Story of a double outsider, Frying Plantain, by Zalika Reid-Benta

Frying Plantain is a vibrant coming-of-age book that takes us through the life of Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian who tries to navigate between her Jamaican and Canadian identities while growing up in Toronto. Through twelve interconnected short stories, the author Zalika Reid-Benta captures the questioning that emerge when growing up between two worlds and never fitting in any of them.

 I always lost when I went head-to head with Anita anyway; her comebacks were harsher and her accent was better. Real. Not something she had to put on. The rest of us just cobbled together what we could from listening to our parents or grandparents, but Anita was fresh from Jamaica – there was no competition, especially when I had the weakest accent out of all the Canadian-borns.

Kara grows up in the neighborhood of Little Jamaica in Toronto where most the stories unfold.  As she moves up from childhood to young adulthood, she endeavors to become an insider to the two worlds she belongs to. Among her neighborhood friends and her white classmates, Kara tries to earn respectability by telling the “exotic” tales they expect to hear from a girl with a Jamaican heritage. But each story of the collection comes with a sort of lesson she learns and helps her nuance her understanding of the people that surround her and become more confident. 

Reid-Benta mentioned in an interview that Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie figures among the books that inspires her the most. The central role silence plays in the protagonists’ interactions with their entourage and the richness of the dialogues are the similarities that struck me the most between the two books.

I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up, and I started to tear up just thinking about it.

While Kara’s progressive awakening is what links these stories between them, the mother-daughter relationship is also central and thoroughly explored by the author. Kara is raised by her hardworking single mother and grandmother who are presented as “more Jamaican” than her. Unlike her, they speak patois, are not afraid of dead animals and pay attention to their dreams. The two women provide Kara with a strict education and never allow her to put any toe out of line. Through the relationships between these women, Reid-Benta perfectly captures how frustrations are transferred from one generation to another. The grandmother was disappointed by her daughter Eloise who got pregnant at the age of 17 and therefore failed to reach the high expectations she had set for her. Eloise and her mother both perpetuate the frustration of their own “failure” by being over-controlling on Kara’s life and making weigh on her a sickening “do not end up like me” kind of pressure that children of immigrants often feel.

Nana’s frown relaxes when she puts her knife to the plantain, and even though I don’t want to be, I am impressed by the way she slices off the skin. The way she peels the plantain has always impressed me. The blade just slides through like nothing; there is no sign of effort or struggle… A kind of content mindlessness passes over Nana’s face, making me feel a gentle uncertainty toward her that makes me uncomfortable.

The fried plantain plays a comforting role in Kara’s life and seems to be the only element that creates an emotional bond with her grandmother, who is proud that her granddaughter loves this food because it means she loves something that is part of the Jamaican culture. But more than the dish itself, Kara is actually amazed by the art of cooking it. She is always in awe, observing her grandmother cooking with extreme precision and always getting everything right although she never uses any recipe or measurement. By referring to the act of cooking rather than to the dish, the  book’s title captures to amazement often felt by children from the diaspora for their familys’ heritage. But it also reveals their frustration because no matter how they cook or do anything else to remain close to their family’s culture, they can sometimes feel that they will never get it as right as their parents or grandparents because they will always be seen as outsiders.

Reid-Benta insists that this book is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories that encapsulates specific moments that shaped Kara’s personality. But because of the strong connection between each story and the fact that they follow a chronological order, the book can easily be read as a novel. The stories contain no intrigue and nothing really striking occurs. I found the book a bit short and would have loved to read more about Kara’s mother and grandmother’s experiences both in Jamaica and in Canada as they both seem to have been affected by traumas that shaped their personalities and their tense relationship. But despite this,  the fluid and almost cinematic writing made the reading delightful and our time with Kara extremely enjoyable. Frying Plantain is Zalika Reid-Benta debut book and I can’t wait to read more of her work!

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