Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

Much of this novel is about finding an identity, how people perceive you and the lies you tell yourself so you don’t make it obvious that you’re aware of the absurdities. Society inflicts biases on young lives, altering their understanding of how they’re suppose to act and feel. The book opens with Boy, the daughter of a rat-catcher, who studies her reflection, lingering over her looks as they appear on the surface of a mirror. The later characters we find meet, also study themselves in front of a mirror. In Bird’s case she doesn’t see a reflection, as if subconsciously realizing that her family members and friends don’t see her for who she, but instead as something all together separate.

Bird’s family, from her father’s side have been hiding a secret that she revealed simply by being born. The secret was easily hidden before, since her grandparents were of a lighter complexion and had their names changed, moved to a new town, allowing them to pass as white. The events in the novel take place between the 1950s and 1970s. Though the Civil Right Act of 1964  improved the lives for black citizens, there was still much resistance, especially in small towns, so Bird’s family decided to pass for white.

There’s an interweaving of race, personal identity, and gender present in Oyeyemi’s novel that allows for multiple narrators. A young Boy narrates the first half of the story, as she escapes her childhood home and her abusive father, to go to Flax Hill, New York, and learn what kind of woman she wants to be. In the second half of the book, we meet a different narrator—Boy’s teenage daughter, Bird who is slowly beginning to understand how she’s viewed by society and the expectations that are placed on her, as opposed to her stepsister, Snow, who is white.

“Snow in winter, you in spring, snow in summer, you in fall,” her father Arturo, tells Bird.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

Bird aspires to be a journalist one day; she’s unafraid to get her feelings hurt in order to find a good story. She’s willing to listen even when she knows she shouldn’t, but does so for a chance to understand herself and her “enemies.” She wants to challenge traditional ideas by being herself and not letting her family or friends define her before she’s had a chance to figure out all the pieces. She sometimes looks to family for guidance, but is often devoid of the attention she deserves.

Oyeyemi goes for a loose, casual style of writing, which doesn’t appear rigid, and it let’s the reader feel more sympathetic towards the characters and the events in their life, but it also allows for an explanation of traumatic scenes in simple long sentences that don’t carry much decorative weight leaving the reader feeling icy cold. She expresses moments that would otherwise be dramatic or wretched in a levelheaded way, leaving you to decide whether it’s something truly awful or just a passing moment.

Here’s a line that describes Bird’s room where she loved spending nights, alone studying the corners of her mind. “In the evening, when the street lamp just outside Bird’s window switches on, the gray cobwebs quiver and glow around the blue moons. It’s the kind of view that Bird doesn’t mind risking a spider bite for.”

Boy’s observation of her father is casual, almost sarcastic to the level of cruelty he displays. “So that’s papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind or he’ll thump the back of you head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around the floor, stunned.”

The book sometimes leaves out events and skips to subsequent scenes, so we are left to assume many things, especially because the writing can seem vague and aloof. What was missing frequently was a certainty about the character’s motives and internal conflicts. Much is left to the reader to decide, making it easy to misunderstand a character and dismiss the weight of their storyline. Also, the change in narrator felt abrupt towards the end, when the voice of Boy returned one last time.

The novel opened with Boy examining herself in front of a mirror and closed with a moment of revelation, and the search for another family secret, hidden to Boy. These bookends signify a need for personal discovery even if it leads down a dark, nebulous path, because half the fun is finding the answer.

Adiche’s tale of a Nigerian Blogger in America

Race, love, and identity.

Richelle Gribble - Web of life
Richelle Gribble – Web of life

There are no more words left from Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Novel, Americanah (2013). No more chapters to read over languorous afternoons as palm trees sway under the rain or as the sun falls devilishly outside while I hide indoors.

Americanah is the kind of novel you read incrementally, so as to delay the inevitable end. But the subtle suspense of what’s to become of Ifemelu in America or what will happen to her abandoned love in Nigeria makes it impossible to ignore.

Adiche’s style and tone of writing is inviting and fresh, giving the novel space and depth to explore. The author of Half of a Yellow Sun, has an honest way of describing her characters, adding lucid dialogue that paints a clear portrait of who they are. There’s a sense of pride hovering above Ifemelu, as she listens to conversations from her circle of friends, not talking much, but trying to internalize more so than babble.

After Ifemelu’s studies are compromised by a government protest in Nigeria, she moves to the U.S. to find work and go back to school. She lives with her aunt and son then on her own, finding odd jobs and help from an American employer and Curt, a wealthy boyfriend who helps her acquire a green card.

Ifemelu has always been observant and curious; even as a young girl she was actively questioning the motives of her peers, sometimes being silent, other times bluntly asking questions that made people sit in their thoughts, and understand themselves a little bit more. Living in the U.S., she notices the racial and cultural divides that don’t exist in Nigeria. These reflections she later shares in her blog:

Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks by a Non-American Black, which adds to the complexity of the novel’s themes: race, love, and identify.

She writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the decision to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in you country?”Immigrants face many contradictions when assimilating into an American culture that actively defines them. Ifemulu’s wants to explore how Africans identify themselves among black Americans in a country divided by race.

Though Curt provides her with many comforts, she doesn’t “believe herself” when she’s with him. Ifemulu goes on to sabotage the relationship, perhaps accidently, but as a way to keep her intellectual integrity that Curt, as a white-American male isn’t always able to understand. Seeing that Curt’s mom is unhappy and the looks she receives from white women, allow Ifemelu to witness the many ways racism touches everyday life.

Image: Cynthia Via
Image: Cynthia Via

On a personal level, I identify with the feeling of alienation as an immigrant, as an outsider, an observer more so than someone attached to the collective thought of a nation. Ifemelu brings a refreshing voice to depict American culture with its obsession for dividing people by political ideology, race and class. Her romantic relationships are vivid and remind me of my own, and how invested one can become when sharing your likeness with another person, eventually invading their space, adopting their habits or mannerisms.

Most of Americanah is set against the backdrop of a post 9/11 world, where cellphones are ubiquitous. Characters communicate through emails or by posting messages on blogs. In the course of the novel, we are treated to some emails between her and Obinze, a Nigerian man she loves but can never reunite with. Obinze also leaves his homeland for London, which is short-lived since he’s deported. When he returns to Nigeria he is forced to grow up and forget Ifemelu. Eventually he has to find the courage to claim what he wants and leave a life that betrays him profoundly. The novel delves into Obinze’s thoughts, and readers will undoubtedly feel closer to his character, than Ifemulu’s other romantic interests. A scene from the day Ifemelu and Obinze met:

The trust so sudden and yet so complete, and the intimacy, frightened her. They had known nothing of each other only hours ago, and yet, there had been a knowledge shared between them in those moments before they danced, and now she could think only of all the things she yet wanted to tell him, wanted to do with him.

As an adult, Ifemulu is confident and often times thinks highly of herself. After she returns to Lagos, Nigeria from studying in Princeton, she looks down at those working meaningless jobs. But she does acknowledges how judgmental she has become, criticizing everything about Nigeria like some of her friends who returned to mock what doesn’t meet their new American standards. She notices her faults and how unfair she has become with the Nigerian friends that never left.

In The Danger of a Single Narrative, a TED Talk video, Adiche mentioned the many ways storytellers are amplifying the African narrative. While the media may only concentrate on sensational narratives recounting tales of poverty, crime and war, there are also stories of progress, middle-class Africans, and young people with their own complexities. In the video, she asks readers to search for the stories that change the narrative. This bring to mind the question of who can define you? The community of your childhood, the one you’ve adopted or the cultural and racial divisions created by society? Ideally it should fall on the individual to discover who they are through a conscientious search for truth and genuine understanding.

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

The entire cast, beautifully pointing to the violinist.

Jumping into The Tempest on a summer night in Harlem.

Not having read The tempest, I had no recollection of what the play should look like. I’m familiar with William Shakespeare’s style from reading Othello and Macbeth mostly, but I can’t always slip into the language so readily. After a couple of scenes from The Tempest, my ears were slowly getting accustomed, to the back and forth, and juxtaposition of the words. I held on to the imagery, metaphors, and the contradictions of the dialogue on stage.

The Tempest explores betrayal and revenge; the toll it takes on the body and the mind of those trapped in the web of deceit. The idea of revenge is engraved in society. Humans are experts at plotting revenge even for the slightest betrayal. That doesn’t mean they should since it creates a vicious circle of hate and animosity. As a consequence of malicious acts surely a punishment will be dealt out by the affected party. Some societies go to extremes and use capital punishment, a practice derived from an archaic tradition, and not representative of the 21st century. The idea of an eye for eye goes back to the Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia dating back to 1754 BC.

Going back to The Tempest. It begins with the spirit Ariel perched up near the ceiling singing a sweet melody, luring us out to sea then turning to screams, as a cruel storms begins it descent. Cut to the next scene, a group of mariners including the King of Naples and his son are on a boat, shaking violently by the waves. Prospero has carefully orchestrated a plan to divert the ship to an island he’s lived in for 12 years. Once the mariners arrive on land, Prospero must make the decision of how to deal with these adversaries; whether to let them suffer or live.

Prospero is played by the stage vet, Ron Cephas Jones, and the cast is a wonderful display of young talented actors.

The stage was decorated by a gray mountainous rock with a bluish floor representing either sand or sea depending on the scene. Prospero and his daughter Miranda often walked side by side down from a high peak in an almost kingly display. Prospero carries an intimidating staff with some creature’s head on the top. He wears a magician’s hat and flamboyant, yet tattered clothes. Not without reason. Prospero was the rightful Duke of Milan until his sibling and the King of Naples conspired against him. Long ago in Naples, Prospero and Miranda were kidnapped and left to die in the sea. They eventually found this island and ruled over it with magic.

While this version is a serious interpretation of the play, there’s also a bit of loose acting and playful fun that fits our era. Dancing is abundant as a group of creatures with horns dance provocatively. One plays the violin and stands over a rock looking over the lost mariners.

Prospero decides to confront his enemies but ultimitely forgives them for their wrongful acts. He gives up his magic and releases Ariel from her duties, since for most of her life she was under his control. At the end he delivers a powerful epilogue asking to be forgiven for his actions mostly driven by hate and a need for revenge. He tells the audience, clapping will set him free. This was Shakespeare’s last play, and perhaps a way of saying goodbye to his own magical world.

Prospero seeks reprisal from the hardships he’s experienced, but he finds redemption from a compassionate audience, and also learns to forgive himself.

Central Park’s Delacorte Theater is not the only place to watch Shakespeare’s plays. The Tempest was presented by The Classical Theater of Harlem.  There are numerous establishment bringing his work to life including the Drilling CompanyShakespeare in the Parking Lot, and plenty of others. This makes it possible for Shakespeare to be available to everyone.