Toronto authors Zalika Reid-Benta and Laure Baudot take markedly different approaches to their debut collections of short fiction.
Reid-Benta’s book, Frying Plantain, is a coming-of-age sequence that takes an honest and penetrating look at the Black experience in Toronto. The stories are set in the city’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood and references to early Harry Potter films, CDs, and flip phones locate them chronologically between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over the course of 12 seamlessly interwoven individual pieces, we follow Kara, a second-generation Jamaican-Canadian, from elementary school to university.
At school, Kara aims for respectability among her predominantly white classmates; despite unintentionally exoticizing herself with a Jamaica-set tale involving a severed pig’s head, she rarely puts a toe out of line. Among her neighbourhood friends, she becomes the victim of a prank, yet proves she can hold her own. As Kara moves through her teenage years, and in and out of her grandmother’s bungalow, she deals with first jobs, first boyfriends, and first parties, all while trying to reconcile her Canadian upbringing with her Jamaican heritage. In the final passage of the title story, Kara realizes that her Nana has been imparting not just her culture but her wisdom: “I nod my head and tighten my grip on the No Frills bag, feeling the weight of margarine containers and yogurt cups, remembering the weight of all of the leftovers she’d given me throughout the years.”
At its core, Frying Plantain is a book about mothers and daughters – the tensions between them, the desire for understanding, and, above all, the expectations that hold the next generation to a higher standard. For example, Kara’s mother, Eloise, had Kara at 17; marked by this experience, she desperately tries to control Kara’s awakening sexuality, forbidding her to be alone with boys or go out in the company of certain friends with questionable reputations. Kara’s Nana insists that her furniture be placed with exact precision. Kara observes and internalizes all this behaviour, often feeling compelled to try to bridge the gap between her warring mother and grandmother.
The quick pace and close linking of the stories make the book read more like a memoir than a collection of short fiction. Reid-Benta’s writing is clear, precise, and infused with emotional depth. The characters are complex and well developed – comforting in their familiarity and frustrating in their stubbornness. Reid-Benta masterfully uses Kara’s everyday life to highlight the intimate inner workings of her characters, their family dysfunction, and the juxtaposition of Canadian and Jamaican identities.
Laure Baudot also explores intergenerational cycles in her debut collection, The One Because of the Dead. As the title suggests, these stories have a darker undertone than Reid-Benta’s; the dozen stories in Baudot’s collection meticulously unravel the behaviour, desires, and motivations of their characters. In “Inheritance,” Leo strands his girlfriend in shark-infested waters as revenge for her infidelity while on vacation. In “Starting Somewhere,” teenage Lydia gets fired from her summer job at a camp for people with disabilities for sleeping with another employee (and being generally poor at her job).
Baudot’s subtle exploration of her themes is well executed. In “Siblings,” daughter Sonya struggles to connect with her mother, Joy, an artist dealing with the inherited pain of her family’s internment in camps during the Holocaust and the resultant guilt she feels about her ancestors’ suffering. Joy carries the burden of her parents’ past but is unable to recognize the extent to which her daughter needs her in the present. During a phone conversation, the dead air between mother and daughter emphasizes this point.
The characters in these stories often find themselves caught between self-determination and self-actualization. Sometimes, as in the title story, this manifests in toxic relationships and behaviour. Mountaineer Akash is determined to summit Mount Everest, but his girlfriend Julie, a former ballet dancer, hopes he will abandon this dream. Undeterred, Akash joins the expedition, only to realize that reaching the mountaintop leaves him unfulfilled. Back in Toronto, Julie struggles with the knowledge that she has abandoned her own dreams and settled for an unsatisfying career as a dance teacher. Akash’s overconfidence starkly contrasts with Julie’s reserve, further highlighting the unspoken disconnect between them.
Each story is charged by the power of things left unsaid – between partners, parents and children, friends, even bosses. Power dynamics, family tribulations, and the quest for self-discovery play prominent roles, and Baudot’s straightforward prose paints a candid picture of the pivotal moments in her characters’ lives.