Courttia Newland’s “A Book of Blues”

(IMAGE: Flambard Press)

Fresh off a flight from London, Palermo hits the beach in Lamu. He sets out to enjoy an island he read about in an in-flight magazine while traveling to do a poetry show in Italy.

Meeting and falling for the gorgeous Salini, who’s on break from her studies and her overbearing mother, might not have been in the plans. But it’s a welcomed surprise until the ensuing drama sends him on an adventure that his travel magazine hadn’t prepared him for.

And that’s just the first story in Courttia Newland’s new collection A Book of Blues (Flambard Press, 2011). Here, disappointments stick out like loose fence wire to snag any unsuspecting passersby, strolling through the worlds of a range of characters.

“Beach Boy” is a look at love amidst ethnic tensions. Palermo, whose of Chinese and Jamaican ancestry, falls for Salini, who’s Kenyan-born and Canadian-raised. This is where the trouble starts between Palermo and the beach boys of Kenya’s Lamu Island.

Reading “Beach Boy”, I thought about the tensions between Africans on the continent and those in the Diaspora. That tension is a result of misinformation and stereotypes of each other by both groups.

I can imagine how jarring the confrontation must have been for the Afro-centric Palermo when a beach boy yells, “Ay asshole.” It gets worse when the ringleader, referring to Salini, says, “That one is mine, you know! You stay away.”

The sting comes when Palermo’s called mzungu, a Swahili term first used to describe early European explorers.

Newland brings the reader inside Palermo’s head with these details: “He wanted to shout it at them, that they were wrong and had misjudged him, that he wasn’t mzungu but one of them, a prodigal brother  returned with arms opened wide.”

Palermo’s treatment is no different from that of African Americans who make the journey to the motherland, expecting a warm reception from their distant brothers and sisters who, instead, greet them as foreigners.

(PHOTO: Lamu is Kenya’s oldest inhabited town, a place like no other, its “old town” is largely unchanged and it dates back to the 14th century.

“Beach Boy” is a look at a host of contradictions. Take the beach boys, who make their living showing foreign women a good time while becoming possessive when a foreign man falls for a woman from that island.

And what about the behaviors of the crew when an actual mzungu walks by? “The gathered beach boys raised their hands palms upwards, muttering Habari and Jambo”—Swahili greetings—“wearing smiles.”

The beach boys’ reactions speak to a higher view of European people present in the psyches of many Africans. As the situation escalates, the beach boys’ humanities get tested.

Then there’s Stone in the “Fresh for ‘88”. The aspiring emcee is anything but what his name implies. Over the summer break, he and his DJ, Reka, prepare for a rap battle/open mic competition at Scrubbs Park.

When they get there, Reka and his crew are star-struck by Westwood, a celebrity in the London hip hop scene. He’s got the outfit to match his ’88 swag: “a purple Kangol and dark shades with his trademark black bomber jacket and black 501s, a kind of punk-meets-hip-hop look.”

Courttia Newland does a wonderful job bringing the reader into the moment. I could feel my chest vibrating from “the bass echoing over the grass” when Westwood plays Rock Creek Park. I smelled the reefer-laced breeze. I saw the “pretty girl in a pink rah-rah skirt and fishnet tights, topped off with a skin-tight red T shirt.”

The slang is hip and authentic. Instead of “spitting game” to the pretty girl, Stone would have “chirped her” if he wasn’t nervous. It’s ’88, the year London goes hip hop crazy. The guys call sexy women “fit gullies”, and sneakers are “trainers”.

The poetic details in “Fresh for ‘88” are one reason I agree with Time Out Magazine calling Newland “a truly gifted storyteller.” I also agree with one writer saying, “You can almost feel the heat radiate from the page.”

Here’s a description of Scrubbs Park on the day of the rap battle: “You could see the haze of heat rise across the shorn expanse of corn-yellow grass, making hundreds of bodies shimmer like trees in a wildlife programme.”

(PHOTO: William Cooper-Mitchell)

Equally as entertaining are the events that lead up to the rap battle. As mentioned before, Stone is anything but what his name implies. He’s got bullies—P. Nutt and Sy Rocc, two well-respected and highly sought after emcees.

They catch Stone outside his boy’s house, enjoying a smoke.

P. Nutt and Sy Rocc hang him upside down and shake change from his pockets. Newland’s poetic details bring the reader inside Stone’s head at that moment. “I could hear my loose change hit the ground as though a money storm had broken somewhere above.”

What happens when Stone makes it to Reason’s room is hilarious. His boy, Reason, is chilling with the rest of the crew—Reka, MCP (“a tall dark-skinned rapper”) and Calalloo (“a stocky mixed-race MC). What sparks the banter between Stone and MCP is when Stone asks around for rolling papers:

“Why you always beggin, man? You got weed? Or d’you want us to roll it too?” MCP sneered. “Fuck you, man…” I stretched out my hand. Reason paused his game and dug in his jeans until he found a pack of blues. “Don’t try it, y’know, Stone; man’ll cuss yuh raas….” “Cuss me den! Go on, cuss me!” “Bwoy…” MCP lay back on the bed. “I don’t feel like it now…” “That’s cos you was up all night. Park bench hard innit, P?” Howls of laughter from Reason and Cal. Reka noticed the look on my face and lifted one headphone, a smile on his face. MCP’s expression stiffened. “Don’t try it, Stone…” “Tell the truth, blud; you ain’t even got a house have you? No gyal’s yard where you can lay yuh head… You grind against grass every night, innit?” Everyone laughed. Even MCP was smiling, though he was trying to hold his face rigid. Reka reached over the decks to touch me. Cal and Reason slapped palms with me, quite too hard. MCP jumped up to stop them, but he was only messing.

(PHOTO: Julia West) In 1997, Courttia Newland published his first novel, The Scholar. Further critically acclaimed work followed, including Society Within (1999) and Snakeskin (2002).

Those lines are another example of Newland’s gift of recreating a moment for the reader to experience.

“Fresh for ‘88” is a coming-of-age tale about brotherhood and heartache. It’s a love letter to that hip hop era in London.

Over there, 1988 marked “the rise of the bedroom producer…house parties…and rap battles on misty London Streets.”

In “Spider Man”, Darren and his lady seem perfect for each other. They both move through artsy circles and share a love of indie films, literature and visual art. He’s the first guy she’s liked in a long time. She’s the prettiest woman he’s ever dated.

So what goes wrong?

That’s what Darren tries to figure out when he revisits the ruined relationship like forensic scientists at a crime scene. Every bit of evidence sparks a memory. And, with each memory, Darren gets closer to the answer.

Newland’s a bad, bad man in his command of different voices that give his readers no choice but to empathize for the wounded souls in these 265 pages.

In the other 10 stories are more adventures and setbacks, both of which are part of the growing pains. After reading A Book of Blues, it becomes clear that love is as troubling as it is gratifying. But nothing in life worth having comes easy.

For more info on Courttia Newland, click here. Or click here to purchase his book.

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