Faculty of Arts & Science alumna Zalika Reid-Benta vividly remembers staring at her first-year essay in disbelief.
“I was used to getting certain grades in high school, so I was freaking out because I got a B,” she says.
Thinking there must have been a mistake, she rushed to meet with her teaching assistant who assured her the grade was accurate. Only essays of “publishable quality” get an A, she was told.
“It was a defining moment,” says Reid-Benta, who took this advice to heart. Her debut short story collection, Frying Plantain, was not only published but also long-listed for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize last fall — Canada’s top literary award for works of fiction.
As a member of Victoria College, Reid-Benta graduated in 2012 with an honours bachelor of arts degree, majoring in English and cinema studies, and minoring in Caribbean studies.
“The first few weeks of undergrad were amazing,” she says. “I was introduced to new literature, movies and different aspects of my Caribbean heritage. Then work started piling up and I thought, ‘Wait, this is actually quite stressful.’”
Reid-Benta set out ambitious plans to become a writer. She boldly decided to complete her four-year degree in three years by taking summer courses. By her second year, she was also taking creative writing courses through U of T’s School of Continuing Studies.
Reid-Benta fell just shy of her goal and returned to U of T in her fourth year to take a single course in cinema studies, which turned out to be a blessing. “I had time to decompress,” she says. “I could focus on graduate school applications and not feel like I was going crazy.”
She was then accepted to the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University in New York.
“U of T prepared me for criticism of my work, which is extremely valuable,” she says. “I went in with knowledge and tools that allowed me to appreciate listening to students and instructors pick apart your writing.”
Reid-Benta also discovered another side of herself as a writer — Canadian pride.
“I didn't realize how much my Canadianness would come out,” she says.
When one of her stories was set to be published in a class journal, the journal’s editors removed the “u” from words like “flavour” and “neighbour.”
“I was so upset,” says Reid-Benta, who wouldn’t budge and demanded they be put back in.
At Columbia, Reid-Benta wrote most of Frying Plantain’s stories, which delve into tensions between mothers and daughters, second-generation Canadians and first-generation cultural expectations, and Black identity within a predominately white society.
After she graduated, she remained in New York and approached U.S. publishers. But her stories, with their Canadian tone, were turned down.
Discouraged, her stories sat untouched for two years before a former instructor from the School of Continuing Studies asked what happened to them.
“She said, ‘I want to see it in a bookstore one day,’” and that motivated Reid-Benta to act. She acquired a Toronto-based agent who immediately saw Frying Plantain’s potential.
“During our first meeting my agent said, ‘I can see this being Giller-worthy,’ and I started laughing,” says Reid-Benta. The prediction came true months later with a call from her agent.
“She yelled, ‘You’re nominated for the Giller!’” Reid-Benta remembers. “I think I just kept swearing because I didn’t know what else to do. It's still surreal to think about even now because I just hoped a few people would read it.”
And the accolades continue, as Frying Plantain was just shortlisted for another prestigious literary prize, the 2020 Trillium Book Award which is presented by Ontario Creates, an agency of the Ontario government.
Currently, Reid-Benta is working on a young adult fantasy novel — a very different project that requires a new approach to writing, which she’s enjoying.
“In short stories, every word has to mean something so you can get your message across quickly,” she says. “Now that I'm writing a novel, I have a lot more freedom to let myself go.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t curbed her enthusiasm. “For the past few weeks, I've had creative energy, so I've been writing as much as I can,” she says. “It just so happened to fall during this quarantine, so I don’t seem to be too impacted by social distancing.”
As the characters and plot lines come together, she’s forever grateful for that B.
“U of T made me strive for success. The high standard of grading at U of T really pushed me to read and write as critically as I could, which I applied, and still apply, to my fiction today.”