Kingston Piece by Piece

Colin Channer, ed., Kingston Noir (New York: Akashic, 2012); 285 pages; ISBN: 978-1-61775-074-8 (paperback).

• May 2013

There is something unaccountable about Kingston’s most macabre and absurd occurrences. It is not so much that the city’s streets are baffling, exactly—at least not to those who live there. But episodes erupt all the time that render Kingston a baroque and startling place. Several of the stories in Kingston Noir succeed brilliantly in reproducing the simultaneously estranging and horrifying effects of urban violence in Jamaica. And there is something appropriately unsettling about the differences between the stories, collected and edited by Colin Channer, such that the sense of being dislodged somewhere puzzlingly dissimilar from the place one began sometimes mimics the feeling of moving through Kingston. But Kingston Noir is also patchy, uneven in a way that leaves lingering questions about the project’s intentions: What Kingston, exactly, is being evoked here? Is there something like a unifying principle to the collection that helps to locate and capture Kingston, circa now, as a particular geographical space?

In one sense, the unifying principle offered by Akashic Press, the publisher of the collection, is a generic one. Kingston Noir is the latest in a long-running and popular city noir series coming out of this small (but tallawah) Brooklyn press. The point of a series such as Akashic’s urban noir is to collate as well as reinvent, the challenge being to collect a diverse set of landscapes under a single rubric, forging an imaginative connection amongst Baltimore, Havana, and Brooklyn—to name just three of the several dozen cities Akashic Noir has touched down in so far. This unifying project wouldn’t suffice if every city’s noir looked the same. And so, clearly the fun of the series is, however partially, to reinvent the genre, to infuse familiar conventions with the specificity of a particular space. Some stories in Kingston Noir do this immediately. The story that opens the collection, Kwame Dawes’s “My Lord,” transports classic figures from film noir—the femme fatale, the lonesome private eye—to the Jamaican landscape in a way that opens up the genre while attending to its conventions. And Marcia Douglas’s “One-Girl Half Way Tree Concert” muddles to interesting effect the ghost story with the noir tale: her heroine surely has a woeful backstory that leads her to the famous Kingston traffic intersection where she alone can detect the slave executions that took place there a century or so prior. In Douglas’s story, noir is implied, a trace rather than a set of fundamentals. But in several other stories, the equation noir = violence suffices. Rather than leaving this collection with a sense of Kingston’s noir, it is possible to leave with a longing for something the collection did not necessarily promise: contemporary stories about Jamaicans that do not involve violence, loss, and destruction.

This both is and is not the collection’s fault. Colin Channer and Akashic Books cannot be blamed for the dearth of black urban dwellers in contemporary literary fiction, for a reader’s hunger for more of them. But the fact that so many of the characters in this collection seemed, somehow, to want more from their stories, more than the plotting or the surviving of catastrophe, suggests some glitch in the project’s frame, perhaps an insufficient working-through of the series’ directive for the purposes of these writers and this city. In his introduction, Channer describes the shared interests of the writers he gathered here as “a fascination with the city’s turbulent dynamics, with the way its boundaries of color, class, race, gender, ideology, and sexual privilege crisscross like storm-tangled powerlines” (14). Maybe these load-bearing concepts are too blunt to suggest something like an ethos of the city. How might it have been possible for Channer to be both grander and less grandiose in his vision, at least as he describes it here? How to aspire for some collective spirit that was more than a set of subject positions in some uncertain relation to each other? (For, in which city are identities not turbulent and dynamic?).

These questions apply to the collection as a whole—but many of the individual stories themselves are evocative and surprising. Some are so good they linger long after a first reading and repay seconds and thirds. Take Chris Abani’s “Sunrise,” in which the following sentence appears: “The baby, such as it was, was in its own splatter on the floor near Grace’s feet” (249). It is the phrase in apposition—such as it was—that most powerfully captures the unsettling achievement of the story, the formality an effect of dissociation that registers so many successive generations of terrible things. The story, written with an impressive command of Jamaican geography and language by the Nigerian-born, American-based writer, also manages to surprise with the crescendoing of its horror. The plot and the language work together to exemplify and to metaphorize restraint: both the pleasure of control and (at the level of plot) the horror of its futile exercise. Kei Miller’s “The White Gyal with the Camera” is also beautifully turned, also restrained. The most violent thing that happens in that story is the moment when silence is broken by a camera’s shattering on the ground. This moment is amplified by a violation that came before—a woman is seen in her nakedness, nothing too grim, as these things can go. But that’s the point. Miller’s piece succeeds because in a context of over-stimulation, he returns us to the more basic and fundamental forms of violence to which people are everyday subject. The catastrophe of that broken camera is the disaster of imagination foreclosed, the material effects of which are everywhere in the very scenario the story’s eponymous white girl captures and temporarily transforms through her camera lens. In “Tomcat Baretta” Patricia Powell focalizes her narrative through the consciousness of a woman both dissociated by grief and razor-sharp in intention—a combination that leaves a long-lingering sense of having encountered a person in extremis. In all these stories, and in others by Leone Ross, Thomas Glave, and Marlon Ross, among others, those identity categories that Channer flags in his introduction are fleshed out in dynamic ways, in stories that are dramatic, intensely psychological, and unpedantic.

A story collection framed by noir and set in a developing country in the present day is fraught with ethical dilemmas. Chiefly, there is some difficulty in balancing the pleasures of genre violence with some accountability to the crushing statistics that real people in Kingston live with everyday. The weird thrill of abstracted threat must somehow be accompanied by an experience of empathy or counterbalanced by some moral weight, or else the whole project would become an exercise too cynically disconnected from the place that inspired it. In this respect, Kingston Noir is uneven. Some stories provide ethical stakes by giving us characters grappling with recognizable difficulties (AIDS, spousal abuse, disability), so that the reader is not allowed to experience the characters only as figures in a fictive drama. Others, such as Miller’s, commit to so singular a set of circumstances (a strange European woman taking pictures in August Town at three in the morning) that the very fictiveness of the set-up prompts larger ethical questions beyond the representation of violence. How is it possible to see beauty? Who gets to see it? Leone Ross’s “Roll It” manages to do both these things—to get at both the real and the improbable in a way that prompts thoughtful empathy. Taking the unlikely noir setting of a high fashion show in Mona Heights, the story captures the surrealism both of the peculiar class-scape of that Kingston suburb and of the murkiness of a fragile, neglected, and bookish girl who also happens to be a suicidal model. But a story such as Ian Thomson’s “A Grave Undertaking,” or even Channer’s own contribution, “Monkey Man,” struggles to provide ethical heft, or even pleasurable thrill. For Thomson the trouble is that his characters—both the New York family and the Jamaicans they encounter—are manifestly untrue people, possessed of strange diction, unclear motivation, and a sort of cynical flatness. And for Channer the difficulty lies in the overly convoluted nested storylines and the uncertain tone of the plot’s lavish incidents. “I didn’t know what to say at this point,” our narrator confesses after an ape is apparently introduced into the story’s second rape scene (284). This narrative prophylaxis does not, alas, redeem the moment; it simply amplifies its implausibility.

Chris Abani once wrote an elliptical essay about a city, titled “Lagos: A Pilgrimage in Notations.” “We are always listening to the city inside us,” he writes.1 As a totality, it may not be possible to find that psychic city in Kingston Noir. But traversing this collection as if going “down the road,” with all the abrupt stops, shifts, and turns that Jamaicanism implies, does offer a way of connecting, piece by piece, story by story, to fragments of the city tucked away in consciousness and memory. It is a city rarely encountered in fiction; this collection satisfies a need and makes one hungry for more.

 

Nadia Ellis grew up in Kingston and now lives in northern California, where she teaches literature at University of California, Berkeley. She is writing a book about belonging and diaspora.

 


1 Chris Abani, “Lagos: A Pilgrimage in Notations,” African Cities Reader I: Pan-African Practice (2010): 1.

 

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