“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro

Inspired by Buried in Print‘s indepth and illuminating story-by-story analysis of Alice Munro’s collections, I’ve decided to read Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman (1998, McClelland & Stewart) in same spirit of individual story appreciation, delight and scrutiny. I’m beginning with the first (and titular) story of the collection, “The Love of a Good Woman”.

This is how my introduction to the world of Alice Munro’s writing begins – with a drowning. A man, an optometrist named D.M. Willens, loses his life to the Peregrine River in 1951. The reader learns this through the object that opens “The Love of a Good Woman”: a red box of optometrist’s tools, which contains, among other things, an ophthalmoscope.

Munro wields this object with dual stylistic purpose – in her deft hands, it is both a promontory and a point of multiple divergences. We are allowed to trace the history of the ophthalmoscope backwards through time, to the quiet, sturdy town of Walley (in whose museum of quaint domesticities the device is housed). We get to breathe Walley in; we’re allowed to take its unremarkable temperature. We peer into the lives of three boys who, while surveying their riverbank domain, happen upon Willens’ car, buried in pond mud like a light blue absurdity. We stay with each lad awhile, privy to the small and considerable distresses and merriments of their lives, until they tell Walley that the optometrist has drowned.

Time passes. The boys grow up, and Willens’ death becomes part of Walley’s remembered history. We meet and spend time with a woman who is admonished by her mother for throwing herself towards sainthood. She’s called Enid, and she is tending to Mrs. Quinn, who is dying of a rare illness whose symptoms are both grotesque and medically fascinating. On her deathbed, trapped in the resentment of her prolonged, focused misery, Mrs. Quinn contains secrets. When she shares one of them with Enid, certain things once held as true begin to fray, threatening to dredge up old drownings with new, sharp interrogations.

Majestic flourishes of language don’t typify how Munro tells this story. It’s more like the language is majestically suited to a series of nimble purposes. She captures the impetuous shock (and its robust aftermath) that goosepimples the skin of the boys, who dive into the Peregrine:

“So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.”

Alice Munro, it turns out, is like this stealth rogue who shivs you with at least ten difficult-to-name emotions when you weren’t even expecting to feel your heartbeat race. A full repertoire of individual sorrows and contemplations, plus the collective memory of a town that’s no quieter than its ghosts are silent and well-mannered, resides in this telling. There’s the consideration of all these lives from multiple, age-tiered perspectives. Munro feeds us slices of devil-may-care, boyish bravado, and injects us with doses of a nurse’s calm equanimity; she does both while winning our absolute belief that she keenly sees each person we meet in her pages.

The writer shows us that the boys aren’t just brash; they’re also beset by varying degrees of domestic trauma, over which they may or may not feel duly traumatized. She peels away the nurse’s graceful routine by night, summoning up for her a host of sleepless hours, and private agonies over choosing what’s right, what’s useful, what future might be hers based on speaking, or else saying nothing at all.

“The Love of a Good Woman” ends as so much of it is conducted, with quietness blanketing one’s orbit, while the world continues its indifferent geographical circuitry. There is no easy way to know how Enid will fare, at the story’s close – what is clear is that she won’t end. The ambit of her drama will continue to lope, and loop; one feels intensely that her life is happening to her even now, while dinners are being made in the real world, while blog posts are being written. She is the real world, Alice Munro tells us, and her life is just about as unremarkable and miraculous as any of ours, whether we are helping someone breathe, or watching them falter, seeing them sink with other secrets to the lake’s still bed.

Here’s Buried in Print’s incisive analysis of “The Love of a Good Woman”. Next up, I’ll be discussing the collection’s second story, “Jakarta”.

33. Near Open Water by Keith Jardim

Published in 2011 by Peepal Tree Press.

Longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

You should never underestimate good short fiction, I thought, dragging the back of my hand across my stinging eyes. I had just read the first story, called “In The Atlantic Field” of Keith Jardim’s collection, and already, just like that, the serenity of my day had been stolen. I put the book down, took decisive steps away from it. I walked around the house, and when I returned to the book, it was with mild resentment (the good kind), mixed with greater parts curiosity and the salted wound of unscripted emotional response. I read on.

The twelve stories in Near Open Water invite our considerations (and yes, our tears, too) on loss and excess, each one set or linked closely to a vast body of water. In “In The Atlantic Field”, a young boy and his mother go for a longer-than-usual drive along the north coast road. Nicolas meets a beautiful young woman and learns both less, and more, than he wants to know in “The Marches of Blue.” “The Visitors” who come to Trevor’s father’s house are intent on finding something to satisfy their motivations. In “The White People Maid”, Cynthia meets a legendary figure after witnessing a gruesome pharmacy robbery. A man and a woman play with dangerous intimacies before a wild beast’s enclosure, in “In the Cage.” Complacent Gene and frustrated Anna travel to Georgetown by Essequibian boat in “A Landscape Far From Home.” “Caribbean Honeymoon” tells the story of quite a different couple on quite a different, crueller journey. Nello, the narrator of “Fire in the City”, muses on the directions his own life has taken. A man takes a drive whose destination seems both grim and unclear, in “Kanaima, Late Afternoon”. Roy and Fiona visit the zoo’s most regal occupant, learning more about its origins from an eccentric source in “The Jaguar”. “Night Rain” tells a seemingly-bare story of a man who visits a woman in bed. The collection concludes with its titular piece, “Near Open Water”, in which a journal is kept, a dream is had, and more than one frightful thing is embedded into a consciousness, for good (or not so good).

Perhaps some of these descriptions strike one as would blurry, indistinct landscape art, the sort that adorns dental waiting rooms. If there is vagueness in the detailing here, it is because detail can linger where you least expect it in Jardim’s work. Neither the reader nor the narrator can be guaranteed of any answers that will illuminate. In “The Marches of Blue”, after a string of seemingly-unconnected encounters with other islanders, Nicolas turns to his severe grandmother for the mapping-lines that will make sense of their stories, receiving further uncertainty for his pains. What she does share is coloured in with a kind of resigned, tranquil bitterness.

“His grandmother said: “The sweetness of the very young, to think that. But age dries up things in you, even poetry, like this damned island. Damned because everything that has ever happened here over the last five hundred years was never meant to happen, was a mistake, wrong. […] I’m an old woman now, and I don’t want to drag up the past. It’s too tiresome. I want to tend my garden and die in peace.”

With uncertain provenance, guided by ambitious and destructive historical sculptors, how can any path we reasonably take in Caribbean waters seem straightforward? In this way, the stories interrogate a time that perhaps has always been marred by fracture, split on more fault lines than lends comfort.

There is a certain savagery to unchecked human appetite, to the places it can lead. In these stories, personal pleasures are pursued recklessly, consequence a distant island blurring out of focus. “Total madness” is the way Nello describes a club scene in “Fire in the City”, adding “like people only want to dance their life away. Not just the night, eh. Their whole fockin’ life. And to hell with the damn island.” Some characters are barely bemused by the curious, inelegant politics that govern survival. Roy explains to Fiona, when she presses him for a detail he is either unwilling or unable to provide, that “The rumours are there. This place is loaded with them. It’s a way of life here. How can people not make assumptions? It’s how the island amuses itself…”. For others, like the young writer in “Near Open Water”, the pursuit of a contemplative interior life, set against a vivid natural backdrop, can mask the fear of things committed towards violent ends, things guessed at and unknown. He tries to keep a journal against such thoughts, but a voice  both cautionary and seductive encroaches on his pages, with dire warnings that hint at his fate.

“This matter of fate, and the uneasy part of yourself – you leave it abruptly. No reflection whatever; you told me that’s dangerous, that’s what’s wrong with the world – the neglect of history, and of selves, even. And here you are, guilty of it, refusing to take your own advice. Or is it the melancholy the sea brings to most of us? […] It seems an act of destruction has begun…”

In spite of this questionable interpersonal canvas, the land and water offer, if not outright solutions, then a measure of solace, of feeling oneself linked to something other than a daily gamble with rigged odds. Jardim’s prose reveals the places we inhabit in stunning, achingly grateful ways. The young boy who frolicks on the north coast littoral in “In The Atlantic Field” experiences a suspended moment of raw glory.

“He’s in the haze, happy in the light. The wet rocks are dark and glinting. He throws the spear at them; it breaks in two and falls into the bright surf. Among the rocks there is one with a smooth, triangular slate surface angling at him. He finds a quartz-crystal stone and begins writing the words: I am the first person here.”

Unfettered love for the land and its non-bipedal citizens grants us access to people who cherish existence differently, operating off the grid in quirkily reassuring ways. The itinerant, multi-wristwatched Dr. Edric Traboulay, who favours Roy and Fiona with smatterings of his wit, vast knowledge and naturist’s sympathies, reminds us that the truest names for jaguars, even caged ones, aren’t the cutesy handles affixed to official signposts. The verdant thickets indigenous to islands; the mangrove’s mystery; the sea’s brutal, tender refrain: all are suggestions on how we might live, or alter our living. The dearth of characters like Traboulay suggests that we are immune, or too far removed, to hear or respond authentically.

This is the thing about painful literature: it hurts. Revelations in print rest uneasily, many of them because they are less revelations and more revolving doors smacking us in the face with more truth than we like. It makes reading Jardim essential, rewardingly thorny: here are vistas framed by separate seas, converging. For those willing to explore, there are reminders of beauty, even levity, in the muck: rambling zoologists; feisty domestic workers resisting kleptomanic labels; bliss, at finding the perfect north coast road to unmoor what remains of a distant, faintly shimmering life.

Duane Allicock’s Thoughts on The Man Who Ran Away by Alfred H. Mendes

Published in 2006 by The University of the West Indies Press. Edited by Michèle Levy.

While reading this short story collection, I couldn’t help but come away with the sense that, had Alfred Mendes existed during a time without such fierce intellectual competition, his name and talent would have stood a greater chance of being sufficiently acknowledged and lauded. Alas, coming of age and into your own in a period when you occupied the same space with a figure such as C. L. R. James, all but guaranteed that you would always be relegated to the shadows cast by the glare which reflected off that West Indian luminary.

Include the names of a few other younger, but very promising authors, such as Lamming, Naipaul and even Selvon, who would eventually become internationally acclaimed, and you begin to realize why the name Alfred H. Mendes continues to receive honourable, but never effusive mention in the West Indian canon. Which is a shame, because what was discovered while reviewing the work of this Trinidadian writer of Portuguese descent, is that the man not only crafted eloquent literature, but articulate West Indian literature. In the end, there’s just that indefinable ‘something’ that results in some brands becoming ubiquitous, while causing others to remain so obscure, that when you do mention them, people get that ‘eureka moment’ and mutter, “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that…”

Like many authors of his generation, Mendes continued to mine a timeframe during an era about which he felt passionate, and for him, the tales told remained rooted in the decades of the 1920s and 30s, a preference which is of such great significance, that it is included in the work’s title. The title story is the first in the collection, and sets the tone for what, essentially could be an exploration of what a familiar Trinidadian song writer referred to as our “Old Time Days”. While the Nappy Mayers composition carried more than a whiff of rosy-eyed nostalgia, Mendes’ depiction cannot be charged with attempting to gloss over any of our lesser desirable qualities.

His portrayal of Trinidadian society in eleven of the twelve stories which span these years, maintains an appreciation for the complications inherent in a society as multiethnic and multicultural as ours, and the limited impact that a century had had on modifying the prevailing attitudes of the members of a society connected by the colonial experience. This observation is not meant to imply that all the reader should expect is thinly veiled, heavy handed rhetoric, clothed in a literary facade; far from it. A writer as competent as Mendes operates with subtler brush strokes, and introduces realistic characters, many of whom are memorable and would perhaps even be familiar to someone who may have grown up during this time. The persons are, in spite of class, ethnicity or gender, often shown to be products of their era, with their attitudes and assorted prejudices to their fellow Trinidadian informed and haunted by this shared colonial experience.

Of the stories themselves, I will say that Mendes, who had a self-avowed passion for describing the natural beauty of our West Indian environment, renders it with aplomb, in none more so than the stories “Malvina’s Nennen”, and “Colour”, the sole inclusion whose setting is not in based in Trinidad. I’ll also admit that although most of the characters are fairly well drawn, there are moments where the stories that they inhabit left me unsatisfied, and with a distinct sense that, like the content of many a popular music album, they were included to make up the numbers. There is even an instance where I found the plot and climax of an earlier offering being essentially plagiarized. Not even the brevity of the repeated tale could redeem it for me, and that final shortcoming, brevity, is what brings me to my major grouse with this collection.

I will readily acknowledge that it is the quality, and not necessarily the quantity of words used which can make a story not merely resonate with a reader, but elevate it to the level of the truly memorable. Yet, I will also go on record and state that Mr. Mendes handicapped himself with some of the shorter inclusions in this collection. However, on those occasions when he gave his muse free reign to roam wherever it pleased, the compositions, though lengthy, are really something to behold, and likely to elicit the most emotionally charged reaction from the reader.

What may irritate the Tobagonian who reads this collection though, is that although the subtitle does specifically acknowledge Trinidad as the setting of choice, for some inexplicable reason, he also chose to make Grenada the setting of his final story, a decision which might be interpreted as an affront to our sister isle.

Although editor Michèle Levy, readily recommends this work by Mendes as a useful “text for university literature courses”, I’m once more left with the impression of the author’s abilities not simply being under marketed, but undervalued. Admittedly, he may be regarded as a torchbearer whose light shines less brilliantly than the authors mentioned earlier, but confining him to the stuffy setting of a class filled with English undergrads may expose him to a fresh round of ridicule and apathy which might very likely cause him to ‘turn over in his grave’.

I’ve often found that the only way that an artist like Mendes becomes more recognizable, is to sell his strengths to a wider readership, rather than a niche clientele. Often times a connoisseur, maybe even an influential one, will come along and pay top dollar for an obscure collection because of the very flaws which provide it with its unique character. With that awareness in mind, permit me to offer that person looking for a new vintage of literary wine to sample, something from one of the lesser known vinters, a Mr. Alfred Mendes. Now, some of what you taste you’re going to love, others you’ll wish you had more of, and some you’ll simply spit out. Just remember though, that when everyone else is gushing over the finer points of their Cabernet Naipauls, and their Pinot Lammings, you can take delight in having tasted something not only unique, but equally well aged.

Duane Allicock hails from the island of Trinidad and lives for reading, cycling and running; in that order. When not pursuing any of these passions, he prefers to immerse himself in listening to music, or the silence of the Mount Saint Benedict monastery, pondering on life’s humorous ironies.

20. And Then Her Mouth by Portia Klee Jordan

[This is a review of an erotica collection. It should not be read by anyone who is too young to read erotica.]

Published in 2010 by Xynobooks.

I’ve long been of the opinion that there ought to be some measure of subtlety in the writing of sex. A panting slather of erogenous zone names, rubbed together on the page, leaves me distinctly… dry. A preponderance of “bulging, turgid members” meeting “quiveringly helpless mounds” leads to a laziness of craft—just because the parts fit together doesn’t mean a writer need mash them in textually ’til they’re sore, and we’re bored. Portia Klee Jordan’s audacious, poetic and elegantly perverse collection, And Then Her Mouth, works toe-curlingly well for me because it doesn’t aim to evade the subtle artistry of good writing. It dives into it, gaping-mawed, and sucks us in—and we go; willingly, we go.

A principal selling point of this gathering of dirty divulgences is that they’re not a precocious tween’s teeth-cutting panty twisters (though you might stumble across at least one ingenue ripe for the picking among these pages). These are eighteen investigations of a persistently purple desire. The word ‘purple’ comes at us at many a turn in these tales – lurking ’round one too many a corner, for my liking. Still, if it best expresses, for Jordan, a particular aura, a no holds barred zone of throbbing openness, then a few too many purples are a miserly toll, spare change you won’t miss as you speed along this open highway of well-weathered pleasure-seekers. One gets the impression, while reading, of lives dipped deeply in lust and self-examination alike, which flavours each vignette with intensity, fire and fever, meriting belief and arousal.  Whether these dirty stories are drawn from the velvet of the author’s own beaded bag of tricks, or not, she is owed a nod of approval for sparing us staid contrivances and sophomoric storylines.

Moral ambiguity makes the sensory ravaging you’re offered from each tale all the sweeter. You’re liable to find a kink for each sexual bent in Jordan’s repertoire, delivered sans ethical interference. In “Pretty Me”, following a nerve-humming exchange with Marcel the drag queen, formerly staid Patricia wrangles a cross-dressing, gender-torquing fetish out of her husband Gerald, with the aid of electrical tape, fishnets and theatrically imposed cruelty. The entirety of “III. Onomatopeter” is a single wicked sentence in celestially sordid punning. “II. Statutory Grape” plies us with the stream of consciousness hunger of a thirty year old observer for a girl whose “breasts are so new they’re surprised to be there”. Far less is on the menu than one might imagine, in “Eat Me”, the concluding piece of the collection, in which Melanie and the narrator have earned their absent gag reflexes for reasons culinary and otherwise. The author keeps scales of reckoning, blind or otherwise, out of her telling. The result: we get to decide how we feel about each scenario, and the freedom of this safe, sultry space is in itself back-archingly good.

My favourite of the eighteen (eighteen being such a primed number for this collection, in quietly declarative ways: the ‘official’ threshold for sexual release, versus the organic compulsion to explore the body/bodies of others much, much earlier than that) is unabashedly, hands-down, skirts-up, “Summer is Cold Here, Linnea”. Beautiful lesbian Dianna finds ways to thaw the nights of her work-imposed Alaskan chill, and intersperses her anatomical explorations with thoughtful missives to her lover Linnea, who (we assume) languishes for her, back home. The narrative cleaves cleanly down a line of epistolary versus confessional styles, rethreading the chasm between the couple, while emphasizing how much grey space there is between what they know about each other, and what they imagine to be true. As Jordan serves this wryly reflective tale that twists into us by turns both tender and intemperate, we marvel at the supple flow of her prose, the authority of her character construction. The introduction of Dianna establishes a plausible portrait of a flesh and blood Sapphist, not a cardboard and estrogen The L Word placeholder.

“Dianna loved women. She loved them. Her personal attachments, the emotional depth requisite for any long-term, soul-serving relationship, these were always with people of her own gender. She knelt down at the altar of worship and buried her mouth overflowing with the physical manifestation of love and awe in the tufted, fleshy crevices of the sex of the Goddess, the Mother of Us All, with whole-hearted, unshaken devotion. And sometimes she had sex with men.”

In the length of time it takes to share a clove cigarette with a dark-eyed stranger, “Summer is Cold Here, Linnea” breathes potent draughts of queer identity interrogation into us, and sweetens their consideration with two artfully lubricated sexual forays. A tour de force in miniature, it’ll leave you just as reflective as ravaged, and solicit many a damp-fingered reread. If you deem the last line of the story to be anything other than the epitome of tongue in cheek wordcrafting, plotwrangling excellence, then let me know—we’re ripe for a debate.

The poetics of Jordan’s pornography establish her as a sensual raconteuse well worth the consideration of the refined reader, the one who’s bookmarked special tracts in his sexual textbooks, the one who’d wager that she knows a thing or three thousand about fiction that enlivens, thickens the breathing, alerts the pulse. These lines from ‘Manipulation, Retribution’ display evidence of how beauteously the author connects our excursions into eros with her deft mappings of human emotion.

“The sounds coming out of my mouth aren’t conscious, aren’t really my own; they are from some other place, some Lovecraftian pit of tentacled grief. I give voice to a sorrow so great it has no name, to a feeling of loss so yawning and empty that from the first it sent us back shaking and looking over our shoulders to the warm cave fire, to rub shoulders with the others of our kind and turn our backs on our understanding of mortality.”

We glean these grief-soaked revelations from the story’s protagonist as he lies across his homemade sawhorse, abandoning his body to a brutal cropping from two courtesans, in the dungeon he and his late lover Martika made, together. ‘Manipulation, Retribution’ is as much a submissive’s playground of utter delight as it is a wise, emotionally spent man’s retrospective on all the things he’s hewn, and all the losses he’s incurred, through living and loving, and the well-stretched canvas he’s made of his life, in the name of non-conventional lust.

If And Then Her Mouth swiftly becomes your 2011 Bible for all things decidedly non-chaste, do let me know. If you’ve been reading those colour-by-numbers guides to literary kinkiness, consider this study in sex and the human psyche your graduation certificate… but please, try not to smear it. Unless, of course, that’s your thing. Portia Klee Jordan wouldn’t judge, I daresay, and neither will I.

You can purchase And Then Her Mouth directly from Portia Klee Jordan’s publisher, Xynobooks, as well as peruse their collection of archived and forthcoming titles.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Nick Maloich at Xynobooks for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.

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.

14. How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

Published in 2010 by Graywolf Press.

An S. Mariella Gable Book (an award given by the College of Saint Benedict for an important work of literature published by Graywolf Press)

Winner of the Fiction Category Prize, OCM Bocas 2011.

Shortlisted for the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature 2011.

“I get her arms in front and see words written on them. It freaks me out. But it’s just words. ‘Stop looking,’ she says. ‘Stop reading.’ Lord Harry the Judge. I lay back in my seat and I just ask, ‘This is stupid. You couldn’t find no paper?’ She shakes her head, ‘I left my notebook.’ I open the golf and show her the roller paper, like a small notepad. ‘I didn’t think of that’ she say with her voice going all Yankee now. And then she crying like I hit her or something. She sit on her hands the whole drive back. Keep her arms tight by her side. Tonight, I think, I going kiss those arms. I going lick every word if she let me.”

from “Street Man”

I loathe exaggeration, especially when it comes to enthusiasm. I prefer my praise to be as precise as possible. Sadly, this means that much of my best loved phrases must languish, unused, waiting for true beauty to capture them. One such is borrowed from a film: to feel something “like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.”

Tiphanie Yanique’s premiere publication is impressive. A collection of short fiction and a novella, How to Escape from a Leper Colony is remarkable in that it feels neither solely craft nor character-driven, yet reads as a spellbinding marriage of both. Here is short fiction to get you excited about the genre entire. Here is a novella you will want to reread until the people in it are achingly familiar to you, a novella which shows its full lustre in its unabridged format, as opposed to the more dim showing it made in Akashic Books’ 2008 anthology, Trinidad Noir. At a handful of pages shy of the two hundred mark, Yanique’s prose begs to be read in one sitting. I  read it cover to cover in bed, bleary-eyed with intensity, and when I reached the last line of the last story, “Kill the Rabbits”, (which I would have loved to see even further fleshed out) I felt that I had not had enough.

How to Escape a Leper Colony features eight pieces. The titular story will show you some of the reasons why an island of lepers and the nuns treating them walk into the sea. “The Bridge Stories” is a compendium of narratives that tells the same story, marking it multiple ways for tragedy and release. “Street Man” reads like a tale you’d hear from the man himself, in a crowded bar, over beers and your interjections of, “Nah, man!”, “Oh gosh, man!”, “For real, man?”. In “The Saving Work”, two white women who’ve moved their lives to the Caribbean puzzle out the truth at the root of why they hate each other so (with a burning church providing the backdrop). “Canoe Sickness” offers a retrospective of a young boy’s thwarted dream of pro-football glory (the least evocative of the pieces, for me). Mason finds a hideaway chapel in Houston that reminds him of his Jamaica home (in strangely erotic tones, too) in the exquisite “Where Tourists Don’t Go”. In the vein of “The Bridge Stories”, “The International Shop of Coffins” is a multipart exposition of grief, distance and the things we’ll do for love. Finally, “Kill the Rabbits” (as authentic an account of the sweet madness that is Carnival as ever I read one) introduces us to three seemingly-different people in the Virgin Islands, and the unusual ways they are fettered, to each other and to love.

Straddling a swinging bridge betwixt magical allegory and gritty realism, these stories are superbly-wrought. Yanique’s eye to detail is exceptional; her attention to a credibility of tone and voice—to the way a person speaks, or internalizes a situation—is finely-tuned. There are numerous delights here for the careful reader that will be missed, and no mistake, by any page-skimmers.  Unearthing sleight of hand contradictions, such as the difference between what characters say and what they do or mean is a particular treasure. What makes it sweeter is that Yanique never contradicts herself; we spend no time running after her sentences, filling in plot holes with frustration. There are no perfect, sparkle-toothed island exotics waving for the approval of tourists here, and this is a relief.

For all that How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a debut offering, nothing about Yanique’s work heralds it as mawkish or sickly desperate to please. Can my desire for this book to have been a longer collection truly be a complaint? Hardly not, though I do wonder how two or three more stories would have affected the impact of the reading. That is a bold-faced hypothetical, however, so I will precisely declare: I love this writer’s writing, and I look forward, impatiently, to reading another riot in the heart from Tiphanie Yanique.

“One of my teachers once said that history has no influence on land, that land is outside of history. He lied or he was mistaken. History has carved down mountains. History has drenched out rivers. History has made the land, and the land has, when under duress, made history. […] No one and no thing is unmoved by human history, and it is a sad, sad truth. But that Carnival the land had decided to defy history. And this, like my body, was a bit of an impossible thing —  but an admirable thing as all impossible things are.”

from “Kill the Rabbits”

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. 

Shakirah Bourne’s Thoughts on Summer Lightning, by Olive Senior

Published in 1986 by Longman Books.

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, 1987.

A good piece of literary fiction focuses on style, psychological depth and deep, powerful characters. It often tackles important issues that are usually controversial and complex, and the writing not only entertains the reader, but allows for some introspection on society, and perception of self. Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning and Other Stories encompasses all of the aforementioned elements, highlighting several social issues in Jamaica, through the eyes of naive and engaging characters.

Olive Senior’s writing style is very simple and conversational, although it addresses deep issues. It is entertaining, with sharp details, often ironic and filled with humorous dialogue. For instance, when a protagonist Beccka innocently asks the Archdeacon “Please Sir, do angels wear brassieres?” or when Beccka is told to pray for her Aunt Mary and responds, “No. Not praying for nobody that tek weh mi best glassy eye marble”. One of the more outstanding qualities of her work is Senior’s ability to combine dialect and Standard English, reflecting the rhythmic language and slang of Jamaica without the general reader losing any understandability of the plot and story. For example, a quote from the story “Real Old Time T’ing”,

“Nuh the one-eye Doris he still have a look after him and she so busy dropping pickney year after year that what she know bout keeping house could write on postage stamp.”

Without the use of dialect, some of the words would be less impactful on the reader. Moreover, her use of dialect and Standard English not only differentiates characters, setting natives and foreigners apart, but symbolizes themes such as social class and acceptance/rejection of culture. This is seen in the story, “Ascot”, where the narrator and Ascot grew up in the same village. The narrator stayed in the village and continued to speak Jamaican English and Patois, as opposed to Ascot who left for America to improve his life, which meant disregarding Jamaican Creole and speaking in Standard English with an American accent.

Style and language are just a few ways Olive Senior illustrate themes in her stories, enriching their psychological depth. One seemingly simple narrative is filled with multilayered issues with societal contradictions and social perceptions. The story “Summer Lightning” tells of a young boy living with his aunt and uncle, who is given a small garden room to play in. It is his secret and private room until an old man who stays with his family a few weeks every year “for nerves” arrives, and as the story evolves we learn that the old man has vulgar intentions for the boy. This simple story explores religion; the perception of Rastafarianism in particular, as the aunt both feared and respected one of the characters, Bro. Justice. Bro. Justice approached the boy’s aunt out of concern for the boy’s safety and she “took it as an occasion to lecture him about his appearance, his manners, his attitude…and heard nothing of his mutterings of “Sodom” and “sin”. Bro. Justice’s warnings could have also been ignored because the old man was probably a wealthy, white man, thus exploring the theme of status, and how injustices are ignored depending on a person’s colour, wealth and class. Senior uses a powerful use of symbolism in this story; the only character that has a name, Bro. Justice is used as a representation of Rastafarian culture, as well as justice.

Senior also makes good use of symbolism in “The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream” where the ice cream represented the loss of an object. Throughout the entire story Benjy’s aching love for ice cream, which he had never tasted, was described in vivid detail, “you didn’t chew it, but if you held it in your tongue long enough it vanished, leaving an after-trace that lingered and lingered like a beautiful dream”. Alas, with such beautiful description, the reader empathized with the Benjy’s thirst for the unknown, and is devastated when his dream to taste ice cream is tragically destroyed because of the suspicious and jealous nature of his father:

Benjy is crying Papa Papa and everything is happening so quickly he doesn’t know the point at which he loses the ice cream…and he cannot understand why Papa has let go of his hand and shouting and why Mama isn’t laughing with the man anymore…”.

Senior illustrates the theme of relationships through Benjy’s eyes, allowing the message to be so much more powerful, as it is a clear glimpse of the society, seeing all the irrationalities and inequalities without bias. All of her characters are unique, and the reader becomes easily attached, cheering when they are victorious and sharing in every loss and pain.

Overall, Senior’s work is the full Caribbean package; full of life and excitement, explores many societal issues and themes, history, and culture, all the while being simple to read and humourous. For these reasons, I believe that it is an excellent portrayal of an example of valuable literary fiction.

Shakirah Bourne is an award winning short story writer from Barbados who is not afraid to voice what others try to keep secret.

As a fellow participant in The Cropper Writers’ Residential Workshop for 2010, I was honoured and pleased to interact with Shakirah and her distinctive writing style! Check out her Twitter and Facebook Fan Page, both dedicated to providing resources and advice for struggling up-and-coming writers.

6. Out on Main Street by Shani Mootoo

Published in 1993. This Edition: Raincoast Books, 2002.

Out on Main Street, the first short fiction publication of Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian writer Shani Mootoo, is a collection of nine stories with origins that are both Caribbean and Canadian, diasporic and contintental, here and there. Work like this represents nothing so much as it does a bridge, symbolizing, representing and contextualizing histories and customs only guessed-at or generalized. Mootoo’s epigraph (unattributed, presumably her own quotation) to the collection admonishes gently against the broad sweep of nostalgic generalization:

Which of us, here, can possibly know the intimacies of each other’s cupboards “back-home”, or in which hard-to-reach corners dust balls used to collect?

(Or didn’t?)

One’s interpretation of fact is another’s fiction, and one’s fiction is someone else’s bafflement.

There is no apparent taint of pomposity in Mootoo’s prose… no setting forth of her fiction as canonical or authoritative on any section of the Indo-Trinidadian diasporic experience. Perhaps she is writing strongly from remembrance, as do many Caribbean writers no longer living in the Caribbean. It seems more likely that her remembrances of Trinidadian rituals, customs and rites, specifically those pertinent to religious and cultural Indo-Trinidadian minutiae, are infused with the startling (though not unwelcome) presence and immediacy of Canada.

The narrator of Mootoo’s titular tale speaks straight from the Trinidadian streets. Her language is familiar, her manner inviting, her story foreign, but she, you feel instinctively, is someone you know. She might be the person whose presence you loathe, crushed against her chest in stifling City Gate crowds—and yet to overhear her tale in a crowded Vancouver bar might induce comfort, a sense of place and easy familiarity you do not reject, despite your homegrown aversions.

The unnamed narrator is simultaneously uncomfortable and fiercely protective of her brownness. She parries encounters with ‘legitimate’ Indians from India, hostilely, but not without cost to her shakily complex characterization of herself. It is confusion that she seems intent on avoiding, as she bitterly comments to her aesthetically feminine girlfriend, Janet.

“Yuh know, one time a fella from India who living up here call me a bastardized Indian because I didn’t know Hindi. And now look at dis, nah! De thing is: all a we in Trinidad  is cultural bastards, Janet, all a we. Toutes bagailles! Chinese people, Black people, White people. Syrian. Lebanese. I looking forward to de day I find out dat place inside me where I am nothing else but Trinidadian, whatever dat could turn out to be.”

Janet’s lover is simultaneously proud and wary of her crew-cut, non-heteronormative status, of her implicit possessiveness over her prettier mate who catches the attention of men, when she does not. Mootoo stands the Trinidadian-Canadian pair apart from the more obvious, militantly open couple of Sandy and Lise, who wear their “blatant penchant fuh women” as comfortably as they do their Birkenstocks. In a society that is, by comparison, thought to be far more sexually progressive than that of the Caribbean islands, it remains no less tricky for the narrator and Janet to navigate access routes to being free and comfortable in their brown, queer identity.

The other stories of Out on Main Street are no less concerned with the sometimes-rewarding, sometimes-damning navigation toward finding reliable pieces of oneself. In “Sushila’s Bhakti”, the titular character, a Trinidadian-Canadian artist who struggles with her skewered self-perception as “a goodBrahmingirl”, seeks out a path to prayer that does not contradict her unwillingness to bow before a patriarchal, omnipotent God. Sushila wrestles with the notion of where she really comes from, the precise marker by which she might measure the authenticity of her origins.

“I want to connect with my point of origin. Not the point of origin as in “Who-made-me-God-made-me,” nor the point at which we are said to have flipped over from animal to human, but rather the origin of Indian-ness. … What is my point of origin? How far back do I need to go to feel properly rooted?”

Sushila uses saffron for her art, colouring her hands deep orange, obliterating traces of white or pink from her fingernails. She claims the art of mehendi from its unused place in her early Trinidadian memories, channels it into her work, imbues her canvas with purpose until, exultantly, she begins to see herself in the work. Her saffron-mehendi creations feel far more organically connected to her than her pitiable attempts to fuse herself to a Canadian artistic identity through attempted landscapes and still life. Mootoo seems to be advocating using the tools of a multi-cultural identity to transcend the need to be rigidly defined. The message is implicit: that the search can be its own reward, and that it can be devoid of heartache. Ultimately, Sushila realizes that her identity need not conform to any documented or storied history—that it only need be her story.

In these stories live women who adore women, uncertainly but helplessly. There are wives who love and fear their somnolent husbands, and stir in the dark while their men snore, coaxing mysteries from the earth. There are terrified girlfriends who learn exactly on which side of abuse lies vengeance. There are  families who honour and hurt each other as best they can.

In the swirl of diaspora, where Hindi alphabets meld into modern art galleries, there are stories in this collection that read like home.