Why Zalika Reid-Benta wrote a short story collection that looks at growing up young and black in Toronto
Frying Plantain is Zalika Reid-Benta's first book and she wanted to make a great first impression. The Toronto author and Columbia MFA graduate wrote Frying Plantain as a series of interconnected stories featuring a young black woman named Kara Davis living in a Toronto neighbourhood.
The coming-of-age tale examines race, class and identity as Kara learns to explore and reconcile her Canadian nationality and Jamaican heritage.
Frying Plantain is on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 30, 2019.
Not a linear process
"The initial idea for the book started in my last year of high school. I had an exercise to write about a neighborhood. I decided to write about the Eglinton West neighbourhood of Toronto. Certain characters sprung from there, including the main character Kara — although her name wasn't that at the time.
"I wrote it and a lot of people liked it. I tried to move on and write about other things. But various mentors of mine felt that the stories were still in me and I should continue to explore them. During my undergrad, I kept writing these stories under different titles and they became my submission for my MFA program at Columbia.
"On a whim, I decided to submit it to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and I got in. I worked on a few stories while there in Alberta — tidying them up and adding more nuance. It was not a linear process by any means."
Understanding lived experiences
"When I first started this book, I was so scared of everyone thinking that it's based on my life that I didn't even name the Toronto neighbourhoods or streets where the events in the book take place. It was set in this amorphous place that could be anywhere in North America. But it wasn't working because it wasn't rooted to anything. The more that I wrote, the more I was confident in my own abilities to be more specific and ground the stories in the real-life settings.
I lived in the Toronto neighbourhoods that Kara lived in. But this is fiction and it's just about understanding the dialogue and the people that live in these places.
"I lived in the Toronto neighbourhoods that Kara lived in. But this is fiction and it's about understanding the dialogue and the people that live in these places. I understand and can relate to that experience of strict parents and grandparents from Jamaica and the Caribbean. But I wouldn't say these events were exactly my experience."
Keeping it real
"When I first started writing, I was all about theme and wanting to talk about intergenerational cycles. My mentor at the time was George Elliot Clarke and he told me to focus on the writing, to trust that the themes will come out on their own. If you're constantly thinking about the theme, he said, then you're writing an essay, not fiction.
"That's so true because early drafts of Frying Plantain felt so essayistic. I ended up not thinking about theme and thinking more about character and about dialogue. I usually start with dialogue — it's my most favourite thing to write.
"For the short story Snow Day in the book, I wasn't thinking about friendships, the danger of being a girl or anything like that. What I wanted to do was write a conversation about two black girls talking about how they can't go in the snow because it would ruin their hair. I wanted that on the page because I hadn't read anything like that when I was growing up. From that dialogue came everything else.
"These days I think more about interactions between people as opposed to theme. The theme usually comes at the end — and I don't even realize the theme is until I'm done."
Writing in my head
"I wish I was a lot more organized and structured than I actually am. Because honestly, if I don't feel like writing, I don't write. But if I do feel like writing, then I do. I'm still trying to figure out when I feel like writing because it just comes over me, generally at night and at 2 o'clock in the morning, when I have to go to work the next day.
"I've also realized that if I'm not thinking about writing — if I'm at work, grocery shopping or doing anything else but writing — then the words come more easily to me. It's probably because I'm not overthinking everything. I write in my head, so even if I'm not on my computer or writing freehand it's at the back of my mind. It's when I'm not putting so much pressure on myself when it all comes out."
Zalika Reid-Benta's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.