The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffery

Cover of The Mermaid of Black Conch against a backdrop of water.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of authors taking old myths or mythological creatures and putting a new spin on them.  The Mermaid of Black Conch is a great addition to that genre.  Instead of The Little Mermaid type tale about a mermaid who wants to become human, the mermaid of Black Conch used to be human and a curse transformed her into a mermaid. After living as a mermaid for centuries, she suddenly and violently finds herself returning to land. 

The story follows several characters, but primarily we have David, a young man born and raised in Trinidad who spends most of his days out fishing.  He brings his guitar and sings and plays while out on his boat.  His music catches the attention of a mermaid named Aycayia, who breaks the surface to hear him better, stunning David and encouraging him to return to the spot and sing day after day. 

Aycayia was a Taino woman, living before Columbus showed up and shattered the world.  Her beauty and voice drew men to her, to the annoyance of the other women of the island. They cursed her and another older woman who was Aycayia’s friend. Aycayia became a mermaid, the other woman a sea turtle, and they spent the centuries in the sea, avoiding humans.  Until David’s singing reached Aycayia’s ears in 1975.  Though Aycayia doesn’t speak to him, she begins to follow his boat, listening to his music and remembering her old life. 

Then a couple White Americans invade their tranquility. The father, a businessman – a “man’s man” – is determined to use a big game fishing trip to toughen up his perceived weakling of a son.  His son, not exactly thrilled to be on this trip, casts his line. Unbeknownst to him, Aycayia heard the motor and, assuming it was David, swam into the area. The bite on his line was no big game fish. Together, father and son reel in the biggest catch ever – an actual mermaid.

After they bring her in and string her up on the dock like the giddy fishermen in Jaws who imagine themselves to be kings of the ocean, they go celebrate at the bar. David, wracked with guilt, takes the opportunity to cut Aycayia loose and bring her back to his home. While she recovers in his bathtub, David tries to figure out what he should do next. Slowly, Aycayia’s curse seems to lift, creating new dilemmas for everyone.

Told primarily through a third person narrative, Roffey peppers in excerpts from David’s journal and Aycayia’s viewpoint as well. It’s an elegant use of language. Even though everything is in English, Roffey deftly uses distinctive voices for each of the characters. Aycayia’s use of verse is particularly well done.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is more than a revision of classic mermaid tales. It also tackles colonialism, racism, love, jealously, class, and more.  All of it is wrapped up into an intriguing and compelling story spanning centuries.   

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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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