A Desire for Return

Ifeona Fulani, Ten Days in Jamaica (London: Peepal Tree, 2012); 160 pages; ISBN 978-1845231996 (paperback)

• November 2015

Ten Days in Jamaica is a feast for the five senses, both for those on the island and for those in the Jamaican diaspora. It is a treat for the reader as a journey, as prose, and as an examination of the conception of identity.

This collection of eight short tales begins in Jamaica and ends with a young woman of Jamaican heritage, born in London and adrift in New York. The first four stories take place in Jamaica, moving with each step a little farther away from a focus on Jamaica as a place to Jamaica as a state of mind. The last four stories take place in the Jamaican diaspora in London and New York.

The protagonists in each story are women. They are strong and confident, yet at the same time there is a softness and often a sense of self-doubting in each, often revealed in internal thoughts not shared with other characters. The characters range from humble working women to highly educated professionals, a reflection of the changes in social status that Jamaican women have experienced over several decades and as a result of migration.

The supporting characters of Jamaican men are equally well rounded. Fulani does an excellent job of subtly contrasting those on the island with men of the diaspora, who do not quite measure up. Her women are bored of them—they are insipid, unlike men in Jamaica who are unafraid of a hard day’s work or a hard night’s romance.

Fulani’s prose is entrancing. Sometimes a story is so compelling that we forgive the writer the absence of the seduction with words that is writing at its best; at other times, it is the opposite—the prose can make an otherwise uninteresting story engaging. In this case, not only are the stories compelling and memorable but the prose is a pleasure to experience, a genuine seduction.

Her characters ring true in their natural voices, not some sanitized version of their vernacular that will satisfy homogenous readerships. The characters that have never left the island speak clearly with the accent and usage of Jamaican English, while the characters reared in London or New York share some of that inflection but are also clearly shaped by their own experiences. That attention to detail goes far in the collection’s ability to examine the experience of the lives and dreams of these women and, by extension, those of the communities to which they belong.

Immigration and its experience, the sense of belonging or alienation, are clearly at the center of this collection. In particular, the use of the term foreign to describe the place to which so many of the characters or relations of the characters go when they leave Jamaica is telling. “My mother, she pack up and go to foreign nine years ago now” (55), says Baltimore, in the title story. The idea of “foreign” is both geographical and metaphorical. There is here, home, that which we know, and there is there, “foreign,” that which we do not know.

There is a desperation to leave Jamaica, whether one is poor or comfortable, as is so aptly drawn in the character of well-off, well-heeled Petra in “People for Lunch.” If only she could buy her callaloo cleaned and frozen like her cousins in Miami. At the same time, there is a desire to return, to feel a part of something intimate, personal, as in the case of Yvonne in “Fevergrass Tea,” who returns to Jamaica to recover after a battle with cancer. She questions whether the environment of her exile contributed to her body’s encounter with illness. “Had those long working days lowered her resistance to disease? Had stress made her ill? Had she been made ill by a diet of coffee, fast food and exhaust fumes?” (25).

Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition in the collection comes in the story “Elephant Dreams.” Jewel, born in Jamaica and raised in London, falls in love with exotic Arjun, a student from Calcutta. She harbors a fantasy world of filmy images about India. Upon his inevitable return to his homeland, she agrees to join him in Calcutta to see if she might be able to live there. Now she is the exotic fruit. Do people always stare so? she inquires. She is not what they expect of an English Lady. She is the perfect example of the alienation of immigration: she is never quite at home in her adopted country but has little connection to the land of her birth. She describes herself as Afro-European. She visits a healer who tells her, “Go and make peace with your life” (95). Is that not the answer to all who have suffered from this universal experience? It is a moment of epiphany in this collection.

The character of little Binta, who was sent off to “foreign” in “Ten Days in Jamaica,” reappears as an adult in “The Stripped Silk Shirt.” The tales have come full circle. The reader experiences the long journey made by three generations of women, from Branscome Bay to Brooklyn, New York. Binta, now Bea, has a daughter of her own to raise. The landscape is not friendly, either. It is a universe, that distance from the safety of Branscome Bay to the rough streets of Flatbush, Brooklyn. We watch as Bea’s teenage daughter, Daria, in the throes of her own sexual awakening, sneaks off in her mother’s clothes for a rendezvous with a boy at school, a rendezvous that goes very badly and which, sadly, she cannot confide to her mother.

Lastly, in the final story, “Talking to Strangers,” a young woman who turns out to be a cousin of Bea’s and Baltimore’s, arrives in New York from London to pursue a master’s in education. She is the result of two generations of Jamaican exile and ties together its destinations. She represents a form of success; her path is uncertain and she is not quite at home, but she is determined to move forward, to explore, to find herself without the constraints of borders or cultures.

She is alone on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, looking toward lower Manhattan, a place she often goes on Sunday mornings to clear her mind. A stranger has interrupted her solitude. She is not sure how she feels about his intrusion into her space. In the end, he overturns her coffee and offers another. “The promise of another coffee makes my stomach growl. I look across the river at the grey sky. . . . I feel the need for a little warmth even if it comes in a cup, in the company of a stranger” (160).

 

 

A. J. Sidransky, who lives in Washington Heights, New York City, is the author of three novels, Forgiving Maximo Rothman (2013), Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon (2014), and Forgiving Mariela Camacho (2015). The National Jewish Book Awards selected Forgiving Maximo Rothman as a finalist for Original Debut Fiction in 2013, and Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon was honored by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards in 2015. The Institute of Caribbean Culture selected his short story “La Libreta” for publication in its 2014 Literary Festival Journal. 

 

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