I wish the back of the book hadn’t given away the turning point of the novel. But it did, and so I will, too: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird follows our protagonist – Boy – as she flees the home of her ratcatcher father, marries a jeweller with a daughter, Snow (“white as snow”), has a baby – Bird – who is black. Her husband, Arturo, has been passing as white. That’s the first half of the story. The rest of the book is taken up with how this trifecta of Boy, Snow, Bird experiences the world, family and identity. Mixed up with the questions of what to do with her own sense of familial history and desire (what are the scales of secrets?).
I didn’t love the novel. I wasn’t taken with the quasi-mystery and fantastical tone. I didn’t particularly like Boy, and so found it hard to care about the complexities of being her. Maybe I’d have liked the book more narrated from Snow or Bird? Actually, to be honest, I stopped reading three quarters of the way through and so maybe there is a sudden shift in point of view that makes the whole thing that much better? I’ll never know (unless you tell me in the comments!), but I do know that it wasn’t the book for me. (Though if you take your reviews from the New York Times – it’s the book for many, many others).
I grew up in a small town. Think 800 people. Think rural Ontario. Think white. For a couple of elections, we were the only riding to vote for a Reform Party (the precursor to the Conservative party) candidate in all of Ontario. So imagine the Stop Racism! campaign in my elementary school: when all of my class, including the two black kids in the school (siblings), staged an assembly to declare to the rest of the school that we were stopping! racism! And I really did feel like we were – united – putting an end to the scourge. Whatever it was. Wherever it might be. Around the same time (or perhaps only in my memory) I read Underground to Canada, a YA novel about the underground railroad and Canada’s role in ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’ American slaves (imagine my dismay in reading The Book of Negroes to be reminded again that the sainted image of Canada as a safehaven might be a tiny bit (just a smidge) exaggerated). All this to say I grew up with an idea that not only was racism somewhere else (America), but race was somewhere else (I certainly didn’t have one).
As I’ve grown this taken-for-grantedness about my race – and race in general – has, of course, changed with the introduction of different experiences, people (and critical theory). And has changed (most perhaps) in the reading of fiction. For instance, in a fourth year seminar (with the great M O’C) I read Nella Larsen’s Passing which shares plot threads and thematic questions with Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day: what is the difference between race enacted and race inherited? race felt and race imposed? I hadn’t considered the set of questions in this way before reading Larsen, it hadn’t occurred to me that race might be something you could put on yourself, or have put on you by others. Or that being recognized as white – and being seamlessly comfortable being recognized this way – afforded all sorts of privileges, recognized and invisible.
All that said, I’m not sure I’d recommend Grady’s Emancipation Day. While there’s a central conflict – what will happen when Jack(son)’s new white wife discovers that his family is black? – and some interesting detours in discussions of race and music, I wasn’t, on the whole, all that invested in Jack and his journey (perhaps because Jack is an unlikeable character, or maybe because I’m an unsympathetic reader). Though maybe Emancipation Day is worth a read as historical fiction – set at the end of WWII in Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada), Windsor and Detroit – its imagining of post-war era gender politics and economies is rich, so too, its explicit engagement with the ways Canadian (Windsor) race relations differ and don’t from American (Detroit). Or maybe not. (Maybe instead you should read one of Lawrence Hill’s other amazing books, Any Known Blood, which asks – and tries to answer – many of these same questions in a (for me) more engaging or nuanced ways. Just saying.)