Elinam Agbo holds an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program. Born in Ghana, she grew up in the U.S. Midwest.

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The Enduring Poison of Whiteness in ‘The Vanishing Half’

by Elinam Agbo 06-25-2020
A review of Brit Bennett's newest novel.

Riverhead Books

IN HER STUNNING second novel, Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, once again examines race and kinship. This time, she interrogates the color line through the Vignes twins—their coming of age and its impact on the subsequent generation. Born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, La., the twins dream of escaping their stifling community. At 16, they run away together. In New Orleans, a desperate choice severs their bond: Stella passes as white to get a job, then leaves her sister Desiree in order to marry a white man.

Years later, when Desiree flees an abusive marriage and returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude, the town is shocked by the child’s color: “black as tar,” “blueblack.” Having inherited her father’s complexion, Jude looks nothing like her mother. From its opening pages, The Vanishing Half grounds us in this “strange” town that, “like any other, was more idea than place.” The idea: a community for those “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” An idea born of a freed slave, the twins’ ancestor, as he “stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him.”

The Hypocrisy of Colonialism

by Elinam Agbo 12-17-2019
A review of "Out of Darkness, Shining Light," by Petina Gappah.

Scribner

IN HER LATEST novel, Petina Gappah reimagines the death of Scottish missionary and doctor David Livingstone, focusing on his African servants, the names history forgot. They are Christians, Muslims, healers, porters, women, and children: a family of strangers who band together to carry Livingstone’s body, marching more than 1,500 miles in 285 days, so his remains may be claimed in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, and returned to England.

Every name on this trip holds stories that could occupy a novel of their own. To encompass them, Gappah employs two distinct narrators: Halima and Jacob Wainwright.

Halima, the doctor’s cook, is known for her sharp tongue, which ridicules the caprice of men and repeatedly tells of her youth as a sultan’s slave. In the early days of the journey with Livingstone’s body, Halima mourns the doctor, whom she calls “Bwana (Master) Daudi,” like a paternal figure. Though the men on the journey take credit, she is the one who proposes a way to preserve the doctor’s corpse for the long road ahead.

But Halima’s love for the bwana does not prevent her from noting his contradictions. She wonders why he would leave his family to search for the source of the Nile, argues with his colonial perception of a children’s game, and questions how a man who condemns the slave trade would have one of their company whipped.

A Tale of Fevered Capitalism

by Elinam Agbo 08-05-2019
Capturing the complexities of consumerist culture in Ling Ma's novel, 'Severance.'

Ling Ma is author of the novel Severance. Photo by Anjali Pinto

“AFTER THE END came the Beginning.” This is how we enter the world of Ling Ma’s debut novel Severance: in the liminal space between end and possibility. In a narrative that alternates between aftermath and memory, we find a stark reflection of our present.

Protaganist Candace Chen works for a book production company, and her specialty is the acquisition of Bibles. Tedious office work. She has lost her parents, recently left a relationship, and lives alone in Manhattan when news of a spreading illness—Shen Fever—erupts. The fever begins in China, in a region that produces the Gemstone Bible, one of Candace’s specialty Bibles. Before and during this outbreak, work, for Candace, is at once sustenance and distraction.

Who can live outside capitalism? Jonathan, Candace’s ex, certainly tries. But that is not the life Candace wants—or, rather, that is not the life her immigrant parents raised her to want.

Familiar and Painful Realities

by Elinam Agbo 01-24-2019
A review of ‘She Would Be King,’ by Wayétu Moore.

“FENGBE, KEH KAMBA BEH. Fengbe, kemu beh. We have nothing but we have God. We have nothing but we have each other.”

Like the voice of the wind, this song pervades the vivid landscape of Wayétu Moore’s debut novel, in which the Liberian-born writer explores the early days of Liberia, in the 1840s, through three characters: Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman Aragon.

In She Would Be King, these three impossible lives (and a country) emerge out of slavery, violence, and exile. Death eludes and “mocks” Gbessa, of the Vai people, who constantly suffers the pain of dying without its relief. Born on a cursed day, Gbessa grows up under house arrest until she is exiled. Alone in the forest, torn from her family and people, she sings, “Fengbe keh kamba beh. Femgbe, kemu beh.” The “we” of this song haunts the reality of Gbessa’s situation, and to offer a glimpse of the big picture, Moore writes: “The words ascended, joining the traveling wind, and sometimes it was as though someone were singing with her.”

And someone was. Across time, language, and distance. Ol’ Ma Famatta sits in the moon, and the slave once known as Charlotte whispers comfort in the wind as if to say loneliness is not forever, as if to promise Gbessa that she is not alone.