Red peppers and plantain, hibiscus and hummingbirds, saltfish and snapper, kaiso and calypso – all feature in Malika Booker’s debut collection, Pepper Seed, as its narrative slips between Guyana, Grenada, Trinidad and Brixton to tell intertwined personal and political stories. Booker’s writing is at once both searing and beautifully lyrical, the past slipping into the present, enabling her to evoke complexities which lie beyond the reach of conventional text books and biographies.
Given the context of colonialism, slavery, misogyny as well as present-day racism, Pepper Seed is not, by any means, an easy read, confronting the reader with acts and words of cruelty and brutality, their immediate effects and long-distant after-effects.
The collection opens with “Granny’s Love Poems”:
Imagine her different, a fairy-tale granny
cooking fudge for brown cinnamon girls like me.
Her pale sugar eyes twinkle.
This fantasy granny is not, however, the granny of Booker’s story. In the sequence poem, “Red Ants Bite” (1), granny speaks:
You will end up on your back, scunt spread out
feet sprawl out, whoring. Who tells a child that?
Yet I loved her. She was my granny,
and I wanted her to love me back,
but everyday her words
put this hard thing deep inside me.
Towards the end of the sequence, we learn just what grandmother has endured:
I was a slave baby mixed with plantation white.
This creamy skin draw buckman, blackman,
coolieman, like prize…