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[SOR] Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick”

May 3, 2016

I noted with interest that while this is no less than the sixth time that “The Glass Bottle Trick” has appeared in a magazine or anthology, it first appeared in a book called Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction.

I must admit that these types of themed anthology rather set my teeth on edge as they often struggle to negotiate the fact that many people are likely to pick up an anthology of Caribbean genre writing with a head full of racist stereotypes as capitalism expects Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people not only to perform their identities on request but to perform these identities in ways that coincide with certain pre-conceived notions about people from other parts of the globe. Indeed, as the ever-provocative writer and activist Yasmin Nair is fond of pointing out, it is very difficult to come from somewhere like South Asia and not wind up performing one’s nostalgia for a youth spent growing up under a formidable and preternaturally wise banyan tree. While I don’t necessarily want to wander into the minefield of anti-capitalist critiques of identity politics, it seems to me that diversity should not be about cultivating spaces in which Jamaican women can write about goat curry but about creating a literary culture in which they no longer feel obligated to do so.

Also of interest is the fact that “The Glass Bottle Trick” can be read as a Caribbean re-telling of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard in so far as it involves a woman marrying a man with a tendency to murder his wives. Aside from rebottling my whine about this anthology’s inexplicable fondness for ‘stories about stories’ it occurs to me that the field’s tolerance for this type of writing might reflect the fact that more and more genre writers are cutting their teeth in academic writing programmes. Stories about stories are mana from heaven as far as academic creative writing classes are concerned as they combine low-level critical analysis with getting students to use an existing story as a set of training wheels while they learn how to juggle all the elements of a story. Had I come across “The Glass Bottle Trick” in the context of a creative writing class I would celebrate Hopkinson’s ability to produce an engaging variation on the theme of a venerable French folk tale but seeing as I actually paid money to read this story, I say that the plot is tired and derivative.

Grumpiness out of the way, I really enjoyed this story. I think Hopkinson not only has a load of really interesting things to say about race, gender, class, and relationships, she also manages to convey those ideas through a set of beautifully drawn characters.

 

 

egg

 

The story opens on a sunlit porch where Beatrice is enjoying the calm before both the literal storm that is gathering on the horizon and the metaphorical storm that will break the second she reveals to her husband that she is enceinte. Beatrice is mysteriously reluctant to break the news but her maid Gloria insists that “a pickney is a blessing to a family”.

The scene is a little bit clunky in so far as it introduces the character of the maid only to immediately cast her aside but the image of a discretely pregnant Jamaican woman sitting on a sun-dappled veranda while her maid dishes out the folksy wisdom serves not only as an evocative piece of nostalgic throat clearing but also to introduce the question that drives the story forward: Why would a woman who appears happily-married be reluctant to tell her husband that she is pregnant?

Hopkinson then teases us with a potentially supernatural answer to the question by noting that Beatrice’s husband keeps a load of empty glass bottles jammed into the branches of a nearby guava tree:

 

“Is just my superstitiousness, darling,” he’d told her. “You never heard the old people say that if someone dies, you must put a bottle in a tree to hold their spirit, otherwise it will come back as a duppy and haunt you? A blue bottle. To keep the duppy cool, so it won’t come at you in hot anger for being dead.”

 

This is pretty damn creepy, doubly so as Beatrice acknowledges that this type of superstition is completely out of character for her husband. However, rather than having Beatrice ask awkward questions of her husband, Hopkinson allows that tension to hang in the air as she flashes us back to the time before Beatrice met Samuel.

Beatrice is introduced as a character who is sort of at war with herself… A lusty young thing that enjoys both her femininity and the effect it has on the local men, she forever has to wrench her attention away from the himbos and back to her medical studies:

 

Plenty men were always courting her, they flocked to her like birds, eager to take her dancing or out for a drink. But somehow she kept her marks up, even though it often meant studying right through the night, her head pounding and belly queasy from hangover while some man snored in the bed beside her.

 

I love the phrase “some man” because these dudes are so disposable to her that they aren’t even worthy of a name.

Hopkinson then goes on to explain the tension within Beatrice by suggesting that Beatrice’s desire to become a doctor is actually a desire to please her resentful and upwardly mobile mother. There’s a lovely scene in which Beatrice remembers her father singing to her but also the fact that Daddy wasn’t allowed to stick around. Beatrice’s father loved his daughter but he could not put up with the incessant criticisms of a wife who was never content with the money and social status he was able to provide. When dad finally left, Beatrice’s mother was forced to start working and Beatrice started to excel in school in an effort to feed her mother’s aspirations and so protect herself from the criticism that had driven off her father:

 

“See how that man make us come down in the world?” Mummy would grumble. “Look at what I come to.”

Privately, Beatrice thought that maybe all Daddy had needed was a little patience. Mummy was too harsh, much as Beatrice loved her. To please her, Beatrice had studied hard all through high school.

 

Mummy’s anxieties about social class clearly rub off on Beatrice as Samuel’s performance of wealth and culture mean that he turns out to be more than just “some man”.

 

Beatrice gave in more to Samuel’s diffident wooing. He was cultured and well spoken. He had been abroad, talked of exotic sports: ice hockey, downhill skiing. He took her to fancy restaurants she’d only heard of, that her other, young, unestablished boyfriends would never have been able to afford, and would probably only have embarrassed her if they had taken her. Samuel had polish. But he was humble, too, like the way he grew his own vegetables, or the self-deprecating tone in which he spoke of himself.

 

I adore the tension between the first half of this passage and the second: When talking about why she decided to take Samuel’s courtship more seriously than that of the himbos that came before him, Beatrice goes directly to the fact that he behaves like a rich man, spends money on her like a rich man, and talks about things that only a wealthy man could have experienced. Then, as though concerned that she might be coming across as shallow and grasping, Beatrice tries to suggest that the guy who brags about winter sports and spunks money up the wall on expensive dinners is actually a humble man who grows his own vegetables. The thing about growing vegetables is that they take time and effort, things that tend to be thin on the ground when you’re working all hours of the day in an effort to make rent and buy food. The self-deprecating tone affected by Samuel is not an expression of humility but of supreme confidence in his social status. He doesn’t need to brag; he just pays the bills, brushes imaginary dust from his exquisitely-styled lapels and drops a few references to winters in Gstaad.

Needless to say, Samuel sweeps Beatrice off her feet and the pair wind up spending so much time together that her grades drop from an A to a C. However, having met Samuel, Mummy is not too fussed about her daughter flunking out of med school:

 

They’d been married two months later. Mummy was retired now; Samuel had bought her a little house in the suburbs, and paid for the maid to come in three times a week.

 

The marriage seems to be quite badly right from the start as while Beatrice keeps asserting that Samuel is a gentle and even-tempered man, her every interaction with him seems to be characterised by deep-seated fear and the unacknowledged threat of violence:

 

He wouldn’t react well if everything wasn’t to his liking. He’d raised his voice at her a few times. Once or twice he had stopped in the middle of an argument, one hand pulled back as if to strike, to take deep breaths, battling for self-control. His dark face would flush almost blue-black as he fought his rage down. Those times she’s stayed out of his way until he was calm again.

 

Frankly, Samuel sounds like a complete nightmare and we should probably read Beatrice’s talk of his even character as acts of self-deception comparable to her assurances that a man who brags about skiing holidays in actually quite humble. The ugliness of Beatrice and Samuel’s relationship is also obvious from the fact that Samuel seems reluctant to let Beatrice step outside:

 

She went outside as often as possible, even though Samuel didn’t like her to spend too much time in the sun. He said that he feared that cancer would mar her soft skin, that he didn’t want to lose another wife.

 

These two sentences form the thematic core of the entire story.

A few months back, I write about the documentaries of Kim Longinotto. Two of Longinotto’s films are set in Iran where women are either (as in Divorce Iranian Style) trying to get the courts to force their husbands to treat them justly, or (as in Runaways) hiding in a woman’s shelter after their husband or family had mistreated them.  A recurring theme in both of these films is women complaining that they aren’t allowed out of the house and men explaining to the women that they can’t go outside because it isn’t safe to walk the streets without an escort. Reading “The Glass Bottle Game” reminded me of those films as Samuel’s claim that Beatrice shouldn’t step outside lest she develop skin cancer is essentially a localised version of the exact same argument born of the exact same misogynistic urge to control. However, this isn’t just about Beatrice’s gender… it is also about the colour of her skin.

Samuel was drawn to Beatrice because her skin tone is so light that she can ‘pass’ for a white woman:

 

When the sun touched her, it brought out the sepia and cinnamon in her blood, overpowered the milk and honey, and he could no longer pretend she was white.

 

This desire to ensure that Beatrice maintain a light skin tone is not only about the trappings of social class and the fact that the only people with light skin tones are those who are not forced to perform manual labour outside, it is also about internalised racism and the fact that Samuel honestly believes white skin to be more attractive and desirable than dark skin.

Samuel’s internalised racism is so pronounced that it tips over into outright self-loathing when Beatrice makes the mistake of admiring his much darker skin tone and calling him a “Black Beauty”. Angry and hurt Samuel responds:

 

“Never call me that, please, Beatrice,” he said softly. “You don’t have to draw attention to my colour. I’m not a handsome man, and I know it. Black and ugly as my mother made me.”

 

Beatrice tries to reason with him, but her man won’t hear it.

Samuel’s racism manifests not only as self-loathing and a desire to keep his wife looking as pale as possible but also as a tendency to think of white women as a completely unattainable sexual other that would be defiled by his very touch:

 

For all his love of creamy white skin, Samuel probably couldn’t have brought himself to approach a white woman the way he’d courted her.

 

One of the strange things about Perrault’s Bluebeard is the way that while he warns his wife never to open a particular door in his vast castle, he also gives her a key that would allow her to do exactly that. This trope also pops up in the tales of Pandora, Psyche and Elsa of Brabant from the story of Lohengrin.

At first glance, the trope makes little sense as terrible things happen to women for the simple sin of wanting to find out something about the men they have married. Viewed through a rather old-fashioned lens, these stories are about the violation of trust and women who destroy their respective worlds because they cannot do as they have been told. However, approached from a more modern perspective, these stories are about the tension that exists between the desire to be understood and the realisation that allowing other people to understand you means granting them some power over your identity.

“The Glass Bottle Trick” is – I admit – a really interesting commentary on the story of Bluebeard as Hopkinson recognises that Samuel’s fear and aggression are rooted in that tension between the need to be understood at fear at the prospect of being understood and found wanting.

Had given her the keys to every room in the house, but requested that she never open that particular door.

Samuel is a black man who has internalised so much racism and classism that he believes himself to be nothing short of a monster. He wants to be understood but he fears that if he gives a woman the power to understand him, they will look beyond the sophistication and find not just a black man but a black thug who struggles to control his animal instincts and so inevitably winds up murdering his wives. Tragically, his fear of being understood manifests itself as anger and so, in an effort to protect his identity as a gentle and sophisticated man, Samuel becomes the monster he suspects himself of being.

What began this hideous cycle was the realisation that, while his wives might be of pale skin, his genes ensure that his own children would inevitably have much darker skin than his wives. Rather than live with reminders of his true skin colour, Samuel cuts his wives to shreds and stores them in a refrigerated room:

 

This was how Samuel punished the ones who had tried to bring his babies into the world, his beautiful black babies. For each woman had had the muscled sac of her womb removed and placed on her belly, hacked open to reveal the purplish mass of her placenta. Beatrice knew that if she were to dissect the thawing tissue, she’d find a tiny foetus in each one. The dead women had been pregnant too.

 

Just at the point where you start to wonder why this story is included in a genre anthology, Hopkinson takes Chekov’s gun down from above the mantelpiece and explains what was going on with those glass bottles.

The bottles, it turns out, contained the souls of Samuel’s wives and when Beatrice accidentally breaks them early in the story, she sets in motion a chain of events leading to the house’s air-conditioning shorting out and her discovering the bodies of her predecessors. The souls of the wives turn up on queue and begin feasting on their thawing corpses just as Samuel arrives home. The story ends on a note of ambiguity as Beatrice wonders:

 

When they had fed, would they come and save her, or would they take revenge on her, their usurper, as well as on Samuel.

 

One of the things I’ve sort of glossed over in this piece is the glass bottle trick itself. The glass bottle trick is best described as softening the shell of an egg until it is soft enough to squeeze through the neck of a bottle resulting in the image of something incredibly breakable sitting inside something that is just as fragile. Hopkinson returns to this image throughout the story as the duppy women are trapped in glass bottles and Beatrice is forever wandering around with eggs in her hands or referring to songs about eggs.

The important symbolic aspect of this image is the fact that it involves one incredibly fragile thing sitting inside another incredibly fragile thing when you’d think that forcing them together would cause them both to shatter. As such, the glass bottle trick is quite an intriguing way of representing not only the brittleness of our identities but also the fact that relationships often require people to negotiate their identities in such a way that people who shouldn’t be able to exist in the same space wind up doing exactly that.

What I love about the ending of “The Glass Bottle Trick” is that it seems to dwell on the uncertainty of the moment when the truth is revealed not just about Bluebeard but also about his bride. The fragile egg sits inside the fragile bottle.

The one thing we know about Beatrice is that she is willing to not only unquestioningly support Samuel’s chosen identity but also distort her own sense of self in order to fit with how other people see the world. Indeed, reading the early sections of the story it seems pretty clear that all Beatrice wants from life is anonymous sex with handsome men but she shelves that desire in order to conform with her mother’s social aspirations first in the form of pursuing a demanding career path and then in choosing to marry a man who is much older, stuffier, and less passionate than the men she once chose for herself.

When the glass bottles broke and the chain of events leading to the discovery of the corpses was set in motion, Beatrice was not only piercing the identity of her husband but also her own identity as a woman who will sacrifice her own desires for the sake of her family’s economic security. The duppies may be the vengeful spirits of women wronged but they also represent the potential of Beatrice’s emotional turmoil and sense of solidarity with the women who came before her.

 

“But Miss,” Beatrice asked her teacher, “how the egg going to come back out of the bottle again?”

“How do you think, Beatrice? There’s only one way, you have to break the bottle.”

 

The duppies aren’t clear on what they’re going to do as neither Beatrice nor Samuel are yet clear on what they’re going to do. Samuel, one must assume, will react to Beatrice piercing his identity in the same way as he reacted when his previous wives pierced his identity and yet Beatrice’s thoughts do not immediately go to the need to protect herself from her murderous husband, she is more worried by what the duppies represent.

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