Brother

When I moved from Jamaica to Canada years ago, I lived with my aunt in Scarborough. The neighbourhood in which we lived was enclosed by blocks of run down looking plazas along jaded roads, a façade which served to hide the quiet community with a tree in nearly every front or back yard, and even more cooling, the pools that increased the worth of the property. A large plush park, that gave mischievous teenagers the space they needed from their parents and other squinting eyes, shared property with an elementary school. Within walking distance of that was a neighbourhood high school that was worth getting into. Years later, small houses unable to contain themselves would break out of their shells and morph into bold, big and confident versions of themselves. Spaces that were occupied by air would solidify into storied containers big enough to fit three generations, a sign that the neighbourhood was increasing in value. A hot spot worth investing in. That was the Scarborough I knew. I was so confused, therefore, by the smug and pitiful responsive tones of friends and strangers alike when I would tell people that I lived in Scarborough. Scarlem, Scarberia are still some of the monikers used to describe the neighbourhood. It has gained such a reputation and it seems to be so detached that only your true friends would make the effort to visit where you live. To prompt some you may have to declare that you live in the good part of Scarborough or really on the cusp of it, North York.

It wasn’t until I moved out, years later, that I became acquainted with the part of Scarborough people seem to frown upon. Lethargic dirt brown apartment buildings showing depression from the winter and some of the cramped lives that resided in them replaced the dainty houses with yards. It was a Scarborough where drunken arguments roused you at night, tempting you to respond from the mesh window of your bedroom. It was a Scarborough where blood drops on the sidewalk (from a stabbing) lead you on the path towards the bus stop, where beggars couldn’t wait for the red light to halt traffic.

Coming from Jamaica, I knew I had seen worse. Reading Brother by David Chariandy, I still knew that I lived in a different Scarborough community than the one Micheal, Francis and his mother Ruth belonged to, or maybe that is just what I want to think. No, that is what I know. Sure the communities are equally represented by a mix of first and second immigrants. Where fast walking white collar executives littered the streets of downtown Toronto, here tired working class women and men slugged back to their apartment buildings after getting off the bus. Here, the Tim Hortons is a meeting ground with small groups in their corner speaking their native languages over coffee. Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Dominicans, Nigerians etc. and some young white Canadian couples looking for cheap accommodations for only a year to get their feet on the ground, resided here ten years later, their bodies anchored down by the heaviness of life and its price tag. We shared this Scarborough, but somehow Michael’s seemed to lack more hope, despite the author saying the book is about hope. The little hope that resides in the book is seen in the love. I want to say it is a book in defense of the protection of love and those loved since love in such a heavy space seems like the only hope, thus worthy of defense… but this means risking a lot.

In the description, Brother is relayed as a book that tells the story of an immigrant family’s change and turmoil after a series of violent events in the community occur. Attention to racism and police abuse, violence and masculinity and blackness is key to discussions of the book. However, while these are evident, my mind was pulled to the community. Not merely the physical space but the people living together who support or don’t support each other; those navigating unfamiliar communities; the community of people who limit their involvement to judgement and criticism of youth and their behaviour; the communities living among communities and their codes of operation; the policing bodies of the external communities; the lack of community at times; the pitiful kindness of the community at other times.

There is so much irony to how we live in these developed packed spaces. People are so much closer in proximity but so far from connecting as a community. I say this as a witness, someone who may take the elevator but never meeting the eye or greeting the person beside me who lives but a floor up– who may have been living there for ten years for all I know. The only time community would show itself was for about 10 mins, long enough to wait in line to get a burger at the summer picnic the rental property manager is hosting. And yet, in the home of the other Scarborough community, people living in detached homes knew each other and actually stopped outside for a chat. The irony here is stronger than the walls that separate the cheap apartment units.

Overall though, Brother really is so much more than what you think it is or will be. Chariandy is a very emotive storytelling. Where the issues are concerned, there is no going through the motions to think whose side you should be on. No doubting. No flip flopping. No wondering. No guilt about how you should feel. Community is at the heart of the characters’ actions and you understand the outcomes, and it makes you angry at the conditions that make our communities like those experienced in the book and in real life. There is sorrow and plenty of it. Not much laughter but welcomed moments of peace and lightness amidst the increasing decay. Love is there too. It is strong though hidden in the dark, a soothing light warming and protecting mother and sons; a different love from the flowing scent of the potluck of young people gathered in what is initially a safe space of a barbershop community. Different from the love that fuels one to protect.

Chariandy’s “Brother” is rich in description and emotion, both sustaining and explaining the other. It’s equally about love and pain as it is about community, though more a matter of pain and love and protecting those in such a community. He does well in enrolling readers into the environment and lives of his characters so to not only understand actions but also the unspoken. I highly recommend this book. I finished it in less than a day.

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Behold the Dreamers

Completed the book in two days. Such a fluid and engaging story on class, relationships, race and the American Dream. Though a black couple leads the story, the tale is not limited to a Black experience or even just an immigrant experience. Many can relate to the different classes of people portrayed and, if not, at least get an access pass behind the closed doors of the ones on the other end of the hall. The humanity and range Mbue shows in her characters is something I also appreciate since it can be so easy for any outsider to harbour bias, assumptions and resentment about others who are unlike his/herself.

Interestingly, as an immigrant reading the story, no doubt I see where there will be a clash between those who followed the immigration system legally and those who didn’t. Some immigrants will empathize with Jende and his family and some, though respecting his hustle, will not appreciate him trying to “cheat” the system. It is a serious layer to unpack given the easy mistake of bundling immigrant voices into one. On a whole, Mbue’s writing reads like a honest experience by relatable voices. The fact that she wrote from a place of understanding and personal interest shows.

Fifteen Dogs

Not considering throwing money in another person’s face, what would be the human equivalent of dogs mounting their own to enforce their power and rank and dominate other dogs? Consider too, the human interaction should have the similar physical imposition or to be more clear, a close encounter that speaks to an invasion of space. Would someone cutting ahead of you in line and you not speaking up count? What about someone sitting at the head of the team, in YOUR chair? Would that have the same notion? I wonder this as I picture top dog Atticus and some of the others mounting and humping the status out of the lowly dogs in Andre Alexis’s novel “Fifteen Dogs”. “Fifteen Dogs” revolves around the fate of fifteen dogs after gods Apollo and Hermes grant them human consciousness and language in their selfish wager to see if consciousness in such creatures will make them more or less happy.

I don’t have pets so instead of eyeing my non-existent talking dog with trepidation, the idea of conscious dogs took my mind to elementary school English classes where the teacher would make us write compositions titled “A Day in the Life of….” In this case, “A Day in the Life of a Dog”, but despite how easy and smooth the book was to finish this is not your basic read. For one, a day turns into years and Alexis’ dogs are intellectually pass the “gimme your paw” “up down” “roll around” commands. These dogs wax poetic, teach themselves to speak as humans, philosophize on humanity and the world and really would scare the hell out of anyone if man’s best friend decided to human speak its mind.

Alexis, who describes himself as a lover of animal and has based some of the dog’s characters on pets he’s had, uses a simple plot, simple interactions and what we would probably see as the average plight of dogs to make possible profound conversations about change, identity, groupthink and individualism, consciousness and automation, belonging and alienation, power and ranking, role, language and intelligence, conscience, control and freedom, relationships between humans, themselves and animals, happiness and death. I know, that was a mouth full. He touches on so many themes in the book about human nature without preaching or imposing, it’s a wonder the book wasn’t longer. Granted, there are moments where you want to focus your thoughts so you search for a clear position on these themes like you’d find among philosopher, but Alexis does not provide it, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions—as evidenced in the uncertainty in the ruling between gods that comes with the death of each dog. Though he casts a wide net, it is not distracting or disjointed, because the connections are clear.

Each theme has its moment with each dog and with the passing of time, some lasting all the way through, some having stronger resonance. Language, for instance, is at the centre of the book, and we’re left with the question, does human language make us any more intelligent than other creatures? I had one of those side head tilting moments dogs have when they look at you like, “wait, what” when human’s exceptionalism is put on blast in the book when it’s said that if you strip away a dog’s impressive abilities what you have left is a human. I gave myself some time with that one. A truly humbling moment. Animals are exceptional and their natural abilities are impressive. So are humans, who once lived like wild animals. Now like always we both rely on each other to survive, despite how developed we think we are. The idea of man also makes me look at the statement another way: humans no longer being the animals we once were, as far as natural instincts and our ability to navigate nature are concerned. At one point in history we could rely on our senses to know danger, understand nature with just our instincts, read the sky to lead us home etc. and some people still can. Many of us now rely on the weather network, stop signs and google maps etc. We’ve adapted, but so have animals. Should we then be insulted by the thought? Going back to language and intelligence, language connects us as humans, but is and should that be the signifier of human’s intelligence over other creatures considering too how much we lack? And that animals also have a language of their own? Our ego and sense of consciousness might have us thinking that we are above other species, but are we?

More than anything else the conversation that I am drawn to in the book is that around change and holding on to what we believe is our true nature. Conflict among dogs arise because Atticus and a few others believe that they should follow the nature of dogs and oppose this new consciousness, the latter being too complex. The change warrants too many unfamiliar ways of doing: learning a new language and hunting differently for instance. The effort required to learn the new is too much and unnecessary for some given the simplicity of what already exists and what is already familiar. Other dogs think differently, and their oppositions lead to their own demise and isolation from the pack. Over time though we see that their resistance to change and the stubbornness to remain true to one’s nature does not lead to anywhere good when the change is not an option. To not change leads to greater problems and suffering. I think about Atticus and the others and it is hard not to think about the times we are in. For instance, I was born in the 80’s which means I had one foot in times before the www and the other in the digitally driven era. As a result I see both sides of change. I was one of many kids born into the transitioning space of today’s world. Admittedly I resisted the new society initially, but to not learn the new language eventually and lambast those who took interest and made the effort to adapt was more of a detriment to me and my survival than anything else.

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

Adrianne Harun on A Man Came Out Of A Door In The Mountain: “Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with a writer who’d recently published a book on places NOT to vacation. He mentioned Highway 16 in British Columbia, and I was stunned into listening more closely. I’d been up through Northern BC before and considered it one of the most beautiful places on earth. Then he began talking about missing girls and women. For decades, girls and women have gone missing or been found murdered near Highway 16, also now called the Highway of Tears. Worse, those cases were, at that time, all unsolved. Worse still, many believed that they’d gone largely uninvestigated because most of the victims were indigenous women and girls. I found my way to a website about the Highway of Tears and fell down that rabbit hole. It was like an online scream, with many photos of the missing and murdered, some of them children, many young mothers who left children behind. The situation haunted me…”

“… I also didn’t want to co-opt a real family’s tragedy. So I struggled to find a way to write towards this situation, to call attention to it, without trying to own or define it or even be polemical about it. I wanted more than anything to make the situation and that world emotionally felt. At the same time, such tremendous evil—whether it be personal or systemic or cultural—called up questions I wanted to explore about how much control we might have over our actions, about the nature of good and evil.”

“I do think of the world, our experiences in it, as “porous”—that is, I believe we invent a lot of the separation we build between seen and unseen worlds to protect ourselves from a kind of chaos. I’m not a believer in any one god tied to an institution, but I do believe in energy, consciousness, and human volition, all of which can take us closer to—oh, a Higher Self or… well, you know, exactly the opposite. I don’t fully believe in forces acting upon the character, but I do heartily believe that energy is there, not just lurking but fully active. “Look sharp,” Leo wants to warn his dear ones. Me, too. Me, too.”

Read the interview:
📰: Good, Evil, and Canada’s Aboriginal Kidnappings – An Interview with Adrianne Harun
✒: April Ayers Lawson| Vice.com, June 2014

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More than anything the hints and implications in Harun’s novel regarding human nature and the ability to overcome devilish influences stay at the forefront of one’s mind when one reads this book.  The presence of the mysterious strangers who arrived in the town, the suited figure in the backyard, the burnt smell around a dying man, a disappearance all draw attention to the unseen but in a tangible way. All hint at evil taking shape. Whether she intends to or not, it also brings to question the conflicting self and justified evil. All the characters who connected to the strange visitors performed different questionable actions, their nature changing in the course of the process: One character whom we originally might have seen as evil protected another character, then dies before he gets his chance at the new beginning he envisions. One character whom we see as being responsible and sensible becomes hypnotized by the presence to cheat people; one character whom we see as caring kills in a selfless act; one whom we see as coward acts bravely to protect a friend. The change in these character’s nature and their actions begs the question of whether evil always win? What does evil winning look like? Is it different for everyone? Means or outcome?

Another element of Huron’s story that helps the plot is the Aboriginal folklore and stories told though oral traditions. They are intertwined with the actions and characters and are lessons as much as they are warnings, which I identify with as a Jamaican. When we were children, for instance, my grandma would deter my cousins and I from mischief and scare us to behave with stories of an elusive man with a crocus bag who kidnapped naughty kids. Parents were all too willing to go along with it. Stories of the Rolling calf, the spirit of the wicked resurrected in the form of a huge bull, with red eyes and a dragging rattling chain, that appear at night would also haunt our sun down adventures, causing us to split dust at any and every rattle in bushes that bordered our path.

Her exploration of the seen and unseen worlds through folklore and the real plight of  a people makes for a great read. I am interested in reading how a Native American community member would explore the subject of the missing girls and Highway of Tears, which Huron has noted as inspiration for the novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About the F**ks you Should Give

Mark Manson: “Don’t trust your conception of positive/ negative experiences. All that we know for certain is what hurts in the moment and what doesn’t. And that’s not worth much.”

Happy new year, lovely neighbours. Just completed “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a [Bleep].” Great book to end and start a new year. The pages are all kinds of marked up. So many noteworthy thoughts to internalize and apply upon serious personal reflection.

The shared quote from the book reminds me of the concepts of the “remembering self” and “experiencing self” Daniel Kahneman explores. I share this because this year as with many before we have resolutions we set to achieve. If you’re like me, then one of yours is getting outside your own head. Stop overthinking and reacting to the what-ifs scenarios you create in your mind. Of course, within reason foresight is great, but if fear and assumptions are all we generate for ourselves, then stagnation will be our only reward.
So my mantra is “Let go and see what happens.” Let go of assumptions. Let go of ego. Let go of negativity. Let go of crowd noise. Let go of fear and see what results from the experience. Nevermind the pain, one of the best take aways from Manson’s book is deciding which struggle is worth the pain, because it’s happening regardless. Pain is necessary part of creation. To add, I would say looking at the pain of not doing <insert whatever action needs to get done> and comparing it to pain of doing< insert whatever action needs to get done> is a great way to prioritize and get shit done.

Wishing you all a productive year ahead; one filled with opportunities for personal growth and creative expression. 💓

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The Hate U Give

I completed #TheHateUGive yesterday. Took me about two days to read. It didn’t have as huge an impact on me, but it’s understandable given that I am not the audience: YA. Secondly, considering it’s based on real life events which I am tuned into, the effects feel watered down in a fiction format. None the less, the book is well written and allows an important conversation to be had among a young crowd so I can’t knock it. It expresses the voice & feeling of society’s young, marginalized, harassed and terrified in a digestible form.

#AngieThomas makes it an easy read, and looking on her instagram, I found out that the book is banned in a school in Texas, which begs the question, should or shouldn’t YA/ students be able to have these conversation about racism, police brutality & other social issues in school? The book doesn’t say anything that isn’t real. And when we have these dialogues we create a space of understanding and honesty. @valencia_valencia (insta) and many other educators do an amazing job of facilitating such necessary convos.

What’s more interesting though is the complex position she places Starr in when it comes to her identity and having to live a double consciousness, which is something adults have to deal with as well all the time. Not gonna lie though, I’m here for the movie!

Thoughts?