The Short of It – Part 4

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, then Barbara Jenkins, and now…

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Edwidge Dandicat. Photo: edwidgedandicatsociety.org

Name: Edwidge Dandicat
Country: Haiti (lives in America).
Edwidge Dandicat is not emerging in the way that the other short story writers I’ve opted to spotlight are. She has been here: an inspiration; a major, established, critically acclaimed, award winning, internationally renowned author, plus she’s been selected by Oprah (and readers may remember that that would literally cause an author’s sales to blow up). Her books include Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Farming of Bones; and Create Dangerously – to name the three that have made her one of my forever literary crushes (i.e. a writer who I not only enjoy but who moves me, who teaches me every time I read her, challenges me with every word, reveals the heart of Haiti beyond the tragedies that make the headlines – not that she ignores the tragedies, au contraire, but she also cuts to the bloody, pulsing, human heart of her homeland; and does all of this in a way that’s accessible). And as if I didn’t love her enough on the page and in the way her own story as a writer has evolved, there’s this New Yorker podcast of her celebrating and reading one of my all time favourite short stories, Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl

I won’t get in to Girl, how I’ve used it time and again in workshop and how Kincaid is one of the reasons I’m even a writer, but I highly recommend you read it if you’re looking for a piece that circumvents traditional form and structure and still gives us in a tight, tense, tiny exchange fully drawn characters and a complete story deeply rooted in place and time, yet universally appealing.

I will note though that Kincaid reminds us in Girl that it’s all in the details, something Edwidge does in her writing as well. Her stories paint Haiti and the Haitian diaspora in rich detail, an example of this being the carefully researched and vividly rendered xenophobia that left thousands dead in (1937) at the border where Haiti and the Dominican Republic meet but fail to connect in The Farming of Bones.

Known for groundbreaking novels like that one, Edwidge is a contemporary writer who also rates notice for her short fiction, which similarly immerses the reader in the Haitian experience; and even when not explicitly that – e.g. Quality Control, a story in which the fictional writer arrives on a fictional island with all the markers of a dictatorship to interview her former college-mate, now first lady of the unnamed country – a world where, much like her own, freedom was not guaranteed and violence or the threat of violence was all too close to the surface.

“The men of Baz Benin gave themselves the monikers of Nubian royalty, which also happened to suggest, in Creole, menacing acts—piye, for example, means ‘to pillage.’” – Edwidge writes in Ghosts, published 2008 in The New Yorker  In that story, political and criminal terror, part of the day to day reality in the Haiti she writes, is explored through the experiences of a young man, son of a hardworking pair of restaurateurs in a community now overrun by gangs. And, through them, she reveals, the ravages of time and malicious intent on both the social and physical landscape:  “Pascal’s parents had moved to Bel Air at a time when the neighborhood was inhabited mostly by peasants, living there temporarily so that their children could finish primary school. But as the trees in the provinces vanished into charcoal and the mountains gave way, washing the country’s topsoil into the sea, they, like the others, stayed and raised their two sons and at least a thousand pigeons, which, over the years, they sold both alive and dead.” The parents stayed in this stark reality, and sacrificed, so that their children could escape.

From Kincaid’s book Lucy to my own novella The Boy from Willow Bend to Barbadian Lisa Harewood’s short film Auntie, the outward migration of children, or of parents later followed, by the children is a familiar trope of Caribbean fiction because it is, still, a part of Caribbean reality often due to limited economic opportunities. In Haiti, staying or going, could literally be the difference between life and death and so that heightens the stakes – and the tension. When the young hero is falsely accused, there is no due process, there is “the box of a room where he was taken to be questioned …hot, with the stench of fresh vomit in the air.” And there “During his questioning, he was repeatedly punched on the back of the neck.” And eventually when he was cut loose, it was to be dumped “in front of his parents’ restaurant at ten that night”. Such is life in Bel Air. The young gang members of the area take this in stride but one leaves the story with a sense that our young hero and his family have been soundly shaken by the experience of being treated like the gang members they serve, and likely at the realization that when the police is the biggest gang in the land, little separates the innocent from the guilty. And in the end, as the brother, Jules, away in Canada foreshadows, “Home is not always a place you have trouble leaving.”

Written by me, copyrighted by me, nuh tief.

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

2 thoughts on “The Short of It – Part 4

  1. thanks for spotlighting this art form and the writers who excel at writing complete, complex stories with minimal words. Perhaps these essays can be part of a longer collection of non-fiction writing.

    • I must admit I am motivated to do more… but who has time to read all the stories I want to read…might be time to dig up a grant proposal for this sort of thing. Thanks for reading.

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