Monday, December 19, 2022

Book Review: Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli

Someday, Maybe is a novel about grief. Eve loses her husband to suicide and struggles to overcome the depression and trauma of not only the loss of her beloved, but also the shock of his decision and the guilt she feels for not seeing the signs. He leaves no note, gives no warning, and creates a mess of family affairs and other loose ends. In addition, his mother pours out all her anger onto Eve, sinking to horrific, but believable, depths of verbal and legal cruelty at a time when Eve is least equipped to defend herself. 

As she grieves, we see flashbacks to Quentin and Eve's love and life together. As the novel progresses, those flashbacks become increasingly more honest. Eve begins to lose the gloss that distorted her view of Quentin, and begins to accept that he was not perfect, just as she isn't, but that both are still worth loving. One thing I like about the novel is that it centers an interracial marriage, with all of the nuances that brings, but the main conflict is not "them against the world." I appreciated the way it balanced the effort to normalize their union while still acknowledging the distinct issues it faces. At its core, the main conflict is grief, and the fact that the lovers are of different races is handled with honesty while still allowing Eve and Quentin to deal with the sorts of problems that most couples face. Even the animosity from Aspen, Quentin's mother, tinged as it might be with racism, is ultimately about control. I got the impression that while Aspen sees Eve as particularly unacceptable fas a daughter-in-law as a Black and Nigerian woman, nobody would have been acceptable. Her relationship with Quentin is one of those toxic relationships in which the mother tries to use her son as a surrogate partner after the death of his father, a dynamic also born out of unresolved grief. 

However, despite some of the critiques of the novel I've read, which I'll discuss later, the novel is not so heavy as to become torturous reading. Not only does the novel oscillate between the utter despair, shock, and grief that Eve is enduring and the mostly happy flashbacks of her life with her husband, but the tone of the novel itself has a dark, sardonic, self-deprecating humor that makes the sadness of it more palatable. One thing that Nwabineli does very well is keep the tone dialed mostly to dark humor, but then periodically remind us of the horror of what actually happened. When Eve is sorting out her feelings for her mother-in-law, balancing a merciful pity for the woman's grief against a justified indignation against her cruelty, she remarks, "She wasn't the one who slid in his blood." Every so often, Nwabineli throws a punch that lands flush, disrupting the dark humor with the pain of reality. And immediately after the punch lands, she can retreat into a rose-tinted flashback or another self-deprecating quip that resets the mood of the novel. 

In addition to the tone, there is a sense of hope produced by Nwabineli's choice of perspective and her strong sense of voice. By writing this novel in first person, Nwabineli is effectively reminding the reader of one of the oldest truths of fiction. If the main character tells the story, then she must survive in the end. In any first person narrative, no matter how many gunshots or breathless close calls, no matter how bleak or dangerous things get, the reader knows that the main character will live to tell the story. In Someday, Maybe, the person telling the story is the Eve who has survived, in whatever form that takes. The narrator is the Eve who no longer spends each day in bed, roused only by loving family members. The Eve telling the story no longer flinches at every hurdle or setback life throws at her. She has overcome, or at least is in the continuing process of overcoming, and this is probably the reason the novel takes the darkly humorous tone that it has. The Eve telling the story can afford to shake her head at the former Eve who easily falls apart at the slightest test of her resolve. In the future, she has the energy and strength to spare. She has survived the worst, and tells the story from the mountain top, or at least high on its face, even if the story itself takes place in the valley.

This brings me to some of the critiques I've read about Eve's grief process. In choosing the novel, I read some reviews, and found several that put me off the book a little, even though I still wanted to read it. Several of the reviews I found took issue with Eve "wallowing" in her grief. They found her either unlikable or unbelievable because she pushes away the people who try to help her and engages in behaviors that are either unhelpful or downright self-destructive to her healing process. I hate to give these reviews oxygen by linking to them, but I do want to respond to their criticism, so I'm posting screenshots here.

Grief is a very personal experience and I understand that is a main part of this story, but I could not spend one more minute watching Eve wallowing and isolating herself from everyone. If that was my only complaint I probably could have kept reading, but there were just a few too many stereotypical clich├ęs for me.

Listened to the audiobook. After listening to two hours of teeth gnashing, wallowing and caterwauling, I gave up. The heroine is grief stricken, we got that, but enough is enough. I wish I could have gotten past that, because the author has a beautiful writing style. Her descriptions are rich and image provoking. I would like to read more of her work, preferably without the nonstop misery.

I really tried to give this book a fair shot, and while there were moments of humor and hope, the vast majority of it felt like a glutton for trauma over and over again.  The glaring issues with the mother-in-law aside, and as much as I hate to agree with Aspen, I also cannot see how any adult would be able to succumb to grief to this extent. Although I think I would have felt the exact emotions that Eve was describing, I cannot think of any adult who would be able to spend almost nine months in bed with little to no repercussions. It just didn’t feel realistic to me at all. The tireless efforts of her family, friends, and acquaintances were inspiring, but I feel like I identified with the older sister Glo most of all. How do we care about Eve when she doesn’t even care about herself? There were so many different steps that could have been taken that, as a reader, I felt resentful of Eve at best and apathetic toward her in the end.

2.5 stars. I am still gathering my thoughts on this… Overall, I found Someday, Maybe to be very, very repetitive. I felt like this novel remained immersed in grief and lacked expansion in terms of healing/coping with loss.

As a rebuttal, first I'd like to congratulate anyone who's lived the type of charmed life that has so far avoided the kind of loss that causes a person to grieve this way. Even so, to have the attitude that "enough is enough" seems pretty callous.

Secondly, dear reader, can I just mention in response to the above reviews that the entire novel takes place in about eight months? Eight months. Ocho meses. Huit. I mention this because when I first read these reviews, I would have liked to know that bit of information. From the time Eve discovers the dead, bloody body of her husband to the end of the novel is a mere eight moons, and yet for some readers, that should be plenty of time to "get past that." For those of us burdened with human hearts and psyches, it can take years to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, especially a spouse, and especially with the suddenness and unanswered questions of an unforeseen suicide. Before I read the novel, reviews like this made me almost not read it, although I would have missed out on something beautiful. Now, after reading the novel, they make me a little angry.

People grieve, often for a long time, and this grief can be a burden or even a cause for repulsion to others, to those who are not grieving. Some time ago, I lost a child. I don't talk about it with anyone except my wife, and that probably less than I should. He was basically stillborn after a complicated pregnancy. I became depressed and angry for at least a couple of years, and I was probably difficult to be around. Today, I'm more or less healed, in the sense that I don't eat everything that isn't nailed down and lay around all the time. Still, I have about ten or fifteen minutes of intense sadness, every day, and I don't always know when it's going to hit. He'd be turning twenty-four soon if he'd survived. I don't think it's a fair critique to say that a woman should get over the loss of her husband to suicide in just eight months.

This doesn't mean that Someday, Maybe isn't a tough read sometimes, emotionally. Grief is tough, and this novel does a brilliant job of depicting the process - including the messiness and self-destructive behavior. As she works through her shock and depression, Eve really does become a burden to her family, who rally around her to the point of risking their own mental health. She pushes people away and fails to confront issues until they snowball into problems. Fortunately for her, she does have a family with strong bonds and strong faith to support her through her struggle. I don't know how anyone would survive a loss like hers without that support. I suppose some people don't.

In the end, Eve has to reckon with the fact that while she isn't responsible for Q's decision, that her husband both was and wasn't the man she believed him to be. She discovers that it's okay to love him for all the things she knew and the things she didn't, and it's okay to move on. "Sadness is not a reason to stop living." 

I found Someday, Maybe not only engaging and beautiful, but very helpful and encouraging. Nwabineli has created something with style and heart, and I look forward to reading whatever she does next.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Multiracial or Transcultural? Part 1

I've been reading Onyi Nwabileni's debut novel Someday, Maybe and it's really great. I'll do a review of it as soon as I finish it. One thing that I love about it is that it centers an interracial couple in a way that portrays some of the unique issues and advantages these unions face, but without making it the central theme of the novel. Nwabileni depicts in-law issues and cultural learning curves, but doesn't elevate those problems to a sob story about the couple overcoming racism or prejudice. On the other hand, sobbing does play a major role in the story, in the context of grief, but more on that later.

I felt a similar reaction to the central couple in the new Disney movie Strange World, which is ... not great ... for a lot of reasons. Not terrible, just underwhelming. One redeeming aspect of it is, again, the interracial couple at the core of the film, but in this case, the movie makes no reference at all to any hardships or issues stemming from their cultural and ethnic differences. In fact, aside from their complexion, I can't see any cultural differences at all, or any culture, really, which is one of the failures of the movie. While it's refreshing to see a multiracial family on screen that's allowed to just exist, experience has made me aware that while pockets of life are like that, interracial couples have their own problems.

In a Twitter discussion about interracial couples, Kyle J. Howard posted a definition that captures one of the main issues facing us:

Tweet from Kyle J. Howard: nterracial marriages are marriages that exist between two people who come from a different ethnic, racial, and/or cultural background. Interracial marriage doesn’t necessitate a blending or valuing of differences or distinctions, it simply acknowledges they exist.

That's it. That's an interracial marriage. And they can be healthy or toxic, loving or hateful, progressive or extremely racist. I remember during Trump's 2015 campaign and then presidency, one of the defenses his supporters would use against charges of racism against him were that "he'd be the only racist who ever dated a Black woman." As a rebuttal, consider the following:

1) No, he's not. Not even close.

2) That dynamic is a lot more common than people think.

3) There are various reasons why a racist white person would be sexually attracted to a Black person, all of them problematic and pretty icky.

Not being racist, I'd have a hard time listing all the reasons for a relationship like this to exist. I could give my own first hand experience of getting into a relationship only to find out that the person is not who I thought they were. In addition, being white has given me access to certain conversations, and I have learned that many people who don't think of themselves as racist love to embrace their friends or loved ones of color as "the good ones," because it covers and justifies their animosity towards all the rest, or "the bad ones." Either way, just like any romantic relationship has a tentative period of exploring if the partner is really who they present to be, the interracial couple, specifically the partner of color, has the added burden of figuring out if their romantic prospect really sees their personhood, rather than viewing them as a fetish, a mark, or one of "the good ones."

And the trust curve is just one of the issues that interracial couples face. Even when the trust is granted and the issue settled, it can flare up again whenever racial unrest hits the community. Add to that the in-law issues, the looks from strangers in certain places, the additional factors in choosing a neighborhood to live in. My middle daughter is nearing those preteen years when she's becoming increasing interested in hair and fashion. She's become adamant about straightening her hair. I don't mind it as a style, but I have to be concerned that it's not coming from a place of self-hate. As it is, people doubt that she's her mother's daughter because of the girl's light complexion and blue eyes, even though she's her mom's clone in every feature except color. If she straightens her coily hair, lighter than her mother's in color, but similar in texture, is she separating herself from her mother's culture and genetics? Does she think her mom's hair is less attractive?

My older daughter has been through all that. Today, she is very light-skinned with barely wavy, dark hair, but chooses to think of herself as a type of Black person, even though she embraces both sides of the family. After a tragic event in the community that hit us both, she made the mistake of reading the comments in the news report and sent me the following text:

Text from daughter to dad. Daughter says that the comments in the news story make her mad, and she knows they're white people. She says she's sorry, but white people make her mad sometimes. Dad responds that he's Jewish.

My mother is Jewish, but I think of myself as culturally white, probably because my siblings and I didn't know Mom was Jewish until I was a preteen (a wild story for another post). So in our multiracial home, my mixed daughter who thinks of herself as primarily Black has space in her sense of self to be angry with "a lot of white ppl," and her father, who thinks of himself as primarily white tries to channel her anger with my worn out "dad joke" about being Jewish only when racism enters the conversation. It's a tapestry we're weaving here. It's not always pretty, and it's got holes in places, but we've worked hard on it, and we love it, flaws and all.

Later in his thread, Howard gives another way of looking at these kinds of marriages, the tapestries woven from cultural and ethnic threads from both partners. He calls this type of marriage transcultural:
Tweet from Kyle J. Howard: Transcultural marriage is when to people of different cultures come together & build a family that represents both of them. It’s a marriage where both spouses cultural backgrounds are honored & celebrated. To put it simply, it’s an actual marriage, the other dynamic is not.
This definition hits me right in the lived experience. I've heard of interracial marriages being colonizer marriages or missionary marriages, and it's a rather ugly reality. When one partner dominates the culture and traditions of the home, or blasts any ways of thinking or being that they don't recognize and respect from their own background and upbringing, what results is not marriage, but a form of toxicity and abuse that can warp and destroy the home, the other partner, and any children as well. And at the end of the day, as Howard says, transcultural marriage is an actual marriage, where both partners are celebrated in what makes them both similar and different. 

And in reality, while not every marriage has the same set of problems that an interracial marriage has, every successful marriage is a transcultural marriage in some way. Like Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I've seen marriages between two white partners where one's traditions and heritage were constantly belittled, where the in-laws were repeatedly ostracized and disrespected, where one partner's impact on the children was always considered suspect. The "culture" the mistreated partner brought into the marriage was never good enough, and it seemed to give the other partner a sick pleasure to think of their own family history and culture as superior. Wicked people thrive off of this false sense of superiority, and it may be the driving difference between what Howard calls a merely "interracial" marriage and a truly "transcultural" one. Heck, it may be the reason racist people seek out such partners in the first place.

In the next few weeks, I'd like to follow this up with some thoughts about how one would know if one were in a toxic interracial marriage or a transcultural one. I'm going to do some more thinking and reading on the subject, especially on the idea of whether an interracial marriage that is infected with superiority and condescension can ever really become transcultural. I'd like to think it can, but I don't want to be so naive as to ignore the struggle and change that would inevitably have to take place for that to happen. It reminds me of the ending of Ibsen's A Doll's House, when Nora says that in order for her relationship with Torvald to become anything but two strangers, the "greatest miracle would have to take place." She says she doesn't believe in miracles any longer, but I do. Still, I would be hard-pressed at the moment to say how that would happen in a situation like this, but I'll hold out hope.