Giller Longlist: Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough

All of the stories in Dominoes at the Crossroads are written in first person; some have overlapping characters, many feature music in some way, many include historical descriptions or scenarios, and all feature a character or characters from the African Diaspora. Kaie Kellough, himself, is a character in one of his own stories.

One of my favourites–and the one I’m going to focus on here–at 50 pages, is the longest in the book. Petit Marronage includes some of everything listed above–history, music, travel–as well as insights into race and culture. It captured me within the first two pages with this passage:

If I pick up my alto saxophone, which I rarely play anymore, it feels like a toy in my hands. It’s so much smaller than the tenor. My breath fills it easily, and the action of its keys is swift. As I blow, I always picture a lush vine sprouting from the bell of the horn, tumbling to the floor, and slithering across the floor until the ground is covered in leaves. The vine climbs the walls and the ceiling, punches through glass and covers the side of the building, and as the vine grows I can’t stop playing. Some greater force controls my fingers and and keeps pushing my breath through the horn. I don’t think of the notes I’m playing, I just let the process overtake me, until I’m standing in a tropical forest, and I know that lizards hide on the shady underside of leaves, monkeys watch from up in the trees, where the sunlight breaks through and streams down. It’s damp and cool and the plant life seems to breathe with me. Each time I press a key a thousand leaves sprout. Each time I move into a higher register a swarm of insects issues through the horn. They escape into the light and the mist. The vine keeps slithering out of the horn as I blow. I am back to where my ancestors might have marooned, after they were introduced to the Caribbean’s plantations. / This is one place my alto saxophone takes me. It has taken me to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, to a remote cabin that might have inspired a story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, even to a different hemisphere. It may transport me to places that are not in my family history but to which I have some connection, through the sweep of the diaspora.

This dream-like quality is present in many of the other stories, as well. And, while this character travels via his music, many of the collection’s characters physically travel to these places; some to see family they’ve left behind, others to see the place their parents came from.

In addition to internal travel, the narrator of “Petit Marronage” does some physical traveling as a musician – daydreaming as he takes the Greyhound across Canada: “I wanted freedom, and saw it as the endless deferral of return. To fly, to maroon, to run, I wanted to define my trajectory. I might have to constantly adjust my course, but in that adjustment was a musical application.” He reflects on his past and mulls over ideas about his continuous search for a musical style: “In a way, the question became a cultural one: How to fuse an African-American musical sensibility with a Caribbean one, and how to enact that fusion in a Canadian context?

Apply that same question to literature.

Kellough’s stories navigate race without making them about race. Although, as the Kaie Kellough in the story says: “When I write about these episodes, which are everyday human experiences, it’s very difficult to find the correct approach. Race is not something I’ve superimposed on the story. It is embedded in the experience, and I want a reader to understand that, but most readers will fixate on it.” (Am I fixated on race as I read these stories?)

Kellough then goes on to examine himself from the perspective of his narrator: the narrator points out that Kaie “benefits from being a middle-class light-skinned man” and that “people like him become indignant at the slightest suggestion of adversity because they’ve never known it deeply.” The narrator imagines that Kaie’s “importance has been reinforced. He’s been told that he’s somebody, that he has a voice and that it should be heard.” The narrator reminds us that “Not all of us are sung that same refrain, and not all of us are driven by those same expectations.”

A writer like Kaie has to write through race, an expression that I like because it seems to offer hope or an eventual emergence.

Writing this review reminds me of the complexity of these stories (and why I decided to choose just one of them to write about). When I first picked up the book I wondered if I was going to be smart enough for it. The notes I jotted down after reading the first story include: “experimental and intellectual – not to be read when feeling drowsy” (which I believe I was at the time). Now that I’m finished, I think I can easily apply this statement to the entire book. Be ready to pay attention and to be challenged. It will be worth it.

Further Reading:

Lindy says: “… whatever form this hybrid collection uses, by the end it has transformed into a novel. It’s safe to call it outstanding.”

James says: “… Mr. Kellough takes us places, geographically and transcendentally, without and within. That’s what dreams and good books do, right?

Kaie Kellough is a talented guy.

11 thoughts on “Giller Longlist: Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough

    • Naomi says:

      I noticed that, too. I wonder if its length allowed a wide range of elements to come out in the story, making it a good pick to represent the book.

  1. annelogan17 says:

    I was so happy to see his work recognized by the giller jury, I met him awhile back when he came to Calgary for an event (I think spoken word, I can’t quite remember) and I remember being very impressed by him. As a white person, I also find it really fascinating to read about POC’s perspectives when they aren’t always seen as POC because their skin is lighter, etc. Sounds like he deals with a lot of interesting topics in these stories.

    • Naomi says:

      You can tell by his stories that he must be a creative person, so I wasn’t surprised to read about all his other talents. He is SO talented! I saw that this book was just nominated for a prize in Quebec, which I was happy to see.

  2. buriedinprint says:

    Okay, you already got me excited about reading this, based on some comments here and there, but now these extra bits (and that quotation) have made me ridiculously excited. Maybe this will be my The Party Wall from this year’s Giller list. Do you think it would be possible to devote a post to each of the stories, or was this one, the longest one, the story that seemed to beg for that extra attention/focus?

    • Naomi says:

      You could EASILY devote a post to each story. If I had lots of time (and owned the book myself) I would consider doing just that. I know a blogger who would be perfect for such a project… 😉

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