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Class conflicts hit home—and school

Published: 
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Inner City Girl Colleen Smith-Dennis LMH Publishing Co, 2009

A review by 

Debbie Jacob 

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. 

Soon Martina must navigate her way through lecherous men who prey on young girls in her neighbourhood, a class bully nicknamed Stone Cold who runs a gang of four and the mean-spirited children of her school with their petty sense of class. Martina must keep her mind on her subjects as well as hiding her shoes from fashion-conscious Stone Cold. 

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. 

Those problems even spill over out of school. Martina witnesses a good dose of school-related violence and chaos on the bus that she now gets to ride to school. 

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. 

It has undoubtedly been rewarded for its frank look at the challenges and conflicts children face in both the transition to their teens and those turbulent teenage years themselves. At a time when many children take their education for granted, Inner City Girl is a refreshing, serious and important look at the true meaning of education and family. 

You can find Inner City Girl in most local bookstores. 

Debbie Jacob is on the jury of the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature.

Burt Award finalists

The finalists for the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature are:

• Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh, Guyana (manuscript to be published)

• Putting Up a Resistance by Michael Cozier, T&T (self-published book)

• Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph, T&T (manuscript to be published)

• Prayer to the Motivator by Kamau Mahakoe, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)

• The Dolphin Catchers by Diana McCaulay, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)

The finalists were selected by a jury administered by the Bocas Lit Fest and made up of writers, educators, and literacy experts.

Up to $22,000 CAD in prize money will be awarded to up to three winners, who will be announced at a gala on May 1, during the 2015 NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

As part of the prize, its sponsor CODE will ensure winning manuscripts will be published by a Caribbean publisher.

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