A Hybrid Memoir
Rajiv Mohabir’s poetic memoir Antiman traces colonialism’s ongoing legacy within the hybrid identities of he and his family.
A descendant of indenture, Mohabir’s family moved from India to Guyana to work as coolies in the sugar plantations, before dispersing across the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. Along the way, Guyanese Bhojpuri was jettisoned for English, and Hinduism for Christianity, until Mohabir’s interest in his Guyanese grandmother’s songs and stories became both a scholarly undertaking and personal quest.
Determined to restore what had been lost, Mohabir found himself falling through telling gaps in the conventional outlines of both Western and Indian cultural values. Not a “real” Indian because of his family’s century in Guyana, nor a “real” American because of his family’s skin color and immigration to the West, Mohabir was left to puzzle out issues of identity and authenticity without a map.
Among the many complications of colonialism’s personal legacy is Mohabir’s family’s response to his sexuality and attraction to other men. The family’s language of shame is used to shame him, too: “antiman,” a Caribbean Creole slur, is what’s leveled against him. Mohabir uses this juncture to investigate multiplicity and fusion, showing how both he and other family members demonstrate resilience through adaptation and integration, even when their respective strategies for survival put them at odds.
A young Mohabir, studying at a summer program, realizes, “No one knew me here and I could be something new entirely—I could reforge wholeness from the brokenness I believed defined me.” A nuanced account that’s sensitively told, the memoir Antiman uses duality on multiple levels to shape its central questions and shift the ways that a story about Indian immigrant identity, history, and legacy is heard and understood.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (June 18, 2021)
A depressed journalist finds himself on a strange journey in Mohamed Kheir’s haunting novel Slipping.
Seif’s heart has not been in his job of late, so he is surprised to receive an important yet mysterious assignment: he must accompany Bahr, a strange man who spent years abroad and has returned to Egypt in search of something. What it is, and why he chose Seif to help him, Bahr will not say. All Seif can do is follow along and hope he will find the answers he seeks.
Seif and Bahr have both suffered devastating losses. Their travels bring to mind memories of the women they’ve loved and lost, and of how their lives have not gone according to plan. In between these segments lie seemingly unconnected, even inexplicable stories: a mother receives visions from her dead husband, a man awakes far from home with no memory of the past three days, and an inspector happily rents a room in a building that the tenants decry as unlivable. Each lyrical vignette conceals as much as it reveals. Then, one by one, the threads are woven together into a tapestry of grief and indifference.
Kheir’s masterful storytelling not only encourages, but almost necessitates, rereading. Seif’s journey takes him around Egypt, but his sorrows are not so easy to leave behind. He keeps his innermost thoughts to himself, hiding his weaknesses. And yet, even if Seif were to share his troubles, those around him prove just as vulnerable as he. The closer he gets to the truth of things, the more it becomes apparent that there is no truth, and that there is no one to prevent him from slipping further into unreality.
Slipping is a novel about the fragility in all things: society, love, even reality.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (April 27, 2021)
Doubting Thomas is a harrowing novel in which Thomas, a gay teacher, is falsely accused of inappropriate touching.
Thomas is a fourth grade teacher at a prestigious private school. He is dedicated and well liked, and his teaching methods are innovative. But he’s also recovering after his ex-lover, Manny, left when his work visa ran out.
After a fundraiser, a boy alleges that Thomas touched his pants in class. As liberal and as LGBTQ+ friendly as the school is, it renders Thomas a victim of the community he once loved. He loses his job and his best friend; he is forced to defend himself as he tries to rebuild his life. He struggles to determine who he is amid his losses, and he makes mistakes in the process of rediscovery.
Thomas is also faced with one brother’s cancer diagnosis and other family complications. His brothers, Jake and James, are very different: James is an accomplished New York doctor; Jake is a recovering addict with a young son. Though their family is close, Thomas rebels against the old, acquiescent version of himself as he works through his anger about what’s happened to him.
The book jumps time; its chapters cover a three-year period, but focus most on the period after Thomas is accused. Glimpses into his past add context to the story line, while Matthew Clark Davison’s clear prose highlights Thomas’s external challenges and internal struggles. After his troubling experiences, redemption comes only when Thomas is able to acknowledge and honor his own truths.
In the riveting novel Doubting Thomas, an ex-teacher learns about the dangers of masking who you are to appease others.
MONICA CARTER (April 27, 2021)
While being held for ransom, two Nigerian women discover a life-changing connection in Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s novel The Son of the House.
Nwabulu and Julie have an unlikely friendship. Julie manipulated her way into wealthy widowhood, while Nwabulu endured unspeakable hardship before finding success as a fashion designer. And yet, something more than friendly feelings binds these two women. Their secrets may have remained with them forever if they were not kidnapped and held captive together—and now those secrets threaten to rip them apart at the moment when they need each other most.
Despite their differences, Nwabulu and Julie have endured more than their share of hardship. For Nwabulu, having a son brought ruin and tragedy; for Julie, not having a son was just as disastrous. In their experience, the wants of men always supersede the needs of women, making for an intertwined narrative that is at times infuriating and always affecting.
As they await their fate in a small, dark room, each woman tells her story. Nwabulu relates a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her stepmother and employers, followed by a cathartic and well-earned contentment. Julie, though not always proud of the measures she took, is not ashamed, either. Their heartbreak and their resilience ignites every page. Metaphors add a poetic quality to the smooth, immersive prose.
As the story progresses, it is only a matter of time before the women’s secrets are revealed. The story flits around the issue, brushing against it but delaying the ultimate confrontation. Tension mounts with the knowledge that, when the secret finally comes to light, it will add a devastating new dimension to Nwabulu and Julie’s experiences.
The Son of the House is a compelling novel about two women caught in a constricting web of tradition, class, gender, and motherhood.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (April 27, 2021)
In Philline Harms’s young adult novel Never Kiss Your Roommate, two new students at an atypical school find out that, when the paths of the desperate and the avoidant collide, the stakes are perilous.
Perched above the town of Gloomswick, Seven Hills is a modern international boarding school that’s “a little less Hogwarts and a lot more Dracula.” While some of its students are driven to succeed at all costs, others are desperate to avoid the past—and no student is outside the purview of the Chitter Chatter, the school’s anonymous gossip blog.
Seven Hills’ students aren’t a monolith of heteronormative, upper class whiteness. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Different cultural backgrounds, various degrees of passing, and family structures all influence the students’ experiences of big tent identity categories like race and gender. Throughout, the book captures the messy ways that identity and experience fuse with hormones and high emotions. As a result, each character is complex and deep, whether they’re displaying great insights or making tremendous mistakes.
Though the book includes pop cultural, gothic noir, and romance elements, the interpersonal, contemporary issues that its focal students, Evelyn and Seth, navigate are quintessentially young adult ones. As they come out to each other, make friends, reflect on family, and fall in love, they stutter-step their way toward vulnerability, self-acceptance, and trust. Even in the midst of fizzy romances, they validate each others’ experiences and model consent––not just about how to be queer, but in the difficulty and necessity of unlearning the shame around it.
For all the queer people who fell in love with, and felt betrayed by, books about magical boarding schools, Never Kiss Your Roommate is the book they’ve always deserved. Here, the real magic is that queer love is very, very real.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (April 27, 2021)