We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Christina Cooke, the talented author behind the enthralling debut novel, Broughtupsy. In our conversation, we delved into the poignant world she has created, exploring the themes of grief, identity, and the quest for belonging that permeate the narrative of her novel. Broughtupsy follows the poignant journey of twenty-year-old Akúa, a young Jamaican woman grappling with the profound loss of her younger brother while navigating the complexities of her cultural identity. As she carries her brother’s remains in a small wooden box, Akúa embarks on a soul-stirring pilgrimage to reconnect with her estranged sister Tamika, seeking to mend the fragments of her fractured family.
During our interview, Christina delved into the multifaceted layers of Akúa’s story, highlighting the poignant exploration of diasporic identity, the complexities of familial bonds, and the struggle to reconcile one’s cultural heritage with the realities of living abroad. We explored Akúa’s profound questions of self-identity, from grappling with the loss of her cultural roots to confronting the challenges of being a gay woman in a deeply religious Jamaican society.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing a novel that explores themes of family and identity?
The most challenging aspect by far was exploring these themes without feeling beholden to the ideas of family and identity that order my everyday. In other words, I had to grant myself the freedom necessary to go wherever my imagination needed to go without fear that my own family would feel indicted by what I portrayed on the page, or that readers would mistake my protagonist Akúa’s exploration of identity as my own. It was a struggle at first. Creating this necessary barrier between my personal and writerly selves did not come easy.
Ultimately, the fix for this problem came down to two things. First, I needed to ground myself in the understanding that I do not come from a family of fools; they have enough sense to know what is true and what is make-believe. Second, I needed to learn how to trust my readers – meaning, I came to trust that they would approach Broughtupsy with enough discernment to understand that “author” and “narrator” are not the same thing.
How did you approach writing the character of Akua, and what inspired you to create her?
For better or worse I am a character-driven writer, meaning I have to be profoundly moved by some central aspect of the protagonist – the main vehicle for my storytelling – before I can begin to write.
So long before I crafted Broughtupsy’s plot, before I assembled the mother, brother, and estranged sisters that constitute the novel’s fraught family, and before I even decided on “Akúa” as my protagonist’s name – I had a feeling. I had an intuitive understanding of what kind of person she is – nostalgic, unmoored, yearning – and that she’s casting about, searching for a way to quell the storm inside her sense of self.
Where did that feeling come from? Who can say? If I’m honest, there’s a part of me that’s afraid to look too closely for fear the magic might go away.
What was the most difficult scene for you to write?
Ugh, the sex scenes. Sex is such a loaded and unwieldy type of intimacy; it’s emotional and physical and something else entirely that feels a little impossible to fully define. In stories, it’s so easy for sex to come off as flat or gimmicky or as a cheap thrill – and in fact, that’s exactly how the early drafts of Broughtupsy’s sex scenes read to me.
What eventually gave those moments depth and resonance was when I stopped focusing on the sexual act itself and instead focused on what the act was trying to express. Was it an expression of longing? Of frustration? Of wanting to claim or be claimed? Leaning into these undercurrents is what broke the dam and made the sex scenes feel round and real.
What was your favourite scene to write?
The first flashback scene, when Akúa is nine and is sitting on her bed with her hands pressed against the bedroom window. She’s sitting with her eyes closed, reciting from memory all that lies beyond.
I don’t know why I’m so charmed by that scene. There’s something about the atmospheric quality of the sensory detail, the way the descriptions of Kingston marry so perfectly with the boisterous declarations from Miss Lou, that caused it to be lodged forever in my head and heart. Chirp of tree frogs floating sonorous… It’s the only part of the novel I can recite at a moment’s notice without ever having to glance at the page.
What’s your favourite thing to do when visiting Jamaica? Favourite spot to hang? Favourite food?
Honestly, my favourite thing to do whenever I go home is hanging out with aunts and cousins. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Half of my family still lives in Jamaica – and happily so; they have no intentions of leaving. I love going back and rounding them all up to spend a weekend at Goblin Hill or Treasure Beach. It’s a nice break for them and a wonderful reminder for me of who I come from and how that made me into who I am today.
My favourite food by far is Juici patties – beef, of course, the original and the best. Mothers patties are too doughy, Tastee patties are a sad Juici imitation, and Devon House patties are a complete and utter abomination. I said what I said.
What can readers expect from you in the future?
God-willing, readers can expect more novels, more essays, and more insightful explorations of who we are and what we want – as told from a Jamaican and immigrant lens.