In Little Jamaica
Stories from a changing neighbourhood
When I was young, I tended to favour my red-headed and freckle-faced Cabbage Patch Doll, relegating my black one to the bottom of the toy heap. When not playing with dolls, I could be found immersed in Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley Twins novels — books that showcased girls of the blond and blue-eyed variety. Words such as “representation” and “inclusion” were not part of my vocabulary then, and that token black Cabbage Patch Kid served only to remind me that my skin colour was different than my peers’. Now, as an adult, I see myself in protagonists more and more, as publishers and readers alike reach beyond the perfunctory check mark of diversity and embrace stories by and about people of colour.
Frying Plantain, Zalika Reid-Benta’s debut collection, is one such work. Set in the Eglinton West neighbourhood of Little Jamaica, some ten kilometres northwest of Toronto’s downtown core, twelve interconnected stories follow Kara Davis, a young black girl of Jamaican descent. As Kara moves from girlhood to her late teens, her experiences speak to the intricacies of belonging and living between cultures, especially for the 300,000 or so Jamaican Canadians in this country.
The opening story begins in the Caribbean, where ten-year-old Kara discovers a bloodied pig’s head in a family member’s icebox. The sight shocks her. At first, her cousins, who are used to strangling chickens for soup and clambering up mango trees, tease her for being a city girl: “This tree frighten yuh like how duppy frighten yuh?” But eventually they begin to treat her as delicately as they would a tourist, approaching her only “for games like tag, for games they thought Canadian girls could stomach.” When she returns to Little Jamaica, Kara attempts to process her familial disconnect by embellishing stories of the pig head for her elementary school friends.
Central to her struggle to connect with her Jamaican roots is the role of perception, which her mother, Eloise, and her nana, Verna, repeatedly emphasize. Persistent cleanliness and culinary perfection fuel Verna’s preoccupation with image, while Eloise, a strict and unyielding woman who is constantly on the verge of rage, impresses upon Kara the need to maintain appearances.
In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama notes an “age-old maxim” among black people: “You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far.” It’s a familiar precept for many of us, and one that certainly speaks to Kara’s experience. Eloise knows what it’s like to be a teenager and a single mom, and she pushes Kara to make smarter choices than her white peers do — in every facet of life. In “Drunk,” toward the end of the collection, Kara returns home from an alcohol-fuelled evening only to suffer through admonishments that she “cannot afford to act like them.” Kara notices a rare tremor in Eloise’s voice: “It wasn’t anger and it wasn’t sadness. It was something different, something she never meant for me to notice. Fear.”
This fear reflects systemic racism, at both the national and local levels. In November 2017, for example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission announced a public inquiry “into “racial profiling and racial discrimination” within the Toronto Police Service. Of course, people living in Little Jamaica don’t need an inquiry to know the institutional bias: they see it first-hand. Just as it does in the real world, being black can have unfortunate consequences in these stories, and Eloise is unapologetic in her awareness of the unforgiving state.
Meanwhile, Verna is obsessed with order and appearances. Her history helps to explain her seemingly superficial need to “put everything in its place proper.” When her husband makes little effort to hide an affair, Verna’s main concern is what her friends will think of her, exclaiming that “everyone must see that I look good, everyone must see that I am fine!” Impressions take precedence when you’re accustomed to exclusion based on the colour of your skin. It’s a lingering preoccupation that makes sense, given that prejudice has been a constant for someone of Verna’s age. Remember, it was only in 1983 that the last segregated school in Canada closed its doors.
As the title of Frying Plantain suggests, Reid-Benta gracefully balances nuanced attention to race with wistful descriptions of food. She sprinkles the traditional flavours of Jamaica into these stories with casual references to Ting, curry chicken and patties, dumplings, and ackee and salt fish — without pausing to explain them. My mouth waters when Kara’s nana asks whether she still likes “that sweet drink, that Kola Champagne,” and I’m filled with nostalgia when I read about dinner tables “crowded with aluminum trays stuffed with rice and peas, jerk chicken, potato salad, curry goat.” In a way, the liberal inclusion of these dishes demonstrates just how far Jamaican cuisine has permeated the Canadian food scene. But it is also a symbolic fist bump for those of us who may not have seen our younger selves in our dolls or our books. We certainly recognize ourselves here.
Magnifying this sense of belonging is the consistent repetition of street names, intersections, and neighbourhood hangouts. Reid-Benta situates Kara’s school at Vaughan and Oakwood, and describes in detail “the area where the Caribbean and Europe converged.” At a popular doughnut shop, corner tables are overtaken by kids from Vaughan Road Academy and St. Thomas Aquinas, real-world high schools in Toronto. The repeated use of place names celebrates and memorializes a distinctly Jamaican Canadian geography, mapping it so that it may endure, even in the face of change.
Indeed, the real Little Jamaica of today is a place of transformation. An expansion to Toronto’s transit system, set to open in 2021, includes nineteen kilometres of light rail running through the neighbourhood. Planners say the Eglinton Crosstown will reduce commute times and reinvigorate the community. However, as was the case with Hogan’s Alley, the historic black community destroyed by Vancouver’s Georgia Viaduct, and the more recent gentrification of Halifax’s North End, there are growing concerns within Little Jamaica: will this distinct cultural enclave survive such a change? Frying Plantain does more than reference Marlee Avenue and Belgravia Avenue; it insists that readers remember this place and its people. In the face of gentrification and potential erasure, Reid-Benta offers an undeniable testament to those who have called — and will continue to call — this Little Jamaica home.
In 2014, the British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge blogged, “I can’t talk to white people about race anymore because of the consequential denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention.” Works like Frying Plantain confront “white denial,” in part, by blurring genres. They read something like memoir, reinforcing the authenticity of fictional invisibility. This is what Candice Carty-Williams does in Queenie, whose protagonist focuses on the culturally taboo topic of mental health in the black community. It’s what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does in Americanah, where the character Ifemelu blogs about race and immigration. And it’s how Fred Wah explores culture and belonging as a hyphenated Canadian in Diamond Grill. This literary tactic effectively counters the denial of structural oppression among non-black readers by evoking a deeper sense of empathy for the black experience.
Frying Plantain deftly chips away at white dismissals of privilege, obscuring the lines between short story and novel, between fiction and memoir. It documents a unique and complex cultural space that’s under threat, while acknowledging the challenges of living a hyphenated life. It reminds us that individuals remain bound to their cultural experience — their quirks and fixations stubbornly wrapped up as metaphorical leftovers. Ultimately, Kara chooses to carry the weight of what remains, nourishing a sense of identity and belonging among Canadians of Caribbean descent.