Thomas Glave, Whose Song and Other Stories. City Lights. US$12.95.
Reviewed by H. Nigel Thomas
Thomas Glave’s Whose Song? and Other Stories contains ten pieces that range from short fiction to novellas and comes with superlative praise from several literary laureates: Nadine Gordimer, Gloria Naylor, Clarence Major, and Wilson Harris; Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte endorses the collection; and The Village Voice sees in Glave’s prose resemblances to “the rhythmic narrative thrust of early Toni Morrison.” It is worth noting that the principal editor of City Lights Books, Glave’s publisher, is the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
It’s always risky for a book to come so highly recommended. But here, apart from the fact that the praise is merited, it seems necessary. For two of the preoccupations of Whose Song are the brutal resistance to same-sex practices in various black communities and the incomprehensible sadistic violence that is present in African-American and other oppressed communities, issues that African-American and Caribbean readers--Black readers on the whole--do not like to encounter in their fiction. Inasmuch as Glave is a new writer, it is essential, then, that the deans of Caribbean, African-American, and world literature approve his credentials, establish the barricades so to speak, before the self-appointed priests of critical rectitude begin their onslaught.
Glave’s fiction is aesthetically influenced by his multicultural heritage. The settings are primarily the Bronx, where Glave was born, and Jamaica, where he spent part of his childhood and long periods during adolescence and adulthood. His New York urban sensibility is evident in the risks he takes with language, particularly violent language. Although the physical and verbal violence in Glave’s fiction is as virulent in Kingston and Port of Spain--is even replicated in Jamaican dance hall music--the stylized poetic quality of the sometimes violent language derives from the ritualized verbal contests known as the toasts and the dozens that occur in urban African-American neighbourhoods. Today’s controversial rap songs borrow much of their diction and tone from these urban folk practices, and so to a large extent does the title story of this collection. However, this violence is never gratuitous. It is always deconstructed by the overall thrust of the narrative.
These stories are especially fresh in that they address an under-explored area of fiction: the closeted homosexuals we’re all aware of but rarely encounter in fiction. Three of Glave’s stories: “Commitment,” “Flying,” and “The Last Inning,” are subtle explorations of some of the complex and rarely apparent realities that inform closeting.
Readers who enjoy the magic realism of a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison would appreciate several of these pieces. This is especially true of “The Pit,” a story remarkable for its evocative language and deft use of symbolism and fantasy. Those with a penchant for the Kafkaesque would find a similar sensibility in the surreal quality of “A Real Place.”
The styles are varied to fit the stories. The first story “Accidents” interweaves the links between accidents, the trauma they engender, and the anguish of the incertitude found in amorous relationships. Here the style evokes the doubt, the fear of being left behind, of being abandoned and of having no protection against fundamentally existential phenomena.
On the other hand, “The Final Inning”--a story that is essentially an ironic wake that puts the Black community on trial following the death of an AIDS sufferer--is told with grim realism and intricate plotting. Yet even here Glave’s characteristic, unhurried, rich, adjectival prose is unmistakable, and the story is achieved with cinematic clarity and deep pathos. It is one of the finest crafted pieces of realistic fiction I have ever read, on par with the Christmas dinner chapter of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby.
The most literary of the pieces in this collection is the title story “Whose Song.” It is closer to poetry, and employs Rap and Whitmanesque techniques to create a lamentation for a rape victim and her rapists. Here’s a short sample of the Whitmanesque:
Sing this tale, then, of a Sound Hill rape. Sing it, low and mournful, soft, beneath the kneeling trees on either side of the rusty bridge out by Eastchester Creek; where the sun hangs low over the sound, and water meets the sky; where the departed walk along Shore Road and the joggers run. Sing it far and wide, this sorrow song woven into the cresting nightbird’s blue.
Voice is one of the distinguishing features of these stories. One of the best-finished pieces in the collection is “And I Love Them,” an extended monologue. Its power comes not from the story’s theme—the denial of racism that Whites engage in—but from the convincingly wrought voice in which the story is narrated.
This is a powerful collection.
H. Nigel Thomas is a fiction writer and poet. His latest book is a collection of poems, Moving Through Darkness.