Set in ‘Little Jamaica’ Toronto’s Elington West neighbourhood, Frying Plantain follows Kara as she navigates her teenage years, friendships and family relationships. Even though this book is a collection of short stories, it is told from the first person perspective of one girl. In Kara’s bildungsroman, we catch fleeting moments of her upbringing. The book begins with Kara visiting family in Jamaica as a young girl and how she was startled by the sight of a severed pig’s head in her great aunt’s freezer; then the narrative moves onto a defining episode in junior high, where she becomes the victim of a devastating prank by her closest friends; and as a teenager in and out of her grandmother’s house, acting as arbiter for her grandparents’ tempestuous relationship.
Even though Frying Plantain covers many themes, it is a book with identity and diasporic conflicts at its core. While in her younger teen years, Kara’s friends are mostly West Indian and strongly identify with their roots, she struggles to speak in Patois and is told by her grandmother that she lacks the shapely curves Jamaican women are supposed to have. Then, in her later teens, her and her mother move to a whiter neighbourhood and from there Kara is forced into environments where she is the only Black person. She is made to feel embarrassed and out of place when, at a house gathering, a boy displays shock at the fact that she, a person of Jamaican descent, does not smoke weed. She is still a teenager at the end of the novel but within the time frame of this narrative we see her make giant steps towards self-acceptance.
In as much as she is confused about her own sense of self, she also struggles to connect with and understand the motivations of those around her. In Frying Plantain there is a strong focus on mother-daughter relationships, which is one of my all time favourite literary tropes. My favourite sections in the book are when Kara, Eloise (Kara’s mother) and Verna (Kara’s grandmother) are in Verna’s house together. While their relationships are strained to say the least, underneath this harshness is a very strong nurturing instinct in these women. For example, Verna's problematic policing of what Kara wears is born out of fear for her personal safety and a need to protect her against the creepy men in her neighbourhood. At times it can be difficult to empathise with Eloise and Verna, and I really felt for Kara and how she was caught up in these family conflicts, but they have good intentions and ultimately only want what’s best for each other.
While most of the book is set in Toronto, Jamaican culture is ever present in this text. As evident from the title of this book, food and mealtimes are consistently in the background of these stories. The ritual of Verna cooking and sharing her food with her granddaughter is not just her way of showing love, it stands in for the lack of affectionate words and physical closeness these three women share. Even when Eloise and Verna are not speaking, Verna will always send Kara home with margarine tubs full of dumpling stew and rice and peas. It is her peace offering, however it is also her most dangerous weapon. Although she uses food to keep Kara close to her, she too uses it to punish her unfaithful husband by withholding sustenance and hiding food so that he can’t eat.
In terms of style, the writing is pretty simplistic, there are no fancy literary devices and you won’t have to re-read a sentence to fully appreciate its meaning. But I don't think any of this matters. I believe this book would be ideal for people who do not usually gravitate towards short stories since it is less fragmented than other story collections and contains a mostly linear narrative. I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Queenie or How To Love a Jamaican.
A big thank you to Millie at Dialogue Books for gifting me a copy of this book <3