Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

Date Read: July 21st 2019

Published: June 4th 2019

Publisher: House of Anansi Press

Pages: 272

 

The Blurb

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.

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So The Path Does Not Die by Pede Hollist

pede hollistDate Read: June 30th 2016

Published: 2014 (originally published by Langaa Press, 2012)

Publisher: Jacaranda Books

Pages: 352

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Long after Fina has left Sierra Leone for America, memories of a broken initiation still haunt her. She longs to return, to find her grandmother and right the path that has been set for young girls centuries past. Her journey from the streets of Freetown to Washington echo with the tensions, ambiguities, and fragmentation of the diaspora. Fina’s inner turmoil and feelings of ‘otherness’, persist as she travels further from home. Ultimately, the broken path of her childhood brings Fina back to Sierra Leone, to a life she had never imagined for herself. So the Path Does Not Die is a tender and gently observed novel exploring attitudes towards female circumcision, and a beautifully rendered novel, from an exciting new voice in African literature.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Is it me, or were there not enough people talking about this fascinating book back in 2014 when it was published? I was introduced to Pede Hollist’s writing when his short story – Foreign Aid was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize. Back then, it was great to see a Sierra Leonean on the shortlist for a change. And I really hope more writers from Sierra Leone are brought to the spotlight soon!

So The Path Does Not Die is fundamentally a story of love and the belongingness of people and place. Finaba’s (or later known as ‘Fina’ by her adopted family) life revolves around her interrupted FGM (female genital mutilation)/ initiation process in her village. In the novel, the deadly practice of FGM is a coming-of-age event where a girl finally becomes a woman and ‘belongs’ to the people of the village. Fina’s parents loathed this practise but her grandma strongly supported it. After Fina’s family is shunned from their village due to an abominable act by her father to save Fina from this deadly practise, they move to Freetown (Sierra Leone’s capital) with heaps of curses on their heads.

In Freetown, Fina endures hardships in all aspects of her life – family problems, university struggles, ethnic group discrimination (as she’s Fulani which is known to be in the minority), just to name a few. When Fina finally escapes Sierra Leone to the United States, though she matures beautifully and becomes relatively successful thanks to her determination to be happy and independent, she faces a new set of struggles: immigration woes, Africans vs. African-Americans vs. Caribbean concerns, the myth of the American dream and cultural alienation. For some reason, all the painful lessons Fina experiences seem to be tied back to the night of her interrupted initiation process. She somehow feels she does not ‘belong’, even when she finally finds true love. To Fina, Sierra Leone seems to be the only place where she thinks she would feel valued; a place where she feels she’d be ‘on the right path’ in life.

Initially, Pede Hollist’s storytelling gave me a Chinua Achebe vibe as the story starts off with a folktale. Hollist’s writing style is rhythmic, simple, and accurate in all the nuances he captures and I was satisfied with how this story came full circle by the end! I was a bit skeptical on how Pede Hollist would accurately write and speak for Fina in this book, as he is a man and would probably portray a man better. But I was impressed by his careful attention to consciously writing Fina’s character in a way that spoke on many feminist issues.

So The Path Does Not Die had me thoroughly entertained and I shamelessly giggled at all the intense dramatic happenings that occurred in this story! Some of the depictions of certain cultural groups portrayed in this novel may seem stereotypical, but I believe Hollist executes these depictions with finesse and in a jovial manner. This novel actually reminded me of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, as there are several side stories of the people Fina encounters in this story. Some characters include: Sidebe – a diamonds trader; Aman – Fina’s African-American best friend; Cammy – Fina’s Trinidadian fiancé; Mawaf – a child soldier’s wife, just to name a few. The socio-political backgrounds and commentary on these characters are all so layered and beautifully tied into Fina’s personal story of trying to find happiness, while being true to herself. I absolutely adore how this book is a cultural melting-pot of Black peoples’ (African, African-American and Caribbean) similarities, differences and the connection they all have to the African continent.

I learned a great deal about Sierra Leone from this novel! You would think us West Africans would know more about our fellow brethren on this coast, but I really had no clue. I jotted down a lot of the cultural references, ethnic groups, native foods, languages, national costumes, native names and natural resources from Sierra Leone. I particularly liked that this novel wasn’t grim with the horrors of FGM, but rather acted as a conduit for speaking against the horrible act, while commenting on other tough Sierra Leonean economic, cultural and social issues as well. Reading dialogue in Trinidadian patois and Sierra Leonean Krio as well as recognizing various West African mannerisms and sayings, made this novel all the more enjoyable, as various happenings and conversations really came to life! Don’t you just love when you learn about our world through a good, entertaining story?

I encourage anyone who is looking for a captivating book on Sierra Leone and the Diaspora to pick this up! I eagerly look forward to Pede Hollist’s future projects and I definitely plan on reading more books published by Jacaranda Books!

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

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