Where is the love

By Melissa Richards

Sections of an Orange, by Anton Nimblett
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1845-2307-4-6, 150 pp)

Anton Nimblett

Anton Nimblett. Photograph by Leslie Ward, courtesy Peepal Tree Press

There is a political charge to Sections of an Orange, Anton Nimblett’s first collection of short fiction, obvious even before the book is in your hands. Search for the title on Amazon and you’ll find a cover image that features a homoerotic photograph of a beautiful young nude. When the book actually turns up, much of his nude body will be covered by a discreet orange banner on which the title is printed, but this glimpse at an earlier cover design suggests an impulse on the part of Nimblett’s publishers to market the collection as gay fiction.

Given the difficulties of selling Caribbean fiction, and short stories in particular, it’s hard to be too cynical about such a choice. Indeed, given the dearth of gay writing from the Caribbean, the decision would be as much political as commercial, reflecting some of the courage necessary for a Caribbean author to deal openly with homosexuality in fiction.

This is not to suggest that the book in its current form does not proudly display its politics. In the cover copy, references to gay characters searching for sexual fulfilment sit easily among descriptions of the bereaved and the dispossessed. And Nimblett’s story “Time and Tide”, which appears in the current collection, was previously included in the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited by Thomas Glave. Rather, Peepal Tree appears to have decided, quite sensibly, not to focus its efforts on marketing the book to a niche readership within the niche readership that might otherwise be expected to buy it. The political question being raised, though, it is worth considering whether the literary merits of Sections of an Orange live up to its political credentials.

Arguably, the more mainstream positioning does justice to the book, for Nimblett manages a wide spread of Caribbean characters — male and female, young and old, gay and straight. There are stories based in the Caribbean and in the United States, and characters who move between the two. The same characters appear in multiple stories; and a secondary character in one may become the central character in another.

Nimblett accomplishes a seamless blending of these diverse individuals. Many of the stories deal specifically with the experience of being gay, and others — sometimes in quite original ways — with the intersection between gay life and all the assumptions about sexuality that are part of life in the Caribbean in particular. But still others make no reference to sexuality at all. Often, Nimblett accomplishes the trick of making sexual preference irrelevant (although this does sometimes allow him to demonstrate that writing about gay relationships can slip into banality as easily as writing about straight relationships).

In the title story, a young Trinidadian in Brooklyn has a sexual encounter with a hairdresser and amateur photographer while posing for him. The narrator’s description of their meeting illustrates some of the things that Nimblett is good at:

As I step off the F-train, I feel the rickety platform vibrate under me, and a moment of uncertainty flashes through my mind. I remember my encounter with Brian last month. Truth be told, if he hadn’t spotted me, I’d have walked right past him. But he came walking towards me with body language that seemed to say, from half a block away, that we’d planned to meet right there, he and I; and if not at that time, then five minutes earlier . . . When he smiled, he looked like a ten-year-old who’d just stoned down a juicy yellow mango and caught it before it hit the ground.

Nimblett describes characters who inhabit two worlds, and as author he is equally comfortable in both of them. His descriptions move easily between urban life in Brooklyn, where his characters know the best diners and which beer to get at the bodega, and Trinidad, where evening-time may be spent in the gallery of a house in Maracas surrounded by smoke from a mosquito coil. Hence his ability to capture, in a single paragraph, the pleasure of a random encounter in the city and a quintessential image of Caribbean boyhood.

In the story “Sections of an Orange” the sense of dislocation that can come with inhabiting two worlds (and not really being accepted in either) may be one of the things that draws the characters together. The narrator has heard warnings that Brian has become unstable, although this instability is only hinted at by his actions during the course of the story. Indeed, the narrator embraces some of Brian recklessness. Nimblett intersperses the first person narrative with snippets of a newspaper article that describes a “swipe-and-run rampage” in which $200,000 worth of jewellery was grabbed from a luxury Fifth Avenue jeweller and a stolen getaway car driven into crowds. Only at the end of the story is it made clear that Brian has carried out the crime described.

A companion piece, “Ring Games”, describes the lead-up to these events, told from Brian’s perspective. It captures his isolation and his descent into madness. This time the words of a nursery rhyme are used to punctuate the text, evoking a Caribbean childhood in which Brian is equally isolated, and connecting the encounter described in the previous story with the robbery and its aftermath. The narrative shifts between past and present, between his life in New York in the days before the crime and his childhood in Trinidad. As we move closer to the event itself, the writing becomes abbreviated, fractured, in an attempt to capture Brian’s fractured consciousness. Yet, as sometimes happens elsewhere in the collection, the story feels too stylised, crafted, but not yet to the point where the craft is made invisible and only the emotional force remains.

In other stories, Nimblett describes relationships in which the difficulties are more mundane — infidelity, family disapproval. His characters are always seeking something, or else drifting, unclear what’s missing. Although often apparently linked to the experience of being gay and the lack of acceptance that is a part of this, the breadth of the collection is such that it is not exclusively so. Sections of an Orange juxtaposes different models of resistance to this dislocation: Brian descends into madness; in “One, Two, Three — Push” the central character finally releases a long suppressed scream.

But Nimblett also captures subtler forms of resistance. Indeed, some of the most powerful stories are those in which the emotional charge is most contained. “Visiting Soldiers”, the first story in the book, begins simply: “Evangeline Leonard had been walking around with her son’s ashes for weeks.” It is the story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her only son, killed in combat after being recruited into the army. She begins to carry his urn “at the bottom of the leather tote that she has carried every day for years — winter or summer, work or play.” The urn finds its place in a tote in which she carries an extra pair of shoes, a packed lunch, and her Daily Word magazine. It is a symbol of the kind of accommodation that can be made to loss and grief. In the story she makes one brief, public protest against her lot, but only when driven to protect other boys from Roderick’s fate.

What makes the story compelling is Evangeline’s restraint, and Nimblett’s economy in telling the tale. Where there might be “timeworn wails” or “quiet curse words like quick jabbing fists,” strung together “with a wharfwoman’s precision” — indeed, Evangeline’s sister expects it — instead there is composure, dignity, and action.

It is ironic that in a collection notable for its attempt to offer new definitions of Caribbean masculinity, Nimblett so often manages to capture the beauty and pathos of an old model of Caribbean femininity. Nimblett proves himself a master at writing about that generation of West Indian women who lived their lives in the service of others — lovers, children, employers — and faced off emotional distress with useful action. The collection is full of these strong resilient women, and it is notable that even in those stories that deal most explicitly with gay relationships there is often an old Caribbean aunty who is invoked as inspiration or guide.

Perhaps the most charming story in the book focuses on another such woman, Agatha Stewart. After devoting her entire life “plus a few more years to boot” to the care of the Parkers, six years after the death of Mrs Parker, Agatha suddenly finds herself confronted by unusual behaviour on the part of Mr Parker. It starts with him sitting down to Sunday lunch, the one meal of the week for which she joins him at the dining table, in his drawers and slippers.

One of the shortest stories in the collection, and easily the funniest, it is told from the perspective of its central character. By perfectly capturing Agatha’s sensibility and voice, Nimblett creates a character who is absolutely convincing: from his description of her waking up after a restless night — “Again is worry she worrying when the sun is coming up” — to her exclamations of “Lord, put a hand!”

Agatha presents another model of resistance, albeit subtle, to what is ultimately an oppressive system. At the beginning of the story, she is the advocate for this system. Of Mr Parker’s behaviour it is said: “In all her donkey years with this man, she has never seen him behave so lowdown and base.” But what dawns on her after she has scrubbed the floor, “the old fashioned way, on her knees . . . [and] banished any speck of dirt to distant corners,” is that the respectability she is so desperate to maintain is of limited service to her. Hers is the rebellion of the slave, of the colonial servant: to be seen to maintain the system while subtly subverting and undermining it.

. . . as Agatha and Mr. Parker sit, she will remind him about his longtime plan to build a wall around the yard.

“Yes, get the man to come and start laying down the bricks this week coming,” she’ll say. “Keep out alla them Reed Street dogs and fowls, get some privacy.”

Perhaps one of the lessons of the book, subtler and more powerful than the beautiful nude on the cover, or the erotics of orange juice (however necessary these may be), is the suggestion that for an older Caribbean generation love makes possible an accommodation of difference. A gentle lesson, not much likely to satisfy those eager for real change, but of value nonetheless.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

Melissa Richards was born in Trinidad and now lives in London. She is a former journalist, and currently works as a freelance editor.