Celeste Rita Baker’s collection of stories Back, Belly, & Side: True Lies and False Tales has its own internal rhythm—it’s playful and light and then, quite unexpectedly, it turns dark and sorrowful. As with magical realism in the best sense, Baker’s stories have feet that are light on the ground. Voices are heard when you least expect it, children who are not yours suddenly just are, and most tenuous and disturbing of all, memories start to gather at the edge of your consciousness. Everything is strange and potentially mysterious, and yet everything is as ordinary as it can be.
Baker, a Virgin Islander who now lives in Harlem, New York, writes stories in dialect, and the unique rhythms of Caribbean island speech inflect the prose of practically every story in this collection. For those of us who are unaccustomed to this dialect, even those who read "world literature" in Standard English translation, the very first page of Back, Belly, & Side, with its delightful story, "Single Entry," about a planet-shaped contestant in a Carnival competition, immediately creates an atmosphere of both distance and identification. The protagonist of this story is emblematic of the whole collection: it seems to contain the world, and much of the world is unknown to us. "I was de whole friggin’ planet," the protagonist says, but starts to shrivel and shrink as soon as the audience’s attention wanders. Among other things this is a clever comment on the act of performance, which also includes writing, and sets the tone for the rest of the book: Pay attention to these stories, Baker seems to be saying, or the act of reading is reduced to nothing.
In "Now I Got Girl," Baker’s facility for creating memorable characters in a few brushstrokes is revealed in all its wonderful detail. A woman who has just had a night out on the town discovers a young girl on her walk back home, and mistakes the child for a gargoyle at first. "I don’t like children, the sneaky little beasts, so I kept an eye on her the way you would watch a rabid dog. Nice doggy. Stay back." (The narrator will later explain that she "even called Animal Control" to take the child away, "but they wouldn't take her.") The child refuses to disappear, however, and the narrator is riled up to the point where she reaches "Patti LaBelle hysteria vein." What happens next will probably not shock you, but how it happens—and how the narrator comes to accept a situation that only a few hours earlier she steadfastly even refused to consider, is a strong example of how the best empathetic fiction is able to mimic the act of personal transformation—it happens even before one is conscious of it happening.
"Jumbie from Bordeaux" travels in time and features a young child narrator, the son of slaves on a cane plantation, who by the end of the trauma he has witnessed has changed entirely in corporeal form. In witnessing the slave owner’s abuse of his parents, for having sexual intercourse outside of when permitted "to breed," for going against slave time and slave consciousness, in other words, and staging a reclamation of their own bodies for themselves, the child literally transforms. It is impossible to see what he has seen—to know what he knows now—and remain the same. The imagery is vivid and unforgettable. It’s one of the best stories in the collection.
"Name Calling," a story originally published in two versions by Abyss & Apex, is another standout. It’s one of the longer stories in this collection, and conveys a sense of dread and unease from its very first paragraph. By the time we learn why the narrator hears names that interrupt her sleep, we already have a sense that some form of tragedy is not far off. What Baker succeeds in doing, without mawkishness, is show the strength of the bonds between people and also their resilience—not in service of "getting over" something, but simply in the service of life, or the idea that there is reason enough to make it another day. Writers of colour, and from places other than the global centres of power, often find themselves having to exotify their own worlds for an international (always coded white, and first-world) gaze. Here, religion and magic are effortlessly woven into day-to-day routines—not so much that they become ordinary, but enough that they are never made extraordinary, or exotic in order to provide an entertaining or unique experience for the non-Caribbean reader.
To ease the heaviness of "Jumbie from Bordeaux" and "Name Calling" the story that follows, "Dreamprice," is comedic gold mixed with pathos and regret. The voice of the narrator, Lorraine, is dry and witty—but we’re also treated to the voice of an elderly lady who knows too much, Mrs. Witherspun, and her impeccable tough-love truisms. When Lorraine bumps into Mrs. Witherspun at the bank, she’s doing her best to stay casual, but by the end of the story all of Lorraine’s missteps have been laid bare to everyone standing in line, and the shame that arises out of self-consciousness is no longer even a consideration. Despite this, Mrs. Witherspun’s vision for Lorraine allows some measure of hope, although we meet Lorraine again in the last story in the collection, "Responding in Kind," and learn that life—by which it’s more precise to say the socioeconomic factors that produce class and race—has not been too kind to Lorraine or her children. "Dreamprice" and "Responding in Kind" are stories about hard knocks and the people in your life, who despite being the source of your problems and heartache, help you to endure these knocks.
As with any collection of stories, there are missteps. Several stories seem flimsy, hampered by weak and abrupt endings, like "Stuck," which folds in a darker story about abuse into a narrative voice that is surprisingly cutesy and nothing like what Baker is able to construct at her best. "Single Entry," for example, also has a premise that can be read as cute but has the force of depth and a singular vision that elevates it to a memorable, powerful story. Similarly, "Imaginary Foes"—featuring unicorns and rainbows and a little lesson on accepting people, or creatures, for what they are—may round out the "speculative" categorisation a little better but does little else. It situates a real-world problem of intolerance based on prejudice in an imaginative world involving standard magical creatures and tropes, but is unable to rise above it due to its brevity and limited scope. It feels a little like finger-wagging, a fable lacking the pithy indelibility common to the form. "Mrs. Littleson’s Recollection" is another slight story that contains big themes: black beauty and its reclamation. However, the form and scope of the story do not quite highlight the physical and emotional effects on black people navigating a world steeped in white supremacist beauty standards. It’s not necessary that the story has to do this, of course, and black women writers should be under no obligation to treat these things with deathly earnestness at all times. However, the way in which Baker has chosen to frame it renders the issues somewhat trivial, making the story feel less like a story and more like an afterthought. The stories that follow after, like "Nobody" with its depiction of adoption ("But nobody wanted black children") and its intersection of race and class politics, as well as "Birdbrain," which holds up in harsh light the lies that structure heterosexual relationships, and the gender politics that enable them, balance out the slighter stories, but also potentially (by contrast) make them rather forgettable.
Ultimately, Baker’s strong storytelling gifts, her remarkable ear for dialogue, and her ability to translate it onto the page make Back, Belly, & Side memorable, both sweet and dark. These are not tame, complacent stories. These stories shake you up, press you into corners, and call out your name when you’re just trying to get some sleep. While reading this collection I wanted the stories to end, because sometimes the harshness of some of the lives it depicted was hard to bear, and I did not want it to end, because the characters I encountered in these pages were remarkable, unique people. I can’t think of a better state of tension for a fiction reader who is looking for anything but a safe read.
Subashini Navaratnam lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and has published poetry in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara, Aesthetix, and Sein und Werden. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters, and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH's anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi's KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets as @SubaBat and blogs at disquietblog.wordpress.com.