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, Edwidge Dandicat, and now…
Name: Sharon Millar
Country: Trinidad and Tobago
As luck would have it, I was with Sharon Millar for joint readings and panels at the Virgin Islands Lit Fest in 2015 when she had a soft launch of her first collection The Whale House and Other Stories. I was able to purchase a copy and get it signed by the author. This was not my first time reading the Small Axe Fiction Prize winner but it certainly provided insight to the fullness of her talents. There was little sign of the insecurity suggested in her 2013 Guardian interview in which she grappled with her place in the discussion on national literature. “There’s still an incredibly emotional response to work in this society… the conversations about literature can be polarising in a lot of ways and that’s not doing us any good at all,” she said.
But there’s marked self-assurance in Sharon’s collection as she finds the nuances between the extremes of identity and so much else.
The Whale House and Other Stories was one of my quickest and my most satisfying reads of 2015. The title story had won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013 – the international prize not only the regional prize – and it had been published with other stories from the region, including my own Amelia at Devil’s Bridge, in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (which is referenced elsewhere in this series and could easily be more mentioned when I consider all the writers, Ivory Kelly of Belize for instance, I discovered and admire in that series). Showcased as new talent as recently as 2012 at the Bocas Lit Fest, Sharon is quickly establishing herself as a distinctive voice in the evolving Caribbean literary canon, and a writer who treks less worn, even new, terrain as far as literature from the land of the hummingbird is concerned. And there is no doubting that her writing is as rooted in Trinidad as, say, Barbara’s is, though she’s coming geographically, ethnically, racially, emotionally, aesthetically from a different space.
She is consciously and specifically a woman writing the experiences of women: a Trini woman, one often old enough to have lived some, raised children, lost things, but not retired or retiring by any stretch of the imagination; a woman still shot up with life but mindful of the ways it can hurt. And the writer, Sharon, grazes her fingers familiarly over the points of hurt, feels where it has scabbed over and where the pain is still raw. She writes her women’s stories in a carefully textured way, layering in the moments so that what you end up with is both beautiful in the detail and impactful in the total effect.
“Baking cakes is not the way you throw a baby away” – quiet, domestic, matter of fact, and dark, in the way of Caribbean women doing what they have to do to hold their families up, hold themselves together, get on with life.
Her writing is less plot and action, and more character; less character, more landscape; less landscape, more moments.
“Over the years she’s learned to watch for scorpion fish and the low-lying stingrays that rise like illusions when dusk slides into the bay.” So much poetry here, so much foreshadowing as well, a reminder that she doesn’t use words just to dress up her prose but with purpose. Something Canadian writer and editor Jennifer Falkner blogs; noting, even as she remarks how much we could learn from Sharon technically, that what’s important is how the writing goes where it hurts. “The cruel irony that breasts that can sustain new life can hold the seeds of one’s death. Making Guava Jelly (one of the stories in the collection) doesn’t shrink from this…” she wrote
In one tale there is a condemned man and the sister trying to no, not make sense of, she has no time for such navel gazing, but carry the load he has left behind – specifically the daughter she is trying to place though she knows, and the reader knows, it will finally fall to her.
And where there are stories of love, and there are, it’s not a rom-com kind of love. “The idea of his death frightens her deeply and because of this, she thinks she must still love him.” Love and passion in this work rarely seem to bring joy or peace, this is not the dewy-eyed love of romance novels but a grown woman’s realistic, sometimes longsuffering, sometimes cynical acceptance of love – love as a negative, love by process of elimination, the wha na kill fatten variety of love.
Just as it doesn’t romanticize love, Sharon’s collection doesn’t romanticize Trinidad – there are drug dons, corrupt politicians, and “feral teenagers”.
Other noteworthy features of Sharon’s writing as evinced by this work, is the sense that the environment is not only living and breathing but purposeful, its purpose not always in concert with humankind’s. I wouldn’t say nature feels malevolent in such times but there’s an awareness that for all our machinations as ‘higher evolved beings’, only so much is in our control, and that you have to understand the land (what will poison, what won’t) in order to survive it. All of this is to say that the book is also quite thought provoking on themes of wo/man’s hubris, insiderness and outsiderness, class, and nature just in and of itself.
“The cave breathes silently in the darkness, the birds shrieking above us.” This is the cave that took with finality two divers in one of the latter stories. Nature warns, nature takes.
This is not a book of happy endings.
N.B. This borrows heavily from a review I wrote immediately after finishing the book.
Written by me, copyrighted by me, nuh tief.
p.s. check out the links, share your thoughts…