The Short of It – Part 3

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, continued with Shakirah Bourne, and continue now with …

Barbara%20Jenkins

Barbara Jenkins. image taken from publisher’s author page at peepaltreepress.com

Name of the writer: Barbara Jenkins
Country: Trinidad and Tobago
Barbara Jenkins is coming in to her own as a writer at a time in life when most people are settling in to retirement. At this writing, she has just won the 2015 Guyana Prize for Caribbean Literature, Best Book of Fiction, for her debut collection Sic Transit Wagon. And while this book is still on my to-be-read list, Barbara’s writing has been on my radar since before I met her in Trinidad, where I heard her read at the launch of Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, and then again in New York where we both were part of the PEN World Voices Literary Salon – along with Sharon Leach. She’d won in very quick succession the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean Region – back to back, the Wasifiri New Writing Prize, the Caribbean Writer’s Canute Brodhurst Prize, the Small Axe Literary Competition, the romance section of the My African Diaspora Short Story Contest, and the inaugural Hollick Arvon  Caribbean Writers Prize – all of this between 2010 and 2013. Per her publisher’s page she only started writing in 2008, making her something of an overnight success, but when you read her fiction, you understand that a life’s worth of living and knowing has provided the building blocks.

Her stories are deeply rooted in her Caribbean so that even without her saying the where and the when, you can hear the Trini on their tongue, feel it in their blood.

Take this moment from her 2010 Commonwealth winning story, Something from Nothing:   ‘Valentine call the Guardian. “We is two grassroots boys and we win the sweepstake.” Next day, Guardian headline: “Belmont Sons Sweep Prize”, with smiling pictures and report on their plans for all that money. “We not sure yet. Maybe we might bring out a Carnival band.”’From there we see the winners enter the fabric store, barter, trust, don’t pay on time…all of the rhythms of a Caribbean existence, and specifically the Caribbean existence of the mas man. This is Carnival from a different perspective; a perspective that illuminates the passion and the hustle in equal parts. The prose seems simple, unadorned but in it is revealed, at once, the rhythms of life in the Caribbean and the kind of heart that beats in the Caribbean man – one that knows that you can’t come at things straight on, you have to get creative.

Barbara’s authorial voice is confidently settled but she’s also built a skill set through participation in the University of the West Indies’ MFA programme, the Cropper Foundation workshop, and Hollick Arvon (through which she was mentored by critically acclaimed author of Mr. Loverman Bernadine Evaristo).

Her contribution to Pepperpot is almost uniformly praised as the highlight of the collection even as other favourites, in deference to personal preferences, move about review to review.

“There’s also humour. I particularly liked Barbara Jenkins’ ‘A Good Friday’ for this, with its loveable-rogue narrator who gets more than he bargains for when a devout young woman in distress happens by his bar.” – writes Reading the World/The World Between Two Covers author Ann Morgan of the UK

Meanwhile, Barbara’s countrywoman, Shivanee Ramlochan who blogs on literature and also covers it in the Trinidad press including the in-flight magazine Caribbean Beat, singled it out in her review of the book as well, noting that it’s an example of “all the ways in which Jenkins masters her approach to the genre. Through Jenkins’ short fiction, we’re frequently introduced to protagonists, spokespeople and unlikely heroines who both challenge and amplify our assumptions governing the best voices to guide a story.”  The review makes the point I tried to suggest earlier, that her prose is very comfortable in its skin and keeps a very thin partition in terms of use of language between itself and its core subject and readership – it is masterful and yet unpretentious, and it has a mischievous glint in its eye that its people will relate to.

The title of her Pepperpot submission, A Good Friday, right away suggests that some fun will be poked at the most sacred of days on the Christian calendar, outside of Christmas, that is. The story begins not in church but in a rum shop, though there is a church lady present, fresh from Good Friday mass. Sacrilegious, you say; well, Jenkins sees your sacrilegious and, with an abundance of religious symbolism, raises you a dose of Caribbean un-PC humour. Trying to comfort and simultaneously flirt with the church lady, the rum shop man, at seeing her distress presumably over the death of Christ soothes, “You know he died a long time ago. Years and years ago. Thousands of years ago.” And when she talks about sharing Jesus’ suffering, “for one tortured moment, KarlLee feeling she going to open her palms and show him a pair of bleeding stigmata and then what could he do? Club soda can’t fix that.” Such irreverence. And as if the institutions of Christendom hadn’t taken enough ribbing in the story to that point, the lady reveals that the unthinkable had happened during mass: “I turned around and my handbag was gone.” KarlLee tries to care but he’s also still on the prowl: “She nice too bad,” he thinks in the midst of her true confessions. “All he wants to do is stroke that cheek, kiss those lips, feel those eye lashes tickle his body…but he catch himself quick. He have to show interest in the conversation.” Because people are never quite as they seem, the woman turns out to be not quite as fragile as she at first seems, and KarlLee not quite as certain of the ground on which he stands, but in the end, they both get what they want, or seem poised to. As she does in stories like The Talisman, a haunting tale found in Volume 26 of the Caribbean Writer, which attempts to tackle the complexities of human interaction. Oh, and in A Good Friday, there’s a dog named Apocalypse – the rum shop dog – and one named Lucifer – the woman’s, and though she’d been praying for a sign from God, it was Lucifer that kept the thief from absconding with her belongings. You’ll be chuckling to yourself, intrigued and entertained, as you work at unravelling the meaning behind the religious symbolism – and the possibility that it goes no deeper than ole talk.

 

Written by me, copyrighted by me, nuh tief.

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

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