I recently got my hands on a copy of Zalika Reid-Benta’s forthcoming collection of stories, Frying Plantain, and couldn’t bear put it down until I had finished it. Following what was a whirlwind reading experience, I reached out to Zalika Reid-Benta for some clarification, expansion, and suggestions – and she obliged.
Vannessa Barnier: I understand that this is a collection of short stories. Why did you choose this particular format to tell this story?
Zalika Reid-Benta: I just didn’t think a novel suited the story and I don’t really know if I can explain that because I’ve been asked this many times by many different people, particularly since you constantly hear how novels sell better than short story collections, so for years I’ve tried my best to think of an exact reason why I chose a collection and I still can’t articulate one. I consider myself to be an intuitive writer, where I will make certain choices just because in my gut I know it’s the right thing for what I’m trying to express and that’s the only real answer I can give about why I chose to make this a short story collection.
VB: How long was this story in the works?
ZRB: It feels strange to say since my last year of high school until the end of 2017 with some gaps between 2014 and 2017, but that’s how long I consider the process to have been. In my last year I wrote a short story called “The Building Blocks” which didn’t make its way into my collection but it was sort of the jumping off point for Frying Plantain, the seed of the book if you will, it was a part of my collection for a very long time and the next story I wrote in undergrad, now called “Frying Plantain” was then called “Plastic” and then “Fresh” which was an entire process (I’m a slow writer) and then when I did my MFA in Columbia, I wrote the majority of the collection. I left it alone for about two years and then in 2017 I wrote four new stories.
VB: As a first time publisher, what did you think of the process? Any particular highlights? Unexpected twists?
ZRB: The publishing process itself was very smooth so that in it of itself is definitely a highlight.
VB: I understand that you attended the Banff Writer’s Studio. Did any of the writing for Frying Plantain happen there? How was your overall experience up there?
ZRB: Everything that happened there was actually unexpected because before I left for Banff, I had submitted my collection to various publishers on a sort of whim after having a conversation with one of my old mentors who encouraged me to get back to the book. When I was at Banff, a few of those publishers expressed interest in my collection and to be quite frank I hadn’t expected that. I’d submitted my collection to agencies and publishers when I’d just finished my MFA and all I heard were crickets or if I did hear something back it was: make it a novel, or take out this part (which happened to be the most Toronto or most Toronto-Jamaican part) etc. etc. so I expected the same silence and/or resistance but that didn’t happen. I didn’t really know what to do so instead of actually writing, I spent most of my time seeking advice from the more established writers, asking about their experiences, if they had any tips, which led to me to the belief that I really needed an agent so I started to query. While I had some wonderful discussions about my work and had some really incisive feedback and edits and a good chunk of the titles were thought up there, I didn’t actually do any writing for my collection until coming back from Banff. At the same time, I wrote four stories in the span of a month when I’m the kind of person who can spend a year or more on a single short story, so that surge of inspiration is something I absolutely credit to my time at the residency.
VB: I thought it was interesting that, in the story, Drunk, there is a part where Kara’s new friends, particularly Hannah, already knew the stories of Kara being hurt. Kara expresses to Hannah some reticence about skipping school, and Hannah tells Kara that she “really need[s] to let that go. It was, like, a million years ago, and we won’t ditch you like they did, I promise.” This comment illustrates that Kara had shared this story with her new friends. It is clear that there is vulnerability between the characters, but that particular moment isn’t shared with the audience. Why is that?
ZRB: This is an interesting question because I never looked at it as Kara being vulnerable with Hannah (or Justin) but more of a defense or justification for why she won’t be “fun” and skip class. I think a part of her just doesn’t want to skip and instead of simply saying that and risk being thought of as lame, she has this excuse ready-made. Of course, it’s not just an excuse it’s also a reason and a justifiable one but when I wrote that exchange I didn’t have it in mind that Kara has a sort of connection with Hannah particularly since I didn’t view Hannah as a real friend but more of a way to survive lunch period after Terrence left.
VB: There is another moment of vulnerability between Kara’s mother and grandmother that we get more of an experience of. Again, this is a vulnerable moment that is off-screen, but this time, the reader knows it is happening, as we get to sneak up to the door with Kara.
Through these generations, secrecy is passed down, vulnerability is hidden, yet these conversations still happen – desperation leads to conversation. Can you tell us more about this dichotomy of distance and closeness between these family members?
ZRB: I think you nailed it on the head when you said desperation leads to conversation. This is a family that tends to look at giving into emotion as a luxury, which is an outlook that had been created for their own survival in a larger social context. It’s also a family that can actively lie to one another and to themselves in order to simply have a nice moment together. But at the end of the day, they still are family so when they each reach their breaking points and just have to ask for help or have to express their hurt, they’ll turn to each other in a moment of vulnerability to keep from going insane and the fact that it’s a moment that probably won’t be spoken about after it happens is, in a way, a protection of that vulnerability because it allows a member to “save face”, which is very important to these characters. This is also a dynamic you see with Kara and her neighbourhood friends.
VB: As with the furniture in the grandparent’s house, moving incrementally, not enough for anyone to notice, but enough for someone close to it to be affected. Is this sort of how things became clear for Kara? That she needed to not live with her mom anymore? Slowly but eventually? Or was it more like when she came across the pig’s head? Suddenly, jarringly?
ZRB: I don’t think Kara has come to that conclusion yet, I think she’s getting there. In Drunk she rebels by walking out and leaving but that was meant to be an echo of what her grandfather would do to her grandmother when they fought, so there are various cycles being repeated in Kara’s behaviour but I believe she’s reaching the conclusion toward her own independence slowly but eventually.
VB: Kara takes on a lot of her mother’s characteristics, always sitting near the door, not wanting to be predictable, not showing signs of weakness. However, Kara has a lot of traits of her own: she is compassionate, tender, and sensitive. How did you find building a character with dualities like this? Was this meant to set her up for survival?
ZRB: Hmm, is Eloise not compassionate? Haha. Building Kara was definitely a challenge because so much of her mother and grandmother is fused to her identity and figuring out where they ended and she began took a lot of time. When I sort of took a break from writing and went back to my collection, looking through it, I did realize that tenderness and sensitivity were traits that were more apparent in her than any other character in the book and then realized that that was where Kara sort of lived. Her “softness”, whether she liked it or not, was a defining characteristic of her and so I began writing her in that way — she may do the same things her mother or her grandmother or her friends do but her driving motivation is to appear less sensitive or tender, which in turn brings out how tender she really is. Sorry if that’s way too convoluted!
VB: In the story, Inspection, we are taken through the two-hour process of getting Kara ready. This is the first story that is in third person. There are no quotations, giving the impression of a memory, disassociated. Can you tell us about your decision to make this section in third person instead of first?
(Aside: Celebration is also in third person, though there is more structure here, and we also have insights into how Kara is interpreting her mother. I’m not sure if this is a product of being an ARC, or if this is how it will read in the final version.)
ZRB: Celebration was actually in first person originally but somewhere in the editing process it was suggested I change it so Inspection wouldn’t be the only story in third. With Inspection, I wanted there to be a sort of mechanical vibe to Kara getting ready, I didn’t necessarily want to get into her feelings, I didn’t want the scene to be coloured too much by her thoughts and anxieties and resentments but I wanted to show what those anxieties and resentments and questions would be. I also didn’t put the dialogue in quotations because I wanted to convey the idea or question of where she ends and where Eloise begins, that this dialogue sort of becomes an inner monologue in Kara’s head, sort of just becomes a part of her thoughts. For some reason I felt like third person was the best way to convey all of that.
VB: Were there any writers or bodies of work you took inspiration from when writing Frying Plaintain? Who do you return to for inspiration?
ZRB: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison were big influences from the start. Later on I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and it changed my life, she created a sense of mood and atmosphere with such subtlety and potency so after reading that, I had her work in mind during the editing process.
VB: Now that you’ve finished this big work and ushering it out into the world, have you been writing anymore? Or are you taking a bit of time to breathe now?
ZRB: Both, actually. I have a next project I’m working on and have been for the last three years, in fact I stopped writing that project and returned to my collection when I was accepted into Banff in 2017 so that’s in the works but sometimes I take breaks from writing that.
VB: What’s next for you, literary-wise?
ZRB: A young adult fantasy romance novel with elements of Jamaican folklore.
Zalika Reid-Benta is a born and bred Toronto writer, TV fanatic and cheeseburger enthusiast. She is an alum of the 2017 Banff Writer’s Studio, the 2019 Banff Winter Writer's Retreat and received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University in 2014. Her collection of linked short stories, Frying Plantain, will be published on June 4th 2019 and she's in the midst of writing a young adult fantasy novel that incorporates Jamaican folklore into its mythology. Author image by Michelle Comeau. Vannessa Barnier is an instigator and facilitator, the host of the Legible Intelligibles reading series, a bookseller at House of Anansi, and an attendee of the 2019 Juniper Summer Writing Institute intensive. Vannessa lives and works in Toronto.