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Seven months have now passed since I first posted about life during the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time in May, more than 67,000 of our loved ones were taken from us. With our collaboration, this formidable foe continues to contaminate, maim, and kill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as at December 5, 2020, a total of 277,825 Americans have lost their lives. Their grieving families are devastated.

Here in California, America’s most populous state, we now rank in top place with more than 1.2 million infected individuals. Over 19,400 people have died. A recent surge in new infections have heightened the threat. In just 24 hours last week, 18,591 people were infected. COVID-19 does not suffer from battle fatigue. Our weapon to counter this coronavirus will soon be deployed. Relief is on the horizon, but, until then, we must counter its rapid spread.

Concerned that our hospitals would be overwhelmed, putting more lives at risk, Governor Gavin Newsom announced on December 3rd a Regional Stay at Home Order, to take effect on December 5th. Another three weeks! Severity of the lock-down will depend about the capacity of Intensive Care Units (ICU) in each region. On Friday, ICU capacity in Southern California dropped to 13.1 percent.

“By invoking a Stay at Home Order for regions where ICU capacity falls below 15 percent,” said Governor Newsom, “we can flatten the curve as we’ve done before and reduce stress on our health care system…. If we stay home as much as possible, and wear masks when we have to go to the doctor, shop for groceries or go for a hike, California can come out of this in a way that saves lives and puts us on a path toward economic recovery.”

The situation is bleak in Los Angeles County where I live. Based on data released by the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department, we have 417,890 confirmed cases and 7,468 deaths as at December 4, 2020. The day before Governor Newsom made his disheartening announcement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had already issued a Target Stay at Home Order under the City of Los Angeles Emergency Authority, effective immediately. There goes my plans to get some Christmas shopping done at my favorite retail store.

“Our City is now close to a devastating tipping point,” Mayor Garcetti said, “beyond which the number of hospitalized patients would start to overwhelm our hospital system, in turn risking needless suffering and death.”

This prolonged isolation and social distancing have had their own adverse side effects on my creative writing output. Since opportunities of hand selling books have dried up, I shelved plans for the publication of my second novel until 2021. Thanks to my writers’ critique group—the four of us meet once a month by phone—I continue plodding ahead with just one chapter a month for my third book. The research process keeps me engaged and adds structure to the book. Gardening on the weekends keeps me sane.

Through it all, there was one high note. In April, I mailed a copy of Under the Tamarind Tree: A Novel with my entry form and payment fee to the 28th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards 2021. While I did not expect to win the grand prize of $8,000 and more, I had hoped to secure a top place in my category of mainstream/literary fiction. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! As expected, the competition was fierce. In an email received in October about the results of over 1,800 entries, the Writer’s Digest Competitions Staff noted: “Narrowing down the winners was an extremely difficult task: the number of quality entries this year was truly impressive.”

Under the Tamarind Tree: A Novel was not selected as a winner, nor did it receive an honorable mention. So why the high note? In November, during those tense and chaotic days following our US presidential elections, I received, as a participant, a brief commentary from a judge. Books were judged on six aspects, each evaluated on a scale of one to five (my score is shown in parenthesis): Structure, Organization, and Pacing (5); Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar (5); Production Quality and Cover Design (3); Plot and Story Appeal (5); Character Appeal and Development (4); and Voice and Writing Style (5).

According to the judge, “The scores are meant only to be a gauge, and are not a cumulative score, nor are they tallied or used in ranking.” In other words, my score of 27 out of 30 meant little in the final analysis. Nevertheless, my spirits soared that day. The judge’s only complaint about Under the Tamarind Tree: A Novel was the character of Mildred, the book’s antagonist. Here’s what the judge had to say about Mildred (spoiler alert):

Mildred is not as well sketched as she might have been. In the final scene where she reveals many ugly truths, she comes off as a harpy. We do understand that her adult life was informed by the trauma she endured; nevertheless, her unyielding hatred for Richard reveals a pathology we need to know more about.

Judge, 28th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Awards 2021

I leave it to readers to decide if Mildred “comes off as a harpy.”

On the positive side, the judge is full of praise for Under the Tamarind Tree: A Novel. I am grateful and joyful for this gift.

This is an achingly beautiful book. Under the Tamarind Tree is written with the care and control of a master craftsman. Human nature is revealed to us in all its nobility and frailty. My heart breaks for Richard Cheong. He is an ordinary man trying to live in extraordinary times. His burdens are great, and they reach back and forward through the generations. Bacchus conveys the weight Cheong shoulders brilliantly. From the very beginning, we see Richard Cheong’s humanity. His aspirations, his deep love for his wife and family, his work ethic, and his respect for tradition are crystalized in the breakfast scene on pages 3-5. These descriptions of home life are vivid and lovingly drawn; they not only reveal Cheong’s humanity, but they also draw the reader into the world of the novel. In addition, Bacchus’s use of dialect gives the reader a sense of the rhythm and cadence of Guyanese Creole but neither patronizes the characters nor frustrates the reader. Indeed, the use of dialect endears the characters to me. It enhances my understanding that these characters reflect real people who take what is available to them and create a gorgeous tapestry. Bacchus paints a society that is a riot of color and a melding of cultures. The Christmas party on pages 31-36 is a good example of this. The party guests enjoy meatballs with sourie sauce, channa, Portuguese cake, chow mein, and roast pork while listening to Eddie Fisher sing Christmas carols. The guest list also reflects Guyana’s rich and layered culture. The people claim Chinese, Asian Indian, African, Portuguese, and even Scottish descent. As the tension in this book illustrates, imperial powers stole Guyana’s resources through centuries of oppression and exploitation, but Under the Tamarind Tree also teaches us that Guyana’s abiding treasure is its multiculturalism. This book is not just Richard Cheong’s story. It is an elegy for Guyana. (Both emphases are mine.)

Judge, 28th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Awards

I take this opportunity to ask you to buy a copy of Under the Tamarind Tree: A Novel. You could also add it as a Christmas gift for the readers on your list.