Nigerian British author, Bolu Babalola’s book is a symphony orchestrated in shades of love and romance. It’s an anthology of thirteen short stories, ten retellings of myths from around the world, and three original stories. These retellings range from Ghana to Greece to Egypt to Lesotho. She has reimagined certain Yoruba and Chinese mythical stories and made it her own. The original mythical stories were essentially told from the male perspective and had tinges of patriarchy and misogyny. However, the genius that Bolu is, has flipped that very narrative, that very story and given the agency and power to the female characters. These stories are now intersectional, rooted in feminism and coloured ever so beautifully with the myriad hues of love and romance; which in reality, if you observe, love is a spectrum and there can never be one rigid definition of it.
Out of all these stories, a few stood out for me. The story of Scheherazade may seem like a movie but the emotions running through it are so pure, almost scared. One can’t help but get misty eyed at the end of it. The banter between the lovers is so real, so convivial. The tale of Attem is all about a woman’s agency and control over her desires and sexuality, and the mighty prowess that she exudes when she celebrates herself. Nefertiti’s story is about feminism that’s active, affirmative and audacious. It’s also about sexuality that’s languid, undefined yet completely your own. The story of Naleli is empowering in so many ways as she comes to terms with her medical condition, her self acceptance of the same and basking in its glory whilst navigating teenage angst and politics. The breakup scene in Tiara’s story is breathtakingly heartbreaking and intimate. In fact the distance that creeps up between them during the conversation is deafening but deftly portrayed. The way Bolu has crafted the nitty-gritty of a modern day relationship involving long distance, jealousy and insecurity is ingenious to say the least. Lastly, Orin’s tale is fun, flirty and humorous. The scene in the bar, I wish I were Orin!
One doesn’t need to know or be familiar with the myths. The author at no point makes the reader feel abandoned for not knowing them. She in fact takes us on this lyrical, poetic journey of love through her writing. This book is lush, the writing is stellar. Bolu has achieved the indomitable feat of marrying ancestry with modernism. In fact, this is one of those very few books where the language is dripping with love, the emotions tug at your heart and the characters make you laugh and cry with them. It’s not a cliché, if I will tell you that this book will want you to fall in love and if you are already in love with a wonderful partner/s, then you would want to hug them tightly as you relish the book.
First published in Greenlandic in 2014 as Homo Sapienne, the book was then translated by the author into Danish, a version that went on to receive Nordic acclaim, being nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. In 2018, the UK translation, Crimson (released as Last Night in Nuuk in the US in 2019) was published, converted from Danish by Anna Halager. Events unfold at a startling pace in this book, told through the lives and stories of its five protagonists. Fia, has no love for her longtime boyfriend, and is now repulsed by his touch and presence. She breaks up with him, only to fall head over heels for Sara. Inuk, Fia’s brother, is a closeted gay guy and is in a secret relationship with a prominent personality from Nuuk. Arnaq, Inuk’s best friend and who is temporarily hosting Fia at her apartment, has unresolved childhood traumas which has lead her to alcoholism and a self destructive “party” lifestyle. She is smitten with Ivik. Ivik, who’s story is the most heartwarming and queer affirming, is struggling with the label of being a lesbian and sexual intimacy with girlfriend Sara; later realises his gender dysphoria. Sara, who actually makes Ivik realise the above, is grappling with loss of the relationship, the birth of her niece, and her simmering attraction for Fia.
The book is an exploration of various nuances of gender and sexuality. The author, a queer woman and native Greenlander herself, asserts that queerness cannot be explained by a stringent and linear definition. Queer individuals define it for themselves. Through it’s myriad characters, Niviaq, makes space for an unbridled queer narrative that’s messy, flawed, imperfect, inconsistent and even inconsequential at times. Their internal dialogues and personal struggles, conveyed effortlessly by the author, is reminiscent of every queer person’s journey, irrespective of their country of origin. The book also gives us a glimpse into Greenland (a former Danish colony which became self governing in 2009 after a referendum), it’s culture and life in its capital city, Nuuk. I feel, the original in Greenlandic, was way ahead of its time, since queer discourses and identities have become and are becoming mainstream only since the last couple of years. Bravo, Niviaq!
This book, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is about trans feminine culture. The story navigates between it’s three principle characters; Reese, Amy/Ames and Katrina. Reese is a trans woman who is forever walking a fine line of societal perception of her trans-ness and her own reality of being a woman. She is desperately wanting to be a mother however her inherent resentment and angst makes her sabotage all the good choices and relationships. It makes her seek transphobic and misogynistic men for sexual gratification who leave her depleted and consumed.
Amy is a trans woman who later detransitions to Ames, due to complicated reasons. Amy and Reese were in a romantic relationship previously. However, Ames now is involved with Katrina who is a cis woman and has got her pregnant. This circumstance and each of the characters’ insecurities forces the three of them to consider the possibility of all three parenting the unborn child.
This book is a no nonsense yet vulnerable storytelling of trans lives. The characters are damaged and dysfunctional and the author doesn’t try to sugarcoat or patronise it. It’s a believably chaotic and nuanced exploration of modern relationships and parenting. The author deftly handles issues of gender, detransitioning, heteronormativity and queer culture with sensitivity and impartiality.
Through the book, Torrey Peters, brings to life an experience of human relations via trans and cis lived truths and bourgeois realities. Torrey who is a trans woman herself, presents intersectionality as a layered subtext throughout the book. This leaves us, as a reader, questioning a lot of our assumptions and prejudices.
This is a historical fiction on the American history of passing. The term ‘passing’ has been used primarily in the United States to describe a person of color or of multiracial ancestry who assimilated into the white majority to escape the legal and social conventions of racial segregation and discrimination ( source – Wikipedia). The story describes the lives of the light-skinned African American Vignes twins Stella and Desiree from the 1950s to the 1990s, wherein one twin lives life as a black woman in a small nondescript town of Mallard with her mother while the other passes as white and chooses to live an uppity life built on lies and deceit. The non linear narrative also weaves in the stories of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy, who live lives as a black and white woman respectively until their chance encounter, whereupon their lives, racial identities, beliefs collide and consume their existence. Jude and Desiree’s longing to unite the family is a juxtaposition to the denial and unwillingness of Stella and Kennedy. As their worlds clash and coincide, the women must now decide and redefine their racial histories within their current existence.
The brilliance of this book is indescribable. Brit Bennett holds a master class with this poignant and subtle rendition on race, gender, economic inequality and privilege. I particularly loved the character of Reese, a trans man going through gender affirming surgery. The relationship between Reese and Jude is tender and intimate as they discover love, respect and kindness for each other.
The book which has won Goodreads choice award and long listed for National book award is a compassionate telling of onerous issues. The writing has a subtext of poetic melancholy. The words of Brit Bennett are so powerful, they can echo your hidden fears and prejudices and at times subsume differences.
“Gratitude only emphasized the depth of your lack, so she tried to hide it.”
“You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.”