Deconstructing Myths and Male Influence in ‘Fruit of the Drunken Tree’

When I was a child growing up in Guatemala during the Civil War, my mom took me to play at my friend’s house late one night. She told me not to ask any questions. “Just play,” she said. While our mothers sat downstairs talking in hushed voices, my friend took me into his closet to tell me quietly that armed men had surrounded their car earlier that day, threatening kidnapping or worse if they did not pay. We sat in the dark closet, crying, shooting our toy guns at nothing and everything, afraid and angry. My friend’s family fled the country. Some time later, men dressed in army fatigues kidnapped a cousin in our family for ransom. They returned him without physical harm, but not without emotional damage—his wife passed away not long after and our cousin hired security personnel. You could never be sure whether these were military, paramilitary, guerrilla, or mercenary cells targeting families.

I had yet to read an account that could begin to touch on the looming presence of dread families suffered when political violence invaded private life in Latin America in the late 20th century until I picked up Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree. She weaves a tender-yet-gritty tapestry of the Santiagos, a family who lives in Bogotá, Colombia, during Pablo Escobar’s narco-terrorist reign. While most works about Escobar perpetuate the drug lord’s myth by attempting to understand the man, Fruit of the Drunken Tree unpacks the collateral damage the origins of this very myth inflicted on families and provides an understanding of their personal loss. The shortlist of works inspired by Escobar’s life out today—ESPN’s The Two Escobars and Netflix’s Narcos, the films Blow and American Made, and memoirs from former associates and family members—are mostly from men and about men, guns, and cocaine. But Rojas Contreras exposes another reality, one of strong women and girls who survive the Escobar years.

Born in Bogotá, Rojas Contreras holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and Fruit of the Drunken Tree is her debut. A family story at heart, Fruit is told from the dual perspective of 7-year-old Chula Santiago and their young and impoverished maid, Petrona. The novel opens with Chula contemplating a photograph depicting Petrona, her son, and her husband. Readers learn it’s sent in secret from Colombia, as the Santiagos now live in California as refugees. Chula misses her friend and tries to remember how they ended up in a foreign country, separated from their family. What follows is a retelling that begins with this whisper of a memory and ends with a guttural yelp of personal loss that refuses to be silenced.

Chula and Petrona’s accounts give readers a look into how an unassuming middle-class family could become embroiled in political violence extreme enough to fracture social classes. While Petrona lives in the invasiones—shack communities along the outskirts of Bogotá—Chula’s mother has made it out of this poverty years earlier and marries well. This sets up Chula’s connection to and fascination with Petrona.

If women stand front and center in Fruit, men remain in the periphery, though ever powerful. Chula and her sister grow up in a “kingdom of women, with Mamá at the head, perpetually trying to find a fourth like us, or a fourth like her.” The fourth becomes Petrona. Her joining the family creates a female nucleus, the father working for an American oil company and often gone on business. Though men remain at a distance in the novel, they retain their influence over women and country: Most conversations Chula and the family have with their father are on the phone, as the girls eagerly await his return. Mamá decorates her room with posters of presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galán, lauding him as the savior of Colombia. Escobar dances on the tongues of news anchors and on the typewriters of journalists. Even Petrona’s boyfriend who joins the encapotados—gangs loosely affiliated to Escobar associates and paramilitary cells—walks in and out of shadows at night both in the invasiones and when in Bogotá. Men seem unreachable, mythological, yet always desired. Men also orchestrate violence, unpredictable and bloody, from a distance. So it is this “kingdom of women” that must rise above, in spite of men, in order to survive.

What grounds Fruit is how it destroys these myths the closer we get to the violence. As Chula goes from obsessing over the gory images she sees on TV to hearing of gory images near her home to suffering through gory images themselves, both reader and character find the gory reality of violence kills and hurts. After watching a news clip about a recent car-bomb explosion near their neighborhood, Chula never rids herself of the image of a girl’s dismembered leg with a “blackened red shoe and a smoky white sock.” She recognizes the street and makes a connection, violence no longer a figment of her imagination. In response, she and her sister decide to prepare backpacks in case of a bombing. They play with their Barbie collection, tearing off their limbs for storylines. Petrona, who rarely speaks more than a sentence, joins this play and connects with Chula through the re-enacted violence (not long before, her little brother Ramón had been shot dead at a park near her home in the invasiones).

But it’s not until violence reaches her home that it becomes real to Chula. Until then, she participates in myth-making, even after she, her sister, and her mother witness Galán’s assassination at a political rally. She enjoys the attention she receives when she retells escalating versions of her experience: “The news didn’t say this—but Pablo Escobar was there, in flesh and blood. I saw his face lit up by the fire of his own machine gun.” There’s something alluring in adding to Escobar’s myth. When a car bomb explodes outside their home one morning, however, and glass rains down on her from the shattered bedroom window as she sleeps, Chula begins to understand how much she doesn’t understand.

Rojas Contreras shines most when she uses Chula’s naïve child perspective, emulating Colombia’s own conflicting obsession over and disgust with Escobar. The images Chula sees on television, in person, and then experiences conflate into a strange amalgamation of reality and myth. As readers, our hearts break as we witness her come of age and as the Santiagos suffer through an onslaught of violence that comes after the car bomb.

Even when Rojas Contreras explores religious myths, a topic often untouched yet of great importance in Latin American culture, she places the reader at a discrete aesthetic distance through Chula’s eyes. In one scene, Chula watches from a church pew as Petrona takes her First Communion and listens to the priest: “the Father opened his arms and asked for all the kids to be possessed by spirits: some nice, like the Spirit of Wisdom and Intelligence, but some dubious, like the Spirit of Holy Fear.” The reader experiences life with Chula at a discrete aesthetic distance, as characters commune within religious and socio-political myths.

Through Chula and Petrona, Rojas Contreras delivers a story told with honesty and empathy for her characters. As such, Fruit reads like a third novel, not a debut—confident in its delivery, earnest in its subject matter. It also bolsters a female, Latin American voice that must be heard loud and clear.

Rojas Contreras joins an emerging set of Colombian writers whose work reaches across geographic borders and looks back on the late 20th century with a critical eye. Similar to the Spanish “postmemory” movement that rummaged through the effects of the Spanish Civil War on families—helmed by Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina and Dulce Chacón’s La voz dormida, among others—Rojas Contreras, Juan Gabriel Vásquez (El ruido de las cosas al caer), and Laura Restrepo (El leopardo al sol) rummage through their own memories of narco-terrorism and its effect on Colombian families.

It’s difficult to speak of Colombian literature without mentioning Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism, or women writers in general without the likes of Chilean-born Isabel Allende and later Cuban-born Cristina García in Dreaming in Cuban. These authors write about myth to explore family and politics, and they pay special attention to the role of mothers and women in society. But it’s worth returning to Julia Álvarez’s experimental novel How the García Girls Lost their Accent, which retells how a family flees from Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic to the States, in order to arrive at Fruit and grasp how Latin American and LatinX people have developed beyond magical realism and explaining myth. Rojas Contreras carries the torch forward by deconstructing the myths that have tethered the cultural fabric of Latin America through an investigative realism.

Lucy Tan and Crystal Hana Kim Discuss Societal Roles, War, Secrets, and the Complications of Love

When I got my hands on an advanced reader’s edition of Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me a few months ago, I couldn’t believe my luck. With my own debut novel coming out this summer, I’d been following book coverage closely and making note of titles I wanted to read the most. If You Leave Me, out Aug. 7, was at the top of my list. Over the next few days, I became completely absorbed by the forbidden love story of Haemi and Kyunghwan, their complicated ties to Kyunghwan’s cousin, Jisoo, and a rich portrait of war-torn Korea. This is a novel of epic proportions whose tone shifts agilely over time, following the lives of its characters and the devastating consequences of war. It’s full of longing and hard truths, and when I finished it I was in solid agreement with the buzz surrounding If You Leave Me, naming Crystal Hana Kim as a talented writer to watch.

I was surprised to find that If You Leave Me shared some striking similarities with my own novel, What We Were Promised. Set in modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised is also a story of forbidden love, following the lives of three characters bound by family ties. Lina, Qiang, and Wei grow up together in a small, silk-producing village, only to be separated when Qiang disappears and Lina and Wei marry and move to the U.S. The novel opens when the couple is back in China and must face Qiang once again—as well as the reasons he left.

Though our novels are very different, both explore the impact of political history on its people, of money and power on individuals, and of the damaging effects of gender roles. It was startling, too, to see minor totems echoed in our novels—a bracelet, a scar on a loved one’s face—which further convinced me that If You Leave Me is the dark sister to What We Were Promised. I eagerly reached out to Crystal, and we became friends. It’s my pleasure to speak to her now about family influences, novel-writing, and the books we’re most excited to read this year. —Lucy Tan
Lucy Tan: Crystal, congratulations on the upcoming publication of If You Leave Me! I loved experiencing the world of 1950s-1960s Korea through the eyes of your three main characters—brilliant Kyunghwan, headstrong Jisoo, and the beautiful and fierce Haemi. They came to vivid life and grabbed me from the very beginning. I’d love to know a little bit more about the genesis of this story. I noticed that in the novel’s opening pages, the dedication is partly written in Korean. I’m going to be nosy and ask: What do they mean? Are there hidden inspirations there that you can share?

Crystal Hana Kim: The dedication that’s written in Korean says, “I lovingly dedicate this book to my mother and father.” Fittingly, my family was integral to this novel. Both my parents are Korean, and all four of my grandparents survived the Korean War. I’m particularly close to my maternal grandmother, who told me many stories about growing up during the war. As a teenager, she had to flee her home with her widowed mother, which was the genesis for Haemi’s story. I fictionalized Haemi’s life to explore questions I was interested in (of motherhood, gender roles, and how war scars a country and its people), but the seed of my novel is rooted in truth.

I’d love to hear about the genesis of your novel too! What We Were Promised centers on the Zhen family—Wei, Lina, Karen, and Qiang—as well as Sunny, their housekeeper. Though the novel dips into rural China in the 1980s, most of it takes place in Shanghai in 2010. I know you grew up in both New York and Shanghai, and I see that you also have a part of your dedication written in Chinese! Can you tell us about your personal connection to this setting? What inspired this story?

LT: In writing What We Were Promised, I drew heavily from my family’s experiences during and after the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese words in my dedication are the names of my parents and grandparents on both sides of the family. My parents were involved in this book in an even more direct way—they helped me set up interviews, read drafts, corrected my use of Chinese in the book, and more. I like to think of my novel as a family project.

My understanding of modern-day China comes from firsthand experience. I’ve been traveling to China since I was little, but during the two years I spent in Shanghai after graduating college, I finally felt connected to it in a way that I had before. It struck me as a city changing so quickly, both culturally and economically, and I knew I had to write about it one day. At the time, my parents and I lived in a serviced apartment that served as the basis for the fictional luxury hotel in my novel, Lanson Suites. It was there that I met many of the expats, ayis (nannies), and drivers that inspired several characters in the book.

It’s so interesting to hear you name the themes you were intentionally exploring when writing If You Leave Me. The word “scar” is often associated with stories about war, but few novels portray the physical and emotional traumas that come from gender roles and motherhood as things that can scar someone permanently. Haemi’s pain was so haunting to me, particularly because as we read, we see her change, slowly but surely, from a willful young woman to someone with fewer and fewer options. How much of this character development did you have in mind when you began writing? More generally speaking, what was the process of structuring your novel like? Did you have the ending in mind before you began, or did you trust that the story and characters would lead you somewhere satisfying?

CHK: As a woman, I’ve always been fascinated by societal expectations of gender roles. I grew up hearing my maternal grandmother’s stories about not being able to receive an education because she was a woman, and she very much felt that marriage was one of few options available to her for stability. I wanted to explore what a life like that would feel like, how it could wear you down over the years. I created Haemi Lee early on in the novel-writing process, but I had to write my way to an understanding of how she thought and approached the world. I knew I wanted Haemi to experience motherhood, and I had a sense of the ending, but I wrote my way through the middle, experimenting with different paths.

One of the many thematic similarities I found in our two books was of the “arranged” or “practical” marriage. In my book, Haemi faces a difficult choice regarding who she should marry. In your book, Lina knows from an early age that she is betrothed to Wei. For both our women, choices are taken away by family and societal expectations. Can you tell me about your novel-writing process? How did you come up with your characters and this premise?

LT: Lina and Haemi do wind up in similar predicaments even though they are such different characters! Lina is less independently minded than Haemi is, and it takes her a while to understand what she wants for her own life. Early on, she conflates her love for her parents with her desire to marry Wei. Arranged marriages were not the norm in the 1980s, but Lina is willing to marry the man her father has chosen for her because she trusts him and wants to make him happy. It’s only later, when she digs into the reasons her father has arranged this marriage in the first place, that she is forced to re-examine everything she knows about love. At its heart, What We Were Promised is about the different kinds of love a person can have for someone, and how that love can change and become complicated over a lifetime. But I didn’t start out wanting to write about love. I started with a single moment of conflict in mind: A bracelet goes missing from a serviced apartment, and a housekeeper is afraid of being accused by the tenants of having taken it. The entire novel grew out of that moment and what little I knew of the characters in that opening scene. For example, I knew something was off about the marriage between Lina and Wei, but I didn’t know much beyond that. I knew Sunny, the housekeeper, was wrapped up in the Zhens’ storyline, but I wasn’t sure how. I write much like I read, uncovering things as I go and following moments of tension until they reveal themselves fully.

Our novels are also similar in that they are told from multiple perspectives. Because my characters harbored private thoughts about each other that were important to the storyline, I knew from the start that the novel had to be written this way. And yet I was nervous about it, because there’s always the risk of the narrative becoming disjointed, or for the reader to fall in love with one character over the others and to become impatient to get back to their point of view. I think you pull off the perspective switching in If You Leave Me so well, but did you initially worry about the effects of multiple perspectives, as I did? Can you tell me a little more about your decision to write in the first person for each of these characters?

CHK: I’ve always been drawn to novels with multiple perspectives, so it was an easy choice for me. I knew I wanted Haemi to be the center of the story, but in order to understand her circumstances as well as the landscape of Korea during this particular time in history, I knew I also needed Jisoo, Kyunghwan, Hyunki, and Solee’s perspectives. I’ve always loved first-person narration because I think it helps readers emotionally connect to the characters. Also, I just really enjoy writing in first person!

It wasn’t until later, when I had a full draft, that I worried about the novel feeling disjointed or of the possibility that the reader would like one character over another. At that point, I had already committed to this structure, so I focused on making my characters as complex and real as possible so that readers would feel emotionally connected. My hope is that If You Leave Me pulls you in, that despite the great difference in time, place, and custom, you can understand what Haemi, Kyunghwan, Jisoo, and the rest of the characters are going through because the themes of love, motherhood, and trauma are universal.

I’d love to hear about your decision to use third-person to write from multiple perspectives. Did you decide on this early on in your process? Did you ever have some chapters in first person and some in third?

LT: I’m like you; I love the intimacy of first person, and it’s my favorite perspective to write from. This novel, though, had so much to do with the misconceptions characters have about one another, and the secrets they keep, that the reader must have a somewhat omniscient view of what’s going on for the novel to have forward momentum. During scenes where my characters are all in the same room, I wanted the flexibility to present actions and reactions that might convey more information to the reader than it might to any one character. I found it hard to manage this with first person. Close third gave me a little more flexibility.

CHK: You mentioned What We Were Promised started with the missing bracelet and the housekeeper who was afraid of being accused of theft. You also said earlier that you wanted to write about the social classes of this period in Shanghai. I think you do such an incredible job of revealing these class hierarchies without feeling didactic. You show the reader how different the lives of those who live in these luxury apartments and those who work them can be. What made you want to explore these class conflicts? Was it difficult balancing Sunny the housekeeper and Little Cao the driver’s stories with the Zhen family’s stories?

LT: One of the things that fascinated me about living in a luxury hotel was the way people of so many different backgrounds were forced to spend so much time together, often knowing nothing about one another. For instance, drivers spent most of their work days waiting outside fancy buildings for their wealthy bosses. They knew their employers’ schedules perfectly but rarely conversed with them. What did these drivers do while waiting? How did they feel about the people they drove around? What were their attitudes toward their jobs? These questions were fascinating to me, and I wanted to explore the motivations, misunderstandings and rebellions of people across different social classes sharing the same space. Balancing Sunny’s and Little Cao’s stories with the Zhens’ was challenging from a plot perspective because the overlap between the storylines wasn’t obvious. But being able to imagine my way into their heads felt like a relief because their concerns are so different from the concerns of Lina and Wei. By inhabiting their lives, I felt as though I was making the novel fuller.

CHK: I think you balance Sunny and Little Cao’s lives with the Zhens’ so well, Lucy! The novel definitely feels richer because of their voices. Let’s do one last question. What book are you looking forward to reading this year? I’m so excited for Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know and Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State.

LT: Those are on my radar, too! I’m also looking forward to A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which I hear is one of the summer’s best literary page-turners, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani.

Tuesday New Release Day: Kwon; Contreras; Douglas; Kumar; Chariandy

Out this week: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon; Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras; The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas; Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar; and Brother by David Chariandy.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our brand new book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

On the Imperialist ‘Charity’ of Rebuilding Caribbean Children’s Libraries with Eurocentric Books

On Sept. 5, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit landfall in the Caribbean island of Barbuda, wreaking indescribable havoc. Half of the population was left homeless as 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed.

Two days later, I listened as Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Barbuda, was interviewed by the BBC. Speaking in the restrained, stoic voice expected of a good leader in such circumstances, he made the blunt allegation: “This disaster was not a result of any wrongdoing on our part. We are literally victims of climate change.”

What struck me was his tone of utter conviction. The prime minister, a man who had been educated in two of Europe’s top universities, dispassionately stated that industrial nations, like those of Europe, were responsible for the hurricane and its destruction. He cited the “obligation” of more powerful nations to help Barbuda rebuild. He was speaking to the BBC, which is to say, to an audience of Britons and the wider world. Not only that—he used the word “victim.” Such a squirm-inducing word in our age of self-empowerment where “positivity” is often evoked as the panacea for all ills. Not the kind of word you expect a representative of the people to use.

Focusing on victimhood often makes victims an easy target for scorn and blame. One of the noxious themes of the conversation America is having about sexual violence is that of victim-blaming; people who are sexually exploited by powerful men are expected to remain silent, bear the blame, and downplay their suffering. Yet the truth remains that human beings are subject to all kinds of unwarranted violence at the hands of other human beings. Speaking out about violence is imperative for preventing its spread and safeguarding human dignity. Even flawed people are entitled to victimhood, the compassion it invites, and the justice it requires. This is true for societies as well. For the prime minister of Barbuda to claim victimhood for his country—and by extension the entire Caribbean—in the aftermath of one of the most devastating Atlantic hurricanes in modern history is to register centuries of harm done by large, powerful nations.

Later that month, in a weighty address to the United Nations General Assembly, he expounded on his climate change claim, making the case for why Caribbean countries are unfairly bearing the brunt of pollution by industrial nations. One of his major points was this: Climate change accounts for the rise in catastrophic hurricanes in the Caribbean, and powerful nations emit the most fossil fuels, the major cause of climate change.

Alfred Crosby identified the environment as a site of imperialist violence when he coined the term “ecological imperialism” in his influential writings about the destructive impact of Europe’s colonization of the Americas. Barbuda’s prime minister, in his post-Irma comments, suggested that climate change is the new face of ecological imperialism.

The European Union is the third-largest greenhouse-gas polluter in the world, behind China and the United States. It was only recently, in 2000, that Europe established comprehensive policy measures to address climate change by reducing the continent’s greenhouse-gas emissions, among other things. Yet ask any Puerto Rican or Barbudan whose home was destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria and they will tell you plainly: The damage has been done.

Since Europeans arrived in the region in the 15th century, there has never been a time when the Caribbean has not had to contend with the violence of imperialism. Using military, political, economic, and religious force as their weapons of choice, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States continually plundered, pillaged, and colonized the Caribbean over the course of history. Most Caribbean territories are now independent, but the ascendancy first of Europe and now of America has ensured that the Caribbean remains crouched under the shadow of imperialism. “Sword of imperialism” is more apt because imperialism cannot be separated from violence. Even in the absence of genocides and literal wars, there is no nonviolent imperialism; the imperialist (or neo-imperialist) project necessarily relies on the forceful use of power.

We live in times that call for a broader definition of violence. The term “environmental violence” is useful for describing the way irreversible damage done by humans to the earth is in turn threatening human survival. This includes secondary violence from the natural world, such as the destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria; the violence that results when environmental destruction fuels conflict over natural resources; and the fact that people affected by environmental crises are at greater risk of experiencing other kinds of violence.

Now that hurricanes Irma and Maria have meted out their violence in the Caribbean, the library and publishing communities in more powerful nations have begun to mobilize to help rebuild the islands’ damaged libraries. The American Library Association has started a Disaster Relief Fund for this purpose, and similar efforts by library supporters in other nations are materializing and expected to continue.

Not only libraries but also schools and bookstores in the Caribbean have been adversely impacted, and so new children’s books are very much a need in the region right now; however, it matters how entities and individuals outside of the Caribbean choose to help. What many don’t realize is that under current practices, free books from outside the Caribbean usually hurt literacy, not to mention the economy, in the Caribbean.

Hurricanes or not, there are numerous international NGOs that ship free European and North American children’s books to Caribbean countries year-round. This book donation activity is even higher after disastrous events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake or the recent hurricanes; global warming and its effects have only intensified the already white-hot world of children’s book charity. International nonprofits like the OneWorld Schoolhouse Foundation (Canada), the Sandals Foundation (USA), and GBA Ships (Germany) are not the only children’s book donors; multinationals like McDonald’s have also felt themselves at liberty to establish extensive children’s book donation programs in the Caribbean. Even the American and European embassies in the Caribbean have jumped onto the children’s book charity bandwagon.

These initiatives are often packaged as voluntourism; tourism, of course, is a major Caribbean industry. It has become common for multinational hotels, cruise liners and travel agencies operating in the Caribbean to sentimentally invite tourist guests to “give back” (should thinly veiled imperialist projects be framed as “giving back”?) through their in-house children’s book drives. Blue World Travel and Authentic Luxury Travel are just two of the many organizations that have used this approach to get their customers to donate books to Caribbean children by the thousands.

These programs give form to what Teju Cole calls “the white savior industrial complex,” which people in powerful nations are complicit in whether they are white or not. This complex is enthusiastically run by Westerners who habitually set up noble ventures to spread the civilizing influence of Western (read: Eurocentric) children’s literature in the Caribbean. It is based on a handout approach to helping that gratifies the savior and patronizes the saved. It is also a misguided attempt to propitiate Caribbean people. Altruism becomes tainted and is enfeebled by obeisance to negarchy. Caribbean people should not feel burdened to express gratitude for charity that is ill-considered and compounds our troubles; such gratitude is really a dangerous form of servitude.

Often, the foreign charities and multinationals pair up with the “Big Five” (North American and European) publishers to implement childhood reading initiatives in the Caribbean. JetBlue’s Soar with Reading initiative, McDonald’s Happy Meal Books program, and the Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trip program are collaborations with Random House Children’s Books, Harper Collins, and Scholastic Book Fairs respectively.

Caribbean countries have received free children’s books by the millions as a matter of course, and that might seem like a wonderful thing. But a close look at how international donor organizations source the books they send to the Caribbean raises questions and concern. What seem like innocuous, isolated childhood reading projects set up by foreigners in the Caribbean must be confronted as evidence of a larger trend with deeply harmful effects on the region.

Most of the books donated to Caribbean countries are the excess inventory of publishers and booksellers in rich, powerful nations. Overpublishing has reached endemic levels in powerful nations, and so there are thousands of surplus children’s books, largely about white people─material evidence of the gluttony of capitalism and its brother, racism─lying around in warehouses that must be disposed of somehow. “First World” publishers and booksellers send their unwanted, unsold, and used books to NGOs in their countries that then ship the books to the Caribbean. Much of the time, this is done with little to no moral inquiry into the literacy needs of Caribbean child readers and with a willingly blind eye to the unequal power relations and harmful cultural dynamics undermining Caribbean children’s literacy development.

What is telling about these charity arrangements is that publishers in wealthy nations are driven by profit motive. Under the revenue rules governing charitable contributions in North America and Europe, publishers and booksellers can get a federal tax deduction equal to up to twice the cost of the donated books, which allows them to conveniently feather their nests while getting rid of surplus stock. Publishers have been known to further increase tax-related profits by printing additional copies of unwanted books that have a low production cost.

Caribbean countries, then, along with other relatively poorer countries, have essentially become a kind of clearinghouse for rich-nation publishers and booksellers; in fact, the above-described practice can rightly be called “donation dumping.” It is a practice that exacerbates several already-existing problems in Caribbean countries when it comes to literary culture in general and children’s books in particular.

One such problem is Caribbean children’s lack of access to books that are culturally relevant and written in their nation languages. The best children’s books to replace those destroyed by the recent hurricanes are books featuring Caribbean characters, written by Caribbean authors and published by Caribbean publishers. Donors should also respect the linguistic rights of Caribbean people by donating books written in the primary language of the island in question. Most Haitians, for example, speak Kreyòl primarily, so donating large numbers of French-language books to Haitian children makes little sense.

The ongoing practice of children’s book donation dumping by more powerful nations places the important needs of Caribbean children at the bottom of the list of priorities. The culturally relevant books that Caribbean children need to build positive self-identities, learn in their mother tongues, preserve their cultural patrimony, engage more deeply with texts, and decolonize their imaginations simply aren’t being donated (or produced, for that matter) in anywhere near sufficient quantities.

The lack of access to affirming, culturally authentic children’s books produced with Caribbean children in mind is an ongoing legacy of imperialism. Without access to such books, Caribbean children are raised with a poverty of awareness and appreciation regarding their own history, culture, and humanity. Not seeing themselves valued by the literary imaginary conditions them to underestimate their own value in the world. This, too, flattens and reverses Caribbean development. This, too, strips Caribbean people of our power and wealth, generation after generation. This too is a form of violence, deep-seated and unacknowledged—maybe not as obvious as a hurricane, but a catastrophe nevertheless.

The U.K.-owned hotel resort that funded the refurbishment of school libraries in Grenada after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 reported on its efforts in a self-congratulatory article titled, “Grenada: The Most Literate Island in the Caribbean.” The irony of such sanguine headlines is that Caribbean children cannot be truly literate when their literacy development is constantly subject to interventions and control by cultural outsiders from imperialist nations. “Post-literacy”─Paulo Freire’s term for liberation from exploitative systems through literacy and the raising of critical consciousness among those who already possess basic literacy─will not be achieved as long as Caribbean children grow up reading books dictated by the countries that continue, in various ways, to colonize ours.

Those wishing to help Caribbean children can do so wisely by buying children’s books from locally based Caribbean publishers, thereby supporting the region’s economy, as opposed to donating books from outside the region. Organizations like Library for All, REFORMA, and the online Caribbean children’s literature magazine, Anansesem, can help with sourcing such books and publishers. Ultimately, the best way to fight the Caribbean’s “children’s book famine,” a result not just of environmental disasters but also of ongoing socio-historical conditions, is by donating in a way that helps Caribbean countries produce children’s books for ourselves. Library for All’s model of subsidizing demand for local books through public-private partnership, licensing content from local publishers and authors, and catalyzing home-grown publishing by training local communities in book production is one that should be emulated by other international NGOs operating in the Caribbean. The more European/North American publishers and booksellers wield power and enlarge their pockets under the sanitized pretext of charity and literacy development, the less Caribbean countries are able to incentivize and monetize our own bookmaking industries.

Rather than competing with Caribbean publishers who are already grappling with unequal competition from international conglomerate publishers and the challenges of producing local children’s books at scale, international literacy NGOs and donors should use their money to help Caribbean publishers and children’s authors get established and stay established. This may not seem like a priority in light of the current hurricane devastation, but if not now, then when?

Silencing. Delegitimization. Erasure. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu understood the devastating power of these things when he first described “symbolic violence”: the ways in which dominant cultures impose their cultural values upon less powerful groups. The environmental violence resulting from anthropogenic warming of the earth is real, as is the symbolic violence of imperialized Caribbean childhoods. Neither should be dismissed as accidents of history or responded to with quietism; rather, they are pressing social justice issues that need to be tackled head-on. As the bookshelves toppled by hurricane winds are restocked, the time is ripe to symbolically rebuild the Caribbean children’s library.

Image: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen by Renee Watson and Shadra Strickland

Real Life Crazy Rich Inspiration

Ahead of its mid August movie debut Kevin Kwan talks about the real life inspiration behind his Crazy Rich Asian trilogy. “But the people who know me, who have read the books, and who are also in that world in Singapore, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia, don’t get it.” Refinery29 has more.

Making a Place Worth Living

“It is difficult for them to understand why a successful black woman would choose to return to the South and, worse yet, to Mississippi, which looms large in the public’s imagination for its racist depredations, and rightfully so.” For Time magazine’s American South issue Jesmyn Ward writes about her decision to return home to Mississippi.

The Great Jester: On Simon Rich’s ‘Hits and Misses’

In the middle of his fifth collection of comedic short stories, Hits and Misses, Simon Rich writes a story from the perspective of a court jester named Havershire. “I’ve developed what the French might call une reputation,” the clowns says as introduction. Havershire, we learn, believes he’s disliked because his “barbs have bruised the breast of many nobles.” In fact, it’s easy to see—he’s hated because he’s unfunny. “But thus is the jester’s lot!” Havershire concludes. The jester’s lot: fame, celebrity, delusions of grandeur.

Rich has always written comedy as tangential autobiography. “When I was 25, 26, the only thing on my brain was dating, and that’s why I wrote all those love stories which became The Last Girlfriend on Earth. And then for a year or two I was obsessed with class and privilege and turning 30, and Spoiled Brats is the result of that,” he said in an interview with Longreads. And now, Simon Rich is kind of famous.

Rich is multi-hyphen-able: show creator (Man Seeking Woman and the upcoming anthology series Miracle Workers on TBS), screenwriter (work on Inside Out and on the upcoming Willy Wonka), and novelist (What in God’s NameElliot Allagash). He was part of a “dream team” as the youngest writer in Saturday Night Live’s history. He started this career at 17, when he left his role as editor of the Harvard Lampoon with a two-book deal from Random House.

But even more uniquely, Rich is one of the few people in America we call, unironically, a “humorist.” The publicity materials for this new collection dredge up reviews comparing him to James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, and Douglas Adams—the youngest of whom was born in 1951 and all of whom are dead. Rich is 34.

He writes funny, short, inventive, breathtakingly precise pieces. He regularly publishes them in The New Yorker, where a few pieces in this collection have come out already.

But so do a lot of people. We are being hit by a comedy avalanche. The New Yorker uploads at least one piece of humor a day—same for McSweeney’s. Plus, there are everyone’s tweets. Most of it isn’t good (count me as an offender). Or it’s part of a daily churn. A lot of it’s too on-the-nose, or comedy as jeremiad, or not personal, or so personal it feels fake. The joke is often in the title of the piece. Right now, you can go binge the YouTube videos, the podcasts, the GIFs, the stand-up specials on Netflix. Somehow late-night TV now is both losing ground because it’s not fast enough to be funny and gaining importance—a recap each morning in the New York Times—because a vacuum has been left by politicians for believable moral platitudes. Everyone’s a comedian and comedians are now also comparing themselves to preachers.

All of this could be mocked. But we know that story. Instead, it serves as backdrop in Hits and Misses. Rich, despite being a wunderkind, chooses to focus on the good-hearted losers. His characters include: a novelist whose baby is already outwriting him in the womb, Paul Revere’s horse that never got credit, a former rocker trying not to “relapse” into making art, and sundry Hollywood never-beens bumbling through the mid-30s question of how to quit (or what it means that they did quit). In his world, Thomas Edison is ignored after inventing the kinetograph and Adolf Hitler gets the GQ profile treatment.

The point: Fame is ridiculous. Especially his own, however minor it might be.

When Rich does write about a Hollywood “winner,” it’s usually the character “Simon Rich”—self-caricature as the laziest, most narcissistic and petty man in the world. “There’s nobody worse than me,” Rich said discussing a previous book, Spoiled Brats. That collection featured the astoundingly funny novella “Sell Out”—in which a Rich ancestor appears in modern-day Brooklyn via long-term preservation in a vat of pickles and reveals all the faults of the modern-day Rich. A higher judge looks down on him in Hits and Misses.

In the piece “The Book of Simon,” God has given a faithless comedy writer in Brooklyn named Simon Rich everything and so the Devil starts making fun of our Lord. Satan’s bouncing on God’s cloud, saying, “’Sup now?”; Satan’s showing God Bill Maher clips; Beelzebub takes special delight in reading to Yahweh the writings of Rich—ever the nonbeliever, despite God blessing and blessing Rich in a reverse-Job gambit. By the end, Simon Rich, the character, is so detestable that God and the Devil form a union. Now, this is how you do self-hatred!

Yet it never feels indulgent. When writers write about their writing process—or artists talk about their art—it can veer into the self-serious, boring, or pretentious. Rich makes it funny. The pitch-perfect mimicking of Old Testament verbiage certainly helps: “Now, there was a wicked Hebrew in the land of Brooklyn named Simon Rich.” (I repeat this phrase to myself all the time. I find it so amusing.)

“I was definitely reading the Torah through a comedic mindset, especially through The Simpsons and Looney Tunes,” Rich once said of his bar mitzvah process. “When you read the Torah—especially when you’re 12—it definitely leaves you with a sense of fear. I think in almost all my writing, I’m telling the same story over and over again. I do see it as a Jewish story: We’re small, God is big.”

Big and small. It is what comedy is made of. Kurt Vonnegut once paraphrased Aristotle and wrote, “If you want to be comical, write about people to whom the audience can feel superior; if you want to be tragical, write about at least one person to whom the audience is bound to feel inferior.”

Not to step on Aristotle or Vonnegut, but I often find Rich’s characters both tragic and comic. His “creatives” in Hits and Misses are failures of all stripes—personal, professional, spiritual. We feel pity for them. And yet they’re so confident, or thrown into situations so bizarre, they end up silly. Isn’t that life? Feeling big and small at once?

Whatever Rich picked up working at Pixar shows through. The stories end in cliche. Not flimsy or ridiculous cliche—lovely, age-old themes spelled out clearly. What if we cared for one another? What if stopped being so selfish? What if our actions reflected our morality? Rich’s stories aren’t mean. At times, they have genuinely moved me: particularly a longer piece titled “Hands” in the new collection, about a monk who wishes to be famous by torturing himself the hardest for God. This is surprising—because comedy is better at destroying than creating.

Imagine a house blocking your view of a vista. Comedy is the bulldozer that can tear down that old structure to let us see the truth of the horizon. But rarely can it be the thing that builds a new house. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. There’s a ton of bullshit in the world to take down. Yet at times, in the ruins, we don’t feel glad for the destruction of the old order—we miss structure. Rich’s insistence on hope, love, and that people (other than himself) are basically good is refreshing. People are not evil; they’re oafs, idiots, self-serving.

But they can learn. Havershire, that dolt of a jester, does. “It occurred to me I had lived my whole life as a man stuck in a maze, sprinting headlong down some futile trail,” he discovers near the end of the story. “And now, for the first time ever, I was standing on a hall, watching myself from above, and all my years of struggle seemed so foolish, so absurd, that I couldn’t help but laugh.”

Francis Spufford Vividly Recreates an 18th-Century New York in ‘Golden Hill’

Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).

Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.

As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.

Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).

Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.

Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”

Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.

If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”

When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”

Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.

Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.