By Jamika Ajalon
Jamika Ajalon’s “Skye Papers” begin after things fall apart for the eponymous young hero. It’s mid-September 1992, and Skye is sitting in Washington Square Park with a notebook, trying to piece together the last year of her life in all of its confused glory, driven by lust and big mistakes.
The story goes back from there:
Skye is a high performing homosexual black child without a mother from the suburbs of St. Louis. A dropout from the University of Chicago, she travels to New York on the strength of a Greyhound connection. There she falls, fatally, with a pair of glamorous bohemians, Scottie and Pieces, who take Skye in their fold as they tumble from artist studio to squat, rave to houseboat, New York to London via Amsterdam.
Once in London, Skye (a poet), Scottie (a musician) and Pieces (a painter) formed their own small artistic movement. They resist capitalism, organize glorious raves in their Brixton squat (the “Destroyed Palace”) and enter the city’s art scene. Skye learns to shoplift, busk and make a living on pasta – in short, to make that crucial break with what the poet Fernando Pessoa once called “organized and dressed society. “
Art breeds art as these characters, inspired by the stage and each other, remix, freestyle and rhyme in their warehouse squat. The soundtrack is garage and soul, Cypress Hill, P-Funk, Nirvana; it is impossible not to feel the high touch. The utopian future is looming.
Or does he do it? Interspersed with Skye’s account are some weird moments: artificial surveillance reports, weird coincidences, apparent anachronisms that raise questions about the reliability of the narrator. A mystery – the full scope of which is only revealed in the breathtaking final section – bleeds into consciousness, a Borgesian puzzle in which we glimpse familiar events through a disembodied lens.
Meanwhile, Skye looks like a free spirit, but she has an interiority that doesn’t quite match. “I was me,” she thinks, “I grew up to be part of the 10% talent and pride, and now I was practically begging for money. Throughout the novel, she writes what another character derisively calls her “Little Black Kerouacian Adventures,” the grainy articulation of Skye’s movements, from shy notepad to open mic barnburner to the spectacular flop and the oblivious maker. “Raucous brass notes follow one another, punctuate and slide over the rhythms. Sounds of celebration cut my throat, ”Skye thinks at a rave. “I forgot that I was there with other people. Or it was as if we were one people vibrating with the same energy. There was only “us”.
Ultimately, “Skye Papers” asks: what does it mean to accept yourself as an artist while understanding how compromised you are under capitalism? If to be an artist is to be conscious, then what happens to the artist whose conscience is compromised? As Ajalon explores these questions, she repeatedly invokes other interpretations of the artist’s portrait, from “On the Road” to “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” by Audre Lorde to “The Magic Number ”by De La Soul.
“Skye Papers” may be Ajalon’s first novel, but she’s an experienced artist: a sonic slam poet, musician, multimedia artist and filmmaker with a rich catalog, evident on every page. From the rhythmic, riffling, incantatory prose to the transversal and recursive cinematic structure of the novel, to the minutiae of Skye and the daily struggles of his friends as artists, we lose ourselves in a world Ajalon renders with precision and precision. lyricism that escape its main character.
There’s one image at the start of “Skye Papers” that I keep coming back to – Skye, having decided to leave her high school boyfriend, is sitting by the lake in Chicago. She is about to throw something big, when she is distracted by two men clinging to the rocks below. “I thought about my session with Scottie in the Greyhound,” Skye writes. “I started to get ideas about New York. More impetus than project. A quick fix for a sulky heart. I am not convinced by the evaluation of the young self of Skye. Is she impulsive or is she an artist, ineffably drawn to beauty and freedom?