It takes only one too many inexplicable drug references or unsubstantiated graphic sexual descriptions to wave off a work of new fiction as plaintively urban and edgy, even self-consciously heroin chic as Karen McCathy’s anthology Kin, an anthology of “new fiction by Black and Asian women.” Unfortunately, and perhaps even non-politically correct), I discovered many such examples between the book’s pages. In her introduction, McCarthy claims to showcase new talent and present “urban and edgy,” fresh and evocative prose. I disagreed. I felt these stories might have been products of the same creative writing workshop. What are the odds that multiple stories in the same anthology refer to the scorching summer of ’76? Or invoke Bob Marley?
There are, however, in a political vein, some redeeming facets of Kin. As the title suggests, Kin seeks to reveal the evolving complexities of kinship relations within ethnic and urban London. McCarthy destabilizes conventional definitions of “family” by suggesting socially rather than biologically defined kin relations. She presses readers to challenge pedestrian conceptions of the very word: Do we define “kin” as those who share our cultural or racial background? Does kinship end after death? How does generational misunderstanding, non-standard family structure, and sexual abuse destroy or create kinship? The anthology opens with its strongest story, Heather Imani’s “Martini,” a sardonic portrayal of pubescent girlhood. The story centers around 14-year-old Paulette and thirteen year-old Hazel, best friends who search out and beat up Martini, the rumored teenaged slut. With bullying menace, Paulette warns her friend Hazel about boys:
“Two twos and you’ll forget about your studies and it’ll be TP this and TP that and you’ll end up pregnant for him and drop out of school and you won’t be any different from Martini — people will think you’re just a leggo-beas’ instead of a bright girl who went stupid over a boy.”
Through her use of dialect — Northern English accents and London-Jamaican slang — Imani effectively sets narrative rhythms and sustains suspense. Paulette’s cautioning against precocious sexuality curiously echoes Hazel’s mother’s warning: ‘keep-weh from the bwoys-dem.” Paulette’s denunciations of “leggo-beas'” and “slag-bag” girls implicitly transform adult social sexual code into distortions designed to contain and control her peers. She identifies Martini as a sort of precocious Hester Prynne who “carries on” with Hazel’s boyfriend, corrupting not only the boys she sleeps with, but the girls by association. In seeking to “sort out” Martini for Hazel’s benefit, Paulette reveals her jealousy of Martin as a sexually desirable figure. Paulette’s unprovoked vengeance upon Martini also serves as a means to forcefully create kinship ties with Hazel. In “Martini,” Imani thus evokes conceptions of kin within the context of teenage sexuality and peer control.
Beyond “Martini,” the other stories lack depth. The people populating Francesca Beard’s “Rainy Season,” for example, resemble an ensemble, ethnic cast for Sex and the City. They are “exotic animals,” the “gorgeous people” of undetermined ethnic origin who live in nightclubs and snort cocaine. Beard’s main character Anna “pouts cinematically, cheekbones rising molten bronze, lips luminous with glamour,” and she is more of a glamour tableau than a believable character. Her life is predictably superficial and unfulfilled in being so attached to a capitalistic and decadent sense of self, but the narrative’s plot and feel do not allow for much in the way of a criticism of people of colors’ appropriations of capital. In “A Darker Shade of Brown,” Nicola Sinclair writes of Rhoda, a beautiful vampire who darkens her skin from “caramel-coloured” to “resplendent” dark brown by sucking the blood of Black people. Sinclair writes clichés that would embarrass any romance novelist, snort-inducers such as “the intensity of her hazel eyes” and “she was a closed book.” If Sinclair meant to write a polemic against hierarchies of race and color, her uninspiring prose never allows the story to move past its vampire gimmick. Barbara Graham’s “Next of Kin” deals with a similarly loaded theme of incest. Her central character Veronica is raped by her father and becomes the mother of her sister. Graham reveals this harrowing plot twist in a phone conversation between Veronica and her aunt, but defuses the high emotional impact of the scene by slipping into a passive narrative voice: “Veronica had always hated the fact that Mum had told her sister [about the rape].” She continues by informing the reader that Veronica “lived a lie.” Incest, powerful when handled delicately, functions as a narrative device in Graham’s story, a surprise ending tacked on as a conclusion.
Editor McCarthy writes in her introduction that “the original impetus behind Kin was to showcase new talent, to provide a platform for writers as they are developing.” I agree with McCarthy. These writers are still developing. There is talent here — I found “Martini” effective indeed — but many of her other writers use drugs, dominatrixes, vampirism, sexual abuse, psychic dysfunction, and violence to catalyze artificial melodrama while undermining the radical potential to bring to readers the complex narrative nexuses of race, sexuality, and gender. Bound together in one anthology, the unpolitical mayhem becomes tiresome. I applaud McCarthy’s choice to create an anthology that features Black and Asian women writers as it is unfortunate that publishers yet shy away from publishing such needed anthologies. But I would rather have new fiction published featuring a diversity of topics that pushes the limits of the socially symbolic rather than stories that leave characters flat despite the very identity challenges the collection hopes to address.