November 19, 2020: “Frying Plantain” by Zalika Reid-Benta

Hello there, Story366!

Last night, during a family drive, our oldest son started talking about his latest desired life occupation, to be a sound engineer. He loves music, loves playing instruments, and understands all of it more than I ever could. He eventually talked about a previously mentioned goal—to be a professional musician—but last night said he wanted to be a sound engineer, as that sounded more realistic, that making a living in a band didn’t seem possible.

This is where the Karen and I interrupted and reminded him that he is 14, is incredibly smart and talented, and can do anything with his life that he wants to. We went on with the typical You can do anything you put your mind to! speech, telling him that he should take chances, do what he wants to do, to never grow up regrets. Because, of course, it’s true. To be 14, smart, talented, and having parents backing you? You can do anything, and we want to instill that in him before it’s too late.

Karen and I got to talking afterwards and agreed upon one follow-up point: It’s not too late for us to take our own advice. It’s not like Karen and I are so old that we can’t still fulfill our own goals. We have a lot of years ahead of us and would like to make our mark, or more of a mark, in this writing world. If we can tell our son to go for it, why can’t we go for it, too? Karen even asked me this morning, “How are you going to go for it today?” talking about my writing. That was a good question. So I worked on a story for a bit. Is that going for it? Maybe it is, this week, with the semester ending and a million things to do. But I think that’s a good question to start my day with, like some horrible motivation video ringing true. Maybe I should look in the mirror every morning, splash ice-cold water on my face, and scream at myself, “How are you going to go for it today, LOSER?!?!!?” Or maybe Karen and I can simply encourage each other in a loving and constructive manner.

Either way, this has been a reminder of what I’ve always wanted to do, what my priorities should be. I’ve sadly needed too many of these in my life. I hope this one sticks, as I’m not a fan of ice-cold water.

Today’s entry led me to Frying Plantain, Jamaican-Canadian writer Zalika Reid-Benta‘s 2019 debut of interconnected stories from House of Anansi Press. This has been my first exposure to Reid-Benta’s writing, and I enjoyed it, so let’s break it down.

This collection follows Kara Davis, a young girl whose family emigrated from Jamaica to Canada shortly before she was born. The book starts with her as a middle schooler and moves on to her early college years, hitting those prime development ages right on the nose. The lead story, “Pig Head,” starts off with Kara visiting Jamaica for the first time. There she’s sees a pig’s head, post-slaughter, a sight that makes her nauseous and uneasy. Her family calls her soft, particularly her maternal grandmother, Nana, thinking her more Canadian than Jamaican. The story soon shifts back to Canada, where Kara starts telling the story of the pig, how she watched it beheaded, the story growing more and more tall, eventually evolving into her actually killing the pig herself, and quite graphically. Her teacher, hearing the disturbing story, calls her mother in for a conference, but Mom—Eloise—will hear none of this woman’s racist and unfounded accusations. Mom’s tune changes, however, on the way home, Kara getting an earful from an embarrassed parent.

“Inspection” is a short piece in the middle of the book, Kara having to present herself to her mother before going out, but only after she endures a painstaking routine of washing, lotioning, and dressing in proper clothes. This one seems out of context, as I’m not sure where Kara was going, but perhaps Reid-Benta wanted it that way, as it’s pretty spot-on characterizing. In any case, Eloise—a single parent by this time—has standards for Kara, standards that haunt our hero throughout the book.

The title story, “Frying Plantain,” is last and picks up with Kara off to college, studying Cinema Studies. This one shows an evolution of her relationship with her mother and her grandmother, who had moved to Canada as well at some point. The story jumps between three timelines, the present story that has Kara, now 19, visiting Nana, and two other, earlier points, points that led to a falling out between mothers and daughters.

The present storyline, Kara at 19, has our hero randomly visiting her grandmother after years of separation. The last time the two spoke, Kara was much younger. Without much new to talk about, Nana tries to feed Kara, whom she thinks is too thin, starting with the titular plantains, prepared and fried in a manner Kara, or Eloise, has never been able to replicate. Kara doesn’t really want the food, but Nana insists, piling fried eggs on top of the sweet plantains, what she used to serve Kara for breakfast when Kara was younger and lived in her house.

The other timelines involve Nana and Eloise fighting. Two spans during Kara’s childhood forced her family into Nana’s basement, living there under Nana’s rules. Nana is a meticulous housekeeper, we find, judgmental as can be, leading to constant battles between the two older generations. A few stray rice grains on the counter, for example, are enough to set Nana off, forcing Eloise to defend herself, basically barricade herself and Kara in their room, emerging only for emergencies, and when they know Nana is going or asleep. On one of these exceptions, the two return to find themselves locked out, Nana having kicked them out and Kara and her mom sleeping in their car.

The other past incident reveals a random encounter between Kara and Nana, Kara getting catcalled and wolf-whistled as she walks down the street and Nana “rescuing” her from certain doom. Nana spills her judgmental load on Kara, then gives even more whatfor to Eloise when she comes to pick Kara up. The two really go after each other, Nana finding the magic words: telling Eloise that if she’s not careful, Kara will end up like her, pregnant at 17. This is the last straw, and since the book ends here, with Kara’s aforementioned random visit, it’s implied Nana and Eloise never speak again.

Zalika Reid-Benta’s interrelated collection, Frying Plantain, follows its hero through some pivotal points in her life. The most influential people in her world, her mother and grandmother, are also the most contentious, alll of that drama adding to the fact that she’s a stranger in her homeland, the only Jamaican, let along black, girl in her school. Reid-Benta effectively depicts these forces acting on her, shaping a young woman, providing her with plenty to fear, plenty to affect her future and forever self.

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