Why it Works: Making Guava Jelly by Sharon Millar

I found Making Guava Jelly by Sharon Millar by accident but it’s the kind of story that feels like it was written just for me. Like it was waiting within the virtual pages of The Manchester Review for me to click on it.  Maybe I related because I’m a mother. Or maybe because cancer has had its brush with my family.  In any case, this is a beautiful and important story to read.

She reached under the island in the center of the kitchen and unclipped her secret drawer.  Until six months ago, it held precious things; little velvet boxes filled with the girls’ baby teeth and soft locks of newborn hair. The drawer whirred open and slid onto her lap. For the next hour Rachel sat looking at women’s breasts until she heard the girls stirring upstairs.

I don’t want to talk about technique with this short story.  There’s so much to learn from it, in terms of craft, and we’d all be better writers just for sitting down with it and pulling it apart.  But what I want to talk about is honesty.

This story of a woman with breast cancer, a woman who keeps clippings of breasts in a drawer to pin to her shirt over her mastectomy scars when she is alone, a woman who chooses not just young and perky breasts but breasts of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages, is not afraid to tell the truth.  To examine what these floppy appendages really look like, what they mean to us in terms of both love and motherhood.

She hadn’t thought it would be hard for a grown woman to find pictures of breasts. But it was. It was very hard because she didn’t want the kind of breasts that men wanted. Perky silicone breasts didn’t comfort her. Olive breasts with large areoles called forth memories like silver filaments, delicate and bright. She remembered her grandmother pulling on her bra in the thick afternoon light of the bedroom in St. Joseph village. Her old-lady breasts brown in the swirling yellow light of the room, veiny and shriveled in their tenacity, set like amber across the years.

And of course there’s the obvious link, the cruel irony that breasts that can sustain new life can also hold the seeds of one’s death.  Making Guava Jelly doesn’t shrink from this either.  Rachel, the protagonist, has two daughters and she has to deal with the fact that they are witnesses to everything she is going through, to the effects of her treatments and to her gradual desire to untangle herself from life.

It’s easy to tell someone to go deeper with their writing.  The process is far from easy and sometimes the results aren’t either.  But that is where the important stuff happens.  Write where it hurts.  Write where it feels real.

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