AiW Guest: Rashi Rohatgi.
We’ve been a fan of Akwaeke Emezi’s writing since the pre-launch of their debut, Freshwater, at Africa Writes 2018; after that luminous novel and its YA successor, Pet, Emezi is back with what is perhaps 2020’s most optimistic novel yet.
It’s true that this tale of second-generation found family centers on its protagonist’s death, but even this, which comes in the book’s opening arresting chapter, hints at what is to come. “They burned down the market the day Vivek Oji died,” the story begins, and so I read: a local kid, so beloved that their community may have burned down a market in its grief. This – spoiler alert – is not what happens. Instead, what has happened in this small Nigerian town is a mystery that consumes Oji’s mother throughout the book, a tragedy that forever changes her friends, and that for Oji is a journey of self-affirmation.
The story is told through the perspectives of an array of the townspeople, all tied together by their focus on relationships and identity, and all advancing the story of Oji’s death by adding in crucial details from peripheral perspectives. When chapters voiced from Oji’s own perspective, which is otherwordly, appear, they are achingly adolescent about their frustrations as a transgender person: “Every day it was difficult, walking around knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them” (38). All anyone can see is that there is something wrong with the half-Indian college kid, something that everyone who loves Oji fears will lead, in this small town, to mistreatment and death: and so it is in order to protect Oji that their father chides, their aunt suggests exorcism, their cousin pushes, and their mother estranges herself in a cape of worry.
For those of us used to doing the work of identifying with a non-BIWOC protagonist, it can be blindingly beautiful to feel represented, but it also means that we know what great writing can do, how it can allow us to feel the insides of another experience, how it can give us space to be near the story of someone coming into themselves. Throughout the novel, Oji’s mother Kavita’s experience maps onto the reader’s, trying to understand her child’s story while knowing it is already complete. Kavita’s own backstory as an Indian immigrant is wonderfully vague and banal, how she has arrived at this place, with whom and how her own journey has been shaped; she’s here now, is her attitude, and she’s happily married, and though it was shattering to lose her mother-in-law just as her own child, Oji, was born, she’s not unsatisfied as a small-town mother. She befriends a group of other non-Nigerian wives-and-mothers, and they hold potlucks and trade advice and dream of sending their children to university abroad. Everything she has to offer the child she understands to be her son seems useless – he’ll never wear her wedding jewelry, he’ll never need her hard-won woman’s wisdom – but still she puts Oji at the center of her life, knowing that she will never be enough.
At least, she feels, Oji has always had their paternal cousin Osita, the rooted one, with his skin in the expected shade and his ambitions proportional to his parents’ wishes. We first learn about Kavita’s, and eventually Oji’s support system – the Nigerwives and their children – from Osita’s viewpoint:
“She had learned to cook Nigerian food from her friends – a group of women, foreign like her, who were married to Nigerian men and were aunties to each other’s children… they weren’t wealthy expats” (17).
Osita recognises that these are, rather, women who brought care and attention to their own needs even when these were so strictly – voluntarily – defined by wifedom and motherhood (17). He becomes intimately familiar with them, too, crushing on a Nigerwife’s daughter as a teen. When Oji begins to have fits, it is only Osita from whom they cannot be hidden. When Oji has a fit while peeping on Osita and his crush having sex, humiliating everyone involved, Osita stops spending all his extra time with his cousin and the tiny liminal community in which his cousin’s life is lived.
By giving equal weight to Kavita’s and to Osita’s chapters, and particularly in moments in which the two think about each other’s lives, Emezi brings us scenes at once familiar and new. When Osita needs to recover after brutal violence enacted against him, Emezi deftly shows us Osita indignant, aghast that a foreigner would dare harm him, as he rests his head on his foreign auntie’s shoulder and weeps. And through Osita’s eyes, the culturally specific sorrows that color Kavita’s response to her child’s growing individuality are at once neither over-stated nor ignored; for example, Emezi deftly gives us this scene about Oji’s hair, a huge concern throughout the novel:
“Amma!” Vivek’s voice rang out from my room, and Aunty Kavita’s head whipped up. Even De Chika looked mildly surprised to hear his son’s voice.
“Amma!” Vivek called again.
“Yes, beta?” she replied, already getting up from the table, her voice shaking a little. “What is it?”
“Can you come and help me with my hair?”
Aunty Kavita lit up at the request. “Of course, beta! I’m coming” (61).
For Osita, this scene makes sense only in the context of what she tells him next: “I always wanted a girl, you know. After Vivek. So I could do her hair” (62). “You know”, she says, in the manner of one who recognizes that her nephew doesn’t know, and doesn’t understand, the bittersweetness of this moment for her – and cares just enough, and just little enough, that she can be honest with him in small moments.
When they reunite, Osita finds his cousin friends again with the Nigerwives’ daughters returned from schooling out of town. To see these second-generation friendships depicted in all of their uncertainty and strength was so powerful for me, coming from a similar community – its contingencies make this type of friendship so difficult to depict in literature, and as with Osita and Kavita’s relationship, Emezi does a brilliant job of showing the ways in which shared experiences lead both to automatic intimacy, like that of cousins or siblings, and absolutely zero familial responsibility towards one another, which makes maintaining it so intentional and empowering. After Oji’s death, they are initially hesitant to tell Kavita about her child’s gender identity, fearing her small-mindedness. But as they leave this woman who has always been their auntie, she asks them what her child’s name was, their real name. She may have run out of time to see her child truly, but a found family is in front of her, and the two-fold nature of Oji’s response to her eventual coming to terms is rich and telling. In the final chapter, we read that, “my mother had changed the inscription on my grave” to further reflect, among other truths, their Igbo heritage and the Nigerian community that had never, despite her fears, turned its back (247). Ultimately Oji helps Kavita see that though small towns are well-suited to their erasure, there are no foregone conclusions.
This isn’t the story about a minority who fit so well into his small town that they burnt down a market in his honor, but nor is it the story of a lonely, misunderstood death. In Emezi’s well-fit puzzle pieces, we have a story of a dead young person who finds that at least sometimes, and despite everything, they can be happy.
Rashi Rohatgi is the author of the novel Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow and associate professor of World Literature at Nord University in northern Norway. www.rashenka.com | Twitter: @rashirohatgi.