[REVIEW] Trench Town Rock by Kamau Brathwaite

Lost Roads Publishers, 1994

REVIEWED BY DEBORAH TAFFA

In “Trench Town Rock,” Kamau Brathwaite accounts for the broken third, people who live out a violent inheritance in a world where the criminals are no longer discernible from the officials who are assigned to stop them. The title is a nod to Bob Marley, as well as the Jamaican neighborhood where both the author and the singer spent time formulating their messages. In an interview Marley once said, “There is America, there is Russia, there is Rasta.” The statement forces the reader to look beyond everyday power structures. What exists in this third state? How is society evolving in the forgotten corners of the globe? Rastafarians are a minority with a weak political voice; their strongest avenue is art. Like Marley, Brathwaite reminds us that the artistic voice has the imperative in an otherwise broken society. Brathwaite embodies the harsh reality of his culture with unconventional strategies that make the reader feel his experience viscerally—jammed words, run-on lines, misspellings, and varied font sizes—to create louder and softer sounds. He uses myriad sources from the world he portrays: news clippings, radio transcripts, and West African mythology. He mixes and matches his indictment to show us the disintegrating state of postcolonial Jamaica.

Brathwaite awakens the reader to the dangers of life in Jamaica from the opening page. The narrator is asleep when a murder takes place in his apartment complex. The reader understands quickly what is at stake, feels it in his body through the use of telling action, font size, and unconventional spelling. Brathwaite brings us into his bedroom and we are “aweakened by gunshatt.” We hear the Jamaican voice in our head, feel his fear as he fumbles “into the dark with its various glints & glows: mosquito, very distant cockcrow, sound system drum, the tumbrel of a passing engine.” Sound is mixed together with darkness and suddenly, without punctuation, we launch into “TWO SHATTS” and the text grows bold and large to replicate the startling sound of a gun fired. When the police arrive they scurry in like insects, the line that describes them running on “with salaams & slams & semi-automatic acks, revolvers slung from belts and holsters or tucked like asps into their waist-line trousers; & evvabody walkin fass fass fass . . . “The language mimics the emotion and action. The message he wants to convey—busy movement around the scene of the crime—enters the reader’s vision with a scurrying transience. His stylistic conveyance continues throughout the book without getting tired because of the variety of information he presents.

Relentless images involving unsolved crimes and violence carry the reader forward. There is a dead man with “beautiful long hair curled around his body making snakes like dance/like dancing . . .” The snakes sway menacingly and remind us of a time when the people on this island were considered no better than animals. He describes a dead policeman by first describing him as a “big, dark, meaty guy” before reversing to negate X his presence in the world. “But I can’t tell you what he looked like: features, the human face, I mean: both eyes shot out/stabbed in, his nose unhinged, a huge gash in the right side of the throat, his tongue there black & smooth . . .” He cancels the man’s presence in the world with the words “can’t tell” before the passage folds back towards the police: “yet all his skin & flesh still firm & natural like if he flash & living still & not a ant or insect (here he uses a carefully planned line break) coming even near his blood & no one say a prayer . . .” The margins on this page, combined with the line break and indentation, imply that the police are the insects. Brathwaite makes use of a line break to convey dual meanings: the police return as insects, yes, but there are also actual insects crawling all over the crime scene, insects taking advantage of what has been spilled. Insects steal what is wanted and desired even as the body is still warm.

The way the society turns on itself, the way people betray each other for small gains is examined in the second half of the book. A woman gets her arm chopped off for her bracelet, people dig around dead bodies in a car crash for shoes and coins. The community has become so desensitized to death; death has become such a part of their mental landscape, the crowd witnesses with an unblinking eye. In turn, Brathwaite portrays this fact with such shocking calm that the reader feels a rising horror. By the time we get to the end of the book’s first section and Brathwaite writes, “so that these crimes we all embrace the victim and the violate the duppy and the gunman so close on these plantations still so intimate the dead/undead,” we see. The words— plantation, the embrace, the dead/undead—are specifically chosen. The vocabulary is laden with associations that have the strength to imply we are embroiled in this world’s historic errors, bound and complicit, not able to escape our responsibility and wonder.

A bit of history is introduced in a radio interview in the section labeled “Straight Talk.” A one word page follows—it says “ttortt.” Double tt’s, both sides confused and potentially responsible—the government official in the conversation refers back to the 80’s when crimes were at their previous height. The new surge of violence has everyone thinking about revolution and revolt. At one point in the interview Brathwaite interjects during an argument, “[Perkins had in fact retailed a similar story just before McKenzie phoned]” and the reader sees that they are fighting less over differences than they are posturing for gain. Who gets credit for telling the story? In a society where power means money people lie. People manipulate the political possibilities in order to benefit their own interests. “McK” begins to sound like shorthand as his name gets shortened, like a preacher he says I “want to bring you back, Mr. Perkins, to 1976, Mr Perkin when those very same people, Mr. Perkins . . .” The repetitions of a Sunday school class and a discussion is launched about observing and reporting. The reader sees that these men are discussing reality versus truth. The reader sees that the discussion about observing and reporting has a subtext: the problem is a question of reliability or the manufacturing of reality through the organization of facts. The truth is that no one has the answers anymore.

Finally Brathwaite himself is a victim of violence. When he calls his manager for increased security in his apartment the guy tells him he is “concern” but then basically tells him to stop complaining or leave. “If I continue to feel threat at MMA, I ‘should’ (I quote) ‘look into the possibility of alternative (sic) accommodation (sic).” No one cares. How do these impoverished postcolonial countries establish a new, functioning community when the criteria for what is good and stable have been lost? It is fitting then, after pages of news clippings that illustrate more violence, Brathwaite turns toward a Jamaican story from West Africa about “Anansi.” Anansi is a trickster, a rebel, the sneaky one who manifests a spirit of rebellion and is able to overturn the social order when he so pleases. For oppressed people trickster conveys a message from one generation to the next: dignity can be had, freedom can be found, only if a person keeps trying. Brathwaite’s essay sits on the margins. It comes back at us again and again. It uses large and small font, unconventional spelling, dashes and brackets, clippings and dates, transcripts and memory, sound that mimics the cadence and volume of violence. He uses everything at his disposal in the attempt to keep trying. He is Anansi. He uses Anansi strategies in his structure, story, and spirit.

 

 

[REVIEW] Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

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Lindsay Hunter knows a thing or two about old wounds. The characters of her previous novel Ugly Girls, a Florida-based female coming-of-age story, are angry and complicated – dripping with all the cringing, emotional contradictions of puberty. Hunter once again uses the Floridian landscape as a pressure cooker for the characters of her new book, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, to vivid effect. But before we migrate down south, the story begins with Greg and his wife Deb, living in a strangely bucolic version of West Virginia. Despite the financial ruin and rampant drug addiction in most parts of the state, Greg is able to spend his retirement in a calmer neighborhood, most likely by his own design. We quickly learn that despite being obese and addicted to fast food, Greg has inherited his Mother’s snobbery toward the ‘unwashed masses’, much like the domineering mother of Bojack Horseman, whose venom and emotional trauma echoes down generations well past her own. Ironically, or maybe inevitably, Greg’s own son, GJ, is a junkie and perpetual loser, mooching off Greg’s ex-wife Marie in Florida. But when Greg gets the call from his ex which claims that GJ has disappeared, Greg rents an RV and takes off for the Sunshine State, in a hero’s journey that quickly dips into scathing self-examination, and finally a poignant dirge for the life he could have lived.

Of course, things don’t go as planned for Greg. Things deteriorate from the very start, when he leaves the comfortable womb of routine and immediately delves into a limp-dicked episode at a truck stop strip club. This is just the beginning of a pattern we see Hunter creating for the character from the start. On the one hand, we sympathize with Greg, who is often at the mercy of his own food addiction, depression, and traumatic upbringing. But there are just as many passages detailing how Greg’s violent actions and choices have shaped GJ’s own trauma. As in life, there is no hero or villain, just a cycle of behaviors that we try to fight against but often lose. Hunter drives the point home with Greg’s own awareness of his destructive behavior. Rather than a one-dimensional character trapped in a pattern of denial, Greg knows exactly where the blame rests for the fate of both himself and his son. “The mercy in that child’s heart, Greg knew he’d never deserved it. Would never deserve it. But if GJ was still a child, there might be mercy still,” he ruminates on moments when GJ didn’t yet understand what was happening, and takes it as hope that there could be possibility for change. But the other interpretation is that the time for enacting any kind of change has passed, and Greg must live with the shitty environment he’s created for him and his loved ones.

In addition to this generationally-repeating trauma, we also see Hunter deftly capture one of the most prevalent moral dilemmas – the child as a junkie. Though encouraged by the abuse and emotional distance of his father, GJ is an embodiment of all the classic symptoms of addiction: thefts, broken promises, ducking in and out of the lives of his loved ones without warning. The most heartbreaking aspect of this is that Greg does not feel one-sided, black and white contempt for his boy – rather, he understands and relates to him all too well. His mistreatment and disdain of him comes from a place of his own self-hatred, which he transfers to GJ, despite being sympathetic to his situation. “Home was a refuge of silence, where there were no expectations and no pressures. So Greg could understand why it felt so good for GJ to lie to himself, lie to Greg and Marie, about his plans for the future, and then never find the wherewithal to follow through.” In a way, Greg and GJ are two of a kind, both regretting their lost opportunities in life despite ending up on vastly different planes of social status. They are bound together by the common thread of addiction, with Greg’s weight and diet carrying as much impact on his health as GJ’s drug habits. Both are prisoners, and both have lost.

Trying to think about how these characters can resolve their lives misses the point. What Hunter has done in Eat Only When You’re Hungry is write a lovingly detailed ode to contemporary tragedy, one that looks ugliness in the face and accepts it as a fact of life. Calling this novel a ‘tragedy’ would be a bit of a misnomer – there is redemption toward the end – but not the kind of deus ex machina, jump-the-shark resolution we’re all used to seeing. In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, people are capable of both bad and good; they fight their impulses and are controlled by them. The answer is not that we always have a choice, or that our impulses are beyond our control, but that we live in a world with both and it’s our job to make sense of it. That empathy should be practiced not just with the people we meet ‘fighting a hard battle’, but with ourselves, too. Forgetting to do so can cause grave consequences for the people you love and who try to love you. Like addiction, habits are not easily broken, but require constant practice, vigilance, and patience. Lindsay Hunter has given us her parable of Greg, who even in the midst of his life spiraling out of control, remembers the mantra that at one time, gave him hope.

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