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Books Author Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain avoids stereotypical ‘angry black woman’ trope

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Zalika Reid-Benta, the author of Frying Plantain (House of Anansi Press; 272 pages), could have very easily allowed the characters in her debut novel to fall into the stereotypical “angry black woman” trope.

This caricature of black women was brought to life by characters such as Sapphire Stevens of 1930s Amos and Andy sitcom fame, and has existed as far back as the minstrel shows of the 19th-century American stage. Reid-Benta avoids it by showing us how their faults become understandable responses to lived trauma. They aren’t just cardboard cut-out monsters. They are women wounded by betrayal, haunted by perceived failures, but still acting out of love.

The protagonist of Frying Plantain is Kara Davis, a third-generation Canadian of Caribbean background growing up in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood in Toronto. The novel follows her transition from childhood to adolescence and examines her complicated relationships with her mother, Eloise, and her Jamaican immigrant grandmother, Nana.

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Reid-Benta walks us through three of the book’s major themes

Womanhood

“I don’t always think black women are treated fairly when it comes to being allowed to express anger, but it was also important to not write these black women characters as emotionless robots. I wanted to allow these women to be human and express their anger because there were aspects of their lives that they had every right to be angry about. Though some of their actions toward each other may seem untraditional or even damaging, they become easier to empathize with when you show their motivations were based in love. I also think that a lot of mothers and daughters have relationships like Kara and Eloise, where there is a closeness between them but also a tension created by overbearance. These characters were very much based on real women that I know from within my community.”

Identity

“I wanted to focus on the theme of identity as a diaspora story instead of just an immigrant story. It’s from the point of view of people who aren’t born or raised in the Caribbean, but who have parents or grandparents with close ties to the Caribbean. In this situation, the whole sense of identity is less about trying to figure out what blackness means in a white society, and more about figuring out what it means to be Canadian versus Caribbean. How you identify to people within your own community can be as important as how you identify to the broader community.”

Intergenerational trauma

“When we talk about intergenerational trauma and black families, it’s usually in relation to slavery and systemic racism. Though I did show some of that in the book, I didn’t want that to be my focal point because it’s not a “black issue.” Harmful cycles aren’t exclusive to black women or black families. So I really wanted to focus on harmful cycles and how they are passed down from one generation to the other. I wanted to explore that through Kara, who just happens to be black, and who may or may not be the one to break that cycle.”

Another artist to check out

Sandra Brewster is a Toronto multidisciplinary artist whose drawings, paintings, collage, installation and video works have been exhibited nationally and abroad. Brewster draws inspiration from her own travels as well as the stories told by a generation of Caribbean folk – like her Guyanese parents – who left their homes in the 1960s to pursue a “better life” in Canada. In Token: Contemporary Ongoing (showing at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as part of a group show Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art June-Oct. 27), Brewster has collected objects from various people from Toronto’s Caribbean community. The objects they’ve contributed reflect their connection with a home that may not physically be their current home, but is one that they have never left.

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