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The Heart Does Not Bend

by Makeda Silvera

Makeda Silvera is the author of two collections of short stories, but she is probably better known as an editor and co-founder of Sister Vision Press than as a writer. The Heart Does Not Bend, Silvera’s first novel, may change that. It is the searching portrait of a Jamaican matriarch who, for better or worse, exercises her influence over three generations of an extended family.

Mama, as her granddaughter Molly (also the novel’s narrator) calls her, raises her own four children and then becomes mother to her granddaughter and great-grandchildren successively. She becomes a figure of continuity, and a symbol of much that is worth celebrating in Jamaican culture: endurance, generosity, and spiritual strength. But she represents much that is lamentable in the culture too: a certain cruelty, and an unforgiving hardness that manifests itself in this story as homophobia.

Mama’s homophobia precipitates the novel’s major crisis. After she and Molly move from Jamaica to Canada, Molly becomes romantically involved with a woman. Mama refuses to accept Molly’s relationship, and Molly’s partner is just as unwilling to tolerate Mama’s homophobia. Their mutual hostility and incomprehension eventually force Molly to choose between her family and her lover – effectively a choice between the mother culture and exile.

But Silvera suggests that this is a choice Molly should not have to make, and that it is possible to enjoy the best of both worlds. The novel itself has one foot planted in Jamaica and one in Canada, and can speak of both Toronto’s Kensington Market and Kingston’s Papine Market with comfortable familiarity. Silvera also uses Jamaica’s oral traditions as unselfconsciously as she does the conventions of written fiction, mixing standard English and patois with equal facility. And although the novel addresses those questions of identity and belonging that emigration inevitably raises, this is fiction that has arrived somewhere and speaks with confidence of that place.

Luckily Silvera’s confidence never settles into self-satisfaction. The Heart Does Not Bend is guided by an emotional and intellectual honesty, making it both a highly engaging and a thoroughly rewarding novel.