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This review of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings by Margaret Quamme appeared i The Columbus Dispatch.

Brief it is not; as history, it’s slippery; and Marlon James’ massive, sometimes frustrating new novel features far more than seven killings, as well as numerous tortures and rapes.

But readers who can get beyond its excessive violence will find a compelling story of the Jamaican underworld and its uneasy relationship with the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century.

A Brief History of Seven Killings takes off from a failed assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, during which seven gunmen entered

Marley’s house in Kingston and wounded the singer, his wife and several others.

Although the story swirls around Marley and his influence on Jamaica, he is barely a character in the novel. He is referred to only as “the Singer,” and his existence sets into motion an escalating series of crimes through several decades.

The story is told from multiple points of view — so many that the four-page “cast of characters” that precedes the book is essential. Several of the gunmen express their feelings in the local patois. Their voices are joined by CIA agents; a ghost; a freelancer for Rolling Stone; and a young, middle-class Jamaican woman who had a one-night stand with Marley and has the bad luck to be standing around gazing at his house when it’s invaded.

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The plot, such as it is, revolves first around the setup for the assassination, then around the more successful attempt to assassinate the would-be assassinators.

Over time, the story moves out from Kingston and the struggle of rival gangs as well as rival political parties there and into New York, where the gangs have set up business distributing crack cocaine and several characters have established new lives.

Underneath the storyline lies a commentary on how the Jamaican underworld has been shaped by the United States, directly by the interference of the CIA and less directly by the influence of pop culture in the form of Clint Eastwood movies and television shows such as Starsky & Hutch.

James’ prose, sometimes poetic and often profane, spins out in long stream-of-consciousness swashes,

leaving the reader to grab on, hold tight and try to make sense of it all. Often, these passages go on longer than seems necessary; other times, they gather force as they go.

The plot is something of a do-it-yourself affair, leaving the reader to make connections that might or might not exist. The CIA part of the story, in particular, trails off into nothingness, and those “company men” have the least believable voices.

By the end, though, the novel coheres into something more than the sum of its disparate parts.

Characters grow and evolve, and, through their thoughts and actions, reveal the changes in a complicated country.

For the original report go to http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2014/10/12/01-marley-the-mob.html

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I just came across a short documentary–K’nawa, une odyssée caribéenne, directed by Guadeloupean filmmaker Daniel Nlandu Nganga. The film was screened earlier this year at the The Montreal International Black Film Festival (MIBFF). It was also shown on French TV in 2013. The film documents musician Fabrice Fanfant’s trip on the Kalinago canoe K’nawa to learn more about the historical trajectory of the Kalinago.

The construction of the K’nawa began in September 2012, when a gommier tree [also known as chibou in Carib and tabonuco, from the Taíno word tabanuko] was knocked down from the heights of Concord, for the construction of a pirogue. The canoe was built in the Kalinago Territory by members of the island’s indigenous people using age-old methods. The traditional dugout canoe was inaugurated in a joint effort of the Association of Guadeloupe in collaboration with the Carib Council and Discover Dominica Authority.

Film Description: Musician Fabrice Fanfant spent twelve days in an immersion adventure on the Amerindian [Kalinago] canoe K’nawa, traveling from Dominica to Antigua via the archipelago of Guadeloupe. It was a unique opportunity for the Guadeloupean bassist to meet learn about the history of Caribbean Native Americans who once inhabited [and still inhabit] the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

See http://www.cooperationcaraibe.fr/knawa-au-festival-international-du-film-black-montreal/, http://telescoop.tv/browse/447999/7/k-nawa-une-odyssee-caribeenne.html and http://www.mon-programme-tv.be/television/168683847/K-Nawa-une-odyssee-caribeenne.html

For more on the canoe, also see http://www.news.dm/knawa-to-be-officially-named-after-its-construction/ and http://dominicanewsonline.com/news/homepage/news/culture/kalinago-dugout-canoe-gets-attention/

Posted by: ivetteromero | October 20, 2014

The National Poetry Series’ 2014 Paz Prize for Poetry

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The National Poetry Series is pleased to announce the winner of the 2014 Paz Translation Prize for Poetry: Nueve Monedas by Carlos Pintado (Miami Beach, Florida) was chosen by Richard Blanco and will be published by Akashic Books. This year’s Paz Prize also awarded an Honorable Mention to Un enigma esas muñecas by Lourdes Vázquez (Puerto Rico/Florida).

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The Paz Translation Prize for Poetry: The Center for Literature and Theater at Miami Dade College will award one prize annually for the publication of a previously unpublished book of poetry originally written in Spanish by a U.S. resident. The prize will recognize book-length manuscripts of poetry written in Spanish. The winner is selected by an esteemed Spanish-speaking poet. The chosen book is translated into English by an experienced translator, and is published in a bilingual edition. The prize was named in honor of Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

The National Poetry Series was established in 1978 to ensure the publication of five poetry books annually through five participating publishers. Founded in 1978 by Halpern and James A. Michener, The National Poetry Series continues to fulfill its mission every year by overseeing the publication of new books of poetry that might not otherwise be published by providing support in the processes of manuscript solicitation, selection, and promotion.

For Paz Prize for Poetry Guidelines can be found at The Paz Prize Guidelines

For more information, see http://nationalpoetryseries.blogspot.com/

See article (in Spanish) at http://www.elnuevoherald.com/noticias/sur-de-la-florida/article2950647.html

DENIED

The Portia Simpson Miller-led administration has been threatened with a lawsuit after Gerald Perreira, a Guyanese Muslim leader, was barred from entering the country to attend the 19th anniversary celebration of the Million-Man March. 

Perreira said while on his way to Jamaica on Friday to participate in the celebration, headed by Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, he was ordered off a flight in Antigua and Barbuda and told that Jamaican authorities had refused him permission to land.

Perreira, who is the chairman of the Black Consciousness Movement Guyana (BCMG), said he planned to lodge a complaint with the Guyanese government and will seek redress in the form of legal action against the Jamaican government.  He added that being barred from entering Jamaica is a breach of his right to freedom of movement as a Caricom national.  Perreira has also accused the United States of pressuring Jamaica to prevent certain persons from entering for the 19th anniversary celebration of the Million Man March. [. . .]

For full article, see http://jamaica-gleaner.com/latest/article.php?id=56108 and http://sfbayview.com/2014/10/gerald-perreira-chair-of-black-consciousness-movement-guyana-refused-entry-to-jamaica-for-million-man-march-commemoration/

Posted by: ivetteromero | October 20, 2014

Swimming Beach, Deep Water Cay, Bahamas

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Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon (Caribbean Journal travel editor) waxes poetic as she describes Deep Water Cay in the Bahamas. Sounds like a beautiful dream. . .

They call it swimming beach. But they really should call heaven on earth.

Because that’s what it feels like on this Monday morning as I sit on a deck chair facing the sea, listening to the rhythmic sound of waves lapping against the shores of Deep Water Cay, a two-square-mile private-island resort just east of Grand Bahama.

[. . .] Here, on this white-sand sweep, my perch is one of only six chairs, arranged in pairs and positioned a respectful distance from each other. I’m the only person here. (The Cay’s other guests have gone fishing, I presume, since world-class bonefishing in the surrounding flats has brought fishermen and their families here for more than half a century.) And I feel like the luckiest, having Swimming Beach all to myself.

Well, almost.

The frosty Kalik in my hand has only just begun to sweat when I spot a cushion starfish as large as a dinner plate and as orange as the fruit itself at the water’s edge. And not two seconds later a ray appears mere feet from the shore, its expanse casting a shadow in the crystal shallows as it glides swiftly and silently by. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.caribjournal.com/2014/10/17/beach-collector-swimming-beach-deep-water-cay-bahamas/

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Following up on the recent two-day conference on reparations in Antigua, where the chairperson of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission Sir Hilary Beckles said that the Commission is working towards mounting a region-wide rally to demand reparations, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, says that one cannot forget the Papal Bulls and the Catholic Church; he is calling on Caribbean countries to demand reparation for slavery from the Roman Catholic Church in addition to Europe.

Farrakhan, who was addressing the 19th anniversary of the “Million Man” march here on Sunday, said the Roman Catholic Church must be included in any discussion on the issue of reparation. “When you talk about reparation, you can’t leave the Pope out….There was something in the Catholic Church called the Papal Bulls authorising slavery, it is a type of letter issued or patent by the Pope,” Farrakhan told the ceremony that was also attended by government ministers.

He said Pope Nicholas V issued a Papal bull granting Portugal and Spain, “full and free permission to invade, search out and capture… and unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be and reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”. Farrakhan said even in today’s world, this Papal Bull is being regarded as “an endorsement of slavery ….so when we are asking for reparation, we can’t leave the church out. “You can’t leave the Pope out, nor can you leave European countries out,” he added”.

Last week, at the end of a two-day conference on reparations in Antigua, the chairperson of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, said the movement has been energized and the Commission is working towards mounting a region-wide rally.

“We are going to organize, with the support of all of these national commissions, a regional rally in which we will move the reparations banner from the northern Caribbean, through to the centre, to the south, all the way through to Brazil,” Sir Hilary told reporters at the close of the Second Regional Conference on Reparations late Tuesday.

The renowned historian and Principal of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), said such an event would engage the talents of artists, musicians and youth, while bringing regional and global attention to the matter.

Read more: http://www.caribbean360.com/news/louis-farrakhan-wants-caribbean-countries-to-demand-reparation-for-slavery-from-roman-catholic-church#ixzz3GjkaZj9k

Also see http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Farrakhan-says-Jamaica-has-let-national-heroes-down

Posted by: lisaparavisini | October 20, 2014

Kei Miller: Lyrical, Sophisticated, Engaging, Ambitious

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This article by Keisha Hill appeared in Jamaica’s Gleaner.

Jamaican poet Kei Miller has quite a repertoire under his pen – novels, collections of short stories, essays and poetry. His 2014 book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, won for Miller the prestigious Forward Prize for Best Collection.

In 1991, British philanthropist, entrepreneur and publisher William Sieghart created the Forward Prizes for Poetry with the aim of extending poetry’s audience, raising poetry’s profile and linking poetry to people in new ways. The prizes do this by identifying and honouring talent. Each year, works short-listed for the prizes – plus those highly commended by the judges – are collected in the Forward Book of Poetry.

The winners of the 2014 prizes were awarded in late September with the 23rd Forward Book of Poetry, an anthology of all the poems shortlisted for the prizes or highly commended by the judges, launched at the same event.

Miller’s standout book is based on dialogue between a mapmaker striving to impose order on an unfamiliar land and a Rastaman who queries his project. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion took the £10,000 prize, with judges relishing Miller’s ability to “defy expectations” and “set up oppositions only to undermine them”.

According to Miller in a recent interview by Arts & Education, the recognition for him is a personal accomplishment, a sobering feeling that creates a different kind of sound in the world. “I have become the first person of colour to win the Forward Prize for Best Collection. They thought Derek Walcott might have won it in 2010, but in the end, he was not even shortlisted, which was a shame because he deserved it for his book, White Egrets,” Miller said.

“So my feelings are complicated. It’s strange to me that in 2014, there are still so many ways in which black people have not been celebrated. I am not glad to be the first; I wonder what voices in the past we weren’t listening to,” Miller added.

Miller, 35, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, financed his studies at Manchester Metropolitan University by winning poetry slams, becoming the 2004 Manchester poetry slam winner. He first discovered the power of his own voice as a young preacher in Jamaica, but abandoned the church for an academic career in Britain.

According to the chair of the judges, historian and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, Miller’s work is doing something you don’t come across often. “This is a beautifully voiced collection which struck us all with its boldness and wit. Many poets refer to multiple realities, different ways of observing the world. Kei doesn’t just refer, he articulates them,” Paxman said.

In the eight years since his first collection was published, Miller has produced two novels, a short story collection, three more poetry collections and a book of “essays and prophecies”, and he is a prolific blogger and Tweeter.

“An award is a truly fantastic thing, but it isn’t the only way your work is validated. Besides, the Caribbean has been really good to me. The Institute of Jamaica gave me the Silver Musgrave Medal about four years ago, and this year, I won the OCM Bocas Prize for non-fiction for another book. I also get to teach what I like and travel to give readings,” Miller said.

Miller currently teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Earlier this year, he won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean literature in the non-fiction category for Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies at the OCM Bocas LitFest in Trinidad. His other books include Fear of Stones and Other Stories (short stories) Kingdom of Empty Bellies (poems), There is an Anger That Moves (poems), The Same Earth (novel), The Last Warner Woman (novel), and A Light Song of Light (poems).

His poetry has been shortlisted for awards such as the Jonathan Llewelyn Ryhs Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Scottish Book of the Year. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Phyllis Wheatley Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and has won the Una Marson Prize.

“My work has been paying off and I feel very fortunate in that. At the end of the day, I am a writer. That is what I do and I will continue to write whether I had won this award or not,” Miller added. Former winners include Seamus Heaney for Human Chain, Ted Hughes for Birthday Letters and Carol Ann Duffy for Mean Times.

“This prize would seem to say that many doors are being opened and the work is being accepted by a large cross-section of people. But there is a pressure in all of this that the work we produce has to be good – it has to think more deeply than it has before, it has to read more widely and do something lyrical and sophisticated and engaging and ambitious. Doors are opening all the time and you just have to be ready to take advantage of it,” he added.

HIGHLY EDUCATED

Miller has a master of art in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in English literature from the University of Glasgow; and in 2013, the Caribbean Rhodes Trust named him the Rex Nettleford Fellow in cultural studies.

“This collection was written largely with the help of the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies, so I have to give much thanks to the man and his legacy. But there are still other strands in that fellowship that I have to do, including a piece that’s almost finished that has to do with zinc, and is only for Jamaica, and should be seen in April 2015,” Miller said.

The Forward Prizes for Poetry are among the most coveted annual poetry prizes in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The three prizes are unusual in honouring the work of established poets (Best Collection £10,000) alongside newcomers (Best First Collection £5,000). The Best Single Poem award (£1,000) is a prize for which only award-winning poems and published works not yet collected in book form are eligible.

For the original report go to http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20141019/arts/arts2.html

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This article on the death of Cuban-American actress Elizabeth Peña appeared in NBC Latino.

It has been a tough few days for Esai Morales. After news came out of Elizabeth Peña’s death, many in the media naturally turned to the actor, who was her co-star in the acclaimed movie “La Bamba” and later in Showtime’s “Resurrection Boulevard.” While Morales said he is reluctant to bring attention to himself through the lens of Peña’s passing, the Latino actor talked to NBC News about an issue important to him – Latino representation in Hollywood – and Peña’s invaluable contribution.

“When one talks about a third dimension, there was a third ‘d’ when it came to Elizabeth, and that was dignity,” said Morales. “She never succumbed to the desire to play what she would have called the sort of ‘cuchifrito’ (word for a Caribbean fritter) roles. She did not compromise,” he said.

Morales has always been vocal about the need for more Latino representation in Hollywood. He was one of the founding members of the National Hispanic Foundation For the Arts, an organization started to increase access and promote more Latinos in the arts. A recent USC report found Hispanics are over 25 percent of the moviegoing public, but Latino characters accounted for only 4.9 percent of all speaking roles in movies during the last 6 years.

Yet Hispanic actors have also struggled against stereotypes. Reflecting on Peña, Morales became very emotional when asked what her place was as an established Latina actress in a pretty tough space.

“I get choked up when I think of the example Elizabeth gave, and I think of my own daughter and the influences out there that reduce women to hot chicks,” said Morales.

“We all struggle with the temptation to just work hard to feed our family and extended family and not denigrate the image we need to see of ourselves,” he said. While it was not easy to turn down scarce roles, the late actress made it a priority to not be cast in a certain way.

“Elizabeth showed you don’t have to sell yourself short and you don’t have to sell yourself,” he said. “She did not play her race; she brought an indefinable dimension that you can’t buy, sell or trade.”

Morales compared Peña to the late actress Lupe Ontiveros, explaining the two women succeeded in portraying characters that commanded respect and dignity.

When the cameras were off, Peña was fun, profane and not prudish, reflected her friend and fellow actor. But when the cameras were on, she exuded dignity, said Morales. “When it came to portraying the soul of our people, she did not compromise.”

For the original article go to http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/esai-morales-elizabeth-pena-did-not-compromise-latina-actress-n229181Elizabeth-Peña

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Meddy Ranks, who worked on John Holt’s final recording, says the singer always managed to make people feel happy, Mike Lockey writes for The Birmingham Mail.

A Birmingham record producer has spoken of his deep sense of loss following the death of reggae legend and close friend John Holt.

Rubery’s Meddy Ranks worked on Holt’s last recording, “What Love Has Done To Me” and was a frequent visitor to the singer’s home in Kingston, Jamaica.

Holt, aged 69 and a cult figure on the Caribbean music scene, died in a London hospital on Sunday morning.

The cause of death was unknown, but the veteran had battled ill-health since collapsing on stage last August.

Meddy, who left Jamaica for Birmingham in 2003, had known Holt for 25 years.

He was introduced to a man seen as the Godfather of reggae by fellow legend Sugar Minot.

Meddy produced four Holt tracks, although only one was released.

He said: “We were very close, we’d spend evenings smoking in John’s garden.

“I feel a real sense of loss.

“He was a good person to talk to, always in a good mood.

“He knew how to keep us happy when we were down.”

Holt, who rose to prominence as lead singer with The Paragons, is probably best known for penning, “The Tide Is High”, a smash hit for Blondie.

His cover of “Help Me Make It Through The Night” peaked at number six in the UK charts and UB40 recorded “Man Next Door”.

Reggae label Trojan Records dubbed Holt “a huge talent and true gentleman”.

Caribbean websites have been flooded with tributes.

One stated: “Trod on soulja, your name and songs will live forever.”

Another fan posted: “Walk good, brother John. Walk good.”

Meddy last visited Holt’s Kingston home in January.

“That wasn’t business,” he said, “we were just chilling.

“His was a voice you could listen to in any era, but he didn’t take the world the way Bob (Marley) took the world.”

Holt was also close to Meddy’s mum, Evelyn Johnson, who lives in Jamaica.

Meddy added: “Music kept him alive. Some people have to sing until they die.”

For the original report go to http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/music-nightlife-news/john-holt-dies-birmingham-record-7965471

Posted by: lisaparavisini | October 20, 2014

Junot Díaz on Fukuoka, Japan’s Next Great Food City

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This article by Junot Díaz appeared in Condé Nast’s Traveler. Here’s an excerpt. Follow the link below for the complete report. For a related post, see our May 2010 post Juan Luis Guerra takes bachata around the world. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

Fukuoka began—the way all important love affairs should—with a meal. This was on my first trip to Japan, way back in the ’90s. My flight landed after supper, and by the time I hauled myself from Narita to Shimokitazawa, that coolest of Tokyo districts, I was straight starving, so my boy Michi took me to his local ramen-ya. Remember: This was before there was any Ippudo NYC. Before Totto. Before Jin. I’d never had real ramen in my life, but that simple bowl of Hakata-style tonkotsu—the pork-bone broth of your dreams—just tore open my brain, my soul, my tongue. Afterward, in a state of jetlagged exaltation, I swore to myself that, no matter what, I would go to Fukuoka, which Michi had identified as the birthplace of the ramen we had just eaten. Yes, that first night in Shimokitazawa, under the lights of the old train station (now demolished), I swore a sacred ramen oath.

Turns out I suck at sacred ramen oaths, however, because over the years I visited Japan 13 more times and never once made it to Fukuoka. What can I tell you? Something, it seems, always came up: trips up north, trips down the coast, a love affair with Osaka, with Kyoto, with Tokyo—always Tokyo. In the end, I never made it farther south than Miyajima.

And yet despite everything, Fukuoka seemed to stay in the picture. Close friends visited the city and brought back glowing reports and even better photos. An ex-girlfriend, Dominicana, revealed out of nowhere that she had visited the city in the ’80s and loved it. Monocle named it one of the most livable cities in the world. And then, weirdest of all, in 2010 the Dominican superstar Juan Luis Guerra dropped his single “Bachata en Fukuoka.” Legend has it that JLG had gone to Fukuoka to play a gig and was so blown away by the Japanese audience—by their energy and by the fact that they knew all the words to his songs and could actually dance bachata—that he recorded the song in Fukuoka’s honor. “Bachata en Fukuoka” became a number one hit in the Latin market, and just like that, Fukuoka entered the Dominican lexicon, guaranteeing that even my country-ass relatives know that Fukuoka is a city in Japan. (It’s a good song, too.) Anyway, I took that shit as a sign. And yet clearly I must not be big on signs, either, because another four trips to Japan passed before “Bachata en Fukuoka” came on one last time and I had finally had it. Enough, I thought. Enough. I bought my tickets and, nearly 20 years after the whole Fukuoka affair began, it was on.

And now that I’ve been, I can say in my best public service voice: Folks, please don’t be like me—go to Fukuoka as soon as possible.

With its canals and river walks and nighttime neon spectacle, Fukuoka is the kind of place that inspires songs, that makes latecomers like me wish we had visited sooner. The town is the perfect size for taking in: The weather is salubrious; the inhabitants are both welcoming and famously handsome (Fukuokan women recently ranked third hottest after Akita’s and Kyoto’s, according to a national survey); and if the masses of Korean and Chinese shoppers are any metric (they were snapping up everything from the latest PlayStations to multiple Bao Bao Issey Miyake bags), the retail options are endless. There are cool museums and some Yayoi Kusama and Keith Haring sculptures and even a Rem Koolhaas–designed housing complex. Just outside the city stands one of the loveliest Shinto shrines in all of Japan, Dazaifu Tenmangu, the final resting place of Japan’s great brain, poet-scholar Sugawara Michizane, a.k.a. Tenjin, the god of scholarship. Throw in Hakata Bay, around which Fukuoka has grown like a lobster claw, and the nearby beaches and easy access to Korea, and you can understand why the city is a favorite of both travel cognoscenti and bachateros.

And the eats? Well, as I sensed that first night in Japan, the grub in Fukuoka is the absolute tops—the city’s gift to the world. Our little group of three started eating as soon as we landed and didn’t stop until we were boarding our train to go. As a diner, you simply cannot go wrong. (Well, maybe you can, but I suspect you have to really try.) There’s Fujiyoshi for out-of-this-world yakitori and ridiculously savory chicken butts. For the famous local chicken hot pot, mizutaki, run to its famed creator, Suigetsu Honten. (They also do a mouthwatering chicken sashimi—yes, chicken sashimi. The way I see it, if you’re going to try semi-raw chicken, it might as well be in super-hygienic Japan.) There’s even swell eats on the approach to the Dazaifu shrine: The fragrant, densely delicious black sesame ice cream should not be missed.

[. . . ]

And as for the ramen that started this whole odyssey? All I can say is that what I ate at the source of the tonkotsu broth Nile exceeded all expectations. I know the world is supposed to be all global now, but from where I chow, what counts as outstanding in a ramen periphery like New York would only rate as pretty good in a ramen metropole like Fukuoka. Rather than perorate needlessly, I simply recommend that a traveler hit any of the branches of Ichiran, which styles itself as “the most dedicated Ramen Company to the study of Tonkotsu Ramen in the whole world,” as well as the more local Shin-Shin. Sit yourself down, order your bowl, and observe as bite by bite, slurp by slurp, your mind gets blown. Every bowl of ramen is said to contain a universe, and this universe is a celestial symphony of tender noodles, farm-fresh green onions, and pungent porky splendor. If it’s true that the culinary gods shine their glory on Japan, then that glory shines a little brighter in Fukuoka.

So okay all of us food and travel heads agree: The dining in Fukuoka is divine!

And yet.

And yet this ain’t even half of what makes Fukuoka so fascinating. For real. As corny as this might sound, and believe me, it is super-corny, Fukuoka’s real draw—the umami of its broth, if you will—is its people. But it’s true. In all of my trips to Japan, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a friendlier, more welcoming bunch. They are almost Latin in their warmth, in their simpatico. (Maybe Guerra shouldn’t have been surprised; if any Japanese were going to know bachata, it would be the Fukuokans.)

And, man, do they ever talk. Inscrutable Asians, nothing. Everywhere we went, locals engaged us at length without the least bit of encouragement. And it was awesome. In Yanagibashi Market, where you can buy everything from sweet mochi to gasping fish, one of the merchants, a Mr. Yoshida, told us about his father who had emigrated to Hawaii in, I’m guessing, the ’20s; the old man started a sweetshop somewhere on the islands but eventually returned to Japan. Well, recently Mr. Yoshida and the wife took a vacay to Hawaii and managed to track down the old sweetshop and guess what: His father’s name was still on it. The new owners had kept it. Amazing, right? And then there was the night we were on the Deaibashi Bridge, enjoying the reflection of the neon sizzle across the surface of the Naka River, and a guitarist selling CDs got us all talking. He wasn’t the “Bachata en Fukuoka” type, but he did serenade the girls with some sharp Whitesnake and Aerosmith covers, and under the first of the year’s cherry blossoms, bathed in lights, you couldn’t have orchestrated anything more sublime. Human moments like these are naturally what cities are all about—they just seem to happen at a higher rate in Fukuoka.

[. . . ]

It is this spirit of the contact zone that is the true soul of Fukuoka, and why I fell so hard for the city. (For I too am a child of a contact zone and therefore highly vulnerable to such enchantments.) And why, despite all the fancy eats of the city, I found myself returning again and again to, of all places, Fukuoka’s famous yatai. These little food stalls serving home-style cooking, like oden and yakitori, were once widespread in Japan but now survive only in Fukuoka and its vicinity. In general, yatai get almost no love. Travel guides dismiss them as touristic one-offs, and every Japanese person I mentioned them to gave me the same spiel: Yatai are for tourists; locals don’t eat there; the food is expensive and not that great.

Bueno. Maybe I’m just a gaijin dummy, but I did a whole series of yatai and found the food, on average, to be delicious and affordable, and even when the food was so-so it didn’t really matter, because the camaraderie inside those haphazard wood-and-tarp walls was about the best thing in Fukuoka. I urge you to sit down at Mami-chan’s yatai on Showa-dori, and after she warns you about the yatai near the river (“Same food as here, but overpriced”), tuck into the first complimentary wing she dishes out, followed by her glorious handmade gyoza and her special yaki-ramen—noodles in a very small serving of broth (another local invention)—and let the spirit of Fukuoka, the spirit of contact, take hold of you. Let it put its hands on you and let it, like in a bachata, carry you along. On a good night, everyone will be talking: to your group, to Mami-chan, to one another. There will be men in suits welcoming a new colleague from Nagoya. A pair of young women who just graduated from high school and are celebrating while crammed alongside a tall, handsome elder, another local, who hasn’t been in a yatai in 30 years. “Back when I was young,” he will explain, “yatai were where the hungry boys ate.” And something will tell you that when this prosperous businessman was young, he too was one of the hungry boys.

Sit in a yatai and its secret will be revealed: Yatai are nothing less and nothing more than diminutive contact zones—places where the foundational physics that made Fukuoka (and the nation) play out in miniature. Sit in a yatai, shoulder to shoulder with locals and, yes, with tourists, and what you will hear, smell, taste, and participate in will be nothing less and nothing more than the simple magic from which nations like ours are born.

For the original report go to Condé Nast Traveler, October 13, 2014

http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2014-10-13/junot-diaz-on-fukuoka-japan-s-next-great-food-city

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