16. Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

Published in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press.

“God, that’s sexy as hell.”

This is what I thought as I sat in the audience of the Paper Based bookshop at the Hotel Normandie, a fortnight shy of one year ago, listening to Anton Nimblett read from the titular offering of his short story collection, in which the narrator shares a highly unusual post-haircut pleasure at his stand-in barber’s basement. I know the oft-deceptive spell that a writer who reads his work well can cast, though, so I purposed to find out whether or not, frankly, the sex was sustained as convincingly on paper as it was in person. I was not disappointed.

There are eleven stories in Sections of an Orange, some of which are connected by the same characters, telling different sides of the same, or different, tales.  In “Visiting Soldiers”, we confront the peculiarities of a quietly devastating loss, as we learn exactly what one bereaved mother carries in her purse. We nod in agreement at the description of the busybody neighbour in “Into My Parlour”, who feeds on gossip and forces doubt, with one well-timed suggestion. “On the Side” swerves between dual expositions: a gory car accident and the bonds of food and familiarity that link the two men entangled in it. “Time and Tide” traces the retreat of one of those men to Trinidad, where he allows himself to trade past hurt for the present of easy talk on Maracas beach, and the very definition of one pleasant surprise. In “Just Now”, we learn that there’s more to that pleasant surprise than a body that blesses a crisp white shirt with a bit extra beauty—we meet his wife, and the everyday voodoo love that anchors him happily to her side. We attempt not to cry at the miracle that dwells in the simple gift of “Marjory’s Meal”. “How Far, How Long” has us shake hands with Ray, and his man… and his other man, and how they’re all simultaneously incredible, but not quite enough. “Sections of an Orange” juxtaposes snippets of a hit-and-run news brief with one of the most tantalizing trips to the barber ever recorded. That barber, a misunderstood creative close to implosion, seals his fate with a trip to Van Cleef and Arpels, in “Ring Games”. In case we’d forgotten, we’re reminded  of the soothing balm avoidance can bestow, when we read what one good woman does for love in “Mr. Parker’s Behaviour”. The collection closes with the heart-thudding narrative of a man who’s best recognized for everyone, and everything, he isn’t, in “One, Two, Three – Push”.

A familiarity of place, persona and situation abounds in these tales of Trinidad and New York, but I have found that it takes more than mere recognition in fiction to make the writing sizzle. Thankfully, the familiarity in Sections of an Orange is partnered with both subtle and audacious (but never mawkish) wit and whimsy. I could not imagine saying to Nimblett, “You, sir, are out of touch.” Nimblett knows. He writes with the voice of a writer who sees, who spends a lot of time, maybe all the time, looking. Listening. Feeding off the vibe of strangers and best-beloveds alike—and if that sounds malicious, then it ought to be asserted that eavesdropping, observation and a good old Trini maco are the polished trade-tools with which the hottest literature is churned out.

I like the unpredictability of this collection, the way that the oeuvre defies pigeonholing with no mean spirit. You might watch the cover of the novel and instantly formulate your best-intentioned prejudices, but the writing will smack you on the cheek, whisper archly, “So yuh thought I was a book of gay stories, eh? Well, yuh damn wrong…”, but even this revelation is not cruel in the way it caresses your senses. Yes, within these pages are the travails and the merriments, the hassle and hustle and delight of men who love men, but to say that this encapsulates the work Nimblett has done is poor praise, if it can be called that. Yes, the work provides a fresh, relevant point of access to disenfranchised gay Trinidadian and Caribbean men. It also treats with grieving mothers, with the weight of suspicion surrounding non-heteronormative behaviour both home and away. It peers into the isolation experience, the journeys of Trinidadians to the United States, the sense of community away from the island hearth, and the voices of remarkable people as they plot their place in a society that does not share their several secret languages. There would be no shame, I think, if Sections of an Orange were a book devoted solely to the queer masculine perspective of the Trinidadian-American citizen, but the wealth of its multivalent concerns pre-empts that, soundly.

Readers, I am hunting for a quote from these pages, from any of these eleven productions in loss, longing, hunger, and the cry of the fettered Self, and yet… I find that I want to present entire pages of prose, instead. The passage that describes the magicked yet terrestrially gritty encounter between barber Glen and our unnamed narrator, who is given the honorific of “Chocolate Man” by the former, is lip-bitingly potent.

The two men succumb to the allure of fresh fruit in their pageantry of lovemaking:

“This time he grabs a section of the orange, holds it six inches in front of my face, and steadying himself with one hand right next to me, he squeezes with the other hand. Juice falls through the air, hitting my chest, pooling at the centre and trickling down my belly. He waves his hand around, still squeezing, so that juice hits my face and shoulders, collecting in the hollow at my collarbone and forming a liquid necklace at my throat. His eyes follow the movement of his hand, a hand that seems to follow the orange, tracing some deliberate pattern that only he knows. His fingers, smooth dark peninsulas that end in crowns of perfect pink nail, are wet now, and I want him to touch me.”

(from “Sections of an Orange”)

Landscape is just as vividly rendered—we feel that we are walking with the tormented Push as he struggles towards claiming his identity, as he paces the city streets.

“A thin breeze greets Push in the Brooklyn night — cooler than earlier. Red Hook buildings carve skeletons against an indigo sky, like dinosaur exhibits in a museum after hours. Telephone wires sag from wood poles, recalling yesterdays. Uneven cobblestone patches poke history through asphalt streets.”

(from “One, Two, Three – Push”)

When landscape and character meld so seamlessly, finessed with the talent of subtle strokes, we can read lines like these, wherein a man surrenders himself to the grief of an inevitable loss, in the midst of preparing a tribute that rivals coffers of precious metals.

“The tears came drop by drop, pooling until they flowed, and flowing more and more until they bloomed into sound — one low, deep sob and then another and another, until his body was shaking. Then he had to set the knife down as he crumbled from his middle, folding at the gut and catching his head in his hands. There, with the breeze still gently stirring the leaves, with the birds still singing sweetly and the waves still lapping on the shore, he cried alone.”

(from “Marjory’s Meal”)

You could shelve this book with your queer literature anthologies, sure, but I daresay your hand would hesitate. You’d look across at your trove of Caribbean lit., of course, and glance meaningfully at your American contemporary fiction, almost as if in reflex motion. Let’s not even think about that cross-section of diaspora writing you’ve accumulated over the years, or your favourite social commentary-related writing… or, in fact, let’s. Perhaps, in the end, you’ll  file Sections of an Orange with the books that best remind you of home, the books by which, if you have allowed yourself to live, you can shake your head at your own damn foolishness, swallow a lump of pride at your better intentions, smile and remember all the inventions of mind and heart you pioneered, for love.

The author discusses his work, influences and his indebtedness to a sense of community in the article Anton Nimblett Responds, at The Signifyin’ Woman’s review site, here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

21 thoughts on “16. Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

    1. Thank you, my dear reviewing colleague 🙂 from you, I count that as blushworthy praise, indeed. I just spied your review of ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’, so I’m going to have a proper read of that soon, with a cup of tea in hand!

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  1. Beautifully written review! I’m going to have to see if they have this one in my library. Because if it’s 1/2 as poetic as the writing you’ve done to convey it, it’s gonna be a DAMN good book!

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    1. Thank you kindly, Amber! I would be very interested in knowing if your local library has a copy of this — actually, is there much of a representation of Caribbean literature on the shelves there, from what you’ve seen?

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      1. I’ll take a look when we go on Saturday. I can’t say I’ve seen a lot, but I also haven’t looked. (I know, bad me! :)) I’ll let you know what I find.

        Completely off topic, I just awarded you the Versatile Blogger Award. I’m not sure if you’ve received one before, or if you’re even familiar with it. But you can check out what I wrote about your blog and see the award over on my blog post: Someone Really Likes Me! (I hate spamming, and this kind of feels like it, but I really wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog!)

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  2. Pingback: Caribbean Writers Challenge 2011 @BaffledBooks | Novel Niche: A Place for Books

  3. A wonderful review indeed…whose the author you or Antone Nimblett? You did an excellent job reviewing the book, you sold me. I have to read it!

    I love your blog and your beautiful writing style.

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    1. Thank you, Stacey, for reaching out to read and comment — as a book reviewer who strives to be truly engaged in a discussion with my readers, I thrive on comments! Thank you also for subscribing — I look forward to many more exchanges with you about books and the pleasure of reading them. 🙂

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  4. Shivanee! Wow! What a beautifully written review! If the book comes anywhere near worthy of your praise then I must find a copy lol. It really does sound like a fantastic collection. Thanks for this wonderful suggestion! 😀

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    1. Yay, Lisa! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I look forward to your eventual thoughts on it, too. Coming across your Caribbean Reading challenge really was a treasure — I’m having a lot of fun with this project, and expanding my awareness of regional literature. The benefits are proving to be numerous!

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      1. You are doing much better than I am lol! I’m three books behind at the moment… I’m hoping in summer I’ll be able to catch up! 😀

        I’m so glad you found it too, I love seeing what you read, you always come up with such interesting books! 😀

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  5. Gorgeous and refreshing review. I am blown away by the quotes you chose. I was wondering if I’d like to read this book when you began describing it but there was no need to wonder after reading the excerpts. Thanks so much for linking up on my page. I so look forward to reading more from you.

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    1. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts on this review, Lah! You’re very welcome for the link on your article about varied book review blogging. I was glad to read and comment on it, since it’s a subject that’s dear to my own heart. I also look forward to keeping up to date with your reviews!

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  6. Almah

    How I love how you make love to the books you review…and this voluptuous volume seems to respond in kind, arching to meet your appreciative literary touch. Any author should be so lucky as to have his/her book so well-caressed.

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    1. Almah, my dear, were you spying on me while I read Mr. Nimblett’s fine prose? 😉 (I feel I ought to add that I would not have minded in the slightest, if you were.) Interestingly enough, or perhaps in the purely natural sequence of things, reading Anton Nimblett has made me desire to read Thomas Glave. Both ‘The Torturer’s Wife’ and ‘Our Caribbean’ are leaping out at me! I shall answer the call as soon as I can.

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  7. So while I’m completely biased, I agree that Shivanee did a great job with the review. As a note, for folks in T&T who want to get a copy, it’s available at Nigel Khan’s and Paperbased Books. In the US, UK, Canada it’s at all the big online book sellers.

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