A collection from Kaie Kellough
Say the word “maroon” and most people will think if not of the colour, then of being stranded on a desert island. They might imagine a Robinson Crusoe scenario, where an interchangeable tropical location provides a backdrop to a (usually male, usually white) struggle for survival. But there is an older, Caribbean genealogy to the word that takes us back to the history of slavery.
Maroons were Caribbean rebels: Africans and their descendants who had escaped plantations to form their own communities. Settling in hard-to-reach mountain ranges and stretches of rainforest, they had to defend themselves against societies that sought to re-enslave them. “Petit marronage” was a more ambiguous practice whereby enslaved people would disappear for days or months, only to eventually return to the plantation. As a form of resistance, petit marronage involved a complex dynamic between freedom and subjugation, revolt and compliance.
Kaie Kellough’s debut short story collection, Dominoes at the Crossroads, brings Caribbean rebellion into the Canadian present. In locations ranging from Montreal and Winnipeg to the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, characters from the diaspora confront mechanisms of exclusion and seek livable futures. The stories trace connections between radical activism within Canada and major events like the revolutions in Haiti, Cuba, and Grenada. Yet Kellough is above all concerned with more subtle forms of resistance. Many of his characters negotiate degrees of freedom, neither fully escaping from nor surrendering to a society that continues to devalue Black lives. “Petit Marronage” provides the title to his longest story and the concept that anchors the collection as a whole.
The possibilities and limits of flight are a recurring motif in these tales. In “We Free Kings,” the narrator abandons Montreal for Vancouver to escape the small-mindedness and homophobia of segments of the Caribbean community, only to be stalked by memories and feelings of ambivalence. In “Smoke That Thundered,” a young man from Calgary is shipped to Guyana by his parents to reconnect with his family’s roots — a journey that may result in him leaping off Kaieteur Falls. The outcome is unclear, as Kellough is not interested in straightforward realism. His stories play with form, departing from and returning to narrative conventions with a rebelliousness that could be its own version of marronage.
The ties between form and content are clearest in “Petit Marronage” itself. A dreadlocked saxophonist criss-crosses Canada, but time and identity prove unstable. The narrative frequently slides into the past, and the narrator slips into the mind of a fugitive slave in Fredericton in 1816 or that of Marie-Joseph Angélique, the enslaved woman convicted of burning down much of Montreal in 1734. In the present, racist encounters underline a very contemporary hostility toward Black bodies. The story is repetitive, but that’s the point. No part of Canada is untouched by histories of slavery and discrimination. At the same time, the saxophonist grapples with cyclical rhythms in Caribbean music, which prompt attention to “subtle variation” and demonstrate that “repetition did not mean stillness or limitation.” This meta-commentary on artistic practice invites another reading of the story, where instances of escape and resistance also recur.
Kellough’s attention to the specificities of setting will be familiar to readers who know his other work. A fixture of the Montreal arts scene, he was raised in Calgary by Guyanese parents. He relishes in detailed depictions of all three places in Magnetic Equator, his third collection of poetry and the winner of this year’s Griffin Prize. One poem, “ghost notes,” critiques claims about writing from nowhere. As the poetic voice insists, “i think differently / in montréal from how i did in calgary, i write and dream / in georgetown guyana with a flying fish / carried on the frothed surge of thought.”
Kellough’s reckoning with Calgary is one of the animating tensions of Magnetic Equator. His judgment of the oil-dependent suburbs is frequently scathing: “i don’t have anything kind to say about calgary, circa 1985.” That said, these poems are gripping in their particularity, subverting pastoral tropes and wringing symbolism out of the Saddledome. In Dominoes at the Crossroads, the prairies are far more one-dimensional. Beyond a shout‑out to John Ware, “a Black cowboy who had been enslaved in South Carolina in the 1800s, and who first introduced cattle and ranching to Alberta,” the region is marked by racial discrimination and parades of cowboy hats. The racism reads honestly; the Stetsons stray into the realm of stereotypes.
Dominoes at the Crossroads focuses more intently on Montreal, recalling Kellough’s experimental ode to the city and its cultural plurality in his debut novel, Accordéon. Streets and neighbourhoods are described in minute detail, evoking the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s baroque aesthetics. The same love for the local that saw Accordéon’s narrator celebrate the pharmacy chain Jean Coutu here lends poetic weight to metro stations. French also seeps into the pages (“Montréal” literally keeps its accent), and two stories are riffs on Hamidou Diop, a Senegalese double agent who appears as a minor character in Hubert Aquin’s Québécois classic Prochain episode (Next Episode).
For Kellough, the Caribbean is both a point of origin and a dynamic, contemporary location. These stories map multiple, contradictory diasporic trajectories: one character of Haitian descent becomes a Montreal landlord who revels in gentrification; another is a student turned taxi driver who thwarts his parents’ project of upward mobility. Meanwhile, returning to the Caribbean is no simple matter. In the story “Dominoes at the Crossroads,” two characters travel to an unnamed island, where one has roots and the other is pursuing a research project on the Grenada revolution. As the narrator considers his status as a “wealthy high brown international,” he struggles to read the locals’ reaction to his presence. The story poses the question: Would he be an agent in the next revolution or its target?
Throughout, the collection is unapologetically intellectual, leading with a faux academic paper and referencing a wide range of Caribbean writers and thinkers, including Aimé Césaire, Maryse Condé, and Édouard Glissant. The result is an intertextual feast for anyone already familiar with the region’s literature — although, at times, the concepts feel more developed than the characters. Each story is told in the first person, but the individual voices remain stylistically similar. Kellough’s narrators also have a tendency to editorialize, explicitly stating their positions on questions of identity and belonging. Some passages feel stranded between literary fiction and politically oriented essays.
In a book this self-aware, these stylistic choices have internal justifications. In “Capital,” one character objects that a political discussion “is too obvious,” anticipating and deflecting similar objections from the reader. The final story questions the notion of single and separable selves, suggesting that the book’s narrators may all be variations of one another. Still, the writing is most captivating when it is less direct and more lyrical. In “Navette,” for example, or the final passages of “Ashes and Juju,” imagery takes over and Kellough the poet is in stronger evidence.
Ultimately, Dominoes at the Crossroads, especially when read alongside Magnetic Equator, should expand Kellough’s reputation as a major writer. Like the practice of petit marronage itself, this multi-faceted text asks for careful reading as it maintains its many contradictions.