Zalika Reid-Benta is a Toronto-based writer with an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing debut, an inter-connected short story collection, Frying Plantain has been nominated for the 2020 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award presented by the Ontario Library Association and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Frying Plantain is can’t-put-down coming of age story, as Jamaican-Canadian Kara Davis navigates the complicated relationship between her mother and grandmother, her sometimes-friends-sometimes-bullies, and finally, herself.
Zalika is being interviewed by Brianna Bock
Brianna Bock (BB): Why did you decide to make this story a collection rather than a novel? Was that the pre-determined shape that you always had in mind for Kara’s story (or stories) or did everything just fall into place on its own? Or was it just the structure that worked best for Frying Plantain?
Zalika Reid-Benta (ZB): It’s a combination of the last two things. Originally, I thought that Frying Plantain was going to be a novel but when I wrote a “chapter” my mentor and workshop would tell me that it was a story and so by the third story, I accepted I was writing an interconnected short story collection and realized it worked better for me as a writer and for the story as a whole because I didn’t want to get caught up in certain linkages a novel needs to have to answer questions and fill in spaces, I could just write about a specific moment or day per story.
BB: Going off of the last question, what was your writing process like for this collection? And more specifically, when and why did you bring all the stories together and make them into a cohesive whole?
ZRB: It definitely wasn’t a linear process. The last story in the collection was the first story I wrote and I had always known they were going to intersect and go in chronological order but I didn’t write them chronologically. For a very long time, my collection was only 90 pages and it wasn’t until I seriously started sending out my manuscript to agents and publishers that I realized I had to double my word count and so I added about five stories to the collection two years after I wrote the bulk of it. It was a weird kind of combination of being a perfectionist and letting things happen organically, which means, I couldn’t continue with a story if I didn’t like a word or a sentence, everything had to be perfect in my head and so a story could take months to write but at the same time I didn’t really think about theme or message too seriously, I just let my characters interact until I found the heart of the story and went with it. The structure i.e. which story went where — especially in the middle — was something that changed a few times and was settled once I worked with the editor my publisher, Anansi, hired.
BB: There are so many lines that are dripping with implication and it builds and builds on the tension of so many of your scenes. A personal favourite of mine is “There’s a script she’s following, but hasn’t thought to tell me what my lines are.” in Fiah Kitty. It feels like there’s so much going on at once and everyone is navigating through their own journeys. What made you want to explore Kara, Eloise and Verna’s relationships with each other in this way?
ZRB: I’m a very big fan of things that aren’t said or that are said but not in direct ways and I’m fascinated by the idea of confrontations or situations that seem straightforward, that seem to be clearly about one thing but with so much history and baggage and respective interiority brimming underneath so that a conversation about one thing is a conversation about many things but the people in the conversation or situation can’t read each other’s minds, I find that really interesting to read and write so I wanted to do that. I also wanted to show that these three women have their own stories and their own perspectives on things and how they all inform each other but also stand apart.
BB: The back and forth of the familial relationships and friendships of Frying Plantain is done so well, and are used to explore Kara’s identity as a Canadian-Jamaican specifically growing up in Toronto. What made you ultimately decide to write about this as specifically as possible?
ZRB: Toronto changing. At first I was resistant to rooting the stories so specifically in Toronto, I wanted it to be this amorphous city that could be anywhere and my writing instructors kept asking me where it was happening because they felt unanchored and tried to communicate the “universality through specificity” adage but it didn’t quite stick with me until I realized how quickly Toronto was changing. I wrote the bulk of my stories in the U.S. and every time I came home, I felt anchorless because the neighbourhoods I grew up in or frequented were changing, the process of gentrification had started in Eglinton West and things like The World’s Biggest Bookstore and Sam’s and Honest Ed’s were gone and I just realized that I wanted to capture a specific Toronto at a specific time and through the lens of a Black Jamaican-Canadian, third culture diaspora girl/young woman because that experience of Toronto is valid.
BB: I’ve noticed that in stories about tense relationships between family and friends, the payoff is usually about breaking free from them. But so much of the tension in Frying Plantain is ‘picking your battles’ so to speak, and the slow realization that some things just aren’t worth bringing up. What made you want to focus on that?
ZRB: Because I hardly ever saw stories about quiet victories and I wanted to show that growth and healing and self-preservation can look different and sometimes it’s not as easy as simply just walking away but that doesn’t mean that you haven’t broken free.
BB: There’s a big focus on food throughout the collection. Was it an element that appeared on its own or a conscious choice? And why do you think food ended up as such an important element for the story?
ZRB: Food definitely wasn’t something I consciously thought about, it was just a natural part of the piece, I was writing about a Jamaican-Canadian girl and for children of the diaspora, a lot of the time, they way they connect to their heritage/culture/home is through food so it just made sense for me to include food because Kara’s life would be full of food, it wasn’t until someone in my cohort pointed out that every time there’s a moment of levity food is involved and every time there’s a moment of bad news that a character feels needs to be sort of cushioned, there’s food and I was like oh! That’s interesting. After that was pointed out, I was more aware and intentional.
BB: What’s surprised you about the response to Frying Plantain? Any favourites?
ZRB: The response Snow Day has gotten. I didn’t think it would be a reader favourite and the overwhelming response to it has been great and moving. It was also my goal to have people read it and feel accurately represented but sometimes I get messages or see reviews that go into such beautiful detail about how my book has made them feel seen and that’s always a wonderful surprise.