Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

Note: For the past three summers, Naomi of the Consumed by Ink book review blog and I have been swapping a book review. This year I reviewed The Afrikaner by Arianna Dagnino for her site, and she has written a review of the critically-acclaimed book by Jamaican-Canadian author Zalika Reid-Benta, Frying Plantain (2019, House of Anansi Press)*. Naomi writes from Truro, Nova Scotia and reviews a broader range of CanLit than I do, although we sometimes review the same book, which is always interesting! I recommend bookmarking her site, as well as her Twitter account, @_ConsumedByInk.

“On my first visit to Jamaica I saw a pig’s severed head.” And so begins our time with Kara, a second-generation Jamaican-Canadian who, unlike her Jamaican cousins, does not feel comfortable with dead animals, and whose Jamaican accent is not strong enough for her Jamaican-Canadian friends. Yet around her white classmates, Kara feels too Jamaican. Who is she, anyway?

I kept walking. I always lost when I went head-to-head with Anita anyway; her comebacks were harsher and her accent was better. Real. Not something she had to put on. The rest of us just cobbled together what we could from listening to our parents or grandparents, but Anita was fresh from Jamaica – there was no competing, especially when I had the weakest accent out of all the Canadian-borns.

Through a sequence of stories, Reid-Benta writes about Kara’s growing up years; “caught in the middle” of her Canadian upbringing and her Jamaican origins. Kara’s mother is strict. Kara endures taunting from her friends in order to follow her mother’s rules. Expectations are high for Kara – that she will go further and make better decisions than the generations before her. Her mother got pregnant at 17, so Kara’s relationships with boys are closely monitored and her clothing is scrutinized for modesty.

“You can’t do this. You cannot afford to act out like this. When you get back here, I want you to write me a report telling me exactly how you got the alcohol, where you were when you weren’t at school, and a list of names of the kids you were with. Are you listening to me? You may go to their school but you cannot afford to act like them. You have to be better than this, Kara.” There was a tremor in her voice, a quiver I rarely heard. It wasn’t anger and it wasn’t sadness. It was something different, something she never meant for me to notice. Fear.

Although Kara seems to have a good relationship with her grandmother, her mother and grandmother do not get along. (“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up and I started to tear up just thinking about it.”) And her grandparents have problems into the bargain. Kara seems to learn early on how to feel things out and navigate around them.

She had to know what I only just now discovered: that peace could only exist in this family when we lied about everything, at least to each other.

‘Place’ is a big theme in this book. There are Canada vs. Jamaica, and on a smaller scale, Toronto vs. Little Jamaica. Anyone familiar with Toronto’s Little Jamaica will surely feel at home.

Our school was right at Vaughan and Oakwood, hidden in one of the residential pockets in the centre of the area where the Caribbean and Europe converged. Once you left the playground you could turn right toward downtown and head to Little Italy on St. Clair West; but we were turning left up toward Eglinton West and Marlee: Island Town. The walk in either direction was mixed with both groups, though. Bungalow windows boasted the colourful banners of the Island flags: red, yellow, and green for Guyana; black, yellow, and green for Jamaica. Nonnas and nonnos crowded every other porch, teetering on rocking chairs, drinking beer or Brio Chinotto, their pit bulls snarling in the backyard.

In an interview with Deborah Dundas in The Star, Zalika Reid-Benta reveals that when she would “workshop the book” in Canada, “everyone kept saying that it wasn’t Canadian, or they assumed it was nonfiction. “I think that there is a very narrow definition of what it means to be Canadian. I think there’s a very narrow definition of what CanLit is.”

Let’s read these books and learn a thing or two about the experiences of all Canadians.

*A note on the title: Food plays a part in Frying Plantain as well as place. Kara’s grandmother is forever preparing food in her kitchen, feeding whoever is in her house, and then sending leftovers home with her guests. Even when she and Kara’s mom are not speaking, she sends food home for her with Kara. And when Kara claims not to be hungry, she fries her up her favourite anyway – fried plantain.

In an article Zalika Reid-Benta wrote at Open Book, she talks about the meaning behind the title of her book, and how many readers have made an instant connection to it.

 In the titular story, Kara marvels more at the art than the food itself. As she watches her grandmother make her favourite dish, she’s in awe of the beauty within the preparation and contemplates how she never quite got the hang of it. Not only did I think that that moment encapsulated a lot of the themes and subject matter in the collection as a whole, I thought it spoke to an aspect of the diaspora/third culture experience: trying to connect to home through cooking while knowing you may never get it as right as your parents or grandparents.

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
House of Anansi Press

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: Thanks!

Naomi MacKinnon is a mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend, pet-lover, reader, walker, camper, and Nova Scotian. Naomi has contributed several guest reviews over the years to The Miramichi Reader. Her book review blog is Consumed By Ink.