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Stories from Yard

Written by Sharon Leach for The Jamaica Observer on no date provided

This fine collection of 11 stories by author Alecia McKenzie is a delight. McKenzie, a transplanted Jamaican presently living in Singapore, seems expressly qualified to expound on the recurring theme of the collection: exile. The author's peripatetic lifestyle clearly informs the work - McKenzie has also lived in the United States, Belgium and Britain - providing the backdrop for the book's fundamental motif, which is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

The collection is divided into two sections: (1) 'Yard' and (2) 'Far from Yard', which present slice-of-life aspects of the West Indian experience and perspective that not only Caribbean people can relate to, but also readers of all backgrounds.

Ever-present in the stories is, on the one hand, the love-hate relationship migrants have with their countries of origin while, on the other, the lure of foreign lands even in the face of the disappointing reality of living abroad.

The characters in the section called ""Yard"" are perhaps a bit too stereotypical; although they are teeming with the vitality and local colour Caribbean people are known for. But, with a few exceptions, they are by and large, a motley assortment of man-stealers, spurned lovers, ne'er-do-wells and good-natured gossip mongers - in many ways, 'exiles' themselves. Still, McKenzie knows her people - memory is potent and a sense of place is richly observed.

The stories that resonate in this section, however, are the ones that tackle the dark underbelly of post-colonial crime, with its roots in lack of economic opportunity, which is often the chief cause for pushing yard people to become exiles. Make no mistake, despite the Otaheite apples, swimming in the Rio Grande, and eating breadfruit with ackee and saltfish, life in Jamaica is grim; many people want a green card and a plane ticket out.

As Mr Barnes in 'Angie comes home for Christmas' says: "".how you finding the white-people-dem in England? I hope they not still treating black people bad. My sister used to write and tell me some stories that would make my blood boil. But I guess the money is better in foreign.""

A troubling aspect of the harshness of the life 'back a yard' is crime, an issue that (and this is in spite of the fact that most of the stories seem slightly dated, as if written in the eighties and nineties - there are more than a smattering of references, for example, to the now renamed Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, and the defunct Daily News) is even more relevant and topical, in 2006 Jamaica.
In 'Terminus', the protagonist ponders a newspaper report that the police had killed the madman she'd befriended as a high school student after he attacked the bus conductor with a machete, ""and as she lay on her bed in the dormitory, with the Star beside her, the smells of the terminus flooded into the little room. The rich headfilling smell of pastry and meat from Mother's Patty Shop, the acrid taste of the black fumes from the buses, the sweet aroma of burning ganja - incense for a different God. 'I shoulda asked him his name,' Jeri whispered to herself.""

In 'Tiefs', a family that endured a house-breaking console each other by relating the story of a neighbour who was robbed five nights before. "".Before poor Miss Ramsay could do a thing, the gunman grabbed her bag and started searching through it, and of course he was happy as a fly in a tripe shop when he found her passport. 'Aha, American visa, I-man can use this,"" was what he said. So Miss Ramsay lay down there on the ground, waiting for them to shoot her. and as she lay there, her life flashed before her eyes.""

Still, for how infuriating the conditions back home can be, going away presents, for the author, another completely different set of problems - a concern of many West Indian writers writing 'far from yard' before McKenzie.

In 'Gone to the Dogs (Madame)', the young African housekeeper who refuses to call her imperious French employer 'Madame' has shades of Jamaica Kincaid's eponymous protagonist in Lucy, an au pair from the West Indies living with a family in urban North America. Both characters are hopeless outsiders, strangers in a foreign land. The housekeeper of McKenzie's story reflects, ""I've been here too long and I don't fit the right categories: no political group wants to kill me and I don't come from an 'ethnic minority' whose land is being seized.""

This state of exile is echoed in Kincaid's Lucy, who notes, ""It was at dinner one night not long after I began to live with them that they began to call me the Visitor. They said I seemed not to be a part of things, as if I didn't live in their house with them, as if they weren't like a family to me.""

The West Indian reader can somehow empathise more with the characters in the second section of McKenzie's collection. Here, the title of the collection begins to take on another layer of meaning - 'yard' is not simply a geographical construct; it's a state of mind, it's where the pain is, the pain from which these characters seemingly cannot escape.

The characters in this section are subtle, layered and well-drawn. They are real exiles. There is nothing for them at home, yet all the passports in the world can't make them happy. (Kincaid's Lucy muses: ""An ocean stood between me and the place I came from, but would it have made a difference if it had been a teacup of water? I could not go back."")

In the oddly moving story 'Diaspora Dance', which incidentally is my favourite of the collection, a Jamaican man meets a Trinidadian woman while he is smoking ganja at the back of a church. Despite an initial discordant note -- somehow the male 1st-person narrator came across in the first few pages of the story as a lesbian woman -- the poignant story of a Jamaican outcast, who, while bouncing around in New York, meets a Trinidadian girl with whom he tries to negotiate a relationship, nevertheless renders, on a deeper level and with elegiac refinement, the truth about the Land-Flowing-With-Milk-and-Honey ideal that has for years shored up the immigrant experience.

The best lines in the collection come at the end of this story: ""I knew she was up there looking out her window at me, and I wondered when she would decide to take me in. It was getting cold."" McKenzie, who was awarded the 1993 Commonwealth Writers regional prize for the best first work in her collection Satellite City, writes overwhelmingly in graceful, accessible, middle-class Jamaican English, which does not take one iota away from the authenticity of the voice.

The stories, told from a variety of points-of-view, are as heartbreakingly familiar as the comfy, threadbare blanket on the top shelf of the linen closet that you will want to pull out and wrap yourself in as you settle in for a rainy Saturday night or lazy Sunday morning read that you will no doubt enjoy.

This is a review of Stories from Yard

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