A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing: A Memoir Across Three Continents by Mary-Alice Daniel

Drawn by its stunning title & cover, I requested an arc for A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing. For some reason or other I ended up neglecting to read it but at long last decided to give it a try, and I’m really glad that I did get round to it. Written with clarity and precision, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing Mary-Alice Daniel together a more intimate coming-of-age memoir with historical accounts. Daniel writes with compelling authority and her recollections will undoubtedly plunge readers into her childhood and adolescence. She’s able to conjure up not only past feelings but vividly reenact episodes from her youth. The people, dynamics, and situations she presents us with are evocatively rendered, as they seem to capture the mood, essence even, of what is being portrayed. Daniel depicts her family with a heartfelt mixture of love, understanding, and frustration. In these more personal chapters/sections Daniel, born in Nigeria to a Longuda father and a Fulani mother, chronicles her experiences moving from Nigeria to England before finally settling in America. Daniel conveys the seen and unseen difficulties she, alongside her family, experienced once in Reading. She articulates the loneliness and confusion brought about by this dislocation and by an environment that labels you as foreign, other. Her shifting and confused perception of her identity is exacerbated by her Longuda and Fulani heritage and by her adoption of English customs and exposure to English culture. Eventually, Daniel’s family relocates to Nashville, America. Here Daniel is marked as an oddity, yet again subjected to the white gaze and often made to feel excluded from Black American culture. In retracing her childhood, Daniel reflects and gives insight into the experiences of the Black diaspora, contrasting and comparing America and England’s treatment and perception of Blackness and Black immigrants. Daniel addresses and challenges stereotypes about Nigerians, which often place them as ‘inferior’. While terms like resilient may seem trite when used to describe books concerned with immigration and Blackness, it did come to mind while I was reading this.

Much of the book adopts a more, not quite detached, but more educational tone. Daniel examines tribal traditions and mythologies, the aftereffects of colonialism, past and present internecine conflicts, and religious and cultural divides. There is a lot of history to unpack but Daniel does so swiftly and skilfully. Sure, Daniel walks down some well-treated paths, for instance when writing about Ham, but she also shines a light on forgotten, or at least overlooked, mythologies and histories. These sections often use an anthropological lens to discuss the traits, histories, and customs of the Fula and the Longuda people. In her overview of Nigeria Daniel looks at its many different ethnic groups and its religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and traditional worship, that often exacerbate civil unrest.
By depicting Nigeria as a multivalent country, Daniel demystifies Western misconceptions of Nigeria and West Africa itself. I did prefer when these more informative sections drew from Daniel’s own family histories and myths, as these family tales often enlivened the writing.

Belonging is one of this memoir’s major themes, as Daniel probes her conflicted sense of self in the face of dislocation. Daniel shows how one’s identity is shaped both by one’s home environment and by the ‘dominant’ culture of the place one grow up in. Language, accents, family lexicons, food, beliefs, mannerism, popular media, we see how all of these play a role in her ‘coming of age’. Given that movements, be it from continent to continent, or from culture to culture, and the dialogue between past and present are motifs within this memoir, Daniel did try sometimes too hard to anchor her experiences into a larger historical context. For instance, when she mentions “In 1895, the controversial Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in Reading, the town I grew up in”, which came across as very random and not particularly relevant.

While I may have felt more invested by Daniel’s more personal insights into her family and experiences growing up, I did find the themes, histories, and mythologies she surveys throughout her memoir to be captivating.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
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