Review of Wandeka Gayle’s Motherland (Blood Orange Review - published on Feb 16, 2021)
By Desiree Cooper
For most of us, there is a motherland—a place that speaks the language of our souls, the place that shaped our early lives, the place to which our yearnings always return. It’s that sentimental anchor that keeps us centered. But for those like Atlanta-based, Jamaica-born author Wandeka Gayle, the motherland can be both the place of existential nourishment and existential threat—especially for women.
Motherland is Gayle’s first collection of short stories, an homage to her Caribbean sisters at home and abroad. The narratives are compelling and the language spare, reflecting the make-do ethic of the characters she depicts.
The women in the collection are threaded together by the theme of abandonment. Notably, mothers who abandon their daughters, paving the way for the daughters to abandon their country. In these stories, young women lose their mothers to untimely death, jail, ambition, and even misguided love. Grandmothers and aunts are there to both coddle and curse the bewildered girls, always admonishing them to, above all else, keep their legs closed.
“Motherland and Other Stories is one of the best debuts I’ve read in years. Each story is a revelation and a wonder, an exquisite microcosm unto its own, and Wandeka Gayle is the magician who brilliantly and deftly draws the reader into the lives of her protagonists for whom “home” is an elusive idea as they struggle to find their place in the world. Fans of Edwidge Danticat, Paule Marshall, and Michelle Cliff will be delighted by these beautifully written and genuinely moving stories. Wandeka Gayle is a writer to watch.”
John McNally, The Book of Ralph and The Fear of Everything
“The stories in Wandeka Gayle’s Motherland: And Other Stories are carefully, even classically, constructed and deeply affecting. I found myself wrenched between emotions, tears in my eyes more than once for these people Gayle introduces us to. What a beautiful book!”
Rion Amilcar Scott, Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You
From the Publishers at Peepal Tree Press:
From London, the USA and the Caribbean, Wandeka Gayle’s mostly young black women protagonists win our hearts as risk-taking, adventurous explorers of the white world, away from home, which at some point has been Jamaica.
They include Roxanne who starts work in a care home in London, who strikes up a rapport with a depressed old man who used to be a writer; Ayo who heads to college in Louisiana, and fights off the internalized voice of her godly, tambourine-beating aunt to begin an affair with an engaging, slightly older white man; there’s Sophia who comes to work in Georgia, who struggles to know whether her inability to engage more deeply with other people is really about racism or, rather, a more personally embedded reluctance.
What characterizes these women is a readiness to encounter, an attempt to get to grips with the oddities and strangeness of the white world, and like Ayo to engage with it, whilst being pretty sure that Forrest “could never understand her world”. They take risks and are sometimes forced to pay for their courage.
Other characters have to confront situations of their own making, like Angela returning from the USA for her mother’s funeral, trying to find some point of contact with the now almost grown children she abandoned, or Melba who, after her husband dies, must confront the silence she has permitted in their marriage.
The situations that Wandeka Gayle writes about are in the main the stuff of everyday life, but what really elevates this collection is Gayle’s skill, empathy, grace and acute psychological understanding of her characters.