The Short of It – Part 1

This Quick Survey of Some Contemporary Caribbean Short Fiction Women Writers was submitted to another market. It didn’t work out as these things sometimes don’t; so, rather than having it sitting on my hard drive, I’m going to share the entire article here as a series of stories about some of the female writers of contemporary Caribbean short fiction whose work (specifically short stories) I have enjoyed. Beginning with…

Sharon Leach

Sharon Leach reading at the PEN World Voices Festival 2015.

 

Name of the writer: Sharon Leach
Country: Jamaica
Sharon – author of Love it when you come, Hate it when you go, which was shortlisted in November 2015 for the Guyana Prize for Literature Best Book of Fiction – is a writer who unflinchingly scratches at the underbelly of modern urban and urbane Jamaica. She doesn’t judge her characters for behavior others might deem morally corrupt, not even when those characters don’t have the excuse of scratching for survival. She is a writer who simply says, here it is, and compels her reader and likely middle and upper class Jamaica to confront certain hard truths in the process.

She acknowledges all of the above about her writing: “I’m not sure I know how to categorize my own writing,” she said in an interview on my (other) blog   “I only know that there’s a kind of writing I don’t like reading and I try to keep away from it… a sanitized way of writing…Or writing that’s judgmental, that says, oh my God, this character is such a sinner and I want you, reader, to see that I don’t approve. … I want truth when I read and I suppose I tend to write that way… I’m not the tourist board; I’m not interested in painting touristy pictures about sun, sea and sand in paradise. I’m not a priest. I’m simply a storyteller who facilitates these characters’ stories to come out on the page in a truthful way.”

And so they do.

“Ten years ago I found out I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend. For years I’d been hearing my mother accuse him of screwing around on her. I’d always believed she was talking about me. After all, he’d told me I was the only woman he ever needed. What did I know? I was fifteen; I believed him.” That’s from All the Secret Things No one ever knows in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean. When a story begins like that, you, the reader, know you’re being tossed in to the deep end, no time even to grab a life jacket.

I met Sharon at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, where we, with Barbara Jenkins of Trinidad and Tobago, all included in the Pepperpot collection, were representing for the Caribbean. Sharon read from Sugaryou can see the reading here   or read the story for yourself at AfroBeat. It begins with the contrast between the local girl, the hotel worker, who watches and serves and the tourist, in this case a black American tourist with whom she has only a superficial similarity: her “legs are strong, and brown like mine” but her braids are “real braids that have been done at some fancy foreign boutique”. The story’s protagonist, a silent observer, is understandably fascinated by this girl, a fascination that reaches stalker-ish levels: “I like to watch her from a little distance on the nights that I serve drinks beside Ernesto the Cuban at in the tikki bar. She has been here at the resort for almost two weeks now.” The ‘stalker’ doesn’t have resources for luxuries like vacations, in her homeland of Jamaica, or anywhere else, and in her mix of longing and resentment is the elephant in the room in these islands where the beach is just the beginning (my home country of Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism motto, along with Tourism is everybody’s business; read: tourism is the only business that matters). This hotel employee is every Caribbean person, underclass to middle class,  working the system, understanding their place in it, surviving it, resenting it, fascinated by it. “Denise is pretty, like the white women I’ve seen in the movies. The ones I’ve seen here at the resort aren’t. They mostly have flabby guts, stretch marks and bad teeth. Even without make-up, though, I can stare at Denise for hours and feel hypnotised.” Here she’s commenting on another tourist, a white one. And as she moves among them the chasm between her reality and theirs stirs certain temptations. “I had laughed but deep down I wanted to be one of those people who could afford silly holidays and hotel rooms. I saw their possessions carelessly lying about when I cleaned their rooms: Compact Disc players, video cameras, those little computer gadgets that played music; the things I would never ever be able to afford. And I would do anything for that life.” That people moving in the tourism trade are sometimes lured in to another kind of trade is introduced – “We’re offering good money here,” Peter, the wife/partner of Denise offers. And it is so tempting, is the truth that the story acknowledges – “I feel Denise drawing little circles on my back with her fingers and the feeling is not unpleasant.” And as our girl stands on the precipice of giving in she sees the black tourist, the girl like her but not, and the note of sadness and longing that runs through her is beyond aspirational – “I imagine the girl is me.” Because the girl has diamonds in her ear while for our girl, what she works for is to keep a roof over Ma’s head, to keep clothes on the children’s back, to survive. And you can almost sense the writer giving us a cutting side eye if we dare to judge her, the way we do the mules in the paper caught smuggling drugs, shaming us by getting caught and smearing our country’s name in the international media. Because from the posh resort world, we travel with our girl to a yard where children are surrounded by beaches they never get to see, instead they “(chase) a mother hen and her baby chicks on a scabby patch of grass”.

Reality check. The “film of dust” on our girl’s feet from the “the mile-and-a-half walk from the hotel” and “the odour of sex coming off (her) skin” – reality check. And for the girl who has to compromise herself, there are no parades, there is her mother snatching the money from her hand and telling her she should be grateful – reality check.

I once came across a Library Thing review of Pepperpot that said of Leach’s Secret Things something that could be said of Sugar and likely more of her stories, “It was not easy to read, but I am glad that I read it”.

Written by me, copyrighted by me, nuh tief.

p.s. check out the links, share your thoughts…

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