Analysis of ‘Fireweed’, by Skye Brannon:
Fireweed, a short story written by Skye Brannon, is a real short but captivating story from the word go. Brannon has written many poems, a play, two novels and numerous short stories. She is an American and was once a Peace Corps volunteer. She is now living in Dallas. Fireweed written in 2009 flits from past to present very effortlessly. Something in the present triggers the thoughts of the incidents in the past and the whole story makes very interesting reading. The story of Batula is narrated by a third person.
Synopsis of plot
Baluta is the protagonist who has moved from Liberia to America in search of a better life. He moves with his brother and sister-in-law. Right at the beginning of the story it is evident that their stay in America is in a small place and they are still struggling to make it big. They have a house which has only one shower and a car which is given Baluta as he had to travel long distances for his work. Baluta is one who slips into his life in Liberia. The life in America is in total contrast to the one back home and he yearns to go back in time. All that he can do now is to remember those and that is what his day is all about.
The first thing that he changes once in America is his name. So he is Joel to the people in America and he was someone who did odd jobs and was good at fixing broken things. His favourite past time was to think of his sister Alanso. That particular day, he thought of her laughter and set out to work. That day’s work was to repair a cabinet and Ms Giles his earlier client had referred his name to this person. He passes by a man-made pond in the shape of a lip and he remembers the pond back in Liberia. Alanso was so good at catching fish, that she would catch as if she was plucking flowers from the field. Batula could never catch one, but when they go back home Alanso would tell their grandmother that Alanso had caught some fish.
Batula brought his attention back to the present as he was nearing the house. He brought the rattling car to a gentle halt. The woman inside the house was clutching on to her mobile and on seeing this Batula was reminded of his father’s monkey traps. The monkeys would put their hands into the box to take the food kept in it and then would not be able to pull out the hands and the reason was they would not let go of their food. There was a sense of desire in that hold and Batula felt that the lady had that same sense of desire with her phone. On seeing the car stop there she gets up from her chair and come to the door and opens it just a little to enquire who it was. When she realises that Batula had come to repair the cabinets and was sent by Mrs.Giles, she lets him and shows the cabinet. But before that she wants him to level a pile of dirt which he does willingly.
As he approaches the mound of dirt his mind races back to Alanso and Liberia when he was bitten by ants in the mound. He was bitten thrice and these bites were extremely painful and brought tears. It never bit Alanso and she commented that the ants bit him because he was sweet and she was sour. Once inside the house he saw how huge it was and the cabinet work was not a major work and he said that he would finish the work in few hours. She had introduced herself as Tiffany and stared enquiring about him. She then points to the granite counters and says she would be sitting there . He notices the diamond ring on her hand.
The diamond rings takes him back to Liberia when his father had said “They think they’ve found diamonds in our mountains.” This was the first time he had seen fear in his father’s eyes. Now Batula was back to his work and Tiffany was looking through the glossy magazines. The cell phone rings and from the conversation Batula understands it is something about the colour of the paint. He suddenly hears the word ‘Fireweed’ and then his mind in dizzy races back in time.
Batula was hungry and wanted a slice from the cassava pile. He sneaked to take it and was caught by his grandmother Awa. He was given the most dreaded punishment, to eat the fireweed. Fireweed was hotter than the hottest pepper and eyes would water in pain. He went past the pool, the mound of ants, the monkey traps and picked the largest fireweed leaf; the bigger the leaf the lesser its sting. He held out the leaf to show his grandmother and as he was walking back, he froze at the ant pile. Men in jeeps arrived with guns and shot all there, his grandma, Alanso and his father. Ants bit into his leg but he felt nothing because his mind froze in time.
Batula is the main character of this story. He is young and hardworking. He wants to make it big and is willing to work for it. Back home they lived a dignified life but the discovery of diamonds in their mountains changed turned his life totally for the worst. He is haunted by his life in Liberia and by then end of the story we understand why he lives in the past so much.
Tiffany is the other character in the story. She is a typical rich young woman. She is lazing around. She is apprehensive of new people entering her house. She is a friendly though. Like all white Americans take it that all Afro-American looking people are from Africa and are not willing to accept the specific country. She lives a superficial life and that is evident in the closure line of the story, “Chet, if I don’t get that fireweed, I’m just going to die!”There is mention of Batula’s brother Jato and his wife Sama. Mrs. Giles is mentioned.
Through Batula’s memories we see Alanso, a sprightly young girl who was ten years old. She loved Batula a lot. Alanso was younger than him but smarter. What he often remembered was her laugh which brought great happiness into his life. Even the thought of her laughter brightened his day. Batula brings alive his father and grandmother Awa through his memories. His father is hardworking and a strong man. Only when diamonds were discovered in their mountain, he sees fear in his father’s eyes. His grandmother was full of kindness but could not accept any kind of cheating and gave the worst punishment; not spanking but to eat the fireweed.
The main theme of Fireweed is the trauma that immigrants go through. There is so much left back at home and they have to start anew in a new country. Batula left his country with tragic incidents and the trauma and guilt is much more. Inequality is another theme and it is explored through the social setting through which Batula and Tiffany interact.
The story is happening in 2009 but flits back to some years back to Batula’s childhood and where the drama really happens. The physical setting is in the United States but moves to Liberia, to the area around the shanty held by Batula’s family. The social setting is the inequality in the American society. Also the peace experienced in the US is contrasted to the violence in Lieria.
This story is mind-blowing as so much is packed in so little. There is gory mention of violence but so much is said in that one sentence, ‘He saw the jeeps and men with guns and machetes.’