Big Island, Small
Maureen St. Clair
It’s been four decades since African-American writer Barbara Smith raised eyebrows with her reading of an early work by a future Nobel Laureate in Literature. In “Toward A Black Feminist Criticism” (1977), Smith examined Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973), noting that the title character and her childhood friend Nel maintain a relationship that “from the very beginning, is suffused with an erotic romanticism. … The ‘real world’ of patriarchy requires, however, that they channel this energy away from each other into the opposite sex.”
“There is no homosexuality in Sula,” Morrison later summarily declared.
Canadian scholar Laura Robinson prompted a similar reaction with “Bosom Friends: Lesbian Desire in L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Anne’ Books,” a paper she delivered at a 2000 gathering of academics in Alberta. Offering an interpretation that rattled Montgomery experts, Robinson ventured that the fictional Anne Shirley lusted after female friends such as Diana Barry and Leslie Moore (characters in the iconic Anne of Green Gables and Anne’s House of Dreams, respectively).
“Montgomery’s texts subtly challenge compulsory heterosexuality by drawing attention to the unfulfilled and unacceptable nature of women’s love for women,” Robinson noted. “Because Anne’s various expressions of lesbian desires emerge but are not engaged, they draw attention to what is excluded, what cannot be said to be, in Anne’s world.”
I was mindful of the controversy surrounding Smith and Robinson’s work (the latter garnered the author hate mail) while reading Big Island, Small, the debut novel by Maureen St. Clair, who lives in Nova Scotia and Grenada. The absorbing volume chronicles the bond between Sola, a young Black woman, and Judith, a fair-skinned, bi-racial woman who wears dreadlocks. After attending a summer music festival in an unnamed city (“kind of cold that make people miserable”), the women discover their common roots in a small community in the Caribbean.
Rendered in the lilting patois of both women (in alternating chapters), the narrative ushers readers into a world of joy, risk, sacrifice, hope and grief. Here, Judith imagines the skepticism she evoked when Sola first spotted her grooving to a reggae beat. “She watching not with care but with judgment…I know those kinda eyes, that kinda stare—the stare of people wondering what this white woman doing dreading up she hair, trying to be more Black than white.”
By chance, the women meet the next day. Attracted (if warily) to each other, they attend another festival performance. En route home, they kiss under a star-filled sky. “I don’t want [Judith] to stop,” Sola remembers. “…We kiss leaning up against a fence.”
The embrace transports Sola back to her childhood on the tropical isle. “Wet grass touching bare skin, cool breeze blowing…sea licking ankles, begging me to walk farther out, dunk my head and swim.”
The tender moment is interrupted when a gaggle of children flinging stones and expletives exhort the women to “get a man.”
Emblematic of the race, class, skin-colour bias, gender violence and emigrant motifs that course through the novel, Sola is unnerved by the incident that Judith appears to take in stride. “I just suck my teeth when I realized [the children] yelling down at us,” Judith muses. “But Sola she shove me away like she realize I woman not man. …I can’t understand how Sola afraid. And then I start to think what if she shame …cause she think kissing women criminal. I start to wonder if she think I criminal.”
Sola and Judith mend the divide and go on to develop a nurturing friendship that enables them to better cope with the difficulties (past and present) in their lives. Perhaps not surprisingly (these days) in a novel that includes flashbacks to the formative years of girls, the spectre of sexual misconduct looms large.
Here, Sola mines a childhood memory: “I was…busy…dreaming about the new bicycle Mr. Robbie say his wife was going to send me. …He said Mrs. Robbie was grateful I was spending so much time…keeping him company while she and the kids were away.”
As with the “bosom friends” crafted by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Morrison’s Sula and Nel, Judith and Sola provide sanctuary for each other. Kudos to Maureen St. Clair for a heartfelt (if at times wordy) contribution to queer and questioning literature infused with a calypso flair.