Banana Bottom

That Sunday when Bita Plant played the old straight piano to the singing of the Coloured Choristers in the beflowered school-room was the most exciting in the history of Jubilee….

In the opening pages of Banana Bottom, our protagonist, Bita Plant, returns home to the titular village after spending seven years being educated abroad. As we learn, it was after her rape by the aptly nicknamed Crazy Bow that Bita was adopted by husband and wife ministers, Malcolm and Priscilla Craig, and sent from her home in the West Indies to receive a proper education in the “mother country,” England. Now that she has returned, the Craigs, as well as the inhabitants of Banana Bottom and the larger town of Jubilee (where Bita lives with the Craigs), are curious to see if the “experiment” worked. Did Bita, whose skin is one of the darker shades represented on the island, and whose family is not wealthy, become a “proper” English lady? And if so, is she now too cultured and worldly to find any value in her small Jamaican community?

Bita had had seven years’ sound education. Priscilla Craig had conceived the idea of redeeming her from her past by a long period of education without any contact with Banana Bottom, and at the finish she would be English trained and appearing in everything but the colour of her skin.

Everyone who meets Bita is entranced by her, for in many ways she is indeed not like the other girls. She speaks proper English, is an avid reader, and, as a representative of the church, cannot participate in unseemly activities, such as attending tea-meetings. Yet, Bita is not as different as she appears to be. She maintains that her education has done nothing to make Jubilee displeasing to her; she is perfectly happy where she is. If anything, her time away has, in fact, made her more aware, and thus more appreciative, of her native land. She absorbs the sights, the sounds, the local color, with renewed vigor. Bita’s education has not changed who she is, but enhanced it. From the beginning of the novel to the end, she is unwavering in her sense of self; this is not the story of Bita’s education and growth, but rather her gradual understanding and acceptance of who she has always been.

Bita mingled in the crowd, responsive to the feeling, the colour, the smell, the swell and press of it. It gave her the sensation of a reservoir of familiar kindred humanity into which she had descended for baptism. She had never had that big moving feeling as a girl when she visited the native market. And she thought that if she had never gone abroad for a period so long, from which she had become accustomed to viewing her native life in perspective, she might never have had that experience.

As the novel continues, certain events transpire that force Bita to make a choice about the life she is living with the Craigs. She is on the path to marry a man of their choosing, the seemingly respectable Herald Newton Day, but she realizes early on that she could never marry him, let alone learn to love him. Is the path her benefactors have provided, and the gratitude she owes them for her education, enough to keep her? Bita finds herself increasingly drawn to Banana Bottom, and to a lifestyle the Craigs would not accept. Her first transgression occurs at a tea-meeting, in which she finds herself giving in to the desire to dance. Naturally, the Craigs disapprove, but Bita realizes that she does not feel as though she has done something so terrible. From this point, she begins to wonder if she could really spend her life yielding to others’ expectations. Shouldn’t she have the right to choose how she wants to live, and whom she wants to marry?

It’s no coincidence that the plot sounds as if it could belong to a Jane Austen novel. Bita has a lot in common with Austen’s heroines, as well as with other strong female protagonists in British literature. Indeed, she herself could probably pick up on the similarities, being well-read in the classics of her mother country (and temporary home). This is one of the interesting aspects of the novel, and something that makes it more accessible to readers who are not familiar with Caribbean literature. The author, Claude McKay, emphasizes the shared culture of the West Indian and British people. Or, to put it another way, he shows the ways in which West Indians are British, as well. The tension between the British side and the West Indian side, as exemplified in the character of Bita, shows the inherent difficulty in being one of the colonized, identifying with the colonizer. Bita has grown up reading stories of English ladies, speaking the English language, and in many ways being immersed in English culture—even before traveling to England. Yet she will never be a true English lady; her difference will never be invisible. McKay poses the question of how to reconcile these two sides, how to take the best of each and live a life of one’s own choosing. He infuses the story with his own philosophy—sometimes seamlessly, other times a bit heavy-handedly—in an effort to outline a way to do this.

Much of the story is charming and well-written, filled with evocative turns of phrase and colorful characters. Upon opening to the first page, the reader is immediately transported to a vibrant island full of  music; the book is easy to get lost in. Still, McKay falters at times, attributing overly-philosophical thoughts to unlikely characters, and stepping out of the action to elaborate on his personal views. Additionally, this is not an internal book—we never really get a sense of who Bita is as a person. McKay will dip into her state of mind when he wishes to, but there is no ongoing access. As a result, Bita, and especially the other characters, can seem a bit thin, merely colors added to the palette in order to suggest a richer experience. Is the book actually richer for them? At times, certainly, but they fade in and out in a way that, though perhaps true to life, does not add to the cohesiveness of the book. Sometimes their inclusion feels unnecessary, or, at the very least, underutilized.

I loved Banana Bottom until towards the end, at which point I felt that everything was resolved too tidily. What I had initially accepted as a work of imagination suddenly became, too obviously, a vessel for conveying a very particular message. The focus shifted to McKay’s (for lack of a better word) “agenda,” leaving all other areas to suffer. I thought the ending, though not dissatisfying, did a great disservice to the characters, essentially showing them to be symbols rather than people. Perhaps this is not entirely fair, since there is actually not any great shift in tone. Still, as the ending reaffirms the themes of the novel, it also somehow highlights the particular purposes of each character. I found them conforming to their given roles, within McKay’s philosophy, rather than growing and living on beyond the book. In short, I didn’t wonder what came next for them; I didn’t see them as real people who could exist outside of the book.

Yet, as condemnatory as that may seem, I really did enjoy the novel. It opened up a whole new world to me, and it was a quick, delightful read. Though not perfect, of course, its good qualities greatly outshine the bad. Banana Bottom is a wonderful introduction to Caribbean literature. It feels familiar enough to be accessible, yet different enough to be a thoroughly fulfilling experience.


Kathleen Recommends…Internet Time-Wasters (Pt. 2)

J! Archive

For those of us who are regularly home in the early evening, and looking to scratch our useless trivia itch, “Jeopardy!” is just the show to make us feel smart, important, and not lonely at all. (And our cats like it too!) It’s got the kind of effortless formula that makes its viewers feel as though they could actually be on it…at least, until they hit a random category like “Volcanoes” or “Raccoons.” (And never mind that on the actual show, shouting out a series of wrong answers before touching upon the right one is discouraged.) Still, maybe the secret to becoming a “Jeopardy” champion is not a high IQ, quick buzzer fingers, or fearless wagering skills, but rather a matter of training. Maybe all it takes is a reliable database and hours to kill. If that’s the case, then there could be no better resource than the incredible J! Archive.

J! Archive, purportedly a go-to site for preparing “Jeopardy!” contestants, is a fan-maintained archive full of transcribed episodes dating as far back as season one. The questions are presented on a grid much like the one featured on the show, and each episode transcript is divided into the same rounds, with even a record of which players answered which questions (whether correctly or incorrectly), and who earned points on them. It’s truly a remarkable site, which no doubt takes a lot of effort to maintain—especially considering it’s managed by someone in no way affiliated with the show. For anyone lagging behind on recent episodes, or who just needs a quick fix, the site is a great chance to play the game without committing a full half hour to it. It’s straightforward and user-friendly, but, what’s more, it actually aspires to mimic the experience of “Jeopardy!” So, if you have some time to kill, and you won’t miss the awkward banter between Alex Trebek and the contestants, give J! Archive a try. …It’s the smart thing to do.

Kathleen Recommends…Internet Time-Wasters (Pt. 1)

The Great Gatsby Video Game

As one of my former English professors explained it, The Great Gatsby is everybody’s favorite. Almost any other book in the canon is completely polarizing, but when it comes to Gatsby, you find practically universal appreciation. It’s got glamor, drama, pathos…and, as it turns out, the makings of a stellar video game. The Great Gatsby Game is the novel reimagined as an old school Nintendo game. You play as Nick Carraway, and your first task is to dodge the waiters, drunken party guests, and Charleston-dancing fools that separate you from Gatsby. Admittedly, I’ve only gotten to the second level (can’t beat those damn eyes!), so I’m not sure what (if anything) the rest of the game offers. Still, I’m completely charmed by it. It’s definitely a fun diversion (perhaps from writing a paper on the actual novel), and it’s so contrived that it’s not even remotely insulting to the English major in me. Of course, the novelty of it is what makes it so exciting, so I’m hoping it’s not the first in a series of literary classics video games (if we see adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels, I give up!). Nonetheless, I don’t think this is quite as trying as the literary mashup trend (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Emma Meets the Chupacabra) of recent years. This won’t serve as anyone’s replacement for the novel—if anything, it will inspire 10th graders to actually read it!

In Defense of a Guilty Pleasure: Pretty Little Liars

I have a tendency to watch a lot of television, which means that I am almost as frequently thinking of ways to defend this habit to my skeptical friends and acquaintances. I won’t get started on how pretentious, even downright pathetic I find the line, “I don’t watch television” (always delivered so smugly), but I will admit that whenever I encounter a nonbeliever, I do tend to evaluate my own choices, hoping to find that they hold up. For the most part, I think I have fairly “sophisticated” taste in TV, if that really matters. I watch shows that are well-reviewed, held up as the paragons of modern television programs…that sort of thing. In short, I watched “Lost,” okay? Every once in a while, though, mostly when the show is airing on ABC Family, and on a night when I don’t have a lot going on, I’ll get hooked on something that isn’t very subtle, isn’t very clever, and is probably marketed toward 12-year-old girls. It used to be that this sole transgression was called “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” and it was so hilariously terrible that even the most hardened hipster could still enjoy it ironically. Or post-ironically. Or whatever they do now. But, unfortunately, that black smudge upon my street cred has blossomed into a full-fledged stain, and I am now marked by my membership to “a new kind of family.” I am an ABC Family acolyte. And I watch “Pretty Little Liars.”

“Pretty Little Liars” is kind of like “Veronica Mars” if Veronica spent all her time backstabbing, hooking up with teachers, and being too crappy a detective to trace the dozens upon dozens of “restricted” text messages and emails that have bombarded her every technological device for…like a full year. So, yeah, I guess they’re not all that similar. Their main similarity lies in their central mystery: a slutty blonde manipulator is murdered, and even though her friends didn’t really like her, they still want to find out who killed her. In this case, the slutty blonde is Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse), a queen bee who disappears during a  sleepover with her four best friends. Her body is discovered one year later, which, understandably places each of these “pretty little liars” under suspicion. These girls, who parted ways after Alison’s death, are brought back together by this discovery, as well as their shared torment of being the recipients of mysterious text messages. Someone called “A” seems to know not only the secrets of Alison’s death, but also the personal secrets that each girl harbors. Under the threat of being outed, they comply with A’s every whim, even when such compliance means hurting themselves and others.

Although, over the course of this first season, many of the secrets have already come to light, the girls are no less menaced by A now. Living Bratz doll Aria (Lucy Hale) continues to narrowly dodge the revelation that she is dating her English teacher, the absurdly-named Ezra Fitz (which she pronounces as if it is the sexiest thing ever). No help in this is her friend Hanna (Ashley Benson), who, in order to earn back the money A has stolen from her (and which her mom, in turn, stole from an elderly client of hers), actively tries to sabotage Aria’s special date night with Ezra by offering Aria’s clueless mother a ticket to the museum gala they are attending. Emily (Shay Mitchell), meanwhile, is living with the aftermath of A’s (literal) outing: she must accept that her parents disapprove of her being a lesbian, and deal with the subsequent heartbreak when her mother connives to have her girlfriend, Maya, sent away to rehab. Finally, perfectionist Spencer (Troian Bellisario) tiptoes around her sister, Melissa, holding onto the knowledge that she had flings with not one but two of her boyfriends…and that she now believes Melissa’s husband Ian may have had something to do with Alison’s death. Although A mostly taunts the girls, it appears that at times “A” is for ally. Indeed A sends them video evidence that Ian was with Alison the night she died. Of course, A is also, presumably, the one who hit Hanna with a car when it appeared she had gotten too close to the truth….

So why do I tune in week after week? For one thing, I can’t resist a mystery. Who’s A? Who killed Alison? Why does Aria dress like a 45-year-old hooker? The mysteries themselves don’t necessarily have to be important…they just have to feel imperative in the context. Can I go on not knowing the resolution? No, I’m hooked; I have to know what comes next. Of course, even the over-the-top opening credits, of a corpse getting vamped up, and then shut inside a coffin, are enough to draw me in. The premise itself is too deliciously contrived to pass up; its gothic “Gossip Girl” conceit is different enough to keep me hooked, but familiar enough to let me revel in the tropes. Sure the revelations from week to week aren’t that impressive, but the atmosphere is enough to keep me sucked in. This may be “bad” TV, but the show is smart enough to know what it is.

It may not live up to its forebears, but it still appears to have a certain reverence for them. After some failed attempts at sleuthing, one of the girls jokingly invokes the name “Veronica Mars,” at once highlighting the differences between the two shows, and obliquely pointing out the shared dead high school girl premise. Similarly, one of the detectives working on Alison’s case is a woman named Agent Cooper. The difference between this Agent Cooper, who is black and female, and the white, male Agent Cooper from “Twin Peaks” is clear…yet the shared name seems to suggest again a connective thread between the two shows. Pretty blonde Alison, a double for the murdered Lilly Kane, is also another version of Laura Palmer. The show recognizes our sick fascination with the murders of pretty, popular teenagers, and indulges it. It is a guilty pleasure, most certainly, but it is one that understands such guilt, and feeds into it, while it provides its campy gratification.

Obviously, the show has it shortcomings, and it is a bit generous to imply that all of its failures are calculated, successes in disguise. The acting is decent at best, and, perhaps by virtue of its being on ABC Family, the show is never as daring as it might be. It never commits to making its protagonists as unlikable as they probably would be in real life. Instead, we are left wondering how they could ever have been friends with a true “mean girl” like Alison. Still, it handles some issues nicely, even in an unexpectedly subtle way. For example, although, Emily’s sexuality sometimes feels a bit like a forced, of-the-moment issue, the writers do a nice job of showing her burgeoning confidence in her identity, even in the face of adversity. What could have been a story arc introduced simply to give Emily’s life some additional conflict, instead has become a nice fleshing out of Emily’s character, and of the girls’ friendship. Their effortless support of her presents the fact that she is a lesbian as a refreshing non-issue. This sharply contrasts with the reaction of her ultra-conservative parents, her mother in particular, who are devastated by the news. Indeed one of my major gripes with the show, although it is nothing new to teen shows or movies, is that the parents are always either clueless or unreasonable (or absent). Um, if I lived in a town where young girls were getting murdered, I think I’d stop worrying that my daughter was a lesbian….

Ultimately, though, “Pretty Little Liars” is exactly the fun diversion it appears to be. It’s got murder, forbidden romance, and popular girls with cool names like “Spencer” and “Aria” (seriously, who has these names?). Although it’s not making a “Best Of” list anytime soon, and although you can’t let it slip that you watch it when you’re on a first date (at least not if you’re looking for a second one), you can still huddle in your living room, with the lights out, the doors locked, and maybe a mask on, and enjoy the show for what it is. It’s a guilty pleasure, yes. But it’s my guilty pleasure, dammit. And it could be yours, too.

%d bloggers like this: