For Frying Plantain Author Zalika Reid-Benta, Success Is About Cultural Recognition
The Toronto writer on how she made it happen
Name: Zalika Reid-Benta
Job title: Author
Currently lives in: Toronto
Education: BA (Hons) in English literature and cinema with a minor in Caribbean studies, University of Toronto; MFA in fiction, Columbia University
First job out of school: Customer service at Gap
Zalika Reid-Benta’s first book, Frying Plantain, was released in June, but she actually started writing the collection of short stories in high school. Over the years, she continued to refine the work, and it further evolved during her undergraduate degree at University of Toronto and later at Columbia University and the prestigious Banff Writing Studio.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I think there’s this idea that you write a short-story collection and that’s it—but, like, you edit it, you rewrite it, you have to send it out,” says Reid-Benta about the multi-tiered process of getting published.
The 29-year-old author says that finding mentors to guide her journey was key. In fact, in addition to gaining support from her mother, it was her high school teachers who put her on the path to pursuing creative writing as a career. “That definitely gave me a sense of encouragement because I wasn’t really great at other subjects—like, I was terrible at math, I was terrible at biology, and just having English teachers who really saw talent there definitely helped,” she says.
As she studied creative writing, however, Reid-Benta noticed that aspects of her work, such as the inclusion of Jamaican patois, weren’t being well received by the other students in the workshop because they didn’t understand her unique community or background. Seeing this, a U of T professor suggested Reid-Benta work with Diaspora Dialogues, a development program for diverse writers. That’s where she met author Olive Senior, her first mentor of Jamaican descent.
“Constant explanation—people don’t see how exhausting that can be to always justify the way you’re writing…. It’s basically explaining and justifying your existence. Having mentors of colour can take away that extra exhaustion that you don’t really need to have,” says Reid-Benta, who now works at Diaspora Dialogues as the program manager.
Shortly after its release, Frying Plantain made the 2019 longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. While that is an incredible achievement, what really hits Reid-Benta is when people relate to her work on a deeper, personal level. In the Literary Review of Canada’s article on Frying Plantain, Zuri H. Scrivens highlights how Reid-Benta writes about Jamaican food throughout the book without adding explanation of the dishes. Scrivens describes this as “a symbolic fist bump for those of us who may not have seen our younger selves in our dolls or our books.” Similarly, a friend of Reid-Benta’s compared Frying Plantain to flipping through old childhood photo albums. “When I see those kinds of responses to my work, that is like the definition of success for me.”