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Sequins for Ragged Hem by Amryl Johnson

Sequins for Ragged Hem (edition 1989)

by Amryl Johnson

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1511,036,388 (3.5)6
Title:Sequins for Ragged Hem
Authors:Amryl Johnson
Info:Random House, Inc. (1989), Hardcover, 224 pages
Tags:Non-fiction, Life story, Travel, Women, Caribbean, Trinidad, Race

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Sequins for a ragged hem by Amryl Johnson



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Sequins is a book that's often almost painfully subjective: a poet's reaction to revisiting the Caribbean as an adult, having left Trinidad for the UK when she was a little girl. The Carnival in Trinidad occupies the first quarter of the book, the rest is an account of a six-month trip visiting various other islands (Tobago, Grenada, Barbados, Dominica, St Lucia, Guadeloupe).

Everything is in a rather diffuse stream-of-consciousness style, so that it isn't always very easy to work out where we are, but that doesn't really matter. Johnson is much more interested in telling us about people and subjective experiences than about "sights" and "culture". Most of the time that works well, she does a very good job of conveying the experience of being a tourist in a place to which you feel you ought to belong, and in giving us some insight into what it must look like from the point of view of the people who live there. A point that really struck me was her observation that at home in the UK she's accustomed to people perceiving her in the first place as a black woman; in the Caribbean the first thing people notice about her (from her speech, the way she interacts, the way she dresses) is that she is an outsider, someone who lives in a wealthier country. Language differences keep coming up: even in Trinidad she has a hard time getting the modulations of speech quite right when she's shopping in the markets.

An aspect of the book that I felt didn't work quite so well was the way she used her worries about the practicalities of travelling as a surrogate to express her deeper discomfort about the problems she was having connecting with the people she met. There are long passages about rickety aircraft and uncomfortable sea passages, and a panic in the last chapters about whether a letter will arrive in time, that felt rather overwrought in context, even though I knew why they were there (and I've had enough travel panics myself...).

But the Carnival levels all boundaries: for the space of a couple of chapters there are steel bands playing "Matilda" non-stop, and she is free to enjoy the spectacle and then tear most of her clothes off and dance in the streets all night without worrying about anything. ( )
1 vote thorold | Feb 7, 2016 |
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