A Correct and Singular Language for an Antireal History

Curdella Forbes, A Tall History of Sugar (New York: Akashic, 2019); 368 pages; ISBN 978-1617757518 (hardcover)

• February 2021

Curdella Forbes’s fifth literary offering, A Tall History of Sugar, is a historical novel that is resolutely unrealist. It tells a love story of-sorts between Moshe Fisher—a boy with no skin—and his lover, protector, and friend Arrienne Christie, who narrates his story (her story) for him. Yet as our storyteller reminds us, “For a people whose life began in death, happy was a child’s fantasy, an immature dream” (56). These fairy-tale lovers do not get their “happily ever after,” since their lives are a series of missed communications, false starts, frustrations, and failures.

The pair meet and fall in love on the first day of school, when Moshe is six years old and Arrii seven. They speak each other’s words, speak without words, and her words come out of his mouth. When they do use their mouths, this speech is physically painful; their silence, like their other afflictions, is a “disease of sugar” (94)—the one thing, we are told, “that black people cannot eat without a confrontation with destiny” (9). Sugar clings to the eyes, ears, and “secret parts” (8) and makes us sick: Moshe is violently allergic to sugar, and Arrii, too, develops an intolerance. Moshe’s father suffers a perpetual wound because of sugar; sugar, when it burns, renders Arrii’s father immobile with pain. Sugar's history and trajectories determine life in and beyond Tumela Gut, Saint Mary, and Forbes’s novel is one of impossible love, colonization, and journey in the wake of empire, as Britain, in the age of Brexit, becomes “Little England” indeed.

The story begins in 1958, when infant Moshe is found behind a school (which used to be a colonial barracks) by Rachel Fisher, a Yahwehist with no children of her own, who takes Moshe home to raise him with her husband Noah. Moshe has one blue and one brown eye; the hair at the front of his head is thin and blond, while that at the back is thick, black, and curly, like peppercorns. His skin has no discernible color, and the narrator, who might be Arrii, remarks that the boy “looked like sin,” perhaps the representation of “some kind of perverse alchemy that had taken place in the deep earth” (19). The original sin, of course, for which there can neither be full account nor description, is the history of sugar, of “colonial promiscuity” in the Caribbean (11). Moshe is neither black nor white, and his veins show through his skin; simple touch—and even the act of speech—causes him to bleed. His is an “unresolved body in which history has made ructions” (45)—his blood scrawled on him as if on a palimpsest. He is unrelatable and unrelative and indeed resists translation. Out of many, he is no people.

Arrii, by contrast, has surplus color: her skin is “the colour of the wettest molasses, with a purple tinge under the surface” (78); and where Moshe cannot fight, Arrii is indifferent to pain and punishment—until her fourteenth year. “White-Like-Duppy and Black as Sin” (98), as they come to be known, are perfect opposites, so much so that Arrii considers them twins—until “desire changes everything” (346). They fit into each other because they cannot fit anywhere else, but their “happily ever after” is not straightforward, it is “perpendicular” (321).

The majority of the novel narrates their long separation, their continued splitting, so much so that, later in life, Arrii reflects that they “were meant to be one person from the beginning, but something zigged and then zagged” (333). Forbes’s fairy-tale (anti)romance interrogates what it means to love across time and space, through and despite language, “in a place where coincidence [was] the route taken by history” (161).

Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by predetermination, Moshe stows away on a banana boat to England when he is twenty-one and Arrii is twenty-two, in search of his biological father, about whom he knows nothing except that the older man may have come from Bristol. This ushers in the pair’s longest and most painful separation, since Arrii cannot forgive Moshe’s refusal to include her in this part of his—what she sees as their—journey. She ignores his letters for six months (although he can still hear her across the Atlantic Ocean), until he cuts her off for almost seven years. Moshe’s steps through the metropole (and other colonial centers) retrace the trajectories of sugar: both Bristol and Brixton are familiar to him, not just from books he has read but through the history so visible in his veins. Confronted with his otherness, he discovers shame—“a new word” (204)—and becomes a world-renowned artist through “the glass door he has imagined led [to] England” (184).

Before this separation, however, the pair must step through “the door of adulthood” (241). Arrii had always been a refuge for Moshe, but for her he is an obsession. With puberty comes paranoia and terror—which may be expected—but for these two, their maturity means that they must become “an embryo split against itself”: she becomes one and he becomes another (321). They find it harder to communicate silently, and Arrienne realizes that Moshe is lost to her love. Moshe, who has always passively accepted Arrii’s devotion, cannot process the change in her feelings; when he is forced to endure his pilgrimage alone, he silences Arrienne’s grief and anger with his own.

In his exile Moshe comes to understand a longing for escape and how a person, after “stumbling upon a place that was opposite to what he knew”—a person who had still not found “this paradise of forgetting”—could “construct it in the image of his own invention or inventions of which he had heard” (292). He discovers colonial image making (in reverse), the magic of weaving one’s story onto and into conquered space; he discovers utopia not as fulfilment but as “shadows and half answers,” the absence of straight lines (335). When he returns, Arrii, upon having to communicate with him in English, fears that she may be “one more person he didn’t need, after all” (299).

Moshe tells Arrii, “You can’t write somebody else’s story on their behalf. Even with their permission” (284), but she insists. She determines to tell his story as her own, as a "ventriloquist’s caul” (211). She is not in control of her story, however, and she interjects to interrupt its telling often, claiming, “Our proficiency is not speech, but translation” (304)—translation that is never enough, never all. There is much she does not say, much she cannot, and this tension between the narrator and the story—among many stories—is a meditation on language and storytelling itself, between the individual and the community, between the grand narrative of History and the “counterspells” we use to protect ourselves from it (92). It is also a meditation on the tradition of the West Indian bildungsroman: Arrii and Moshe do not so much “come of age” as come back to each other, and we learn less about their rural community than we do about how their wider history plays out not only in their daily lives but in their fantastical journeys.

Onto Moshe’s story (as onto his skin) is overlaid the vexing trajectories of sugar, its makers, and its consumers. Forbes’s characters are simple but far from mundane, and they are given mythic dimensions on the page. Their “translated” language reminds us that, particularly in the Caribbean, not everything can be represented, not everything can be told or understood, and our audiences, as much as our storytellers, weave our complicated webs of history.

Curdella Forbes has spoken of this novel as an elaboration of the struggle to “find a language to render our lives believable.”1 Not “realistic,” but believable. Her Tall History is a folk interpretation of real, larger-than-life History, an interpretation by which we mean to survive that history. Caribbean life has never been “normal,” and so “normal” cannot be expected of Caribbean stories. Moshe is exceptional, ridiculous, but real; Arrii fills (even as she complicates) the gaps between how we communicate, understand, feel, and love. As a storyteller she has multiple guises, and Forbes’s shape-shifting commitment to the antireal brings to the front of our consciousness the nature of Caribbean history as bricolage.

 

Janelle Rodriques is an assistant professor of English at Auburn University, where she teaches and researches Caribbean, black Atlantic, and post/colonial literature. She is the author of Narratives of Obeah in Anglophone West Indian Literature: Moving through the Margins (Routledge, 2019).

 


[1] Donna Hemans, “The Rumpus Mini-interview Project #195: Curdella Forbes,” Rumpus, 10 October 2019,  therumpus.net/2019/10/the-rumpus-mini-interview-project-195-curdella-forbes.

 

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