Kelvin Christopher James Biography
Nationality: Trinidadian (immigrated to United States, U.S. citizenship pending). Born: Port of Spain, Trinidad. Education: University of West Indies (St. Augustine), B.S. (honors) in zoology and chemistry 1967; Columbia University, New York, M.A. in 1975, M.Sc. in education 1976, and doctorate in science education, 1978. Career: Science researcher, Department of Agriculture, Trinidad, 1961-64; high school science teacher, Trinidad, 1968-70; technologist in chemistry lab, Harlem Hospital, 1970-76. Since 1980, full-time writer. Awards: New York Foundation for the Arts award, 1989. Agent: Joy Harris, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 617, New York, New York 10010, U.S.A.
Secrets. New York, Random House, 1993.
A Fling with a Demon Lover. New York, HarperCollins, 1996.
Jumping Ship and Other Stories. New York, Random House, 1992.
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Trinidadian writer Kelvin Christopher James began writing full-time in 1980. Prior to that he taught high school science in Sangre Grande before emigrating to New York, where he worked as a lab technician at Harlem Hospital Center and eventually earned a Ph.D. in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University. His background in zoology contributes richly to the lush, sensual landscapes in both of his works.
In his debut collection of short stories—Jumping Ship and Other Stories—James paints a bold canvas of savage sexuality, physical and mental incarceration, and bloody revenge. The first five stories are set in the Caribbean, followed by two transitional tales of immigrants making the difficult adjustment to a new country. The remaining stories take place in a hard-edged, gritty Harlem. At a first glance, the collection appears desultory in theme. But a closer look reveals an intriguing evocation of ritual that is a unifying thread through most of the stories—in the intense games of sibling rivalry in "Littleness"; in the rote cruelties of the street in "Guppies"; in the inscrutable circumstances of an Obeah voodoo ceremony in "Tripping." These rituals, both terrifying and essential, bring into sharp relief the visceral quality of life for many of the characters.
The descriptive language of the stories is potent and visual, if occasionally self-conscious. At times, the violence of the Harlem tales seems to be gratuitous, and one wishes for a little more narrative cohesion to lend them some purposefulness. Still, the author is quite effective with a story like "Home Is the Heart," in which a father severs the bonds of his youth in order to form a stronger alliance with his son.
In James's second work, the novel Secrets, he seems more at ease and in his natural element. Here the author uses idiomatic language and natural description to good effect: The fecund earth—the ripening fruit and buzzing flies of island life—mirror a young girl's sexual coming-of-age. And as with most mythopoeic tales, the prosaic becomes profound. An expedition in search of balata, an elusive, pulpy fruit that nests high in the trees, transcends the commonplace to become a virtual odyssey.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Uxann, a plump, bookish Catholic schoolgirl, who steals mangoes from her neighbor, cooks mouthwatering meals for her Paps, and gossips mercilessly with best friend Keah. The author captures convincingly the easy rhythms and musings of a typically self-absorbed adolescent, and from the opening sentences he thrusts the reader into her almost excessively sensual, dangerously naive world. But soon the novel and Uxann's life take on the character of a folktale, with the discovery of a snake in her island's Garden of Eden. Uxann's journey becomes at once universal and disturbingly out of the ordinary. The author is commended for retelling an age-old story in such an imaginative way and for capturing a young girl's sexual odyssey with candor and insight.
In both these works, James unearths the darker forces that lie in wait beneath the surface, whether they be in a tropical jungle or an asphalt one.
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