Callaloo and Other Lesbian Love Tales is an impressive collection of short stories by LaShonda K. Barnett, who you may recall is the author of Jam on the Vine, reviewed on the The BLLC Review earlier this year. All of the stories focus on various aspects of love between women, and the stories are set in various time periods, (some historical), and locales. A caveat: the collection was written in 1999, so at times it feels a bit dated, but that does not detract from Barnett’s skillful storytelling.
Some of the stories are very short, only two or three pages, but all of them are beautifully rendered. For example, in “Rituals,” only about two pages long, we are introduced to Nella and Muriel, “friends” as Barnett describes them, but then we find out that “Both women were old. Both women had been young once and in love with each other. Their youth had escaped them—their love had not.” Their daily ritual is to think and reminisce, mostly about being young and gay and in love. What a wonderful way to live out a 47-year relationship!
Another favorite is “Meatloaf,” a story about abuse, addiction, and infidelity, and why so many women stay in unhealthy relationships. For those of us old enough to remember the HIV/AIDS crisis of the latter part of the 20th century, “Losing Sight of Lavender” might resonate with you. The story is a keen reminder that at one time, African American women were contracting HIV/AIDS at higher rates than any other demographic in the United States. Barnett reminds us of this, as well as how one woman loses, and then regains hope.
As with any collection, there are stories that you’ll gobble up immediately, and some that you’ll linger over and return to time and time again. There are also stories that may not sit well with you. A few of the stories left me feeling a bit uneasy. The first is “Remembering Hortense,” a story about a forty-two year old woman’s refusal to move forward with her life after losing her “soul-mate” as a teenager. While I certainly understand everyone’s need to grieve on their own terms and in their own time, there is something a bit unhealthy about choosing to live a “half-full” life. “The Telephone Call,” is a story about a woman in an affair with a married woman. I’m a firm believer that we choose love, we don’t fall in it, so I’m always bothered by stories (fictional or not), that focus on supposed “love” between folks in committed relationships with other people. In this case, internalized homophobia is what seems to be keeping the women apart, as well as all of the lying and deception that goes along with infidelity.
“Miss Hannah’s Lesson” bothered me for other reasons. It’s the story of a slave-owner’s daughter, Hannah; and Sarah, a slave on her father’s plantation. Hannah is teaching Sarah French, and marvels at Sarah’s knack for languages. Hannah is berated for spending too much time with that “nigga-gal,” as well as for her refusal to marry the odious shrimper her father has selected for her. While Barnett creates a somewhat sympathetic character in Hannah, she also comes off as a white savior figure, hell-bent on “civilizing” Sarah with French and etiquette lessons. Hannah is also sexually attracted to Sarah and she to her, but I still can’t help but think that Sarah has no agency here; could she really say “no” to this white woman?
Overall, this is an expertly written collection of stories about Black lesbian love from various time periods and locales, although several of the stories are set in the South. There is a little something for everyone here, and even if you don’t love all of the stories, you will surely love a few of them.
Reviewer: S. Andrea Allen
S. (Stephanie) Andrea Allen, Ph.D., is a native southerner and out Black lesbian writer, scholar, and educator. She is the author of a collection of short stories and essays, A Failure to Communicate, (BLF Press 2017), and is hard at work on her first novel. Connect with Stephanie on Twitter, Goodreads, or Facebook.