Al was perfect. Yet, in the eyes of his school peer group,  Nathan learns, Al was a geek: too brainy, too remote, uncool. The reader discovers that Al was a talented painter and had a wide-ranging curiosity for subjects as diverse as Astronomy, Biology, Botany and Maths. Al was ostracised by the working-class youth culture he lived within. Are working-class communities (or, perhaps, on a different analysis, all youth cultures) inherently hostile to gifted yet introverted young people? If so, how do young dreamers and thinkers navigate that? Other themes developed in the novel include how social media can make bullying more intense and inescapable; and the dangers of online identity deceptions such as catfishing. The novel is set in Wythenshawe, Manchester, and the characters speak at times using Wythenshawe-inflected language patterns and phrases (such as using ‘proper’ as an intensifier as in: ‘that’s proper good’). Nathan, the main protagonist, is of mixed heritage, his absent father black, his mother white. The conjunction of blackness and Wythenshawe speech may be a departure of sorts in that I cannot recall that any writer before has given voice to such a character. Across town (ie Manchester), the crime writer, Karline Smith has delivered a series of novels and stories in the voice of inner city South Central Manchester where West Indian Englishes still infuse third generation black language codes. Jawando is doing something different. I recognised the Wythenshawe speech (I went to school in Wythenshawe). It quickly becomes normal within the novel, and so invisible after the first few chapters, and it is a deep pleasure, a small but important act of assertion, to see this set down in a book.  One of the bravest and most difficult things a writer can do is take their own trauma and explore it through art. Sometimes, by doing so, the artist tames the trauma. I say, sometimes because it is not always possible, the process can kill you (see arguably,  the life story of Van Gogh, an artist whose life and its relationship with his art  is featured significantly in And The Stars). But go into that trauma, an artist sometimes must.  It was a risk that, for Jawando, proved very much worth taking.  And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is a compelling read, dealing with difficult subjects deftly and compassionately, and wholly without any sense of...

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton: a writers review by Pete Kalu

    On February 20, 1910 in Philadelphia, a black man (Edward), drove a railroad trolley into a department store, killing a number of people, injuring others. Why did he do it?  This is the plot premise of Remembered, a superbly evocative and moving novel by Yvonne Battle-Felton. The novel looks at America during the time of plantation slavery and at sixty years of slavery’s long-tailed aftermath there. Remembered is written primarily in the voice of Edward’s mother, Spring, and oscillates between events in 1910 and the formative years of Spring’s life, including Spring’s enslavement, her life as an enslaved person and after emancipation  in the early 1860’s. The narrative stitches the connections between these different times to deliver a haunting  tapestry of the horror, jangle and stink of the era. Narrator, Spring is shadowed by her dead sister, Tempe. Early in the novel, Edward is lying in a coma on his hospital death-bed. Spring and the ghostly Tempe argue over what happens next. If Edward dies, they agree, he needs to die right: to come to the afterlife with full knowledge. Tempe points out he does not know the full story of his mother. Spring says she will tell him, but ‘Either I’ll tell it my way or it won’t get told.’  Spring proceeds to do just that. We learn the story of Spring’s origins and wider family. The telling is Spring’s, and of Spring’s family,  but the novel also opens out as an act of remembrance for all those individuals who endured through slavery. Their stories are not captured in official documents. White writers and administrators did not see fit to record their lives. Pen and paper stories were not written down by enslaved Africans for obvious reasons. Addressing this historical erasure and recovering the stories of people like Spring is a path embarked upon most determinedly by Toni Morrison (eg. Beloved). Of course, there is much unearthed by these stories that white society might –  then and now – want to look away from. The cruelty that the Philadelphian Walker plantation Patriarch meted out in Remembered parallels the degradation forced upon enslaved  Africans working on Jamaican plantations such as those of James Robert Wedderburn ( https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146643591) and the notorious Thomas Thistlewood  (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146651067).  In venturing into these waters, Battle-Felton joins Morrison in a commitment to ‘speak the unspeakable’, to borrow a Morrison phrase. As a writer, I was interested in some philosophical questions that Remembered had to work through. What was it like in those times – not on the poetic or epic scale – but on the level of the day-to-day, the level at which the novel as a form excels? Can these horrors be described and at the same time juxtaposed and made to seem an organic part of the wider world of that time? How do you balance horror and the everyday? Who were we then, as human beings?  How did we see the world? The writer, Henry James, in a letter, wrote that the task of recreating the consciousness of those who lived in long-ago times was ‘almost impossible’. Is it?  The other large question I was interested in concerns how the novel as a form is employed by black writers. A novel establishes a world and in doing so constitutes a world view. Is that world view necessarily Western?  Remembered sits in conversation with Beloved by Toni Morrison,  The Famished Road by Ben Okri and Their Eyes Were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. In all three there is a sense of Africanist cosmology running through, signalled most strongly in Remembered by the ease with which the dead sister, Tempe arrives in scenes where her sister, Spring is present.   Moving to a radical black arts type critique, another question raised by such novels, though much less spoken about, is the Malcolm X-esque question: how did white people manage to do this to us? Were we complicit? Weak? Fools? In that mode, Remembered stirs, within a black reader at least, an incandescent rage, and for moments, as the degradation, rape, humiliation is described, there is a reader-character unity with the black characters in Remembered  as  explanations are bewilderingly advanced, including, in a moment of splitting, the idea advanced by the patriarch slave master Walker himself, that white people got ‘nothing but the devil’ in them. There are harrowing scenes in Remembered. But also moments of sublime transcendence. One of the most delightful is Battle-Felton’s answer to the question, what was that moment of freedom like for enslaved Africans in Philadelphia when slavery was finally abolished?  Of course, the news of abolition does not filter to everyone all at once, but in bits and pieces. And there features in Remembered an almost dazed phase of drifting and wandering of the newly free, an assuming of new names, a beginning of new directions. Battle-Felton renders this numinously and imaginatively: I’ve not encountered in literature this moment expressed so evocatively before. I’m always interested in a novel’s stylistics: the particular technical choices made by the author to bring a story to life.  Here are some tentative notes on Battle-Felton’s choices for Remembered: It is written partly in the first person ‘I’. This sets some limits on prose style with these sections (for more on this, see, for example the first five short sections of James’ Wood’s  How Novels Work on ‘free indirect speech’) so the...

Kalu Bluebird music video: some background

        A nation is a set of stories. And the National Trust is a custodian of stories, set up by Act of Parliament tasked inter alia with keeping in good health those country houses which are of national significance – considered to contain within them   important stories about the nation.* The country houses owned by the National Trust are therefore clearly part of the narrative fabric of the nation.  What stories do these country houses tell?   The cultural theorist Paul Gilroy notes in his seminal text After Empire, how ‘Englishness’ is constructed. He points out that historical amnesia and postcolonial melancholia are persistent elements in conventional  ‘Englishness’ narratives (Gilroy After Empire 2004, 95-100, 116-120).   The National Trust, with its 1907  foundational purpose of ‘permanent preservation’ has such conventional narratives available to it and it uses them. So a September 2019 tweet (screenshot below) suggests as an activity: “Discover how top-secret map makers and allotments grown in the dig for victory played an important role in our wartime history.” This tweet shows admirable dexterity. It manages to combine several ‘Englishness’ tropes: ‘map making’ with its allusion to Empire;  the Home office sponsored slogan,  ‘Dig For Victory’ – a reference to England’s much narrated ‘victory’ in World War Two; and most imaginatively, the tweet also manages to squeeze in a reference to that quintessentially English phenomenon (and I have one!) of the allotment.      Yet there are other narratives available. And some artists, myself among them, want to unsettle this rather cosy version of Englishness. We are focused on putting forward narratives that acknowledge and move closer to the centre of meditations on Englishness, the depredations, cruelty, stereotyping  and symbolic violence which underpinned the British Empire and colonialism. Violence which still affects us today in all its symbolic, linguistic and conceptual shockwaves. More specifically, we seek, through our art, and by a re-examination of historical lands, buildings, artefacts and archives, to foster the rise of suppressed and hitherto unheard voices – including voices of the ‘Other’.  The Leicester University based Colonial Countryside project has gathered some such artists together – primarily writers. Twitter and Facebook abound with other organisations, artists and historians  seeking to  transform understandings of how Empire and its successor, colonialism, has affected national identity.    Poem – origins The poem which forms the lyrics of ‘Bluebird’ was inspired by the lock, stock and barrel of Penrhyn Castle, a National Trust property in North Wales. Penrhyn Castle itself is a marvellous trompe l’oeil – a stately home  built between 1820 and 1833 (just before the Victorian era)  but presenting itself as something more ancient: a Norman castle.  Thus, the issue of presentation, representation, reality and authenticity is mixed into every brick of the property.  It is a magnificent structure, not only in its architecture. It is decorated and furnished so as to proclaim its owner’s sophistication, civility, good taste, aristocratic roots, wealth, knowledge and power. Nobody who visits can be left uncertain that the primary story there is of the Pennant family’s importance in the world.  The poem is a counter-narrative. It refers allusively to the slave trade origins of the Pennants’ wealth, using imagery to indicate objects in the Penrhyn Castle display –  such as stuffed birds and paintings – where slave trade and colonial connections can be found.  I won’t spoil the poem by pointing out all these references.  But a visit to Penrhyn Castle with the song on your headphone’s playlist would be enough to reveal most if not all!  Song – development The basic musicality of the poem supplied the beginnings of the song.  From this, the song itself was developed, composed and arranged by my 15 yo daughter, Naomi Kalu.  We argued about whether the last, consolidating, note of the song should or should not be played (she won the argument – in the video it is not).    Video – development Jonny Ferryman shot all the video footage in two hours at Penrhyn Castle.  He then edited the video, adding some acoustic effects (the bird song, the sea waves).  Charlotte Maxwell assisted in the direction and with costume. The sound editing was done at HQ Recording Studio.          *The consolidating statute (National Trust Acts (1907-1971) puts it in glorious legalese : “The National Trust shall be established for the purposes of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.”   ...

Trinidad Incantation and song

        Moko Jumbi Incantation   Things scribbled in margins. The spilled fruit-seed of gardeners, linguists, carvers, in their crossings, hauntings, meridian measurings; a constant shifting of the phantom cargo of memory, interweavings, trailings, pathways. I pause at the crossroads, as Eshu arrives:   Hear me now: ecoutez bon, digame lo que pasaba– stories from the perfumeries of Sevilla, of los negreros del rio Guadalquivir, los conquistadores buscando el oro,  los barcos dolorosas,the stenching  folly of the Oyibo – tell me everything.   From under this hash and hex, by the throwing off of murk, mud, pushing through jetsam, in this way, newness shakes its holy dusted head and leaps into the world: hybridizing, creolizing, conjuring from the sprawl and depth of the Carib, from African hinterlands, from the debt bond courts of India… Yes, newness comes swirling into the sweep of archipelago, sliding across the chopping stilts of moko jumbie: Eshu is alive:   Digame.  Stirring. Dicing. Confusing memory. Invoking the global apocalypse of rising waters,  set to cast under the port of London, the port of New York, the West’s ruins-to-come to be as ancient and fascinating in this future as the Roman relics of now.     Ecoutez bon.The modulations, mutations, hallucinogens. Watch the stilt dancers, measuring  the moments from the overwhelm with the arc of their stilts.  The swivel of their compasses. Destiny made manifest.   Nemesis nemesis nemesis  an unravelling, a doubled display of fear doubled consciousness tripled, flung into a trillion synapses carrying the old voltages, channeling heat to light new fires.  Horned, gored, grooved, the mutating voices disappearing into valleys to be transmogrified, becoming tin, pan, the quake-rattle kish-boom that leaps from island to island, hopping from continent to continent declaring renewal, newness, in a syncopated, shimmering burst of brilliance   Don’t ask me. Qu’est ce qu’il dit, lo que creen, lo que piensan, pues hay cosas que no podemos entender, no podemos (sobre)vivir   Never still. They rock constantly, They leap back in time, shaken by the tunneling, the pathways, conduits, viaducts, the signallings of the Orishas. High and far-seeing. Dancing  futures, stomping the dust-beat of future trials, future visions, hailing the rendez-vouz of future victories. They tower over us. We can only crane our necks, behold them, read the scattered bones of their divinations.                   Song For Eshu and Moko     Eshu, trickster of the first order You, who can leap across borders   Eshu, you linger at the cross roads Smoke, mirrors, confusion, your mute codes   Moko who can stare into the horizon sun See all the trials that have been and that may come   Eshu, God of a thousand faces Moko, stepped from a thousand places   Eshu, how many crossroads will we step and face? Moko, how many rant-raves-riddles will we needs must hunt and chase?  ...

Dance Away The Spiders – a short dance review by Pete Kalu

Dance Away The Spiders took place at Home, Manchester, UK. on 22nd January 2019. Ask theatre professionals what group might be the hardest group to work with from the point of view of simple logistics, and asylum seekers / refugees would be right up there. They often live precarious, indigent lives in which even turning up to a meeting can require expense and movements beyond their capacities. To attempt to organise a group of seven into a solid dance corps and to create a work of art to be staged live in a major theatre is to embrace therefore the utmost uncertainty.  Yet working with Sheba Arts, a refugee-led arts organisation, this group managed it. On the night, the performance was preceded by a short video providing glimpses into the women’s lives, the difficulties they have had, some reflections of their selves outside the rehearsal studio, off-stage: their daily lives, the private joys they find there and the challenges they face – the video makes an explanatory and humanising counterpoint to the live performance. The stage was set. The lights came up.  Dance Away The Spiders began as individual dances, each performer expressed her own tradition of dance – Latin American, South Asia, Eastern European and West African – while also delivering those moments of individuality that bring such dances alive. The individual dances segued into a group dance in the round. To a vibrant soundtrack, a narrative emerged of the hardships some of them have faced and escaped, and how, by coming together in solidarity in Manchester, they have managed to build hope, both individual and collective.   The power of Dance Away The Spiders comes not from the competence of the dancers (and they were wonderfully expressive) but from the sense of an important moment in their lives taking place.  The opportunity to express themselves, to produce and share something of aesthetic value with the audience and in that way bridge the gap between refugee on brightly lit  stage and authorised citizen in the comfort and dark of the theatre seats; for all  to slip labels and become in the moment of the performance and sharing, a community of people uniting in a shared will to a fairer, kinder future for all. They took to the stage to dance away spiders, to chase away fears. The dance shone with life and vibrancy; the costumes were upbeat, from bold red, flamenco dresses, to the kathak-influenced, to aspects of folk and Western contemporary. There was a delicacy and tenderness between the dancers. If one faltered, another would step closer, pull them through. In this, there was a template for us...