Review of Wandeka Gayle’s Motherland

For most of us, there is a motherland—a place that speaks the language of our souls, the place that shaped our early lives, the place to which our yearnings always return. It’s that sentimental anchor that keeps us centered. But for those like Atlanta-based, Jamaica-born author Wandeka Gayle, the motherland can be both the place of existential nourishment and existential threat—especially for women.

Motherland is Gayle’s first collection of short stories, an homage to her Caribbean sisters at home and abroad. The narratives are compelling and the language spare, reflecting the make-do ethic of the characters she depicts.

The women in the collection are threaded together by the theme of abandonment. Notably, mothers who abandon their daughters, paving the way for the daughters to abandon their country. In these stories, young women lose their mothers to untimely death, jail, ambition, and even misguided love. Grandmothers and aunts are there to both coddle and curse the bewildered girls, always admonishing them to, above all else, keep their legs closed.

But when has that advice ever worked? Certainly not for foundling girls whose greatest need is love. Here then, lies their salient reason for leaving the beloved motherland—to break loose from the Puritanical straitjacket of womanhood. They arrive in new places—island cities, American college towns, London apartments—hoping to grab the success that will serve both as family pride and feminist revenge. But their naïve optimism leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous lovers. In “Finding Joy,” Ayo begins an affair with a white graduate teaching assistant at her Louisiana college. But she can’t fully embrace the relationship, haunted by the voice of her long-dead mother: “Chicken merry, hawk deh near.”

In story after story, Gayle’s women are wounded by the shards of their sexuality, the repercussions of their gender. While some die of poverty (treatable maladies like pneumonia or complications of childbirth), most others “fall pregnant” and disappear. Not that you can blame them. Beneath the maternal wreckage lies poisonous truth: When poverty meets patriarchy, the motherland is not a welcoming womb place for an unwed mother.

That leaves the women alone in their adopted country to rely on their own devices. Will they outsmart the dangerous seed of their lovers? Will they have an abortion or carry an unplanned pregnancy but fare better than their mothers? Or will they sidle up to a promising man and cement the deal with an “accidental” child?

The alienation that runs through these stories is palpable. In “Walker Woman,” Sophia was raised in rural St. Thomas, Jamaica, but is now in the American South for grad school. She sits by the window noticing an old, white woman in a green tracksuit walking the same path several times a day. Sophia joins the woman and discovers that she is a widow who believes she is keeping company with her dead husband as she wanders in circles. Sophia tries to shake the woman out of her delusion, urging her to accept that her husband is gone and find a way to keep on living. But can Sophia—lonely, caged, stuck—follow her own advice?

Sophia is but one of the directionless “walker women” in the collection. Delvina, who hates children, takes a job as a nanny. She sabotages herself at work and gets fired. When the cab driver asks her where she’s going, she says, “I don’t know, just drive.” Where do you go when there’s no way forward, and no going back? When Melba loses her husband, she loses everything. “They did not realize she wept for herself,” Gayle writes. “She was neither a wife nor mother now.” Unanchored, Melba finds herself riding the bus all day, going everywhere but home, a place that no longer exists for her. And then there’s “Mad Mavis” who walks up and down the lane in her village, unable to reconcile the failures in the United States that landed her back in Jamaica.

For the walker women, grief and abandonment take the form of a gradual implosion. But it’s when the anger explodes outwardly that Gayle’s work shines brightest. In “Court Room 5,” Verona’s mother abandons her for extended periods while she indulges in drugs and petty crimes. But in the story, it’s Verona—not her mother—who is facing charges of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and, of all things, indecent exposure. Soon, we discover the source of Verona’s assaultive behavior. While riding the school bus home, Verona spies her mother wandering the streets. At the same time, a police officer stops the bus to arrest the driver for an infraction. When the police brutally force the children off the bus as well, Verona ignites into a blaze of resistance. In court, Verona explains her rage to the judge: “They supposed to protect us.” But it’s hard to know whether she’s talking about her mother or the police.

“Court Room 5” is a nod to the roots of revolt in the African diaspora, and the interplay between poverty, race, and criminality. At the police station, Verona rips off her clothing in a gutsy protest conjuring Sojourner Truth, who mortified her oppressors by baring her breast. We are left to wonder what will become of Verona, whose wit and anger could lift her to great heights—or sink her to hopeless depths.

The collection is not all woe and worry. There is humor amongst the downtrodden. There are love stories and couples who cling to each other as they try to take root in foreign lands. But ultimately, the collection is about the peculiar pressures that force women out of the arms of their motherland. Women who too often conflate immigration with freedom, only to realize that they’ve swapped one bondage for another.
Desiree Cooper

Desiree Cooper is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, former attorney, and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. Her debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, has won numerous awards, including the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award and a 2017 Michigan Notable Book. Cooper’s flash fiction and essays have appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, Electric Literature, River Teeth, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and in the seminal anthology, Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. Her essay, “We Have Lost Too Many Wigs,” was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2019.

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