by Aniké Wildman
First off, can I get two claps for the appropriately spelt patois – writers/editors, take note. A generally light-hearted look at the diasporic Caribbean experience, Frying Plantain is the debut by Canadian writer Zalika Reid-Benta and centres Kara, a young Canadian of Jamaican heritage, trying to find her own authentic Jamaican-ness under the continual observation and critique of her mother, grandmother and friends.
Somewhere between a novel and short story collection, we follow Kara through childhood, teen years and eventually to university through a series of memories and incidents. We meet young Kara at 10, on her first trip to Jamaica while squirming at the bloodied pigs head and seeing her young cousins wring a chicken’s neck for soup without hesitation: “Ah wah? Yuh nuh cook soup in Canada?” It’s in this bold introduction that we get a taste of Zalika’s dark humour. Skilfully, in this stark parallel between ‘soft chile’ Kara and her cousins, already emboldened by their rural life, Zalika assigns no value in one experience over the other, does not fall into a Western trope of privilege vs disadvantage (indeed, back in her suburban school in Toronto Kara uses these tales to gain cache), but instead shows us a keen ability for drawing out cultural differences and crafting the sense of ‘otherness’ that will follow Kara throughout the book.
Without doubt, the glory of this book is the intergenerational relationships between Kara, her mother, Eloise and maternal grandmother (Nana). There is a brilliance in the way that Zalika lets her words linger on the page and quite literally requires the reader to read between the lines; the silences imply every ‘look’ and every utterance that goes unsaid in a way that felt very true to a Caribbean household where words can sometimes be scarce even when the love is plenty. I recently heard a poet remark that the bond between a Jamaican mother and her child is being able to know exactly what is meant when Mum says to ‘get the thing from the thing for the thing,’ and Frying Plantain taps into every nuance and memory to that effect. Without knowing much about Kara’s mother, we understand her intuitively; placing Kara in a school outside of the neighbourhood for the better maths programme, standing her ground against an obnoxious white man in the store, ushering Kara past the boys who hang on the street corner. There are no explicit words, but we understand that for Kara, she wants more, better, likely everything she could have had if not for the sacrifice of motherhood. For me, where the structure of this book can sometimes compromise the emotional impact, Eloise and Kara’s relationship is the beating heart.
In her teen years, Kara is more reserved and cautious than her other friends (even the Indian Ashani who pretends to be from Trinidad but thinks the capital is Tobago) are all more boldly Caribbean than she, some with fresh accents and flawless patois. While the teen exchanges felt true to form, I struggled with the superficiality in parts. Based on the jovial teasing and the sometimes overt betrayal, it was a struggle to understand how these friendships maintained as they did throughout the years even despite school changes and relationships. I highlight this as a weakness because I feel generally that black teens, particularly black teen girls, are desperately underrepresented in literature when it comes to the depth of their friendships and bonds. Too often, they are crafted as sassy, precocious (the list goes on), leaving the one character (in this case, Kara) who then becomes the exception to the rule. Aside from that gripe, I did love the energy of the chapters with her friends particularly the humour of and the antics of first secret first boyfriends and secret cinema dates, while keeping a keen eye for the family members who may report sighting them with boys.
While I would have appreciated a more novelistic form, which I feel would have minimised the occasional superficiality of the characterisations, this was a fun and energetic read. It’s littered with Black teen mischief and frivolity - we love to see it. It has all the complexities of intergenerational family love and that general warm, fuzzy feeling you get inside when you read a book that crafts a world that feels so familiar to you. You’ll close your eyes and smell the frying plantain.