GERALDINE SKEETE ON LOVE STORIES

Love’s Promise is a new short-story collection in which the narratives are set in Jamaica, but the reader comes away not feeling that Opal Palmer Adisa’s book is solely about Jamaica and Jamaicans because the writer’s storytelling craft is such, as it should be with all successful writers, that the stories cannot help but resonate with international and Caribbean readers alike. The title forecasts and signifies what the stories offer. It portrays the different kinds of love with which we are familiar: erotic love; love of family and friends; self love; love of neighbour; and even love as healer—what P.M. Rowntree defines as the “redemptive, joyous, and life-enhancing character of love” (Dictionary of Ideas, 319). It is also about promises fulfilled, broken, and deferred whether to others or ourselves. The latter two kinds of promise entail being able to forgive, which is among the major foci of the collection.

I read a recent social media post by Maria Popova regarding our capacity to love, in which she states that an illustrated poem titled “My Heart” is “about love as a practice rather than a state, about how it can frustrate us, brighten us, frighten us, and ultimately expand us”. Adisa portrays this idea in her seemingly effortless, superb wielding of story and plot, voice and perspective, narrative structure, techniques of characterisation, and literary devices such as metaphor, symbol, and particularly simile which abound throughout each narrative. Effortless because the characters and situations presented are so familiar because we have encountered them at some time or another in our own lives and experiences, or witnessed or heard of them in the lives and experiences of others.

Our Caribbean literary tradition has its share of classic coming-of-age narratives by our renowned writers, and also contemporary ones by our new and emerging writers who are contributing to an exciting time in what I can only describe as a renaissance in our literature across the region.  There is also renewed and burgeoning scholarly and critical research in Caribbean children’s literature and Young Adult (YA) fiction. With its exploration of what one can deem to be adult issues like marital infidelity, domestic violence, incest, and abortion, some may not at first consider Love’s Promise as being categorized as YA literature.  But the book does, and was intended by the author, to belong to that genre because not only do stories like “Love-Bush”, “Bus Stop”, “Love’s Promise”, and even “Trio”, for instance, depict characters who mature from childhood or adolescence to adulthood, but we are in an age of information and awareness where provocative and taboo topics are being addressed more openly with young people and in the classroom. Most evident in the opening story “Love-Bush” is the humour conveyed in the thought presentation of the protagonist during her teenage years—a character who feels impatience and sarcasm towards adults because she is certain they cannot understand what it is like to be in the throes of a first and unrequited love.  The nature, differences, and stages of infatuation versus love, courtship versus marriage, are highlighted in this initial story with its thematic focus analogous to the structure of the collection in the way that it begins with young love and ends with a mature manifestation, appreciation, and acknowledgment of what love really is.

Joan Elliott and Mary Dupuis, editors of Young Adult Literature in the Classroom: Reading It, Teaching It, Loving It observe regarding choice of reading material that “[y]oung adults are interested in books with main characters they can relate to—people of similar ages, facing similar problems” (3), and indicate that with respect to topic selection:

A few topics that attract YA readers focus on individual issues in growing up, such as potential career choices, parents and their expectations, relations with siblings, and sex and developing sexual attractions. Other popular topics focus on the reality of adult life: death and dying; drugs, alcohol, and substance abuse; divorce; spousal and child abuse; race, and class discrimination. The list could go on. All of these issues are full of moral and ethical questions.  As adolescents struggle to understand how different people and cultures deal with the issues that are important to each of us, they can explore a range of options through YA literature. (2)

The stories in Love’s Promise typify these ‘realities of adult life’ which interest adolescents. Hence, sex education and LGBTQI rights are being addressed more openly in classrooms, albeit as is expected, with resistance, protest, and debate among traditional and conservative elements. And Adisa’s writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is known to tackle, say, themes of gender and sexuality in frank terms. In the titular long short-story “Love’s Promise”, the unmarried, heterosexual, unattached thirty-year old protagonist who had helped a friend come out to her parents is told by her own mother that “[…] it is a basic human need to want someone else. […] I want you to know your father and I love you, and we don’t care who you end up with, man…or…woman. We just want you to be happy” (83). It fictionalizes how parents allow love for their children to supersede bias and other convictions, religious or otherwise. While there is only a mention of same-sex relationships, and it is not in any way developed in this story or in the collection as a whole, this seemingly negligible fictionalization mirrors reality in the world outside the text and is among the various other literary discourses which deal with the issue in more expansive terms by Caribbean and Caribbean diasporic writers.  

Parallel linkages between experiences of mothers and daughters, and the familiar trope in literature of the mother-daughter relationship, are common threads in the collection. Every story in the collection has a mother and other mother figures be they grandmothers, aunts or neighbours who mete out advice, warning, admonition, and affection. There is as well the ubiquitous trope of the madwoman; but, she too serves a positive role such as in “God’s Child” where she is a guide, and in the story “Mother Mushet” which can be considered an intertext of another famed Jamaican author and poet Olive Senior’s short story “Yu Think I Mad, Miss?”. In “Mother Mushet” the madwoman character who became mentally ill because she was fooled and spurned by her fiancé, is consequently flogged and rejected by her father, and given passive forgiveness by her mother is the one who helps the protagonist—her caregiver—to assuage her own guilt, undo her hate and anger, and reclaim the love she had for her own now-deceased mother who had left her in Jamaica with her grandmother when she migrated to England. This story, therefore, reflects a common aspect of Caribbean reality which is migration and the transnational family, and provides a fictional account of the negative repercussions on young and old members of families because of separation. 

Vital information was concealed

Sexual molestation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, incest—sexual misconduct in its various names and forms—are unsurprisingly a matter of fictional investigation here. The socialisation of the female is realistically depicted as one where girls and women still bear the brunt of the responsibility and blame for the violation of their bodies by both strangers, relatives, and others known to them. But, a very redeeming quality is portrayed in stories such as “Matrimony” and “Mother Mushet” in the way younger and older female victims are avenged, protected, and supported by parents and others—both men and women—in the community.

The first-person narration of “Mother Mushet” and “Trio” is a foregrounding technique that reinforces the twists and turns and surprises of the narratives. It allows the reader to discern the narrator’s bias and discover how vital information was concealed until particular revelations are provided at the story’s denouement in “Mother Mushet”, and to judge and/or empathise with the betrayal, egregious and immoral action a mother commits against her own daughter in “Trio”. 

While the stories hinge mainly on female protagonists, there is nonetheless a balanced representation of boys and men who are also main characters. So though we have the wife-beater, the adulterer, the molester half-brother, the fiancé who abandons his soon-to-be bride on the eve of the wedding to migrate and marry someone else who can provide him with educational and employment opportunities, etcetera, there is also the loyal friend, the devoted husband, father, and uncle.  

Metaphors and symbols involving Caribbean food, flora, places, etcetera, assist in the thematic exploration of reconciliation, vengeance, and intimacy. Stories like “Conscience is the Same as Do Right”, “Mattie and Night’s Sister”, “Soup Bones”, and “The Living Roots” include fantasy elements, drawing on the supernatural, the practice of obeah, and Caribbean folklore. Again, these are presented positively in the way, respectively, that folk knowledge and bush medicine are used to help characters deal with their personal challenges and fallibilities; establish stronger communal relations; take vengeance on an unfaithful, abusive husband who reneged on his promises; and come to the realisation during the time of newly acquired emancipation from slavery that it is not mental instability but the actual voices of spirits, elders and those underground in a Maroon colony which are being heard and, hence, highlighting the importance of memory, African spirituality, and history. 

Another major preoccupation of Love’s Promise is shame—shame arising out of neglect, self-centeredness, loneliness, betrayal,  failure, inaction, rejection, and loss, among others. In “Love-Bush”, one reason for a character’s shame is the failure to pass the Common Entrance examination which is not only a private wound that negatively impacts a friendship but a public vulnerability because the results are published in newspapers. This leads to trauma, migration, and a lost friendship. The story is therefore also reflective of a real-world reality involving debates about student potential, multiple intelligences, and calls for change and improvement in our educational systems. But, as in all of Adisa’s writing, there is hope, vindication, and reconciliation. In a somewhat meta twist, the “failed” student becomes a successful writer, a gift he had always possessed, and writes a book called Love’s Promise. In the process a gap is bridged, a friendship healed.  

A highly recommended read. 

Geraldine Skeete is a lecturer in Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Trinidad. She co-edited The Child and the Caribbean Imagination (UWI Press, 2012).

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