The Bread the Devil Knead, by Lisa Allen-Agostini
(Myriad Editions, 978-1-912408-99-3, 256pp)
Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station.
Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not
Knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.
— from ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’ by Shivanee Ramlochan
In early 2019, I learned that the novel I had plotted to be my redemption fell apart on the tile in ten thousand pieces. J.K. Rowling had spoken at my Harvard University commencement in 2008, and her line – Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life – kept singing in my head upon my discovery, though I did not want it to. I had developed enough of an armor, partially constructed of defensive arrogance, to convince myself that I was incapable of “rock bottom”; I had spent my whole life flying above the first one. I tricked everybody: haters, Fate, doubters, the budding teenager who started molesting me when I was five (six?), the monster who had molested him, the man who had likely molested the monster so that the monster was not born a “monster” at all. Monsters are made. Standing in the middle of Harvard Yard that gray June day, rain threatening, I must have subconsciously been measuring the distance between Caravel Beach, that easy-to-miss suburb in the Bahamas of my youth, and a university I had plotted to be my redemption. As Rowling spoke, that 22-year-old version of me must have decided he was unhurtable.
The force of my memory, its fury, was too much for the frame of that project to handle. In her 1945 essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen instructs the writer to guard against the slipperiness of irrelevant whispers. Eliminating irrelevance in the work, we conjecture, entails reducing the capacity for the author to tolerate irrelevance in his life. The constraints of the sonnet, the contract between writer and reader regarding a narrative’s soundness and believability: for the wounded artist, these formal exigencies become nothing less than tools to greet one’s core self.
Lisa Allen-Agostini’s novel The Bread the Devil Knead is an example of art becoming salvation. The author guides us through the gateway of healing for a Trinidadian woman we very likely might have walked past on the street, at the grocery store, in the Savannah, never knowing the EKG-like story behind her fixed face. Where lesser writers might flee towards digression, lyricism, or drugs, the author’s Dantean journey with Alethea – Greek for “truth” – is one of the most unwavering books I have ever read. Allen-Agostini quietly suggests that we are often more comfortable encountering the operatic traumas of Caribbean history in part because, in some twisted way, doing so might be easier than confronting the violations happening across our yards.
Lisa Allen-Agostini’s novel The Bread the Devil Knead is an example of art becoming salvation. The author guides us through the gateway of healing for a Trinidadian woman we very likely might have walked past on the street….
The novel opens with a threat. Alethea Lopez – nearing forty, working as a manager of a Port of Spain boutique – witnesses a woman being shot by her lover in broad daylight. Alethea wonders how her own relationship with her Janus-faced boyfriend Leo will end. As the novel toggles between past and present, we learn that Alethea was sexually abused as a child by a family member only to be groomed into silence and complicity by her mother. Alethea endures her adult life under constant assault by stress hormones. Her great gift is the grace of her friends. Tamika, soon to be married, leads Alethea to the Catholic church where she reconnects with her estranged relative, Colin, a young priest. Jankie, a childhood confidante who escaped Trinidad in search of Miami’s fashion and money, returns home committed to self-reliance. The domestic abuse a gay co-worker, Jerry, survives transforms him into half-prophet, half-protector. “If he love you,” Jerry chides Alethea. “Why he must beat you? Is not like you is some two-and-six baby. Who give he the right to beat you? And I bet he does blame you for it.”
Allen-Agostini paints Alethea with all her shades. She is neither helpless saint nor virtuous victim. As an adult, she is often aroused by the same aggression she fears. On Sunday mornings, she reaches for the chest of the man who left the still-purple bruises on her arms. Sex – forced and consensual – occupies the same territory as violence, its tragedy, its seduction, its mystique. “He tangle he hand in my hair and wrench my head to the side, staking me down to the bed with he fist,” Alethea says. “When he went soft, he kiss my mouth. I could taste he tears on my lips.” As her relationship with Leo swings between the poles of attraction and aversion, Alethea walks into a core question: how did she end up in the position she inhabits? Why does she fear and yet, at times, honor Leo, while seeking comfort in an affair with her married supervisor Bobby? The most kinetic passages in this intricately plotted novel frequently do not involve Alethea’s passions and regrets, however, but the survival of her need, her obsession even, to fashion herself despite feeling distant from her dream world of “real silk, crêpe de Chine, jacquard, Dupioni, Shantung….”
One way of reading The Bread the Devil Knead can be as an observation of the stages of fattening and purgation a soul must endure in preparation from some idealized, much-hoped-for adornment. Late in his 2018 essay “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” Junot Díaz references a line from The Lord of the Rings which he “circled at least a dozen times” while grappling with his own history of rape. “The darkness took me,” Gandalf says. “And I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.” Frequently in the world of fiction, critics praise the erasure of such roads as subtlety. For Alethea – for Díaz – this subtlety is a synonym for the bypassing whose logical end was murder at the hands of a manic lover and suicide by way of jumping off the rooftop of a D.R. hotel, respectively. During those silent, sacred hours of dawn or at twilight in the maxi on her way home from work, you can find Alethea drowning herself in the sounds which exist above this world. She reads. Tolstoy. Naipaul. Charlotte Bronte. Alice Munro. Colin Channer. Lakshmi Persaud. Patricia Cornwall. From the library, she borrows Drown, Díaz’s electric debut collection of stories published in 1996. “Half of Drown I didn’t really understand too good,” Alethea muses. “But I read it, and something about it I like. The boy or the boys in the stories was alone, like me; they didn’t fit in nowhere. They father was real asshole man, when they had a father at all. I tell myself I go look for more of he books, even though I didn’t really understand the whole thing.”
Twice in a single paragraph, Alethea admits for the ears of no public that she is willing to understand people and situations radically outside her field of comfort. Allen-Agostini joins the august tradition of Caribbean writers like Michelle Cliff, Oonya Kempadoo, and Diana McCaulay who go as far as they can to excise social and spiritual cancers in their texts. By the final pages of The Bread the Devil Knead, Alethea limps in the direction of the help she deserves. She meets a nun Sister Michael who “wasn’t wearing no habit.” Sister Michael, named after an angel, gives Alethea a notebook to write down her memories, the qualities of her antagonists, the nature of her Herculean battles – in other words, the nun instructs Alethea to author a novel. “It’s like mining, you know,” Sister Michael explains. “Digging under the surface of your memory to find out why you are who you are, why you do what you do.” Alethea writes and writes and writes until the “ink in the pen nearly finish.” Afterwards, she picks “up the book and carry it in the back by the rocks and pelt it hard in the sea.”
I will follow Alethea’s lead.
Stephen Narain is a writer and teacher based in Orlando, Florida, the winner of 2020’s Bristol Short Story Prize. He was raised in the Bahamas by Guyanese parents, has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has won the Small Axe Fiction Prize and the Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing. This post is part of our What I’m Reading series in which we invite readers to give us insight into what they’re reading now.