Taste and see: an excerpt from Oonya Kempadoo’s All Decent Animals

An excerpt from Oonya Kempadoo’s new novel, All Decent Animals

–Photograph courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden (www.missouribotanicalgarden.org)

The insignificant fruit catches blight on the tree. And all sugar apple trees are full of black biting ants. But the measly trees bear bountifully, and the birds, bats, rats, children — and a few adults — enjoy sugar apples. Fraser is one of these adults, and Ata shares the little joy with him, late morning. Trying hard to be in his true form, he couldn’t just like sugar apples, he claims he loves them.

“You see that is exactly it,” Fraser launches off, breaking open his sugar apple over the plate on his lap. “That’s the difference between tropical and temperate, the wild and exuberant exotic and the controlled and logical North.”

“Too messy and too many seeds. Too sweet,” Pierre had said when Ata introduced her husband to the fruit. He didn’t like the bumpy, crusty skin either.

Ata eases off a piece of the soft apple-sized fruit and sucks off the ?esh-covered seeds. The ?ngernail-size segments of crust fall apart in her hand. Fraser tries scooping the white ?esh into his ?ngers to avoid the disintegration mid-lifting action. The juicy blebs slip out of his ?ngers smooth as tadpoles.

Ata watches his ?ngers try again. The bare seeds do look like tadpoles. She slips a few jet-black pips out of her lips into her palm. They stream silky but make little reassuring seed-clacking sounds as they land together. She clinks them onto her plate. “Even this is wrong.”

“What is? What could be wrong with —”

“Not you. Eating them like this, with plates and paper napkins.”

His mouth halts, then his eyes light up. “Oh, oh no . . . you’re a purist!”

“You should only eat them outdoors, leaning forward slightly, your feet apart, so it can drip down, free. And then lick your ?ngers clean, after.”

Fraser chuckles and starts his groaning, about warm nectar and sugar heavens of childhood. He runs a ?nger along the inside of an empty crust and sucks off the grainy cream that clings there. “Unh, that’s why adults don’t like it, the messiness. But it sweet.”

People want convenient sweetness, she thinks. In a packet, preferably. Even partners must come as a neat, pretty package, with the full works. Fraser’s state had not really improved and Ata had not initiated a talk with Pierre.

They continued eating the sugar apples in a silence interspersed with Fraser’s contented grunts.

“Is true, what I was saying,” he picks up. “That’s the difference, the extremes. Temperate fruit are more manageable — one big seed or edible seeds, or small, avoidable, conveniently placed seeds, like an apple. Look at a nectarine, a plum, peaches, grapes. Neat. But mango, now — not only overly sweet sometimes, but mess. Watermelon — wash yuh face in it and spit out the seeds. Pineapple — you know how to handle and peel one?”

“Pomegranate.”

“Good one.”

“Or the best one — genip, or chenet you call it here, skin-up, whatever — the relative of litchi.”

The last of the sticky traces taste better as they laugh. “They hate that one! Especially when the ?esh stainy and stick-up in yuh teeth.”

People roll the seeds in their mouths for hours like cows. “Once we saw a lady driving, doing so — like when monkey want to kiss — was chenet in she front teeth! Pierre won’t touch them.”

“At least they look pretty.”

Ata remembers showing uninterested Pierre how to taste before buying chenets. He had watched her take one from the vendor’s ?lthy hand, crack the skin between her teeth, and plop the ?eshy seed into her mouth, without her lips touching the skin.

Her taste buds spring fresh saliva at the thought of the sharp ?avour. Ata thinks of Western travellers, like some French, who go overboard about everything wonderfully local and new to them. The ones who get to know more about the foods and fruits than the locals themselves. And then those temperates who have a taste for other extremes all over the world — going after animals and the highest mountaintops, glaciers, and caves, the most minute plant forms and species, diving down where man have no business interfering. The biggest, the deepest, fastest, slowest — never pursued by tropicals. Or else they’re documented as exotic themselves. She mulls this over, playing with the tadpoles in her mouth.

Fraser had dozed off. Ata removes the plateful of sugar apple seeds and skins from his sticky ?ngers and sits back down with the messy unpolished feeling. The same as when she eats these fruits opposite Pierre, at a table — him with his silver knife and fork and linen napkin. She’d sometimes push aside her cutlery or table setting and come with her unmatching plate and paper napkins to eat the fruit of the season enjoyably. His reactions varied, according to the visual pleasingness of the fruit. Star apple, cut in half, with its glistening white star core set in purple ?esh, never failed to please. Even its slitty seeds, dark slanted eyes shining on the porcelain. When she pointed the details out, he had already noticed. They both enjoyed it that way. And she used to love that he would notice the same colour or shape she did, at the same time. But he hates the smell of passion fruit. Passion fruit, the queen of fruit essence. He only praised its unscented, sea-anemone ?owers and the colour of its juice.

No matter how ?ne Ata was with their differences sometimes, when she ate a fruit that couldn’t be cut conveniently or scooped with a spoon, or when she chose to suck and savour familiar ?avours from her ?ngers, she felt unsophisticated, crude. Sometimes she tried to pass it off as sensual or sensory, a complete culinary experience, but it just felt awkward and, if she dared let herself feel the full derisive state, apelike. Then her hackles would rise.

Ata had consulted her respected, intellectual friend Terence about this tropic/temperate dilemma and he took a long time to get it. Her language and how she “constructed” it climbed round and round in circles. He tried to decipher and eventually understood. And they laughed.

They laughed when he ?gured that was why many middle-class adults don’t eat these messy fruits. They laughed at the fancy recipes: carambola crumble, mango soufflé, and pommecythere compote. At the drizzle of sorrel reduction and . . . watermelon soup.

“Dehumanisation, objecti?cation, and inherent loathing of the ‘other’ — as well as attraction — goes way back to . . . ,” and he started going into the politics of racial history.

He left Ata thinking of her Afrocentric friends who would never have a white partner and celebrated all local foods, who had withdrawn from her since she started living with Pierre. It couldn’t come down to race, she thought.

All the same, if she couldn’t speak about these oozy details, could she write them? If she ever could write, these are the things she’d want to write about, not just the brightly beautiful. The thought feels almost the same as her ?oating feeling, away from the in-betweens. More than an observer for a reason.

Pierre enters the quiet sugar apple room, sniffing the warm and sickly smell.

“He’s sleeping,” Ata whispers.

He nods and peers at Fraser, almost fearfully. “I see that.” She stands up with the plates in her hands. As they leave, she whispers, “He enjoyed these.”

“Yes, yes. I’d imagine so.”

All Decent Animals, Oonya Kempadoo’s third novel, is published in May 2013 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 9780374299712, 272 pp