The Accidental Writer

Barbara Jenkins, Sic Transit Wagon, and Other Stories (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013); 180 pages; ISBN 978-1845232146 (paperback)

• November 2015

In a 2012 interview with St. Augustine News, a University of the West Indies Trinidad publication, Barbara Jenkins admitted that becoming a writer was an accident. Since the “accident,” she has won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition four times, the Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Life Writing, the Canute Brodhurst Prize for short fiction, the Small Axe short fiction competition, the Hollick Arvon Prize, and the Bocas Literary Festival Crime-Writers group Bloody Scotland Prize.

This talented septuagenarian and Trinidadian native is a retired high school geography teacher. At the urging of friends she joined a writers’ group, which eventually led to her returning to school to complete an MFA in creative writing at UWI St. Augustine. Sic Transit Wagon, and Other Stories is the product of this graduate program.

Sic Transit Wagon, and Other Stories is a collection of twelve semiautobiographical tales divided into three sections, roughly corresponding to youth, midlife, and old age. These are unashamedly women’s stories that take us on a journey through the eyes of a girl-child living in poverty, continue with wives and mothers in postcolonial suburbs, and end with older women dealing with aging and their dying partners. Jenkins’s spare prose and emotionally mature style create a wonderfully clear picture of colonial and postcolonial Trinidadian life.

Jenkins does an almost pitch-perfect job with the Port-of-Spain accent, and it would take a nuanced ear to find those very few places that do not ring true. The humor and compassion that run through all the stories make up for anything lacking in one or two of them. Her descriptions have the unmistakable ring of emotional authenticity, as in the story “It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” a tale of a family dispersed due to poverty, neglect, and abuse.

“That year, Perez Prado and his Cuban Orchestra dominated the airwaves with his number one hit, ‘It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.’ Twenty times a day or more, a trumpet wailed the opening bars, that long sustained waaaaaah, a puppet string of sound, pulling me to my feet, making me forget who, what, where, lifting me into that up swelling blare” (23). This perfectly captures the way music can take us away from the realities of day to day. For this reader, “a puppet string of sound” is just one of the phrases from Sic Transit Wagon that will stay with me forever, and there are perfect phrases just like it peppered through the entire collection. Another is from “I Never Heard Pappy Play the Hawaiian Guitar,” in which the narrator reminisces about visiting her father at his job to get money from him on payday:

“I boarded a bus as it moved sedately through quiet, residential Belmont and disembarked on lower Charlotte Street, just where the bus sputtered to a crawl, edging its cautions way through the Central Market’s overflow of vendors and their fruit and vegetables, fish and flesh—the perfume of ripe pineapple and the stench of hot animal blood mingling in a single intake of breath” (50). The smell of perfume and blood in one breath is a wonderfully accurate description of life in Trinidad. And although in this short story the narrator is remembering the 1950s, the description would hold true today. Perfume mixed with blood is the perfect metaphor for a country where the yearly carnival attracts major celebrities from around the world and where the murder rate rivals that of the 1980s South Bronx.

However, Sic Transit Wagon is not the usual collection of the nostalgic memories of a willing exile or a returning expat. On the contrary, the stories, especially those in the second section of the collection, display a firsthand knowledge of modern Trinidadian life while using the sly humor for which Trinidadians are famous. In the award-winning story “It’s Not Where You Go, It’s How You Get There,” Jenkins captures the very current-day Trinidadian frustration of rush hour traffic in the northeastern part of the island: “Nothing moving east to join highway; nothing moving north on highway; nothing moving south on highway; lone SUV enters west bound Victoria Drive, the driver’s heavily tinted window glides down a few inches and a Holy Name Convent accent penetrates the stagnant air. 'The radio just said that a man was hit crossing the road near the walk-over at Cocorite and the police are on the scene'” (92). Residents and natives would get the irony. Trinidadians hate climbing the steps to the walkovers that span the highways and would much rather gamble their lives with a quick sprint through the speeding traffic, and policemen on any scene is an indication that one should not expect a speedy resolution to the problem. Jenkins’s close-up descriptions of the incrementally shifting landscape of ironic billboard messages, street food vendors, stray dogs peeing on political flyers, and men stealing fruit from the neighborhood trees are hilarious.

The stories in the third section of the collection are the strongest. In this last part, which corresponds to old age, Jenkins skillfully paints a picture of the frustrations and fears of growing old. In “TO-MAY-TO /TO-MAH-TO,” a story of lovers reunited, Jenkins shows us that growing older does not take the drama out of love affairs. The dialogue brings the price paid by those who leave and those who are left behind into painful visibility.

In “Sic Transit Wagon,” the story that gives the collection its title, Jenkins’s powers of description are in full display. “The wagon transported these three, one neighbours’s [sic] three, and another neighbour’s two to the Botanic Gardens, to school, to parties and to the beach[,] . . . bags of navel oranges and grapefruit for homemade juices for lunch kits, coconuts for water and sweetbread, . . . pink and blue day-old chicks won at bazaars, guinea pigs, rabbits, tropical fish, baby manicous, budgies, ducks, cats and dogs were moved around” (161). Her almost hypnotic way of using lists takes the reader back to familiar childhood places. Her spare prose and award-winning descriptions bring into jagged relief the painful and subtly joyous moments of dealing with family secrets taken to the grave, adult children, aging partners, disappointed lovers, and the death and dying of the love of one’s life, all the while managing to maintain a sense of humor. Sic Transit Wagon is well worth the read. The book’s dedication includes the adage, “better late than never,” and I agree.

 

Charlene Cambridge is a Trinidadian woman who lives and works in New York City. She is a graduate of the City College of New York where she now teaches developmental writing, composition, and African American literature.