Alicia Conroy Revisits “Mrs da Silva’s Carnival”

Alicia L. Conroy writes and teaches in Minneapolis. She’s just published her first short story collection, Lives of Mapmakers, with Carnegie Mellon University Press. Later this summer, Minneapolis readers can hear her read with Patti Frazee at The Loft Literary Center (July 26); later she’ll read with Melissa Fraterrigo at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City (July 28).

alicia-conroy.jpgHow to choose between so many old friends? My life as reader and writer would be so much poorer without “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe, “Wingless” by Jamaica Kincaid, or “In the American Society” by Gish Jen, to name very different tales. Since those writers have had their due, I’m going with “Mrs da Silva’s Carnival” by Pauline Melville. I’ve been a big fan of Melville since 1999, when I read her second story collection, The Migration of Ghosts. Perhaps because she writes in Britain, Melville, who draws on her British and Guyanese heritage in her work, isn’t well known in the U.S.

One of the things I love about Melville’s stories is the deft and moving way she handles the clash of cultures; her characters are part of a broad and complex canvas. Melville is a precise jeweler of concise but evocative language. Most of the stories in The Migration of Ghosts range from serious to somber, but “Mrs da Silva’s Carnival” engulfs me in its world and makes me laugh out loud. I want to keep reading sentences to anyone around me.

The story sets things in motion with the first sentence: “The shop isn’t built that would sell a leotard Mrs da Silva’s size.” The occasion requiring such garb is London’s Carnival parades, in which competing teams, made up mostly of West Indian immigrants, vie for costume and dance prizes. The story starts on Carnival day with amply-sized widow Mrs da Silva, longtime matriarch of the Rebel War Band, on her way “to be garbed in a giant shimmering copper tent.” There’s a very economical backstory about Mrs da Silva’s recent romantic disappointment, which the Carnival season, “the beginning and end of the year for her,” begins to ease. Armed with this context, we’re off to a topsy-turvy day at the parades.


Melville is adept at nailing down characters and situations with a few crystalline and sometimes ironic details. She captures the hurly-burly “mayhem” as dozens of Rebel War Band members preen and prepare for the parade, and gives us a large cast of memorably individual characters. The joy of this story is the way it anchors us in Dolly da Silva’s petty and poignant concerns and then ricochets through the chaotic scramble of the parade itself. It paints Mrs da Silva within a rich web of community and acquaintances.

There’s her rival, Mrs Bannerman, who “has scored over Mrs da Silva recently by becoming a widow herself and getting everybody’s sympathy,” and who delights in one-upping Dolly with tall tales. I love the way Lulu Banks, the designer of the band’s rainforest-theme parade entry, tries to keep order and keeps throwing hissy fits, as when no one will yield her a spot on the mini-bus: “Finally, she yells in fury, ‘You all are behaving like white people.'” But when the music starts, “Lulu Banks, in full lizard gear, is magically transformed, sweetened in an instant by the music. She stops yelling and starts to wind her waist. Soon her hips are moving suggestively, her behind wagging its provocative little tail …” and as the spirit of dance overtakes her, the crews on the bus cheer and make room.

Of course, carnival is transformation time, and Melville gives us plenty as London’s rather WASP-y is Notting Hill transformed for an instant into a mythical West Indian world, a crazy fantasy the police and parade stewards are ineffective in controlling. Mrs. da Silva forgets about being jilted. The band’s lunch victuals, “like the miracle of loaves and fishes, multiplies itself to feed everybody.” There’s a great comic moment when Mrs da Silva’s son Cuthbert rushes to the nearby hospital in the body paint and horns of his devil costume for the imminent birth of his son. I won’t spoil the hilarity of the chaos caused by wandering shrimp-garbed dancers, or the unexpected costume worn by Mrs da Silva’s erstwhile postman as he makes a last-minute sprint for the parade. There are petty squabbles and politicking. But all things are possible at Carnival time, and Melville enraptures us with a marvelous spectacle.

30 June 2006 | selling shorts |