May 17, 2010

Book Review: Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

By Heather D. Russell, 
Florida International University

Reading Anton Nimblett’s collection of short stories, Sections of an Orange (2009) is exactly like devouring the sweetest, juiciest, richest Trinidadian orange in its entirety -- bitter rind, hard to swallow tough resilient seeds, “mashing pulp” and “sharp-sweet juice,” “tearing pulp from pith” (109), at once gently, at once hungrily swallowing section, by incredible section -- I did not want this sweet orange book to end! Now as a professor in literature who has been reading and teaching novels, short stories, poetry for many many years, I have had to develop my own internal benchmark to evaluate my reading experiences. Not scientific. Purely visceral. My gauge, actually, is whether I am sad as the text draws to a close because I am not yet ready to conclude the journey upon which I have been taken; whether my reading actually slows as I attempt to draw out the last few breathtaking minutes; whether there are literally “wow” moments in the text that render me breathless.

Breathtaking passages are everywhere in Sections. Take, for instance, the one in which Glen, the son of a privileged family meets a reluctant and suspicious Pedro, the proud working class uncle with captivating hands covered with “skin that looks more like bark than an old man’s flesh;” Pedro the tiò, the guardian of his new love Cecelia:

No smiles, no extended hands. Just three people in a small room looking at each other. The wooden walls are unpainted, decorated chiefly with scattered knot holes. The only accessories are white: bleached cotton hangs from a clothesline at the window; plastic, stamped with a lace pattern, covers the table; and in one corner a trinity of partially burned, milky candles have dripped waxy stalactites. “Well, Mr. Mendoza, sorry, I jus’…” Glen’s apology floats unfinished as he looks at Pedro. For a minute he tries to connect this face to Cecelia’s. But Pedro’s firmly-set mouth, bordered by deep folds of tamarind-pod skin, is too far from Cecelia’s simple smiles – the smiles that made him lose track of time (69, emphasis mine).

We have met Glen earlier in Sections, anchoring, centering, healing and nurturing with his own stories of resistance, resilience and survival, the Trinidadian-American narrator who seeks refuge at home in Trinidad, after enduring a freak car accident involving his “On the Side” (title) lover Leigh, an affair marked by secrets and passion and necessity. Later, we meet Push, the gay computer programmer who decides to grow his hair and is first mistaken for Muslim, then Rastafarian, then an artist, then a teacher, but NEVER seen in his own right, only serving as a blank template upon which everyone projects their imagination, fear and desire.

Trauma, in Nimblett’s imaginative landscape, lives alongside the hope and healing inherent in rituals of love and survival. Evangeline Leonard, a.k.a. Eva, whose story is the first section of the orange we consume, a mother mourning her dead son who has been killed in combat, a mother who ritualistically walks around with her dead son’s ashes in her purse every single day. Eva who remembers “the rain-rain, rain, rain,” the night her son revealed he would “Go Army Strong:”

She should not have let her son make a decision in that rain. She should have remembered that pigeon peas are planted on the feast of Corpus Christi and cassava is never planted during a new moon. And you don’t plan your life on a rainy night…she thought, Why I didn’t listen to the rain? My mother teach me better than that. (21)

Throughout Sections of an Orange, Nimblett signals his deft linguistic prowess, the range of his semantic cadences that hip-hop, calypso, jazz-like from Brooklyn to Trinidad and back in a mere sentence: “Tomorrows and yesterdays crisscross like ribbons on a maypole” (118).

Sections genius is surely to be found in diasporically-inflected analogies like the one describing the reuniting, as they stand outside the F-train on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, of two Trinidadian friends who become lovers (a coming together that is both erotically beautifully and tragically foreclosed): “When he [Brian] 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” (100).

Juicy yellow-mango-memoried smiles shift seamlessly to the hip-hop cadences of African American urban vernacular speech marking the verbal exchanges between Brian and the narrator. Nimblett’s characters are multi-lingual and multi-dimensional. Drawn from an unmistakable diaspora consciousness, his characters live, speak, act, out of the multiple subject positions they simultaneously inhabit and that Nimblett is able to capture the quintessentially diasporic, polyrhythmic, fluidity of characters, places, sensibilities and language, speaks truly to his remarkable talent.

Nimblett’s is a powerfully character-driven collection. In Sections we meet mothers, sons, fathers, aunties, lovers, gay, straight, youthfully exuberant, and agedly sagacious. We enter into their worlds, not voyeuristically, as outsiders gazing upon life’s myriad unexpected and unpredictable unfoldings; rather, we bear witness as intimate kin, while passion, death, sickness, love, alienation, mental illness, loneliness, family, community, are given full expression, at times in the most seemingly simple, yet profoundly powerful and complex human renditions of who and how we are with one another.

In Marjory’s Meal, for example, Old Man Moore, who we “meet” in an earlier story and are told dies within a month of his wife Marjory’s passing, in this segment prepares and cooks her favorite meal. She is ill and dying and he has, with “juice of the orange running down his chin, juice suddenly matched by salty tears,” finally accepted her imminent passing. Ritualistically (as with Eva before), he cooks her crab, and pumpkin and brews her orange peel tea and feels, that “for the first time since he has given her a real gift” (86). Marjory’s Meal left me breathless throughout.

Oranges do run through this narrative, but perhaps in no way as powerfully, poignantly, and erotically as in the story from which the book takes its title. I do think it is true, that of Nimbett’s characters, his gay male protagonists are perhaps the most marginalized by, well almost everyone, alienated and lonely, like Push, and Leigh, and Ray, and, of course Brian, who eventually descends into a kind of madness because he’s desperate to recreate “the magic” he has finally found with his fellow Trinidadian friend and lover. But, and it is a critical but, these characters are in no way victims, merely reacting to the heterosexist hegemonic social structures which surround them. Push, for example, the main protagonist in the closing story, “One, Two, Three, Push,” defies, resists, being appropriated by everyone else’s definition of him; invoking and drawing strength from his self-possessed ancestors: his own Tantè Tilda and Trinidadian revolutionary Kwame Tourè, Push literally screams himself into self-definition.

In a similar vein, Brian and Chocolate Man, despite the former’s tragic ending, unite in “Sections of an Orange,” while simultaneously love-making, taking photographs, and eating oranges, they literally pull apart the sections of an orange, piece by piece, traveling deeper to the core of themselves, their “taut, strong,” “raw and real” man selves, finding each other, finding wholeness, creating “new spaces: art and liberation” (111; 124). Such “magic” is both salve and salvation.

The potency of the ancestors, of rituals of resistance, survival and healing, of the knowledge of bush roots, of homeland and home abroad, of beauty, art, poetry, pain, love, love-making, hope, renewal, these are the seeds and pulp and juice and rind and mattering core of Sections. I anxiously await the next instantiation of Anton Nimblett’s fertile, rich, and verdant writerly imagination. The read is truly sweet!


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