A Girl is a Body of Water

by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Promise me you will pass on the story of the first woman – in whatever form you wish.  It was given to me by women in captivity.  They lived an awful state of migration, my grandmothers.  Telling origin stories was their act of resistance.  I only added on a bit here and a bit there.  Stories are critical, Kirabo,”she added thoughtfully.  “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

Stories and women are deeply entwined themes in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl is a Body of Water.  Throughout the novel, we follow Kirabo, who is a twelve-year-old girl at the beginning, as she comes of age during Idi Amin’s dictatorial regime in Uganda during the 1970s.  Kirabo is the storyteller of her family, but she is also desperately searching for her mother and her mother’s story. 

Kirabo lives with her grandparents and a slew of aunts, uncles, and cousins on her grandfather’s farm.  She has no idea who her mother is and her father, whom she calls by his first name, Tom, only periodically comes around to visit her before heading back to the city. Her grandfather is wealthy and well-respected landowner in their village. Kirabo’s family surrounds her with love.  Yet she longs to learn about her mother, about whom no one will speak. This doesn’t help her control what she calls her “second self,” a mischievous spirit that lives within her and periodically takes over her body, causing her to fly and roam without really remembering what happened. 

Kirabo sneaks off to visit Nsuuta, a blind woman who lives at the edge of town, anxious to rid herself of this curse.  It must be done in secret, for there is some kind of unspoken history between Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother.  Kirabo doesn’t know what transpired between the two, but she knows her grandmother wouldn’t approve of Kirabo going to Nsuuta.  Though Kirabo hates to disappoint or betray her grandmother, she is desperate for answers. Nsuuta seems to be the only one willing to give them.

Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her second self is really a special gift, a remnant of what she calls the “original state” of women, before men shrank them and began to control them.  Kirabo has a gift, not a curse, and she should hold on to it and treasure it. But Kirabo has other plans for her future.

Throughout the story, we meet all sorts and experience a wide range of experiences with Kirabo as she learns to navigate what it means to be a woman.  She learns about mwenkanonkano, a Uganda-rooted feminism while trying to watch out for kweluma. Nsuuta explained kweluma as:

            “when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite.  It is a form of relief.  If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.”

Oppression is not limited to sex and gender.  At one point, the story jumps back in time to Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother’s childhood and young adulthood.  They navigated similar issues as Kirabo, but with British colonialism in the background, chipping away at Uganda’s “original self.”

Makumbi’s writing is beautiful.  There were so many passages where a particular paragraph or sentence jumped out at me.  I should also mention that there are a number of phrases and sentences written in Luganda without translation.  By and large, you can figure out what’s going on from context clues, or if you have a phone/computer handy, you can look it up.  I personally enjoy having non-English language bits reflecting the author’s background or the setting of the book, but I know that’s sometimes frustrating.  I also discovered, once I finished the book, that there’s a cast of characters at the end, which might have been helpful in a few places. 

A Girl is a Body of Water also gave some insights into Ugandan history, about which I know very little.  At one point, Kirabo’s aunt complains about Amin’s dictates on how women dress.  Later, Kirabo lives through the uprising that ousts the dictator.  Some of the parts about colonization makes you realize just how bizarre things are that we Westerners take for granted.  There’s a great segment about time and the ridiculousness of starting the day in the middle of the night, rather than at sunrise, or gauging months and seasons by an arbitrary calendar, rather than following the natural world.  At the same time, Kirabo and her boyfriend also get into debates about whether certain traditions regarding women’s sexuality should be extolled for increasing women’s pleasure or thrown out as a form of genital mutilation.  

Overall, I really enjoyed A Girl is a Body of Water.  The only thing that clanged for me was Kirabo’s dilemma with her second self. I thought it would take up the entire novel and I was kind of surprised by its resolution.  The overarching themes of the importance of story, of understanding others, and trying to understand ourselves, wrapped in beautiful language and touches of humor, however, make this an outstanding book. 

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Book Review: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Book cover for Noor by Nnedi Okorafor, standing next to a decorative fake tree

When I mentioned to a friend that I was starting a book review blog, her natural response was “What book are you going to review first?”

A sensible query, yet one that stopped me in my tracks.  What would I start with?  What would my choice say?  Should I start with a beloved classic, one I know backwards and forwards?  Something brand new, fresh in my brain?  With the potential to spiral into a debilitating amount of indecision that would prevent this blog from ever launching, I finally opted to just go with the first book that I read this year and then follow along chronologically as I read.  I’ll intersperse those with books I’ve previously read as well, but in the meantime, without further ado, the inaugural review of Worlds Between Words: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor. 

Okorafor is a fantastic Naijamerican (Nigerian-American) writer. She specializes in Africanfuturism, which she deftly explains in this post of hers.  (Go read it; I can wait.) I’ll review her Akata series in a later post (I just finished the third book last month); in addition to those, I’ve read Who Fears Death?, the Binti trilogy, and Remote Control.  I have even more books of hers on my TBR list, which I hope to get to soon. I don’t remember how I found her books, but I’m grateful I did, as she quickly became another favorite author of mine (I can’t have just one). I love her characters, her style of writing, her evocative descriptions of Nigeria. I haven’t read comics (yet), but she’s also written several, including some for Marvel on Black Panther and Shuri.

Noor is a fast-paced book, set in Nigeria in the not-too-distant future and opening with our main character, AO, contemplating the giant sandstorm named the Red Eye, the winds of which will quickly destroy any living thing that wanders in without some kind of shield.  Yet she is ready to enter.  We then flash back to precipitating events, which occurred a mere 48 hours earlier. 

At that point, AO was just a regular woman, attempting to adjust to life after her fiancé suddenly left her.  Well, most people probably wouldn’t describe AO as a “regular woman.” AO goes by her initials, which she prefers to have stand for “Autobionic Organism” rather than the name her parents gave her, Anwuli Okwudili. (Quick note: on the dust jack of the book and in most of the online summaries/reviews I’ve seen, it says AO stands for Artificial Organism. But on page 42, AO states twice that it stands for Autobionic Organism. I’m not sure where the discrepancy comes from, but I prefer “Autobionic.” There’s nothing artificial about AO!) Born with birth defects and then later surviving a freak car accident as a child, which cause even more damage, AO is a mix of flesh and cybernetic parts.  Her legs and feet can grow and grip any surface; her enhanced hands allow her to flourish as a mechanic.  This is to say nothing of the new organs that allowed her to live in the first place.  The headaches caused by the neural implants that help her control all her parts seems a small price to pay.  Yet despite the life saving and life enhancing nature of augments, much of the population regards such treatments – and those who would embrace them – as suspicious and possibly evil.  AO is confident in who she is, but also feels the disconnect from her family and her community. 

Shortly after her fiancé leaves her, she is quickly and brutally confronted with the knowledge that her neighbors have only been tolerating her.  She is soon forced to flee, but how do you escape a society that’s even more connected and watched than our own?  AO has a few tricks up her sleeve, but it’s only going to buy her limited time.  She soon runs into a Fulani herdsman who goes by his initials, DNA, who is likewise coping with the fallout of an unexpected confrontation. We’re soon back at the book’s opening, standing in front of the giant, ecological/climatological disaster that is the Red Eye.  Sheltering in the storm seems to be the only feasible option to avoid surveillance drones and the coming authorities, but only if they can survive in there. 

The story is incredibly fast-paced.  Okorafor isn’t the type of author to spend 15 pages describing a character’s meal.  Things are happening, things are moving, and we have to keep up.  Occasionally, I wish for a bit more detail, but usually I’m so swept up in the story that I’m grateful we aren’t dawdling.  It’s not a breezy overview though.  There are plenty of themes and questions and challenges to unpack throughout.  What does it mean to be a person, and more specifically for AO, a woman?  How do we deal with giant corporations that we know or suspect are creating significant issues in terms of labor, privacy, environmental damage, etc., but also have become integral parts of society? How do we balance technological progress and tradition?  Can nature and technology live in harmony?  How do society and individuals treat the disabled?  What does our ability to watch tragedy instantaneously from our phones, without context, do to us and our understanding of others, of justice?

Overall, I found this book fascinating, well-written, and thought-provoking.  Generally speaking, you don’t need to have read a particular book of Okorafor’s to understand the rest (with the obvious exception of one of her series; then yeah, you should probably start with the first book), so if you haven’t read anything else by her, you can jump right in with this one.  Then start reading more. 

Have you read Noor? Thoughts? Other books you enjoyed by Nnedi Okorafor? Start/join a conversation in the comments!

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