Skin, Status, & Sisterhood in Madagascar

If you want to bask in some fictional balminess as you trudge through winter winds or shovel gloppy slush, I recommend Andrea Lee's short story, "Brothers and Sisters Around the World," published in The New Yorker in 2000 and recently recorded by Gary Shteyngart for the magazine's October 2008 fiction podcast (also downloadable from iTunes).  Lee's sophisticated ex-pat stories can seem overly focussed on the luxe life, but this one's destination is a gecko-infested villa on a paradisiacal island off Madagascar, and uses the narrator's race to bring about an unusual human exchange between haute touriste and local citizen.  In "Brothers and Sisters Around the World," skin color and the beach are big levelers.  (Or they provide yet another forum in which class trumps race--judge for yourself the sisterhood plus noblesse oblige ending.)

To read this first-person story aloud, Shteyngart must lend his voice to the short-lived efficacy of leg waxing in the tropics, and to describing various bikini-adjusting maneuvers (the mind boggles), but never mind:  Lee's language is so precise, and the narrator's observations of beach society are so wide-lensed, that the story survives--nay, transcends--the incongruity of a Euro-living yummy mummy's holiday being recounted by a male whose American accent gargles with vodka.  It helps that "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" is already stacked with hyphenated ethnicity.  The narrator is an African-American ex-model, her husband is a French-Italian ad-man, and their 4-year-old son is dubbed "le bébé métis" (the mixed baby) by the locals, whose own origins represent more than one continent.   The narrator is hyper-aware that her skin color makes the women particularly curious about her:  she says that she looks "not unlike one of them," but she "dresses and speaks and acts like a foreign madame, and is clearly married to the white man, not just a casual concubine."  Two young Madagascan women take up surveillance under a mango tree near the house.  They stare, and midly heckle the wife, and eventually they cadge a braless excursion in in Le Zodiac from le husband.  Ce sont si compliquées, les vacances à l'étranger.

In addition to giving off tropical heat, "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" offers chewy descriptions:  a "rump-sprung" Citroën, coral that grows "in big pastel poufs," "lobster magnificently broiled in vanilla sauce."  There's a generous cast of vivid characters, and an odd retrospective interlude set in Indonesia (Michel, the husband, is a tropaholic).  You never feel confined by the first-person POV, because the narrator spends so much time looking outward.  Lee also juxtaposes high/low language to punchy effect:  a sentence that contains the phrase "the labyrinth of his Roman Catholic mind" is followed immediately by one that ends with a reference to "a pair of African sluts."

Extra credit:  the subtheme of Western T-shirts as gratuities.

I heard Lee read this story live at the launch of the W.E.B. DuBois Black Writers Reading series at Harvard in 2003 (recordings of the event, which also featured Jamaica Kincaid, are available for online viewing and listening at WGBH's Forum Free Lectures site;  go to Minute 53 if you want to skip right to "Brothers and Sisters Around the World").  Lee reads her story with humor, and her pronunciation of the sprinkling of French is supérieure to Shteyngart's, but I think I actually prefer the Slavic version.  His voice strides along with more confidence, emphasizing consonants with a staccato energy that makes the narrator's one outrageous act more credible (and resonant in the ear).  Shteyngart's assertive style fits the narrator better:  a woman who vigilantly monitors social status, breast deployment, male posturing, and intra-female power-plays;  a wife who confides early in the story that her husband "doesn't seem to see that what gives strength to the spine of an American black woman, however exotic she appears, is a steely Protestant core" (Minute 6:15 in the NYer podcast).  Besides, I adore the way Shteyngart purses his way through the word "pareu" (French for "sarong"--picture a painting by Gaugin).

I realize that my preference for this secondary recording goes against my statement in the previous post about an author's actual voice adding more "body" to the text.  To which I m'excuse:  Vive la paradoxe du blog.

The New Yorker podcast also includes a short but simpatico discussion of Lee's work between Shteyngart and Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman.

If you're curious about whether Lee has ever acted "on instinct and on target" in the same way as the heroine in this story, or if she has ever organized the rather outré treat another narrator gives her husband in Lee's story "The Birthday Present" (abstract only, but it is also collected in Interesting Women), you can read her answers online (spoiler alert!) in this interview (scroll to the very last question).

Whether you agree with the title's assertion of "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" or not, this story is sure to warm you up, with either indignation, fellow-feeling, or vacation-envy.

The Curiosity of Sisters, Gary Shteyngart reads Andrea Lee's "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" and discusses it with Deborah Treisman, New Yorker: Fiction, 10.9.08, 33:36
Available on iTunes or from The New Yorker Fiction Podcast Archive

Audio and Video of Andrea Lee reading "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" on WGBH Forum Free Lectures, 2.5.2003 (With Jamaica Kincaid;  total length is 1:34:05, story begins at Minute 53)