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. I began with Sharon Leach and continue now with …
Name of the writer: Shakirah Bourne
Shakirah Bourne’s This Foot is Mine is a story that I have successfully used in workshop as a point of view exercise. What the writer does so deftly, repeatedly, is put the reader into the unexpected perspective. You’ve read one Carnival story you’ve read them all, right? Well, have you read one from the point of view of *spoiler alert* the reveler’s tennis shoe?
“You arrive home just before the seven o’clock news. You look at yourself, stained with mud, mouth open, and wonder again if this is the end of the line, but instead you are shoved safely under the bed.”
Of course, when you read it a second time, the foreshadowing is there, but subtly so: “This time you make sure you’re laced tightly, to prevent slippage.” Your brain doesn’t automatically think, the shoe speaks, at that point. But that’s who’s speaking throughout. What’s beautiful is that it doesn’t feel gimmicky, though it easily could, nor is Carnival used here purely for show.
Shakirah, also a prolific Bajan filmmaker, is never doing one thing at a time, it seems, on the page or in life. For here she sews meaning into the seams of Carnival without losing the vibrancy of the moment, in fact drawing on it: “The day when you raise sweat-drenched hands with complete strangers, when all brands are equal, and vagrants and politicians smell alike. The day when Christians do a slow wine to the tune ‘Amazing Grace’. The day when the iron gates of mansions hidden behind bearded trees sprawl open, and neighbours introduce themselves to each other over a plate of rice, macaroni pie, and baked chicken.” The unsaid here is the contrast between this moment and Barbados year-round – it is a deft, indirect commentary on the societal inequalities, the spaces between people, and the gated communities separating the elite from the rest of the populace. As described by the shoe risking life and limb in the midst of it, it is a veritable utopia, a time when all the walls come down; it is hectic, it is magical, and it is beautiful.
Shakirah captures the energy of something that for the Caribbean person is quite familiar, while giving the reader a fresh and unusual experience of it, and deeper insight.
A similar effect is achieved in her quieter tale, The Last Crustacean, which appeared in Volume 26 of the Caribbean Writer. As the title hints, it’s told from the perspective of a crab, as one might find in a children’s picture book. And there’s no trying to hide it this time. First line: “I is the oldest crab on this here beach…” But this is a story that speaks to very adult concerns. The crab speaks for itself, but it also speaks for people displaced by ‘development’. In the crab’s case, the home it has known “for three generations” is eroding, literally; the beach is disappearing. But worse than Mother Nature is human nature, and our propensity in the Caribbean to occupy every bit of space. Mother Rock, a sacred place to the crabs and a practical protection is co-opted by the humans – homes were destroyed, crabs were displaced, some even died. Then even the sacred of sacreds, immovable of immovables, Mother Rock, was lifted “as if it were a small sea shell”. Even then the narrator thought having dug their home a bit deeper that they were safe. The story ends with sunlight pouring into their hole and the rest is left to the reader’s imagination. But it’s not terribly hard to predict.
With talk of climate change and its potential impact on humans and the obstinacy of some humans in the face of it, this reader can’t help but make the connection, see that critique, in the crabs’ failure to read the proverbial tea leaves between the time ground was broken on the new resort development and the time the backhoes came in to really break ground. Could the writer, among other things, also be saying that we fail to act early to insulate ourselves from the impact of changes to our environment at our own peril? Perhaps. As noted, she is always doing several things at once, and as the use of allegory here reminds us, rarely comes at her tale in the traditional way.
Granted I haven’t yet read her debut collection In Time of Need, only her journalled stories, but the most straight on in terms of clarity of theme and form that I’ve read has to do with domestic abuse. It begins, after an opening epigraph critical of false imagery, i.e. pretending, “Leon hit me again”. But if the story hits the expected beats, the title, itself (We always smile for Photos) is quite intriguing, and the story in the end is both about domestic violence and deception/false faces. Lines like “Can you hide the bruise with make up?” work on both levels. Now, I say she hits the story straight on because there’s no real attempt at masking, but she does attempt an unconventional structure using primarily direct quotes to move the story forward. Most everything we know about these women and their less than perfect situations is revealed in these truncated interactions with each other – Shakirah doesn’t linger and she doesn’t lean on exposition to clear anything up. She trusts her readers to figure it out even as she allows her characters whatever self-deception they need to navigate their lives.
Never dull, Shakirah is always experimenting, and that’s always interesting. “Art should never be restricted. All I simply ask is that the stories be ours. If we don’t tell them, who will?” Shakirah said in a Caribbean Beat interview In it, she also discussed her fondness for using children’s voices because of their unadorned honesty. She does so in Crossing Over published 2010 in St. Somewhere , where we meet a child for whom beatings was like a game of dodge ball and funerals were like her own personal playground until she got fixated on the dead coming back to life and later learned that “little children could dead” too. This story is yet more evidence of Shakirah’s tendency to use voices that will give the reader a fresh perspective. She also referenced her commitment to take on social issues – and we see that as well in each of the examples given.
“If I could invent a genre for my work, I would call it ‘thought-fiction’ — fiction which captures the beauty of the mind, the processes and emotions that can occur in a few seconds. It would discuss and describe the mental and emotional impact of seemingly everyday activities,” Shakirah said in the Beat interview, and so we continue to see a young woman interrogating her world and experimenting with form.
Written by me, copyrighted by me, nuh tief.
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