Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Ru by Kim Thúy

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

Ru is a short read that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (autofiction..i guess?) and is comprised of very short chapters, most of them consisting of a couple of short paragraphs. These chapters, which often barely last a page, capture an instant or impression experienced by our Vietnamese-Canadian narrator. The feelings, thoughts, images, and anecdotes, that appear on these pages have a snapshot quality, both because the author is able to capture these in a concise yet hauntingly evocative prose. The narrator is now married with two children, one of whom is neurodivergent. While we do gain an understanding of her life in the present, the narrative is mainly preoccupied with her past. The narrator’s recollections of her ‘disrupted’ childhood are unsparingly unsentimental. She remembers her experiences at a refugee camp in Malaysia, the difficulties of trying to assimilate into a culture that sees you as ‘other’, her early years in Vietnam, her beloved Uncle Two, while also reflecting on the limitations of language and of memory, on history and alternate histories, on trauma, and on cultural dissonance.

The vignettes her reminiscences present to us have a fragmented quality, so that much of the narrator’s personal life and past remains shrouded in ambiguity. There is also an aloofness to her narration that made much of what she was recounting feel remote, intentionally so I believe. By distancing herself from her past the narrator is able to approach it with, curiously enough, far more clarity. There is a neutrality to her inner monologue that could easily lead one to believe that she too is like us merely a ‘witness’ as opposed to the person to who these things have happened to. I liked the stark imagery, the narrator’s cool tone, and the ideas and issues weaving her ‘retrospective’.
If you like proses that are so sharp you are liable to cut yourself or have a preference for non-linear narratives composed of a character’s past and present impressions (be it autofiction such as All Men Want to Know and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or literary fiction like as Ghost Forest) you should definitely add Ru to your tbr pile.

While I understood that many of the things the narrator divulges to ‘us’ are meant to elicit feelings of discomfort and unease, the way she sees her son’s autism gave me pause (she is “waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible”). While I understand too well that many countries still have a negative view of autism here it struck me that the narrator was creating an unfortunate parallel between her son’s autism and the Vietnam war that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure other readers will not be as ‘bothered’ by this but to be perfectly honest this aspect of the narrative detracted from my overall reading experience. Nevertheless I will definitely read more by Thúy.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”

Devastating, heart-wrenching, and full of love and sorrow, Men We Reaped is an unforgettable memoir. Jesmyn Ward recounts her experiences growing up poor, female, and Black in the rural South during the late 80s and 90s. Ward interweaves her personal account with a brutal social commentary that highlights what it means to be poor and Black, and of how racism, specifically in the South, remains an insidious and widespread phenomenon with tragic consequences. Interrupting those chapters in which Ward recounts her childhood and teenage years are chapters focusing on the lives of five Black men, all of whom died young as a result of addictions, suicide, and accidents. Some of these men, we learn, were her friends growing up. We see how the school system either pegged them as problem students or ignored them, which inevitably would make them feel ‘less than’ and worthless. Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, is one of these young men, which makes these chapters all the more hard-hitting.
Ward shows how deep-rooted institutionalised racism is and how it results in social and economic disparities. In looking back to the past, Ward tries to understand the motivations behind the actions and behaviours of the adults around her, in particular, her mother and her father, a serial cheater who would eventually leave them behind. In discussing the lives of these men she cared for, Ward considered the high mortality rate among young Black men, and of the way in which their community is affected by generational trauma, drug addiction, etc. Ward ultimately feels conflicted about the South, a place that has played a fatal role in the deaths of the people she loved. Yet, even after moving away to pursue higher education, she finds herself longing to return to it. Ward, in some ways, appears to be haunted by it and by the role it played in the deaths of so many men she knew and loved.
With heartbreaking clarity and piercing insight, Ward writes of her childhood, of the lives of those young men who died such violent and sudden deaths, of her own family and her relationship to her parents, of her community, and of social inequality. More impressive still than Ward’s talent for vividly portraying a specific time and place is her ability to articulate her grief over the death of her brother and her friends.
While this memoir is by no means an easy read, it did in fact distress me, ultimately, I think it’s a necessary read. Ward’s lyrical prose reads like an elegy, both to the men that died at such a young age and to the South. Men We Reaped is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking read. While this memoir is mired in pain and grief, Ward’s elegiac prose and empathy balanced out its bleaker aspects. With admirable lucidity Ward attempts to reconcile herself with the confusion and anger brought about by the inequalities experienced by her community and by her loved one deaths.

Some quotes that will haunt me:

“[T]he message was always the same: You’re Black. You’re less than White. And then, at the heart of it: You’re less than human.

“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies. For years I carried the weight of that despair with me;”

“But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C. J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends’ lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother’s life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he’s been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there’s my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.”

“We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts.”

my rating: ★★★★☆

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

“I wanted to be the diametric opposite of who I was; am. To get gone.”

T Kira Madden’s bold and unsparing storytelling makes for a brutal yet ultimately kaleidoscopic coming of age. This is easily one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. Madden’s memoir makes for a bittersweet read, one that I look forward to revisiting again.

“Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.”

The chapters within this memoir have an almost episodic quality to them as they transport us to a specific time and or period of Madden’s childhood and later on teenage years. I appreciated the often unresolved nature of these chapters, as Madden doesn’t try to extract moral lessons from her experiences growing ups. During the very first chapter, we understand just how unconventional Madden’s upbringing was. Both of her parents struggled with substance addictions and were possibly involved in something shady. While her parents had plenty of money to spare their parenting style leaves a lot to be desired. Their unstable relationship too sometimes seemed to take priority over Madden’s wellbeing. Madden paints an unflattering picture of herself as a child, as she seemed to have adopted a horse-girl persona that made other children tease or avoid her. Also, growing up biracial in the nineties and Y2K came with a whole lot of racism, bullying, and confusion. Madden grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, a white-majority city. While her mother tethers her to her Chinese Hawaiian heritage, Madden is often made to feel other. Her family situation also makes her feel somewhat separate from her peers. But alongside this pain (over her loneliness, her parents’ addictions and toxicity), Madden’s gritty humor shines through, reminding me at times of other media focused on dysfunctional families (such as Shameless). Madden’s recollections of her past and her childhood are incredibly vivid, so much so that I could picture with ease the scenes which she was describing. At times this resulted in me feeling quite uncomfortable given the nature of what was happening (at one point madden decides to remove one of her ). Also, there was quite a lot of second-hand embarrassment which is rather expected given that Madden details those awkward years of transition between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence is hell. Seriously. Madden’s meditations on her changing body were certainly relatable. Madden’s observations on girlhood are piercingly clear. While what Madden is writing about is clearly deeply personal, readers can easily identify themselves with her. Madden’s recollects her first sexual experiences as well as the confusing feelings brought about by her own desire. Madden also details how she was sexually assaulted with unflinching clarity. Her longing to belong, to be loved, to be herself, well, it broke my heart. While she does forge friendships with other ‘fatherless’ girls, they also seem to take advantage of Madden (here i was reminded of the movie Thirteen).

“Sometimes I miss them most when we’re all together, when we’re already looking back at the moment, wondering how it will ossify with time, how much more we will know and unknow about each other.”

Madden’s shifting relationship to her sexuality certainly struck a chord with me. I loved the way she articulates that knowing-but-not-knowing. It was distressing to read of how misattribution leads her to confuse fear with love and of the shame she feels over her sexual desires. Madden is also frank when it comes to portraying the difficulties and intricacies of girlhood. From the all-consuming friendships to the desperate need to be seen as older, mature, adult.
In revisiting her childhood and adolescence we inevitably gain a picture of Madden’s rocky home-life. Her parents’ volatile relationship and their struggles with addiction weigh on Madden. But, rather than just reducing her parents to their addictions, Madden makes sure that we see their virtues alongside their vices. While the individuals that emerge are certainly not perfect, they come across as real people. They make mistakes, they fall into bad habits, and their personal crises and dramas often cause them to lose sight of Madden. However, we also see just how deeply they love her, even if their way of expressing this love is somewhat eccentric.
Within this memoir Madden explores her shifting identity growing up, letting us in on some pivotal moments in her childhood and teens. In doing so Madden examines the way American society treats young girls and their sexuality, the many ways in which girls are over-sexualised, the way porn normalizes abuse, and the invisibility and fetishization experienced by Asian American women. Additionally, Madden tackles grief, trauma, belonging, and queerness, in a frank yet poignant way. Her prose is truly illuminating, and I was captivated by her voice within the very first few sentences.
As the daughter of an addict myself this memoir certainly resonated a lot with me.

“These hushed years. These secrets of the body. To whom did they belong first? I want to find where it began and say, I’m here now, listening. I want to reach through the years and tell the women I’ve been lonely.”

This memoir was a real banger. While Madden is not afraid to discuss serious and or ‘uncomfortable’ topics, her writing is so compelling that I found myself tearing through this. Sad, funny, and sharp, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a lyrical and hard-hitting memoir. I would definitely recommend this to fans of coming-of-ages such as Monkey Beach and hard-hitting memoirs such as Dog Flowers and Crying in H Mart.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The first time I read Coraline I was 10 or so and I won’t lie, it scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Buttons. And she wants to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes. Wtf.
Anyway, this is a great piece of fiction. The story revolves around Coraline, a young girl who, alongside her distracted and workaholic parents, has recently moved into a big house divided into flats. As Coraline is out of school at the moment she grows increasingly bored and restless. After visiting her neighbours, who are rather peculiar, she ends up exploring her home and coming across a small locked door. The door, once unlocked, reveals a bricked wall.

One day, after a sort of argument with her mother, Coraline finds herself alone at home and decides to open the door once again. This time it leads into a corridor that takes her into a flat that is almost identical to her own. Here we meet Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father who seem eager to bestow their love and attention on her. While Coraline is momentarily swept away by the delicious food she’s being served and by this ‘other’ version of her parents, she can’t help but feel slightly put-off by their appearance. Her Other Parents happen to have black buttons for her eyes. As the story continues we see just how terrifying the Other Mother is.
As I said, this is a creepy, even unsettling book. Coraline is such a likeable and sympathetic character that I found myself immediately invested in her and her wellbeing. I’m also a sucker for dark fairy tales, and while this book isn’t quite as dark as say Pan’s Labyrinth, the two definitely share their similarities. Coraline is tempted into accepting a seemingly perfect vision of her life and family. But, she can’t quite make herself forget and or stop loving her real parents, however imperfect they may be. The Other Mother’s love is not love, not really, and her behaviour towards Coraline, and her other ‘subjects’, can be seen as echoing the ones of an emotionally abusive parent. Ultimately the story takes a cat-and-mouse turn where Coraline has to outsmart the Other Mother.
I absolutely love Gaiman’s storytelling, and here he really outdoes himself. He has written something that is accessible to younger readers without sacrificing depth or dumbing down his narrative. And of course, the cat steals the show.
The film adaptation is great too. A favourite of mine even if does add Wybie into the story (he’s very much a comedic-relief type of character). If you have time I also recommend you check out The Eldritch Horror of Coraline by CJ The X (it’s a chaotic & funny analysis of the character of the Other Mother).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi


That Helen Oyeyemi wrote her debut novel aged 18 while studying for her A-Levels is certainly an impressive feat. And, as debuts go, The Icarus Child is by no means a weak one. As this happens to be the third book I’ve read of hers I can see just how much her writing has grown since The Icarus Child. The story’s surreal atmosphere is certainly one that permeates most of her works, but perhaps here the fantastical elements aren’t as mind-boggling as the ones characterising her later books.

The Icarus Child revolves around Jessamy Harrison, who goes by Jess, an eight-year-old child with a white British father and a Nigerian mother living in England. The novel opens with her going on a trip to Nigeria with her parents where she stays in her mother’s family home. Here she comes across a girl called TillyTilly. The two quickly become friends but much about TillyTilly preoccupies Jess. Where are her parents? How old is she?
When she returns home with her family Jess discovers that TillyTilly has followed her there. As they spend more and more time together Jess realizes that TillyTilly is not like other children and that angering or antagonising her might result in disaster. Yet, her friendship with TillyTilly proves detrimental as an increasingly alienated Jess finds herself in trouble at school and at home.
Although the story is narrated through a 3rd pov Oyeyemi succeeds in authentically conveying Jess’ voice. We view her reality/world through her eyes and with her ‘child’ understanding. Things that are obvious to us are a mystery to her (for example when she observes the behaviour/actions of the adults around her). Jess is a sensitive child who often seeks refuge in her own imagination. The adults fail to understand or try to label her ‘difficult’ or ‘different’. Her loneliness is so poignant that I found myself truly invested in her character. TillyTilly is more of a trickster sort of figure, egging Jess to misbehave or let loose. Their dynamic brought to mind my own childhood best friend who was a fun if slightly tyrannical girl who was very much aware of how in awe of her I was (if she told me to jump, i’d jump).
What brings the story down is its meandering pacing and its repetitive scenes. When I thought that the story was reaching a conclusion I was amazed to discover that I was only at the halfway point. Much of the narrative consists in Jess having steadily severe temper tantrums, fighting with other girls at her school, or having to face her understandably exasperated mother. There were also some dream/nightmare sequences that were intentionally confusing that didn’t really add much to the narrative or atmosphere. The character of TillyTilly also proved a bit of a disappointment as she says the same ‘creepy’ things over and over again. The prose too was at times a tad jejune. Anyhow, the latter half of the novel was a bit of a chore to get trough. I found myself skim-reading hoping that the ending would be worth it but was let down by a frankly anticlimactic conclusion.

All in all, I would recommend this to fans of this author. While the story and writing aren’t quite as polished as her more recent releases, and on the whole, the novel isn’t as vivacious or as humorous as her usual stuff, The Icarus Child does introduce us to a compelling protagonist.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

In the past week or so I’ve picked up three books I’d previously DNFed in the hopes that I would like them better now…turns out instead that I shouldn’t have given them a second chance and that instead, I should have just trusted my gut-instinct. Lesson learned.

All Men Want to Know is an incredibly affected and stylised memoir that doesn’t ring particularly true to life. The author and narrator of All Men Want to Know is very much into navel-gazing and has a penchant for making edgy comments. The few ‘characters’ who are given lines of dialogue do not sound like particularly believable individuals, rather they sounded like the narrator masquerading as different people. They use the same type of metaphorical and flashy language, and similarly to her have a propensity for making fake-deep statements about human nature, society, queerness etc.
The narrative is divided into sections called Remembering, Becoming, and Knowing. These last one or two pages and present us with what amounts to an underdeveloped and fragmented snapshot of the author’s life. This technique is sadly all the rage and if you enjoyed Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest you might actually be able to appreciate All Men Want to Know in a way that I was unable to. In the Remembering segments, Bouraoui writes about her childhood, specifically about growing up in Algeria to an Algerian father and a French mother. In Becoming and Knowing Bouraoui is living in Paris in the 80s and going to lesbian bars and clubs, unsure whether she actually wants to find someone or not. I should have found these sections somewhat relatable as they are seemingly intent on exploring her internalised homophobia but the way she articulates her anxieties, fears, and desires struck me as laboured and showy.
Nothing about her childhood or her time in Paris is rendered clearly to us. The studied language takes the centre-stage. Which would have been bearable if say her prose was anything like Ocean Vuong or Caleb Azumah Nelson. But her style just isn’t as lyrical and readable as theirs These impressionistic snapshots of her life left no lasting impressions on me as they failed to capture the scenes they were supposedly meant to capture. They begin randomly and end abruptly so that I was left wondering what function they served in the overall narrative. I also found the way the author writes about things such as sexual abuse and suicide to be tasteless and sensationalistic. She seemed more intent on using a certain type of language than on showing any sensitivity towards these topics. Much of the imagery included in this novel was clichéd (we have the classic scene featuring ‘blood’ on ‘sheets’). There was nothing subversive or thought-provoking about this memoir. I found myself disliking Bouraoui and I was vexed in particular by her endless self-dramatizing. Her queer friends all blur together, they are given barely any lines and serve the role of filler. We don’t really gain any insight into Bouraoui’s family dynamics nor are her mother or father particularly fleshed out. Bouraoui also has the habit of speaking on behalf of other characters, so that she will write about the thoughts and feelings someone else is allegedly experiencing as if these are true (rather than her speculations). Although this book is desperately trying to be sensual and deep, it is neither of these things. I found it boring, unconvincing, and sensationalistic. The best thing about this book is the cover. A truly banal excuse of a book.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo

“I am first and foremost a writer, the written word is how I process everything—myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the very heart of how I exist in the world, and I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication.”



In Manifesto Bernardine Evaristo presents us with a retrospective of her life: from her childhood and family dynamics to discussing her love life and career. Her candid, often humorous, voice grabbed me from the get-go and I found myself speeding through Manifesto. Not only does Evaristo have a knack for bringing various episodes and periods from her past to life but she always pairs these with a piercing and thought-provoking social commentary.

“You feel hated, even though you have done nothing to deserve it, and so you think there is something wrong with you, rather than something wrong with them.”

Manifesto is divided into several sections, each one exploring a different aspect of Evaristo’s life. In the first one, ‘heritage, childhood, family, origins’, Evaristo recounts her experiences of growing up in England in the 60s with a white mother and a Nigerian father. She describes her early encounters with racism, from witnessing the discrimination aimed at her father to the racism she herself experienced at school and in her neighbourhood. Her mother’s side of the family was openly against Evaristo’s parents’ union, some of them refusing to speak to any of them or treating them with open disdain. While Evaristo is critical of their behaviour she does take into account the social mores that people like her grandmother grew up with, and while she doesn’t condone or minimise their behaviour and actions she does acknowledge how hard it is to free oneself of such a deeply ingrained mindset.

“It was an early lesson for me as a child, witnessing how people who are victims of oppression can turn into oppressors themselves.”

In addition to discussing race and racism Evaristo looks at her relationship with her father, and once again demonstrates admirable self-awareness as she considers how when growing up she saw her father as a strict tyrant, whereas now she recognises that his parenting was simply reflective of a different culture. Additionally, she realises how alienating his life in England was (being more or less out-of-touch with his family, to being deemed a second-class citizen, an ‘undesirable’). Evaristo’s account of her father’s experiences in England highlights the racism and discrimination endured by the Windrush generation. I found her exploration of her relationship with her father to be deeply moving and this section, despite its subject matter, was easily my favourite in Manifesto.
In the following section, ‘houses, flats, rooms, homes’, Evaristo looks back to the various spaces she’s lived in since leaving her home. Many of the episodes she recounts are rather humorous, as they feature eccentric housemates & landlords as well as some bizarre living arrangements. This section reminded me of the tales my mother (who is a few years younger than evaristo) used to tell me about her odd living situations in London and Berlin when she was in her 20s. In describing the various rooms she’s lived in Evaristo considers the meaning of ‘home’.

“Writing became a room of my own; writing became my permanent home.”

In ‘the women and men who came and went’ Evaristo gives us a glimpse into her romantic and sexual exploits. In detailing her various partners she speaks about her own sexuality and power dynamics within a relationship. Once again Evaristo demonstrates a great understanding of human behaviour and is unafraid of challenging her old views/ideas. While I loved how open Evaristo is in examining her sexuality and her past and present relationship, I was frustrated by her binary view of sexuality. On the one hand, she says that sexuality is a spectrum and yet she also compares her sexuality to a sandwich (my lesbian identity was the stuffing in a heterosexual sandwich) and speaks of having had a ‘lesbian period’. The thing is, saying that one had a ‘lesbian era’ carries certain implications ( that this period is over, that it was a phase). After a particularly toxic relationship with an older woman Evaristo only actively seeks relationships with men, ‘rediscovering’ them, so to speak. Which, fair enough…but that does negate her previous interest in women? Why only use labels such as straight and lesbian rather than queer, pan, bi (etc etc)? That Evaristo couples her lesbian era with her discovery of feminism and politics is even more…sus (as if it was simply an accessory in her counterculture outfit). FYI, I’m a lesbian and I’m not a fan of people saying that they have had lesbian periods or phases (or people assuming that my own sexuality is a phase and that i will inevitably ‘revert’ to heterosexuality). And given that Evaristo did initially speak of sexuality as a spectrum, well, it makes it even all the more disappointing that she would go on at length to talk about her queerness as an ‘era’. Still, even when discussing her sexuality Evaristo incorporates other issues & factors into the conversation (class, gender, race, politics, age) so that even this section (in spite of its somewhat dated view of sexuality) has an element of intersectionality.
In ‘drama, community, performance, politics’ writes about theatre. While her love for theatre is apparent she’s once again able to be critical, in this case, she highlights how racist and sexist this particular sphere of the art was and still is (from the roles made available to poc to the few opportunities that woc have in comparison to their white, and often male, peers). Evaristo goes on to discuss performativity and rejection. In the fifth chapter, ‘poetry, fiction, verse fiction, fusion fiction’, Evaristo continues to consider her ever-evolving relationship with her creativity, this time focusing on her writing. She gives us a glimpse into the early stages of her writing and provides us with some insight into her creative process. The way Evaristo talks about her work made me want to read it, a great sign I believe. While she now and again expresses some criticism towards her earlier ideas and stories, you can tell how proud she is of what these have achieved. While her experimental style is not something I usually would go for, the way she discusses her ‘fusion’ style is certainly inspiring and interesting. In ‘influences, sources, language, education’ Evaristo talks about the books and authors that influenced her as a writer. She speaks about the importance of representation, of finding one’s voice, and of resilience (in face of rejection etc.). In the final chapter, ‘the self, ambition, transformation, activism’ Evaristo discusses politics, the publishing industry and the academic world (both of which still are very white) and the various prizes and schemes she created or had a hand in creating that seek to elevate Black and Asian writers. There was one paragraph here that was a bit jarring as it starts with “The impact of Geroge Floyd’s murder in May 2020” and ends with “Many plans are afoot to open up. These are exciting times”.
We then have a concussion in which Evaristo gives us a quick recap of what we’ve so far read and briefly writes of the impact of having won the Booker Prize.
All in all, this was a solid piece of nonfiction. My favourite sections were the first one, which focuses on her childhood and family, and the second one. While I did appreciate the other chapters they at times had a textbook-like quality. I also got tired of frequent ‘back in those days’ refrain (we get it, “there was no internet” back then) and at times she explained things that didn’t really necessitate an explanation (again, just because some of your readers are younger than you does not mean that they are ignorant of what came before them). But apart from her occasionally patronising asides, I did find her voice equal parts compelling and incisive. Her wry wit added a layer of enjoyment to my reading experience. This is a work I would certainly recommend to my fellow book lovers, especially those who loved Evaristo’s fiction. I liked Manifesto so much that I have decided to give her Girl, Woman, Other another go (fingers crossed).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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