In “Class conflicts hit home—and school,” Debbie Jacob (who is serving on the jury for the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature) reviews Colleen Smith-Dennis’ 2009 young adult novel Inner City Girl. [Also see previous post Finalists for Inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature.] She writes:
Martina is a bright, 11-year-old Jamaican girl who passes for a “prestige” secondary school. She goes behind her mother’s back to choose a school that only upper class students normally get selected for. This does not impress her practical mother who can only study where she will get the money to support Martina’s academic dreams. On top of all the turmoil, Martina is about to find out how different life can be on the other side of town.
Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith-Dennis explores the social hierarchy of Caribbean schools, capturing the tension between social classes as it plays out in a child’s world. It also shows the conflicts and misunderstandings that arise when children become more educated than their parents.
Martina’s struggle with her mother is not one that we would associate with educated parents. Her mother does not understand Martina’s desire to go to a prestige school when there are schools closer to the place where they live. She does not understand Martina’s pensive personality or Martina’s penchant for reading. Her mother views Martina’s quietness as gloominess, which she attributes to reading too many books.
We like to think of education as a means of propelling us to a lofty position in life, but Martina soon discovers that she has two battles to face: the ones in the poor area where she lives and the ones in her new school where children can be a crueler version of adults when it comes to accepting people who have overstepped social boundaries.
[. . .] Inner City Girl is a sobering look at how prejudice and class consciousness develop in children as well as how it festers and grows into adulthood. It is a vivid portrait of the bullying that takes place in school; the violence that often defines the social networks in schools; and the development of fierce, unhealthy school rivalries. [. . .] The juxtaposition of Martina’s poor neighbourhood with the affluent school creates an eerily ironic contrast where some warm and endearing aspects of Martina’s tough neighbourhood like Reggae Friday are contrasted with the cold, austere and impersonal atmosphere of the upper class school.
As Martina grows up and moves up in school she faces a life-threatening situation that creates a nail-biting, riveting read. Equally important is her developing relationship with her mother. Her father has a presence in the story even though he is missing from her life.
Inner City Girl, a Young Adult novel, won the third prize in the 2014 Burt Awards for Caribbean Literature, and was nominated for the 2011 Impac Dublin Literary Award. Inner City Girl was originally published by LMH in Jamaica. [. . .]