Curdella Forbes describes her novel A Tall History of Sugar, out now from Akashic Books, as a fairy tale that is simultaneously a story of danger and an exploration of alternative histories.
Set in Jamaica in the 1950s, A Tall History of Sugar tells the story of Moshe Fisher and Arienne Christie, two distinctly different children who consider themselves “twins.” Moshe is born with pale and translucent skin, one blue and one brown eye, and hair that is thin and blond in the front and black and curly in the back. He appears to be without skin, making it nearly impossible for anyone to determine his race. Abandoned as a baby, Moshe is adopted and raised by a childless couple in Tumela Gut. Arienne Christie, on the other hand, is a bold and assertive dark-skinned girl, who makes it her duty to protect Moshe from the social and emotional consequences of his strange appearance. Told from Arienne’s point of view, the novel begins with Moshe’s mother finding the abandoned baby boy and adopting him, and follows Moshe and Arienne through elementary and high school, and on into adulthood, when Moshe leaves Jamaica for England on a quest to find his father.
History is ever present in the novel, both as a metaphor and metonym, with Jamaica being the frame in which such a story as Moshe’s and Arienne’s could have happened if it had been true. The novel is historically accurate. A Tall History of Sugar is both a love story, and a story about the lasting legacy of slavery and the impact of the colonial system on Jamaica.
Forbes, who lives in Maryland, teaches Caribbean Literature at Howard University. She is also the author of five works of fiction, including Songs of Silence, Flying with Icarus and Other Stories (a collection of stories for younger readers), A Permanent Freedom, and Ghosts.
We spoke recently about the fairy tale form, race and identity, and the lasting legacy of sugar.
The Rumpus: A Tall History of Sugar is described as a fairy tale. It’s not an innocent book, and most fairy tales really aren’t innocent at all. Why did you choose the fairy tale?
Curdella Forbes: I’ve always tried to avoid the realist, naturalist approach in my work. I’ve always tried to push further and further from that. The story just seemed to naturally lend itself to the fairy tale. It’s so outlandish, so extraordinary that it requires that you push that boundary even further. It’s a story of danger. Fairy tales render the characters’s lives believable. The struggle has always been to find a language to render our lives believable. And I thought I needed something like this to do that.
It is not simply that fairy tales are stories of danger or dangerous stories. It’s more so that I think they were really alternative histories—the people’s (folk, I suppose) way of telling the history as it took place in everyday lives—telling and interpreting through the lens of belief systems. And I think the fairy part is really their sense of being always in the midst of clear and present danger, whether in spiritual places or political ones.
Rumpus: What does a fairy tale allow you to do that, say, a traditional literary novel wouldn’t?
Forbes: I probably could have done it. You can do anything with whatever you want. But I found the fairy tale was easier because it’s really a story about two odd kinds of personalities in a very odd kind of society—which is not so odd if you are Caribbean or Jamaican. It worked for me as a metaphor for the idea that this story of their lives, our lives, is often not intelligible to people on the outside.
I didn’t want to use magical realism. I didn’t want that description. I don’t want people to say I write magical realism. The idea, there, is that it’s not really real, it’s fantastical. I associate it with gimmickry. I wanted the thing to feel as ordinary as bread. Arienne says that in the book. I want it to be ordinary, but I want the ordinary to, at the same time, push against the traditional idea of ordinary.
Rumpus: Moshe is racially ambiguous, and there’s some ambiguity as well about his sexuality. Why did you choose to make his race ambiguous? And what about his gender?
Forbes: The story leant itself to that. I chose his ambiguous identity because I get really annoyed, and constantly distressed by the issue of race. I read somewhere that the first thing people see is your race. It is a constant way of putting people into boxes based on phenotype. So I said I was going to write a story where no one knows what the heck he is and see what happens from there.
For it to be real, for it to really hit people in the eye, you have to make it ridiculous, if you like. You have to make it so strange that people will get the message.
Rumpus: And his sexuality?
Forbes: I thought that I had to make him be a question right through.
Rumpus: Arienne is also ambiguous. What is your intention there?
Forbes: She’s his counterpart, so she has to share some of his qualities. That’s the basic logic there. She’s kind of a flip side of him. Bringing her into the picture further complicated the issue of language—how we speak, how we translate each other, how we understand or do not understand each other. There is always this huge gap between what is said and isn’t. She expands that in a way.
Rumpus: Race is ever present in the book. What is your experience with race in America? And what does the book say about where we are today? Have our perceptions of race evolved?
Forbes: I don’t mean to dismiss race, because it is a very dangerous fairy tale in this country. It’s a real and terrible danger, and it is never more obvious than it is now.
It’s devolving. What has happened is that America’s nether regions just rose to the surface against the presidency of Barack Obama. Those nether regions say this is not going to happen again. When people say “this is not who we are,” this is exactly who America is. Mr. Trump is not an aberration. He’s an expression of the other side.
I see it getting worse. There’s a part in the book where it’s an American tourist who yells, “look, a nigger.” For everyone else, Moshe is a question but for the American, it’s very definite who he is.
There’s always a box. This goes back to the whole thing of why Moshe couldn’t just be racially mixed. He would fit into some box. It wouldn’t put the point I’m trying to highlight in front of us. He has to take us out of all of our known spaces.
Rumpus: I loved the idea that Moshe can’t tolerate sugar and Arienne carries a family “curse” that makes her bleed during the sugar cane harvest season. What parallels are you making between their present-day lives and the history of Jamaica?
Forbes: Everybody has the mark of sugar somewhere. That is just about it. That one is short. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor. Everyone has this mark of sugar.
Rumpus: Arienne tells the story by switching between the first person and the third person…
Forbes: It goes back to not wanting this single narrative. It’s culturally authentic. That’s how we tell stories where I come from. Every storyteller uses different guises. You shift shape. She’s telling a story that’s hers and yet not hers. She’s telling the story of people she hasn’t even seen. She has to be flexible. She has to be very nimble and able to see through different perspectives and languages. I guess when you’re writing a book, which is very much history, you’re thinking the book has to tell the community’s story and you need voices. Not just the singular voice.
Rumpus: Community plays an important role in the story as well, Tumela Gut, Oracabessa-on-Sea, the school, and Bristol. Why did you choose to set the book in Tumela Gut?
Forbes: My mother used to tell me a lot of stories when I was little about the places where we lived. But she called it “Tamela.” I asked my aunt if Tamela Gut really existed and she said, “Yes, it’s actually a place next to your district.” My mother, when she wanted to warn you, said, “you never hear ‘bout Tamela Gut where pot boil without fire?” I was so intrigued. That was strictly out of my mother’s warning. Talk about dangerous fairy tales.
Rumpus: Is it based on the district in which you grew up then?
Forbes: It’s a sort of an amalgam of various rural places. I grew up in rural Jamaica. I didn’t go to Kingston until my late teens, almost twenty. I’m very much a country person. My experience growing up in rural Jamaica informs how I present everything in the countryside.
Rumpus: Are you working on another book?
Forbes: Only in my head. I won’t tell you what it is. I’m superstitious. All I’m sure of is that I will not write naturalist, realistic fiction.
Photograph of Curdella Forbes provided by Akashic Books.