- "What are little girls made of?":Pamela Mordecai's Pink Icing and Other Stories
Overheard after a class on West Indian women's writing at the University of the West Indies: "So what is it with these West Indian women writers? Why they can't just stick to [End Page 943] one kind of book? Here you have some like Lorna Goodison and Pamela Mordecai going good-good with poetry—then, next thing, they're turning their hand to short fiction!" Indeed. We knew Velma Pollard as a poet, but then her novella Karl won the Casa de las Americas prize in 1992. And just as one grew accustomed to Olive Senior's fine collections of stories, she paralleled them with (equally accomplished) collections of poems, as well as seminal reference works on Jamaican culture and heritage.1 Additionally, Erna Brodber's exceptional fiction is now joined by her historical studies. What's going on?
Perhaps the point is that Anglophone Caribbean women's reality is too complex to represent and analyze in a single genre. Certainly, Pamela Mordecai's prolific output across literary genres suggests multiple strategies for capturing in print the contours of Jamaican landscapes: social, economic, physical and historical. She has written articles on West Indian literature (particularly by women), education and publishing; has herself published textbooks, edited collections, written children's books, four collections of poetry, and, with Martin Mordecai, collaborated on a reference work, Culture and Customs of Jamaica (2001). Now comes her first book of stories, intriguingly titled Pink Icing.
Regarding these stories, one might be tempted initially to judge the book by its cover: a reproduction of a sepia photograph of a mischievously smiling, brown-skinned, dressed-for-posing little girl (the author herself). She looks directly at the viewer, a little self-conscious in her pose but determined and confident. And indeed, about half of the twelve stories (all set in Jamaica) are narrated from the perspective of just such a girl child. Looking (illicitly) at what little girls are not supposed to see, and listening (secretly) to what they are not meant to hear, are central to the narrative method of stories like "Chalk It Up," "The Burning Tree and the Balloon Man," "Hartstone High," the title story, and "Corinthians Thirteen Thirteen." As the narrator in "The Burning Tree and the Balloon Man" says, "there are places where you can hear every little thing and some big ones too" (32). As in Olive Senior's tales, precocious female children watch and listen without fully comprehending the ugliness of the adult world to which they bear witness.
The title also suggests the innocent sweetness of little girls—pretty in pink—but anyone who knows little girls (and Mordecai's poetry) will not be surprised at the characteristically dry and ironic take on the vicissitudes of traditional Caribbean female roles, subtly sketched in "Chalk it Up." In this tale, young Colleen witnesses without fully grasping the semi-incarceration of her depressed mother by Papa—"a serious man," not to be upset by his subordinate womenfolk without consequences. Well-meaning, the child's witness leads to her mother's further imprisonment and, paradoxically, to her own release from the world of home to the wider world of school. What she really learns from (is able to "chalk it up" to) the experience remains possibly unclear to her, but not to the reader. By and large, this domestic world is a closed one, ringed about with secrets. Similarly, in "The Burning Tree and the Balloon Man," partially understood gossip and speculation fail to answer the fundamental puzzle of why, in the respectable moral code of big people (adults), "no thiefing of stray goat, no destruction of property, no maiming a intruder with machete . . . can compare with the sins related to baby-making matters" (32). Yet the resourceful protagonist is able to learn—if not to articulate—a more profound lesson from her shocking encounter with natural disaster, disease, and death.
One of Mordecai's strengths is the specific, detailed recreation of a tangible space. Naming—of places...