Christina Cooke on her debut novel, “Broughtupsy” – Chicago Review of Books


In Christina Cooke’s debut novel, Broughtupsy, a young woman, Akúa, whose family has been unmoored and adrift since the death of her mother, is on a mission. Akúa’s father moves the family first to Texas, then to Vancouver, but Akúa’s older sister, Tamika, travels back to Jamaica, leaving Akúa and their younger brother Bryson to grow up without her. When Bryson succumbs to the same illness that took their mother, Akúa takes it upon herself to return and bring his ashes to the land of his birth. What follows is a strange kind of homecoming for dead brother and living sisters. The air of Akúa’s Kingston is a hot and oppressive, rife with childhood memories, impenetrable Patois, and a constant threat of violence that exists for her as a queer person in a homophobic environment, a violence the hyper-religious Tamika makes no effort to shield her sister from. 

Cooke doesn’t hesitate to share that Akúa’s story has hard edges that don’t smooth out easily but, like the hard flesh of mango rendered soft and syrupy by repeated blows, there are sweet rewards scattered throughout. Time and place move in loops around Akúa and, as she reorients herself in a foreign place she still calls home, memories of her mother and their shared love of Louise Bennett-Coverley – a Jamaican folklorist and writer known as Miss Lou – keep her and the story grounded and remind Akúa of her wish to show her brother the beautiful place that made him. 

Cooke’s sharp and vivid language paints a heat-shimmer image of the island familiar to anyone who’s ventured beyond the resorts or called Jamaica home. Shortly before her debut, I had the privilege of speaking to Cooke online, passing messages back and forth as our conversation took shape.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Stephen Patrick Bell

Which parts of Akúa’s story came to you first? 

Christina Cooke

I’ve been asked this question before, and folks are often surprised to learn I did not write Broughtupsy in a linear fashion. Drafting did not begin with the novel’s current first chapter (that didn’t take shape until I was many years into the project) and I also didn’t start at the beginning of my protagonist Akúa’s life as a child in Jamaica. Akúa first came to me as a sweaty middle schooler – her Catholic uniform ruffled, her braids a frizzy mess – as she knelt with her classmates. She appeared before me unmoored and yearning, swirling within her memories of Jamaica as she glanced around her Texas school chapel and muttered, “Amen.”

Broughtupsy is a novel animated by the ebb and flow of time in motion, where present action takes on new richness and meaning by the shards of memory it is juxtaposed against. This organizing principle arose organically while drafting the first middle school section: in order to create a satisfying readerly experience, I found myself infusing the tumult of Akúa’s past to give context and meaning to the fraught stasis of her present. 

So I suppose, to answer your question more plainly, the part of Akúa that came to me first was this back-and-forthness, this interweaving of remembered time with chronological time as the primary vehicle through which Akúa’s story could be accessed and understood.

Stephen Patrick Bell

How involved were you in the design of the cover? A quick Google image search of “Jamaica” brought up mostly images of beaches and resorts, but the image on the cover of Broughtupsy has no water, only mountains and clouds with trees in the foreground – an image I find more familiar. Was it a choice on your part to avoid looking at the island through a tourist’s eye?

Christina Cooke

When I first discussed my cover preferences with Catapult, I told my team point blank: “No beaches. No palm trees. No sunsets. No shirtless Black children running through rough streets.” To those who’ve read my novel, that probably sounds like a confusing and maybe unfair proclamation: Broughtupsy includes a few scenes at beaches with fluttering palm trees as well as shirtless Jamaican children running amuck. But when we speak of covers, we’re talking about the first impression the reader gets of your work – their first indication of the story to come. 

I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’ll permit me to speak broadly for a moment: Broughtupsy is not a happy book. It will not fill you with the feel-good sensation of watching still blue waters reflect warm sunlight across the rippled surface of a white sand beach. Broughtupsy delves deep into the harrowing complexities of grief and girlhood and homophobia and the frictions they cause within a family. It is a novel filled with lush descriptions of Kingston living, but it is also exacting (I hope) in its emotional excavations of sisterly resentment and cultural loss. For this sort of story, a cover depicting a sun-drenched resort simply wouldn’t do.

I’m grateful to my team at Catapult for being such thoughtful and enthusiastic collaborators in creating Broughtupsy’s stunning cover design. They completely understood my impulses to avoid anything that invoked beach vacation or third world poverty porn. They even let me select the main image that’s on the dust jacket right now, which is a photo I adore of the mountains just outside of Kingston. 

Recently I’ve had a few Jamaicans look at the cover then say, “Is where dis? Trelawny?” Every time I’ll smile and say nothing, simply happy in the knowledge that for Jamaicans on the island and of the diaspora, Broughtupsy’s cover looks like home.

Stephen Patrick Bell

Broughtupsy certainly does feel like a facet of home to me, from the cover to the title, a word I’ve never heard spoken by non-Jamaicans.

Christina Cooke

I know many Trinidadians who would object to Jamaicans laying exclusive claim to “broughtupsy” 

Stephen Patrick Bell

Okay fine, Trinidadian erasure stops here. But, seeing it in the upcoming publication lineup, Broughtupsy felt like a private joke. I wonder what kinds of feedback you got on the title and if you were discouraged from putting Patois on the cover.

Christina Cooke

Quite the opposite! My agent Monika [Woods], who’s Polish-American, encouraged me to lean into the singularity of having a patois title. My publisher Catapult was similarly enthusiastic.

Stephen Patrick Bell

At what point, if any, in your process did the idea of a “market” or an audience enter your mind?

Christina Cooke

I hate this question ― not because it’s a bad question, but because I never know how to answer it. 

So what I’ll say upfront is that I am a novelist, not a diarist. I write to be published; I do not write for myself. But when my publishing team asked me to describe Broughtupsy’s ideal reader to help shape their outreach, I found myself at a loss of what to say. 

Market dictates would suggest that the ideal reader for my novel would be someone who mirrors the novel’s themes and cultural categories: young Black women and/or Afro-Caribbean immigrants who’re grappling with questions of queerness and belonging alongside whatever familial frictions have wounded them deep. Don’t get me wrong, I have great esteem for these readers. I can only hope I become so lucky as for my book to end up in their hands. But to say Broughtupsy is aimed at them and only them feels reductive, a bit superficial ― even downright wrong. 

Take my own reading tastes, for instance. I’m a Black, female, genderqueer, Afro-Caribbean immigrant, and one of my favorite writers is Anne Carson. I love how smart and weird she is, how she manipulates language in such marvelous ways to make us view the ordinary with wonder and depth and reverence. I’d venture to guess that if you were to pose this same question to Ms. Carson, whatever response she gave would probably be exclusive of anyone bearing any resemblance to me (if she were to respond at all).

My point is this: while drafting, I did not carry a picture of an ideal reader in my head. I had no idea what they look like (and I still don’t), or what they would want from my work. All I carried was a commitment to meeting readers who lead with curiosity: readers who find themselves drawn to the why just as much as the what happens next; readers eager to have their perspective on the world burst open and ravaged, whether that’s out of understanding or empathy or because they see themselves reflected. To use a phrase from the modern parlance: when I think of Broughtupsy’s ideal reader, there’s definitely a distinctive ~*vibe*~, but as for discrete markets? Hmm.

Stephen Patrick Bell

Your characters are often in transit, moving from one place to another. But you cleverly make these people in motion feel trapped in small spaces with one another, you force them, while moving, to sit long enough to force conversations they’ve been avoiding. What was your thought process around getting your characters – and I think all the adult members of Akúa’s family would prefer to do than think or speak – into situations where they have an opportunity to communicate with each other?

Christina Cooke

See Also

When I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I took an eight-week intensive course with Yiyin Li. I was a terrible student. I only read about half the assigned reading and often interrupted to ask obnoxious questions during her lectures. I don’t know why she was so generous towards me – but she was, as she gave me probably the most important piece of writing advice that aided Broughtupsy’s central tensions in rising to the fore.

As part of the course, each student was permitted to submit up to 50 double-spaced pages of their work-in-progress for Yiyun’s feedback. I submitted 120 pages (obnoxious, remember?). To my surprise, she read them all. When it was my turn to meet with her about my work, she asked me why I kept limiting my novel’s drama to one-on-one interactions: person A talking to person B about the thing person B keeps doing that makes person A upset. I couldn’t answer. Yiyun sighed then commended my strong use of language, but said the scenes were ultimately boring. 

“One to one is simple,” she said, “though I know that’s easier for the writer to manage. One-to-two or one-to-one-about-two is messy – but messy is what makes for good story. Person A and person B may be the ones talking, but the heat of the scene lies in what they are or aren’t saying about person C.”

She was right. While redrafting, I realized that putting my characters in enclosed means of motion had a two-fold benefit for the novel: it kept the action of the story moving forward, while providing a crucible that could antagonize these fiercely defended people into wrangling with the hurts that keep them apart. This claustrophobic pressure is a key part of the propulsive engine of Broughtupsy.

Stephen Patrick Bell

Miss Lou was instrumental in the recognition of Jamaican folklore and Jamaican Patois as a unique literary tradition. In the book she is also a formative touchstone for Akúa, tying her to her mother, her childhood, and the island of her birth. Even before the present discourse around the importance of diversity in representation became commonplace, Miss Lou’s work frequently featured and centered on experiences in which a Jamaican reader could see themselves as part of the wider world. Jamaicans do tend to be trendsetters, after all 😉 Do you feel your book carries on a bit of this legacy, casting more light on a population that exists in Jamaica and the diaspora that hasn’t been represented often?

Christina Cooke

It was my express goal to carry forward Miss Lou’s legacy through Broughtupsy. I’ve always loved the theatricality of her presence, the sing-song lilt of her words. Everything she says – both in print and out loud – feels to me like both a wink and an education, a roiling inside joke and an audacious proclamation of Jamaican selfhood against the pressures of the world. 

If you’ll indulge me as I take us on an academic tangent: a major and recurring feature of Miss Lou’s work is the fabled figure of Anancy, a wily trickster who is often depicted as half-spider and half-man. To me, this two-ness of Miss Lou’s Anancy offers an intriguing window into the duality of the Jamaican disposition: we are West African, but not; British, but not; an amalgamation of discordant cultures transformed into something transcendent and entirely our own. In this way, Miss Lou’s legacy is partly an invocation to resist hegemonic order and embrace the richness afforded by the in-between. So what better vehicle to express the kaleidoscopic perspective of my protagonist Akúa who is of the island, but not; wholly Jamaican but deeply queer, two facts that historically have not sat in easy association.

My goal in casting Miss Lou as the throughline of Akúa’s coming to consciousness is to not only further the literary traditions of Jamaican folklore and patois, but to also depict the ways in which girlhood, queerness, migration, and family can form a cultural pastiche that is raucously our own. After all, Jamaica’s national motto is, “Out of many, one people.” Out of many. Through Miss Lou, Broughtupsy’s readers will hopefully see queerness not as something alien and separate from us but as at home in Jamaica as ackee and saltfish or rice and peas.

Stephen Patrick Bell

Speaking of differences between each of the places Akúa has lived, we see her experience discrimination for various reasons most of which are, sadly, unsurprising. One of the more painful rejections she experiences comes from African Americans in Texas who see her as an outsider despite their shared status as Black people in a nation with a history of hostility towards them. After her return to Jamaica, where do you think Akúa feels most at home?

Christina Cooke

This question encapsulates the central narrative undertow of Broughtupsy – so if you’ll permit me, I’m going to refrain from answering your question outright. “Home” is such a sticky and fickle and complicated idea, especially in our ever-increasingly transnational world. If I’ve done my job correctly, the question you’ve posed is what the reader will hopefully turn over in their minds after they’ve read Broughtupsy’s closing lines and slipped the book back onto the shelf.

But what I will speak to is the scene you referenced of Akúa’s seeming rejection by the African-Americans she encounters in Texas. To which I wonder: did they really reject her? Or could it be that she was searching for a kind of solace that they, as non-Jamaicans, could not provide? 

As a Jamaican immigrant, I am in awe of yet somewhat baffled by this catch-all umbrella of “Black,” that over 7 billion people spread across 50+ nations are all supposed to share a sense of sameness due to the hue of our skin. It’s beautiful to think there’s something intrinsic that connects us all – but as any Black person will tell you, that truth is partial at best. Being Nigerian is culturally distinct from being Somalian or Jamaican or indeed African-American – and it is this crucial qualifier, culturally, that I find often gets glossed over in broader conversations. 

To be sure, there are multiple historical overlaps between Black peoples the world over, but culture – as Broughtupsy attempts to make clear – absolutely must be reckoned with. Put another way: it seems true that we define ourselves first in terms of who we are, not in terms of who has hurt us. As such, what might be meant as a friendly barb by African-Americans feels like a mean thorn to a Jamaican immigrant like Akúa. These are the differences in culture within Blackness that Broughtupsy attempts to grapple with and bring to the fore.

By Christina Cooke
Published January 23, 2024


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