And Other Stories
By Franklin Mohan
Reviewed by Raymond Holmes, Author of Witnesses and Other Stories
Franklin Mohan’s novella Love Has Two Moons skillfully combines all the elements of effective story telling: concept, character, conflict, theme, voice and setting. Together with the subtext of racism as an additional layer of conflict, Mohan creates a compelling love story. Some white people may be surprised to discover that racial bias can exist among non-white societies such as Trinidad. Although the story would be an interesting one in any setting, the elements of racial tension and clash of cultures between non-white peoples on a Caribbean island lend further nuance and interest to the tale.
Who doesn’t remember that first love without either a tug of wistfulness or sorrow pulling at the heart? The majority of us never encounter the object of our adolescent affections again in our lives. The unusual aspect of his story is the rare exception of that first love re-experienced much later in life. It is the revisiting of a first love separated by a long span of distance and years which renders this story unique and engaging. The denouement, is built to a humorous, teasing climax for the reader.
The telling of the story alternately in the son and father’s voices/points of view is effective and adds another layer that many readers can relate to: an adult child dealing with an old parent and wondering why their mother or father insists on keeping useless things like a set of false teeth. We can empathize with a son or daughter trying to convince their parent to give up driving and recall our own ordeals of dealing with elderly wants and foibles which although important to the parent, may seem silly to us.
The conflict, tragedy and racial undercurrents in the story are relieved with delightful humour and vernacular. The red negligee, Ram’s hiding under the chicken coop to escape the wrath of Jing’s mother and the obsessive preparations for Jing’s expected arrival are only a few of the examples which Mohan contrives to amuse us. His background as a physician serves well for explaining medical terms. Priapism describes a genital condition I never knew could exist and provides a fitting, almost satisfying poetic justice for Chow, a scheming, grasping ogre of a man who ruthlessly exploited people of his own race in the worst possible way. Jing’s care of Chow in his final days reflects the basic goodness of her character in the face of all she has endured at his hands and gives insight as to why Ram loved her so much.
Three short stories complete the collection, one a slice of childhood life growing up in Trinidad in the 1950’s and 60’s and the other two exploring the theme of racism.
The first story, Bonobo The Beater, provides a lens into childhood in a different time and place and brought back memories and emotions associated with my own primary school years in the 1950’s. I recall the terrifying prospect of corporal punishment which was, admittedly, not applied to the same severe extent here in Canada as in the country of the story.
Mohan’s tale made me wonder how the educational system could believe for such a long time that force, coercion, brutality and pain could possibly foster morally grounded, well-behaved children having a respect for teachers and the learning process. Indeed, as the story suggests, some students were punished in this manner several times to no lasting effect, a situation I recall.
The answer to the question likely has several aspects and Mohan alludes to some in his story: traditions inherited from a colonial system, the exercise of power over others not in a position to resist and teachers who are brutal and cruel human beings by nature. How many of those instructors were unsuited to the profession and vented their anger upon their charges from within a job they had grown to despise?
The matter-of-fact descriptions of the various punishments regularly doled out together with the routine process of selecting and preparing whips for each day’s beatings is chilling and reminiscent of a torture chamber. It is hard to believe that generations of young minds and bodies could be consigned to the daily care of the vicious classroom tyrants described by Mohan. The message though is that not all teachers were brutes and some, realizing that an atmosphere of kindness and mutual respect served the system better, acted accordingly. A welcome ray of light after reading about so much misery.
The strength of this piece is the sympathy the reader cannot help but develop for the suffering young students. One finishes the story feeling fortunate they were not a student living in that time and place.
The concept of the story Oh My God I’m Black is not entirely original, although the circumstances are creative and the setting different. A similar story, Black Like Me, was taken up in a 1964 movie based on a book of the same name.
The creative twist with Mohan’s take is that the protagonist’s experience is involuntary. We sense his frustration and fear as the subject of an act of racial juxtaposition revenge, wondering if and when his original whiteness will be restored. Mohan’s medical knowledge that exposure to silver nitrate and ultraviolet radiation will turn white skin black is an interesting revelation and a surprising turn of events as the reader is made to wonder what will be done to the young man after his abduction.
After this, the story takes on a somewhat predictable turn: a white boy of privilege navigating the world on the opposite side of the colour line being befriended by the same people.
The last story in the collection, The Visit, is one about a father’s racist resentment and opposition to his daughter marrying a non-white person and the corrosive effects his attitude and actions have on the entire family, but it is much more. It encompasses the concepts that the heart has no eyes and that true love once formed between two people cannot be torn asunder by even the most aggressive family dynamics. It is about the qualities of tolerance, persistence, forgiveness, generosity, selflessness, humanity and ultimately the realization of what is most important in life. It is about rejecting the cancer of racism despite the personal cost. The message is one which cannot be iterated often enough in our world of today. Like eggs, we are all the same inside and it is never too late to open your heart or to forgive.
Mohan has written a well-crafted, timely book and succeeded with creativity, language, humour, insight and sensitivity in peeling back the layers of prejudice and racism in North American and Caribbean society like stripping an onion. The effect leaves a twinge in our minds and hearts while inserting a current of hope that we can yet come to respect and accept each other. These stories raise a mirror to our own selves regarding how we interact with others who are different from us.
I hope we shall see more from the pen of this talented author in the future.