Date Read: July 21st 2019
Published: June 4th 2019
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Kara Davis is a girl caught in the middle – of her Canadian nationality and her desire to be a ‘true’ Jamaican, of her mother and grandmother’s rages and life lessons, of having to avoid being thought of as too ‘faas’ or too ‘quiet’ or too ‘bold’ or too ‘soft’.
Set in Little Jamaica, Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood, Kara moves from girlhood to the threshold of adulthood, from elementary school to high school graduation, in these twelve interconnected stories. We see her on a visit to Jamaica, startled by the sight of a severed pig’s head in her great aunt’s freezer; in junior high, the victim of a devastating prank by her closest friends; and as a teenager in and out of her grandmother’s house, trying to cope with the ongoing battles between her unyielding grandparents.
A rich and unforgettable portrait of growing up between worlds, Frying Plantain shows how, in one charged moment, friendship and love can turn to enmity and hate, well-meaning protection can become control, and teasing play can turn to something much darker. In her brilliantly incisive debut, Zalika Reid-Benta artfully depicts the tensions between mothers and daughters, second-generation Canadians and first-generation cultural expectations, and Black identity and predominately white society.
Review – ★★★ (3 stars)
The title of this collection is so cool! Everyone loves fried plantain, so the title is truly inviting (Fun fact – fried plantain is called kelewele in Ghana (when diced & spiced), dodo in Nigeria, alloco in Cote d’Ivoire). Frying Plantain is a coming-of-age collection of interconnected short stories that follow Canadian-Jamaican girl, Kara Davis. Initially, I thought with each successive story, I’d be engrossed into Kara’s journey as she went through childhood into adolescence. But now, a part of me feels a little disappointed by this collection. While reading, I felt like I was drowning because I found the characters relentlessly toxic, hence making my reading experience a bit sour.
The collection commences with a story called ‘Pig Head.’ In ‘Pig Head’, we’re introduced to Kara who is on holiday in Jamaica with her family. While on holiday, Kara is sent to get something from the freezer and is terrified by the sight of a huge severed pig head stored there. Kara goes back to her 4th grade classmates in Canada and tells fibs about the pig head. She brags about how she helped kill the pig and gives her classmates gory details of the killing, which eventually land her into trouble with her school’s principal and her mother. Kara fabricates the story in an effort to seem unique and to claim her Jamaican roots even though her neighborhood friends call her ‘stush’ (posh/boujee).
Throughout this collection, Kara tries to fit in by either lying, falling prey to peer pressure or staying quiet to keep the peace. As a child, she spends a lot of time with (toxic) neighborhood friends, who are also of Caribbean heritage. Among her group of friends, some are even straight from the Islands and they impose their Caribbean authenticity by constantly reminding others within the group – including Kara, of how un-Jamaican/Caribbean they are –
Miss Canada gwine fi bust out the patois? Yuh need to stop Ja-fakin’ it, Kara – pg. 32
I enjoyed the short stories that explored Kara’s relationships with boys and wanted more! I found the descriptions of her first kiss so cringey yet hilarious, as Reid-Benta aptly portrays the awkwardness –
I told him he could kiss me, and then he inched forward and meshed his lips with mine… My own lips were still puckered when he started to open his mouth. He pressed the tip of his tongue against my teeth until I unclenched and allowed him access. I couldn’t figure him out… I hunched my shoulders instead, trying to show eagerness, and twirled my tongue around his, but he got excited and shoved his tongue so far down my throat I gagged. I pulled away – pg. 116
But Kara’s mother’s sharp gaze always marred my joy of witnessing Kara find love (or have fun, in general). Kara is raised by a single mother – Eloise, who seems pretty miserable. Initially I didn’t feel any love between mother and daughter, but later I realized Eloise’s brash, over-controlling manner was driven by fear. Eloise raises Kara on her own but with the help of her own parents, who come with their own set of issues. *sigh* Eloise’s relationship with her parents (Kara’s grandparents) is tragic – there is a lot of emotional abuse, verbal abuse, manipulation and gaslighting between Eloise and her parents, but also between Kara and her grandparents. Eloise’s parents also have a dysfunctional marriage – but I don’t even have the energy to get into their marriage. Kara’s family dynamics in this book are just A LOT.
Since Kara is raised in an over-controlled, stern environment, her personality is unassuming and quite unclear. She comes off as meek, subdued and repressed; but she can defend herself or react to unfair treatment when pushed to her limit, which is often.
According to other readers on Goodreads, this collection is very Canadian. I wasn’t sensitive to the Canadian-ness of this collection, as I wouldn’t even know where to catch the nuances. I’ve only visited Canada three times (Toronto when I was about 5 years old, Montréal as a sophomore in college and Windsor when I was a senior in college), so I didn’t have the eye for spotting the Canadian vibes from the collection. I did like the mention of poutine though, when Kara and her friends trekked through a snow storm just to eat some.
I thoroughly enjoyed Zalika Reid-Benta’s writing style. She has a beautiful way with words such that I vividly saw Kara’s quiet awkwardness; I could hear Eloise shouting at Kara to stop crying; I could feel Kara’s desire to fit in with her fellow Caribbean friends. Zalika Reid-Benta’s writing is the reason I finished this collection. She has a gift with words, and I surely admire that!
I think I would have enjoyed this collection more if I was new to African Diaspora literature. But I’ve read countless stories like this, so it didn’t really stand out to me as super unique. I just find it very interesting how Caribbean women writers always seem to touch on strained mother-daughter relationships in their work. I haven’t read a ton of work by Caribbean women writers, but so far Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Naomi Jackson, Alexia Arthurs ALL touch on this strained relationship in their stories. Why is this type of relationship so prevalent in their work? Anyway, even though I wasn’t blown away by this collection, I look forward to reading more of Reid-Benta’s work! She’s a pretty damn good writer.
Thank you to House of Anansi Press for sending me a review copy of the book!
★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.
Purchase Frying Plantain on Amazon