Anton Nimblett’s Tough and Tender Reimaginings of the Queer Black Atlantic

Anton Nimblett, Now/After (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2019); 142 pages; ISBN 978-1845234423 (paperback)

• February 2022

In his latest collection of fiction, Now/After, Anton Nimblett both breaks and reveals silences in the canon of Caribbean and North American literatures. This is a slim volume of profound depth. It opens with a meditation on the preposition after, and, as the title of the collection suggests, these are stories for the present that riff on precedent texts. Rarely do we encounter works that invite us to reckon with the stories themselves, as well as with our past and future readings of the works they reference. Now/After is such an offering. In particular, it asks us to consider where Black queerness might live in past, present, and future canons.

In “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage” Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley sends the call: “What would it mean for both queer and African diaspora studies to take seriously the possibility that, as forcefully as the Atlantic and Caribbean flow together, so too do the turbulent fluidities of blackness and queerness?”1 Nimblett’s stories are a powerful, world-making response. They open relational possibilities between presumptively foreclosed separations, with as much, if not more, attention to processes as outcomes. Both in terms of subject and form, these stories invite us to reimagine the dynamic of center and margin and abandon these for ever-unfolding interplays.

The collection includes eight short stories, punctuated by eight vignettes. The short stories reference prior works, mostly fiction but also calypso and theater, but knowledge of the prior work is not a requirement for imbibing the pleasures on offer. Each story’s relationship with its pretext, with the other stories in the collection, and with the interstitial vignettes can be read as reinforcing, contradicting, undermining, and revising each narrative in a tightly wound matrix of references and signs. Predictability is not a quality of turbulence. Nimblett’s acts of temporal, spatial, and narrative revision will remind some readers of the complex relationship between Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. And yet as readers we find we can trust Nimblett’s language and empathetic rewritings as he leads us into new terrain. 

It is easy enough to recognize that Nimblett is recovering Black men’s queerness by demarginalizing and relocating his characters to Black Atlantic literatures and thereby, among other achievements, appropriating Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to that roster. Nimblett’s ambitions within that already enormous project are huge, and he accomplishes them. He endows his characters with every imaginable human desire, among them love, belonging, understanding, connection, recognition, safety, curiosity, life itself, and legacy, inviting the reader to find a point or multiple points of identification with each one. Sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, are the sociocultural structures that separate the characters from the fulfillment of their desires, including beliefs about masculinity, race, love, time, God, family, nation, money, history, and more. These deferred possibilities are made material in ways that range from the psychological to the violent. Within that turmoil, Nimblett maintains our attention on what the characters want, what they can and cannot have, and how that feels. This writerly tenderness for what is lost and found can bring tears.

In effect, these are love stories—to their pretexts, to their characters, to the spaces these characters inhabit and are inhabited by, and to love itself: familial, companionable, communal, romantic, and sexual, sometimes separately, sometimes intermingled. For example, in “In This Night Air,” the usually ignored Laurelien, as he builds Manuel’s coffin, reflects on the dignity the returned activist Manuel granted him by talking with him as an ordinary man. In this story’s pretext, Jacques Roumain’s novel Masters of the Dew, Manuel’s legacy of reconciliation between warring village factions is embodied in Annaise’s pregnancy. It is a radical but essentially heteronormative legacy. In Nimblett’s version, that legacy becomes the opening of what Laurelien can imagine and desire, which enables the possibility of a future that differs from the past.

Nimblett never underestimates the difficulty of peeling through the layers of division on which colonialism and capitalism depend for their profit-taking efficiencies, including the policing of same-sex love at the intersection of Blackness and queerness. “Something Promised” revises the expulsion of Mr. Slime from teaching in George Lamming’s In The Castle of My Skin. Whereas Lamming’s Mr. Slime is barred from the classroom by the revelation of his affair with the head teacher’s wife, Nimblett’s exiled teacher is betrayed by a colleague who rejects an evening’s shared touches by displacing the accusation onto him. In that unexpected moment, Stephen Slime reflects on the near-full moon: “That little piece of the moon that not showing? That last little bit that I could imagine, or see? Man, it does make me think that it have something promise for me. I don’t know what, but something promised” (76). That promise is foreclosed by what Adrienne Rich called compulsory heterosexuality, which becomes the pathway to recuperation for one and damnation for the other.2 Mr. Slime’s story ends in wordless bewilderment. The reader is left all too conscious of how policed sexualities have divided him from his desires, and how his silence renders him complicit in their perpetuation.

Similarly, in “No One Looking,” Nimblett’s riff on Lolita, the young boy Evander is torn by the terrible ambiguity of feeling loved by the older man who is abusing him sexually. His mother reacts to her discovery of the abuse by providing physical safety, even at the cost of economic security, but she struggles with how she is going to explain her decision to her mother: “Nobody never taught me what to do with a thing like this though. Never heard no sayings about a thing like this” (55). Evander has even less capacity for processing his confusion over where the line is between what he could call love from Les, the stepfather who is teaching him to be a runner, and the subsequent locker-room abuse that he did not understand: “But Les is a good teacher. If something felt weird, he explained it” (57).  Both Evander and his mother struggle with where to locate accountability for Les’s damage. Each denies their self-blaming, which only reveals how compulsory heterosexuality shames them, silencing the possibility of public accusation and justice.

Where stories like “Something Promised” and “No One Looking” open wounds and invite reckonings, other stories depict healing enabled by Black queer imaginings of the reconciliation of forced divisions. This unfolding takes place in language and metaphor that, while drawing on previous tellings, open new possibilities for legibility. Language is both characterization and character. For example, in “Spouter Inn,” the reimagined Queequeg of Moby-Dick tells the story of his childhood and first love for another boy. His description of the boys finding space and time for one another uses the mathematical imagery one would expect from a master harpoonist—“three become two”—through his own departure: “When I ran in that dawn, each stride and footfall performed a keen arithmetic, and I was left as one (I)” (29). “Joyce’s One Boy Child” seeks to reconcile the colonial tensions represented in its pretext, Earl Lovelace’s The Wine of Astonishment. Mr. Ramkisoon recognizes the underlying relationship of what has been separated by law and prejudice: “I find when a bell ring, if is a Hindu puja, or a Anglican church bell, or a Spiritual Baptist brass bell, the sound still pretty, eh?” (44). In these stories, variously set in Trinidad, Tobago, Haiti, Barbados, New England, and New York, all Englishes are accented, and each accent contains a person, a world, and a worldview.

The fragmentation implied in the geographic reach of the stories is even more foregrounded in the vignettes that interrupt a “smooth” reading. A fragment is something incomplete. The space around and between fragments has often been seen as lack. In Nimblett’s hands, that space is reclaimed as possibility, as it has been by Caribbean authors like Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Michelle Cliff, and Jamaica Kincaid. The unapologetic fragment is a Caribbean trope for loss, recognition, difference, exchange, and possibility. In Nimblett’s vignettes, these concerns are enlarged to include queries about the meaning and work of time—eternal, transient, folding back on itself, forever lost—that are echoed in the stories.

Time, space, and possibility are also innovatively (re)mapped elsewhere in this work. For example, “The Show” is a formal tour-de-force: a short story in the form of a play, in recognition of its pre-text, the 1968 play and 1970 film The Boys in the Band. In a further layer, through annotations and footnotes, Nimblett also performs a work of historical documentation of an era in Black queer New York City. The text as archive references videos and photographs that bring a visual record to a story derived from visual media. The annotations also trace linguistic, technological, and other cultural shifts whose points of origin have been obscured or that have disappeared altogether. This act of recovery serves as both backdrop to and impetus for a story that restores fluidity to histories and roles (sexual, gendered, and otherwise) that threaten to become ossified in the present. In another formal departure and temporal leap, “Argument Against Making Heterosexuality Illegal,” an epistolary newspaper column, transports us to the year 2077 and, through rhetorical reversals, reveals the absurdity of arguments for legislating love in any era.

Nimblett’s stories in Now/After are powerful and timely interventions that offer versions of queerness—as identities and as processes—as tidal navigations of Tinsley’s “turbulent fluidities.” Through their experiments with form, origins, and language, the stories invite us not to arrive at a particular destination but to become open to the stories of possibility, and the possibility of stories. In the epilogue to “Perseverance Village,” whose themes and scope resonate with V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, the narration shifts from third person to first as the character David Das directly addresses the reader:

We story. I tell the David part, my part. And I try to tell the Errol part, the way he told me. When he tells a story, I feel like I was right there. Don’t care how long ago it was, who was involved, or where it happened. Even if it’s people I never met, a place I’ve never been. . . . Errol . . . could make me feel both like I living it—I—for the first time and living it again. We. (129–30)

Anton Nimblett is just such a storyteller. Reading—and rereading—these stories brings deeply satisfying pleasures, in language, landscapes, entanglements, and disentanglements. In particular, they reawaken regions of Black queer possibility and invite abandon that is at once joyful, truthful, and beautiful. Dive in.

 

Randi Gray Kristensen is an assistant professor of writing and Africana studies at the George Washington University. She is currently writing a novel about women sex tourists in Jamaica and a book on Caribbean artists whose work critiques ideologies of humanitarianism as a response to disaster capitalism.

 


[1]  Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, nos. 2–3 (2008): 193.

[2] Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” Signs 5, no. 4, (1980): 631–60.