Suite as Sugar is a testimony to the unseen forces, always vigilant, ever ready, imbuing the characters in this collection with both resilience and trauma.
From Winnipeg winterscapes to Toronto’s condo culture, from Havana’s haunted streets to Trinidad’s calamitous environs, the stories in Suite as Sugar are permeated with the violence of colonial histories, personal and intimate, reflecting legacies of abandonment and loss. The veil between the living and the dead is obscured, chaos becomes panacea, and characters
take drastic measures into their own hands.
Survivors of all kinds seek strategy and solace: a group of homeless people organize an occupation of vacant condos, a new resident to a disturbing neighbourhood tries to make sense of madness, a dog investigates the sudden disappearance of his owner. The five intertwined vignettes in the title story are set in a Caribbean country where the spectre of the sugar plantation haunts everyone. Tying this collection together is the casual brutality of our everyday lives, whether seen through the eyes of animal, spirit, or human being.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the author
Camille Hernández-Ramdwar is a multi-racial, multicultural, multilingual, and transnational writer and scholar. The veil between the corporeal and the incorporeal is very thin in her work, which explores the search for belonging; the collective violences of neo-colonialism, poverty, racism, sexism, and other injustices; and the important interrelationship between matter and spirit. She divides her time between Toronto and Trinidad and Tobago.
Excerpt: Suite as Sugar: and Other Stories (by (author) Camille Hernández-Ramdwar)
Mr. Bull’s Garden
There was a tiny wishing well in the midst of this verdant jungle. At least to Terra’s five-year-old eyes it looked like a tiny wishing well, and to her five-year-old stature it seemed like a jungle. The growing season was so short, and it was only in May that the whole yard would fill out in a covering of crawlers, moss, bluebells, lilies of the valley, and other plants that loved the dank, dark moistness of a forest floor. By September the show would be over, and she would have to wait it out until the miracle of spring again brought out the crocuses, trumpeting narcissus, and the harbingers of true spring in May: lilies of the valley.
Mr. Bull’s garden had been Terra’s haven ever since her mother allowed her to wander into the neighbour’s backyard by herself. She would crawl through an open part of the fence that separated their house from his and enter the land of enchantment. Her first stop would be the tiny wishing well, sculpted by Mr. Bull’s hands, she was sure, a tiny vessel of stones and cement that held rainwater and dew and served as a bird bath for passing sparrows, sometimes a robin. She would circle the well chanting her wishes, all the while dropping offerings into the water — honeysuckle flowers, leaves, and twigs she had imbued with some mystical potency — and wait for the water nymphs and fairies to spirit away her requests.
Sometimes she would spy Mr. Bull watching her mildly through his back door. He was a very old, very White man. He never spoke to her, never chased her off his property, and honestly did not seem to mind the two little brown girls from next door traipsing through his garden almost daily.
Mr. Bull clearly loved flowers, as he planted several rows of bold tulips and plebeian geraniums in his front yard. But she never wandered through that neat, sanitary plantation with its flowers lined up like soldiers in military formation. The front yard flowers were on display; all passersby and cars that swept down the tree-lined street could see them, as Mr. Bull did not have very thick hedges bordering his yard. It was all too open and too exposed. She was drawn instead to that wildness behind his house, the riotous greenery that threatened to overtake even the venerable oak and maple trees which stood like black sentinels, watching over the power of the place. There was something in there that drew her back again and again. And even though her sister accompanied her often, and they would both walk around and around the cobbled wishing well as if performing some ancient ritual, she knew her sister did not have the patience to listen and understand the true depth of the garden, to hear the messages that came when raindrops fell elegantly on wide-open emerald leaves, so delicate and fragile, so bursting with life, as if knowing that their brief appearance would be cut short by a Manitoba frost all too soon, the frigid November, the kiss of death.
In the wintertime there was nowhere to conjure the spirits, nowhere to connect with the hum of photosynthesis, the drinking of nectar by bees, the reverberation of raindrops falling into the occult wishing well. The garden became white. Just white. Fully blanketed in blinding snow, it would disappear beneath this shroud for many months, heap upon heap of soft and flakey, then hard and impenetrable, iced and crusty, pure white snow. Once in a while she would glimpse Mr. Bull shovelling his front walkway — no scarlet geraniums now to herald the borders of his property — and she wondered what he did all winter.
In time she came of age to attend kindergarten, and even though the smell of books had excited her for some time now, school was both a pleasure and a curse. By grade one Terra was marked apart as an exceptionally bright child. Learning intoxicated her, as did her grade-one teacher’s perfume and the beautiful flowering plants — African violets, Christmas cacti, and angel wing begonias — that her teacher tended on the windowsill. Although Terra made lots of friends, she knew school was not safe. It was not safe to be on the concrete playground when boys were restless and might suddenly turn on her with spotlight taunts aimed at her skin colour. She then realized it was not safe to show the teachers how bright she was, how good a reader she was, how big a vocabulary she had, because one day the principal plucked her, like a rare blossom, out of the classroom with the warm, loved beehive hairdo of her pompadoured, perfumed teacher and put her in a class of older students with whom she felt afraid and muted, even paralyzed. The teacher in that class had a line for a mouth, stiff wire-rimmed glasses, and a shag haircut; she was starchy, clipped. The classroom windowsill was lined with clay flowerpots holding nothing but shrivelled, dead plants. Terra longed for the simplicity of her life before school. The quiet time with her mother at home, watching TV while her mother ironed the laundry, or the moments when she could concoct her spells in Mr. Bull’s garden. Now she had to contend. Now she had to defend herself. She developed stomach migraines.
As the years passed the unpleasantness of school only worsened. No matter how many chants Terra prayed over the peashrub leaves she assiduously plucked off delicate stems during her walks home from school, counting, counting, hoping for a magical conjuring that could protect her, she had lost some of that otherworldly connection, the mystic she had been able to conjure while circling the tiny wishing well in her childhood, chanting and dropping floral offerings. She did not have a word for this state of being, but she knew something was missing.
Her parents couldn’t help her. They, too, had lost any connections they might have once had with land and plants and water, wind and rain, in a prior era, a different vibratory age. They were caught up in their own traumas. Her father felt the sting of indifference in the boys’ world of the office, where his Caribbean accent and skin brown as rich earth meant being overlooked and ridiculed; this raised his pressure and he would come home at lunchtime to lie on the couch, popping prescribed pills that changed his personality. Terra’s mother, relegated to housewifery, turned herself inside out in acts of self-sacrifice to the altar of the family, endlessly cooking and cleaning, burying her resentment in her body like tulip bulbs that eventually emerged as cancerous nuggets in her breasts.
As Terra approached puberty, one by one her friends withered away. Her best friend, Patricia, announced one day that she would no longer be coming to Terra’s house after school as had been the norm. Terra’s mom called Patricia’s mom, and after a tense exchange, Terra’s mom hung up the phone. Not quite knowing how to explain to her daughter what had transpired, she simply said, “Those people are ignorant.” Later, Terra overheard her mother explaining to her father that Patricia’s mother did not want her daughter associating with a “half-breed.” Terra didn’t quite understand, but she had the same feeling in her stomach as when she was singled out in the playground by the taunting boys. Always something about her body; always something about her brownness.
Frank (the equally Aryan son of a city councillor), had always been the boy to her girl, her male counterpart, both of them bright, curious students, he with his sun-freckled skin, cornflower eyes, and wheat-coloured hair, and she with her cinnamon skin, mahogany eyes, and pitch-black hair. Now it seemed Frank had abandoned her as well. Terra had invited him to her eleventh birthday party along with all the other children, as she had since grade one, but this year he suddenly “forgot.” When Frank never arrived on her doorstep for the one o’clock party (as the other invitees had), Terra’s mother telephoned Frank’s mother. The carload of children then had to swing by Frank’s house on the way to the play park to pick him up; in the car he absentmindedly handed Terra an old board game casually wrapped in newspaper — her birthday gift. She felt herself evaporating right there, like a raindrop on hot asphalt.
By grade six, other girls — not her, not cinnamon-skinned Terra — became popular with the boys in her class, these blue-eyed, milk-fed boys, who increasingly did not notice her, even to taunt her as they used to. She became, without warning, inexplicably invisible. At first Terra danced and danced a fine tightrope on a silken strand trying to appease this one and that one, trying to find the magic potion that would win the love of the sun-freckled, cornflower-eyed boys, hoping that their recognition would elevate her, give her wings, and allow her to embrace her burgeoning power. But their gazes lay elsewhere.
Terra was so focused on this loss of recognition that she forgot to notice the shifting axis of the Earth, the equinoxes, the migration of birds, the buds forming, and the leaves falling. She now scoffed at her once daily practice of, one by one, loosing the teardrop-shaped peashrub leaves from their tender twigs as she chanted, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not,” ecstatic when the last leaf cast from her hand indicated he loves me. Her stomach migraines worsened; she lost weight. Where there should have been fullness and abundance, she was withering on the vine.
In the midst of all this, Mr. Bull died.
"Whether in Trinidad, Canada or Cuba the characters in these stories inhabit the margins of their societies, some in search of easier ways to make money, refusing to even try to be part of a system that does not want them, while others struggle for significance and survival in brutal environments. In the five vignettes that give the collection its title, Suite as Sugar, the themes that connect the stories in the collection converge in a powerful, resonant climax. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar is a talented storyteller with a gift for acute social observation and a clear eye for cultural contrasts."
Ifeona Fulani, author of Ten Days in Jamaica
Suite as Sugar offers transatlantic prose flavoured with ingredients from the Caribbean and Canada. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar's stories span sexuality, spirituality, academia, crime and history, giving the reader plenty to chew on and much to savour.
Lisa Allen-Agostini, author of The Bread the Devil Knead
Hernández-Ramdwar looks directly into the heart of things and does not hesitate to follow them into whatever cracks and crevasses they open up.... This is a writer with a deft hand, secure in her craft and daring in its execution.
Ramabai Espinet, author of The Swinging Bridge