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Debut novel 'The God of Good Looks' adds to growing canon of Caribbean literature

Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

In 2023, two of the Pen/Faulkner Award finalists for fiction, Dionne Irving's The Islands and Jonathan Escoffery's If I Survive You, were crafted by authors of Jamaican descent. Another, Fire Rush by Jaqueline Crooks, was a finalist for the UK Women's Prize for Fiction.

That's neither a blip nor an accident. A growing number of high-profile novels are coming out of the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora. Exceeding expectations and barriers to entry — led by Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados — this region has long been punching above its weight on the international literary scene with writers like Marlon James and Nicole Dennis-Benn building on the legacy of Caribbean luminaries like Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon and popular storytellers like Miss Lou (Louise Bennett).

This decade-long, transnational cultural phenomenon is driven by a confluence of factors, orchestrated in part by the region's doggedly determined book lovers (some of whom are industry insiders, some not). Kingston-based publisher Tanya Batson-Savage, founder of Blue Banyan Books, likens the region's literary support system to a three-legged stool with international media and festivals, book prizes in the UK, and the rising influence of social media in the book world providing crucial support. The momentum of international exposure is driven largely by festivals and press coverage, especially Jamaica's Calabash International Literary Festival, which was founded in 2001, and Trinidad and Tobago's Bocas Lit Fest which followed in 2011, and their related developmental programming and networks (Marlon James got his first book contract after many rejections through a program tied to Calabash). Since 2016, Miami Book Fair has also featured a "Read Caribbean" program with growing following.

In the UK, especially, Caribbean authors were making strides on the awards front even before Marlon James's 2015 Booker win for A Brief History of Seven Killings. And social media has increased the impact of prizes and festivals exponentially as book influencers and readers wield collective power via Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. With more than 80,000 followers across multiple platforms, the Jamaican born — now Trinidad-based — BookofCinz, for example, hosts hybrid in-person and online book club meetings and is a prime mover of the #ReadCaribbean tag. The work that smaller, independent publishers like Akashic Book, Peepal Tree Press, and Banyan Books do to discover new writers is yet another crucial part of the story.

Debut novel 'The God of Good Looks'

Trinidadian author Breanne Mc Ivor is a prime example. Her vibrant debut novel The God of Good Looks, which just hit shelves last month, addresses the collision of class, culture, and big personalities in her home country.

In the novel, Bianca Bridges is a talented but chaotic aspiring journalist and novelist with a bad reputation and a career in tatters after an affair with a married government minister. Obadiah Cortland is a ruthless entrepreneur and local media mogul who wants to exploit her situation for financial gain.

When their paths cross on a modeling shoot, Obadiah offers Bianca a position as his assistant — but she actually ends up editing his magazine, Extempo. He's convinced that "hiring someone born with a silver spoon in her mouth" will confer advantages he can spin into revenue — and for Bianca, despite Obadiah's insults about her body, it's still a step up from the exploitative and intellectually stultifying local modeling scene.

Wary of the cutting and crafty aspiring mogul but excited about the work, Bianca enters Extempo with 15 story ideas for Obadiah on day one. Their professional progress and unlikely friendship drive the novel's main arc. As Bianca and Obadiah collaborate and struggle and Bianca tries to reclaim a life interrupted by scandal, the vivid narration shifts between her diaries and his fierce, idiomatic first person narration. Both narrators regularly dissect the complex social dynamics of modern Trinidad's still highly stratified society, the challenges of social change, and where ideas about beauty and Carnival fit within the mix.

Mc Ivor's novel offers an incisive entrée into Trinidadian society from radically different vantage points: Bianca is well-born and well-educated, the daughter of a grocery chain king; Obadiah, in contrast, hails from, and still lives in, a neighborhood known for crime and an enormous landfill — and is pouring all his money into his own beauty and magazine startup. This contrasting dual perspective structure, and the specificity of their voices, is one of the novel's greatest charms.

The gradually revealed inner lives and motivations of both characters are equally compelling. Scarred by poverty and class bias, Obadiah thinks that "the only way to deal with Miss Bridge is to get her before she gets me." Rather than allow himself to be intimidated by her blend of beauty and position, Obadiah goes on the offensive believing a disgraced, fallen princess with few choices is ripe for exploitation. In that context, arrogance is a believable shield and insults a conscious manipulation: "From the moment I met her, I made sure she thought that I was unimpressed by everything about her." Readers sensitive to body shaming may be put off by their interplay. But they are a very real part of the ubiquitous culture of beauty and body worship Mc Ivor is writing about.

Bianca also tells her story with a critical eye and equally witty and wounded viewpoint. Unknown to Obadiah, despite her many advantages, Bianca is not quite the privileged rich girl he assumes her to be. To start, she's lonely. Though a member of Trinidad's upper class by birth, Bianca occupies an in-between status that belies her glamorous image. She has no friends, drives an old second-hand car (bought by her father), and pays rent on an apartment in an dodgy part of town only marginally better than where Obadiah lives. While her parents' relationship was filled with love, Bianca has felt profoundly alone and alienated since her mother's death when she was 14. Then, after years abroad at university, the tabloid exposure of the extramarital relationship exacerbated her situation. While "Eric's career survived because this is Trinidad and most of the population has no real expectation that men can or will be faithful," Bianca reflects, her fledgling career as a journalist did not. But Bianca's outcast status does afford her a more distanced view of Trinidad's class system than she would normally have.

Both Bianca and Obadiah are sharp when it comes to dissecting beauty, gender, class and culture and arguing over the many dimensions of the crime problem. Race, in contrast, is a more slippery point of contention. This is one of the few places where the text falters, being vague where specificity is needed for the critique to land. Mc Ivor describes Bianca's father's Chinese family in detail– their immigration to the island in past generations, their color consciousness, their disdain. Her mother's background is less defined. As Bianca relates over a meal, "My father was a Chan Kit, but this dish always made me think of my brown-skinned, mixed-race mother." This was a significant sore point — "my father's family had regretted her ethnicity even after her death and this was not even slightly ameliorated by the fact that I came out looking almost like the real deal myself" – meaning Chinese. But the "regrettable" race of her mother is unclear.

In Trinidad, as in other postcolonial Caribbean islands, the racial calculus is complicated and particular. It's not the same as in the United States. The two major ethnic groups are people of African descent and Indian descent, with smaller but substantial numbers identifying as either multiracial or Chinese. But, as Bianca plainly argues, color matters; it's intertwined with class and power, even if not as rigidly as in the past when conflicts between those of African and Indian descent were stark. Institutional discrimination based on skin color is a topic Bianca has proudly written about during her life as a journalist.

And in one of the most indelible scenes, Bianca bonds with her otherwise conservative father about a favorite local saying. "Trinis usually say 'massa day done' to remind someone else that colonial times are over, and the masters (white Europeans) are no longer in control. The scene recalls Trinidad's history: Eric Williams, its first prime minister, gave a historic speech using the phrase as its title "Massa Day Done." It's odd, given the weight of this point and Bianca's emphasis on her father's heritage, that she's fuzzy about her mother's ethnicity and the identities of characters who by her description might be thought of as of African descent or Black. The omissions seem awkward and puzzling, but they also reflect the still contentious yet reticent nature of discourse about race in the Caribbean, especially among elites.

Despite that blindspot, The God of Good Looks represents a vibrant, nuanced, and entertaining view of Caribbean culture, a perspective that transcends both trauma and pure escapism. At the sweet spot between popular entertainment and literature, it's riveting and transportive — a summer read with bite.

#ReadCaribbean: Novels to Get Lost in this Summer

Though there are myriad signals that this Caribbean literary uprising is more a movement than a momentary trend, the proof is in the reading. Here's a shortlist of new contemporary fiction to dive into during this Caribbean-American History month.

  • Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein A socially conscious literary thriller set in 1940s Trinidad, this debut captures the beauty and danger of the island. Hosein's theatrical reading rocked the house at the 2023 Calabash Literary festival in May.
  • When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo Magical realism meets the realities of contemporary Caribbean life in this widely acclaimed crowd favorite and 2023 Bocas Prize winner for fiction. A stunning, poetic debut about love and death.
  • Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks A reggae infused novel set in London in the 1980s about a young woman's awakening set against a dynamic and volatile Jamaican music scene.
  • Popisho by Leone Ross ("This One Sky Day" in the UK). A surreal, magical realist novel with a strong sense of humor, Popisho takes place in a fictional but familiar Caribbean archipelago marked by beauty and chaos — broken politics set off by a stunning natural landscape, mystery and mischief.
  • A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie In this beautifully crafted novel, a grief-stricken artist, seeking solace and renewal in the wake of tragedy, discovers family, friendship, and community visiting his mother's homeland of Jamaica.
  • The Island of Forgetting by Jasmine Sealy A Greek myth inspired, multigenerational saga about a family who run a beachfront hotel in Barbados.
  • If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery Nominated for the Pen Faulkner Award for fiction and longlisted for the National Book Award, this captivating and conversation-starting set of interconnected short stories about a Jamaican-American family in Miami is a critical favorite and crowd pleaser due in part to its finely calibrated blend of pathos and humor.
  • The Islands by Dionne Irving This PEN/Faulkner longlisted short story collection explores the vicissitudes of Jamaican diaspora life and identity in settings from North America to Europe to Panama.
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones A mid-20th century-set literary thriller about the dark underbelly of paradise, shortlisted for the UK Women's Prize in 2021.
  • Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique. A sweeping and lyrically written saga about how intergenerational inheritance shapes who and how we love, set in the mainland U.S. and the Virgin Islands.
  • A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Corrected: June 19, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
    In an earlier version of this piece, Jonathan Escoffery's first name was incorrectly typed as Jeffrey in one instance. It has been corrected here.
    Carole V. Bell