[Tin House Books; 2020]
Tr. from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker
“My body is an argument I did not start.”
—Morgan Parker, 2019
It might be a commonplace to observe that colonial histories and legacies mediate lived experience, but what Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida evocatively captures with That Hair, her new work of ficto-criticism,is that it is precisely through what is often considered “commonplace” or familiar that one registers those legacies and histories most consistently. Narrator Mila’s story — or stories — of her hair, the different phases of treatments, evolving senses of attachment, dissociation, indifference, and reinvigoration concerning her hair, are naturally diminutive allegories for a larger postcolonial existential journey.
From the outset, That Hair establishes the body as a symbolic affirmation of national incoherence: “Giving thanks for having a country of one’s own is like being grateful for having an arm,” de Almeida — or perhaps Mila, the author’s fictive alter-ego — writes in a prefatory note. “How would I write if I were to lose this arm? Writing with a pencil between the teeth is a way of standing on ceremony with ourselves.”Read in full, these sentences negate one another. They illuminate the psychic sequence that is at the crux of That Hair’s knotted argument. National affiliation (willed or not) is an imposition that, for the post-colonial subject, cannot be ignored even as it is challenged. At the same time, histories and legacies of colonization constitute a violent symbolic mutilation with grave psycho-social (in addition to political) legacies. Therefore, to write from the subjunctive fantasy mode of extra-national suspension is “standing on ceremony with ourselves,” a posture that the philosophical narration dismisses as “a form of blindness.” The key to the entire text rests in the double-motion of metaphoric construction and demolition performed by these opening sentiments.
What is unique — and uniquely troubling — about this metaphorical “blindness” is that it is self-imposed. One quickly gets the sense all of it is diagrammed from the outset not so much to “protect” the ficto-criticism to come in any Talismanic sense so much as to imply an alternative orientation, a kind of burdened entanglement, that must be pursued in place of the illusory distances proffered by the writing life. Particularly the writing life as navigated by the post-colonial author, for whom a reactionary attachment to origins becomes a distorting temptation. The problem is not with origins or pre-colonial histories and cultures as such; it is, as Fanon demonstrates in theorizing the Algerian liberation struggle and as de Almeida’s narrator Mila affirms with philosophical reflections on corporeal-quotidian minutia for the post-colonial Angolan condition following Portuguese rule, that the possibility of accessing such pre-colonial origins becomes problematized as conceptions of pre-colonial authenticity can themselves also be supple political reflexes conditioned to the post-colonial context. “Memory”thus becomes another clustered metaphor for this type of bad-faith treatment that mistakes moments of blurred bleeding, of convergence, for material rife for an easy bisection. In this mode, “Writing has little to do with imagination and resembles a way of coming to deserve the lack of a response.”For this writer, the “interlocutor” is naught but the mute and mystified images of “the taciturn family” (also equated with “memory”)carried from childhood through one’s matured skull and heart. There is, therefore, really nothing to say, and certainly nothing to be answered back in this rehearsal of pre-individuated intimacy. Though not spelled out in the way de Almeida’s (Mila’s?) other topics of interest were in this passage, the role of “imagination” here seems to be the skill of overturning overly-facile associations when necessary, replacing monologue with dialogue and even confrontation and contestation. These philosophical motions outlined, the story — if we may call it that — commences.
Or not quite yet. The reader is then confronted with a note from the translator, Eric M. Becker, which I feel is worth reading for two reasons. The first is broadly marketplace-oriented: in a moment where Global English is a driving engine of literary “cosmopolitanism,” we need to be ever aware of English’s wide access and mediating presence rather than accept it as a quiet, selfless gift from the background. Secondly, while translators amplify original authors, they are not invisible — or ought not be treated as such.
Translation is its own creative act. A facility with words in the target language is its primary requisite, and it is this ability that often guides a translator to the author(s) of focus. It is a cliché to write that literary styles come in all shapes and sizes, and yet it ought to be repeated here if it helps clarify that translators pursue, and often specialize in, creative writers with whose own work they feel a stylistic synergy rather than simply a languid intellectual curiosity. Translators are thus not interchangeable linguistic diplomats, but specialists in what distinguishes the translated author, lexically and syntactically, from national coevals. While their insights may not be sacrosanct, we would therefore be remiss as readers were we not at least to give them due consideration as we form our broader conceptions of the text. All of which is to say that one should pay attention when Becker refers to That Hair as a “hybrid novel, which sits somewhere between fiction and the essay (another genre at which de Almeida excels).”
The distinctions between fact and fiction break down from the start at the level of authorship. That Hair is technically authored by de Almeida, but in fact written and narrated by Mila. Becker informs the reader that Mila and de Almeida do share some biographical overlap: “Like her narrator, Mila, de Almeida was born to a family that is Portuguese on one side and Angolan on the other. Like her narrator — ‘the most Portuguese of all the Portuguese members of my family’ — de Almeida moved from Luanda to Lisbon at a young age and is at once entirely Angolan and entirely Lisboeta.”
Is de Almeida Mila? Is Mila de Almeida? Is Mila Mila? These are far more difficult questions to consider by the close of That Hair, by which point one’s own abstract assumptions regarding identity and identification will have been vicariously stretched and strained to new levels. Like a novice poker player submitting a nervous hand in a losing game, I feel tempted to invoke Fernando Pessoa (not, I should note, out of a mechanical sense of Lusophone equivalency, though intent does not mitigate outcome, as Mila’s troubled quest for foundations reminds us,) who would write in the Book of Disquiet that “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.” And through the use of heteronyms (conscious personalities with conflicting qualities linked to invented names that exceeded the more generic nom de plume,) Pessoa would further undermine the demarcations between “fact” and “fiction.” de Almeida-Mila similarly challenges not only narratorial grandiloquence, but the merit of expectations concerning autobiography and fiction.
Thus, the “hybrid novel.” While some years of graduate study have made me queasy about exaggerating the innovation of the “post-modernist” mode of writing — literature has been “meta” for centuries; recall the 1001 Nights, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, to name but a few examples — the Twentieth Century did witness a modern iteration of and uptick in work that uses the intentionally blurred boundaries of philosophy (at times, “critical theory”), autobiography, and literature (often fiction and poetry) to engage socio-political problematics. Derrida, whose own work unevenly melted the autobiographical and theoretical modes of writing into presently inseparable configurations, is certainly an exemplar, though far from the only one. In his prison memoir, Le Chemin des ordalies, the Moroccan writer and poet Abdellatif Laâbi would blend personal testimony of repression and torture by the postcolonial regime with intertextual allusions and poetic asides. Frantz Fanon would combine psychoanalytic, political and personal observations to ruminate upon the political, existential, and colonial dimensions underpinning hegemonic constructions of Blackness within and without the Western world in Black Skins, White Masks, and applied personal observation and philosophical critique to the Algerian liberation struggle in The Wretched of the Earth. Today writers such as Saidya Hartman and Frank Wilderson ply a mélange of fiction, autobiography and theory to continue assessing “the fact of Blackness” in the US and elsewhere. My point here is that de Almeida’s text both partakes in and stands outside of larger generic genealogies, as the attempt to come to terms with the existential particularities underpinning the socio-political identity of racialized postcolonial subjects often necessitates an approach that is simultaneously singular and collective in conception.
This is where the brilliance of de Almeida-Mila’s loose thematic thread comes in. At the level of concept alone, there is much to appreciate in a series of anecdotes lightly clustered around an Angolan-Portuguese woman’s hair, given that hair, metonymically speaking, is often a crucial site of racial ascription, identification, and distinction. But it is Mila’s voice that truly gives the narrative a life of its own. For That Hair is narrated by an “I” who understands the implications of the very act of narrating, and seems convinced that all such acts are predestined for failure. For Mila, writing becomes a perpetual process of self-deconstruction, and a negative reassessment of relationality: “how, I ask myself, can I speak for another. If the Other is a wrinkle, emerging only in the attempt to hit upon the necessary perseverance to remember that Other, how then to dare to be her spokesperson?”
This more generalized crisis of narratorial confidence is not unrelated to the identity crises inspired by experiences of racialization. As Mila observes, “Belonging to a minority consists not only of borrowing from our intimate iconography; it consists of erasing all singularity that might exist, not in the life we have lived, but in the life we have not.” This is why, for Mila, “It is the stock black woman who today deserves my deference. How to be worthy of her?” Racism flattens all possibilities of being on the level of expectation, leaving only hegemonic norms and the life-tested exceptions that validate them time and time again. The masochistic feats of self-conception engendered by such a symbolic order are on full display when Mila regards Will Counts’ iconic photograph of Elizabeth Eckford in Little Rock, Arkansas, deeming it “an X-ray of my soul.” Mila does identify with the image of Elizabeth Eckford, but rather than seeing the hateful white girls in the photograph as interchangeable with other girls in her own life who have expressed racist and even racist-eugenicist sentiments, Mila also associates herself with Eckford’s tormentors: “I see now that I am the persecuted and the persecutor, the disfigured, disfiguring myself.”
However, saying that Mila’s espoused philosophies of the artifice of the narrative act are connected to racialization and colonization is not the same as arguing that they ought to be reduced to them. It is a rather anti-philosophical gesture to contend that a philosophical insight becomes somehow less philosophical when it is a product of circumstance — indeed, the whole thrust of upending faux-universalist idealizations of philosophical tradition was to establish all philosophy as a product of circumstance, embedded in a vibrant, dynamic and, all too often, rather bloodied history. Ostensible “distance” is merely one of the more deceptive guises of embeddedness.
That Hair honors its philosophical conceit in its fictional architecture: the text moves from early occurrences that the narrator attempts to disentangle from the nostalgic sensorium and primordial narcissism of youthful impression to episodes of increasing individuation. Confidence, when a by-product of occurrence, is generally taken to task in the present moment of reflection. And relatives, those figures all too often doomed to be mere extensions of the melodramas we call life, are given a humanizing makeover, their anomalies, inconsistencies and invisible — and mute — privacies returned to them. But admirable though it may be to second-guess the surety of individual importance, the gesture becomes unsustainable at certain moments.
For instance, towards the end of the novel, Mila reveals that her father “once covered the distance between Beira and Luanda atop a scooter,” an impressive story by any standard. Naturally enough, it is initially revered by the youthful Mila: “That journey and the choice to make it by scooter represent in my imagination the pure elation of my father’s independence at a time when he was still an adolescent. He had refused to make the trip by plane and gone by scooter, as though he were covering a distance of two city blocks.” However, over the years Mila comes to think over this episode more deeply, to second guess its claim to inherent significance. She illustrates this revision with an element of the scenery itself: “One day after crossing into Angola, my father found himself before a Welwitschia mirabilis, a desert species particular to that spot, renowned for its uselessness. The Welwitschia can survive for centuries off limited resources and serves no particular purpose, whether for zebras or human beings. This species is one of creation’s wastes of energy, as we might remark annoyedly about flies.” The persistence of Mila’s father in his territorial traversal is thus juxtaposed with the lengthy and generally unsupported lifespan of this natural superfluity, “a greater sign of the call of meaninglessness that hovers over everything we do.” The point seems clear enough: family mythologies, like mythologies of self, are arbitrarily constructed, animated by partial and self-serving significations. Romanticism and reverence ought to be subjected to a healthy skepticism that acts as an anticoagulant, preventing the coalescence of a hard parochialism.
Fair enough. But past a certain point, the gesture, for all of its ethical vigilance, becomes more compulsive than profound. After all, if all significance is inherently invented, then this very episode loses all power of illustration. Put more crudely, “nothing means anything” is its own ontology, not ontology’s ultimate undoing. However, it is a testament to the strength of Mila’s voice and presence, and de Almeida’s hypnotic prowess as a writer that such episodes are so deeply impressive.
In the end, this may be one of the most incredible feats of That Hair: it seems to become more engrossing the less it is grounded in immediate reality. After all, it becomes harder to take circumstances for granted once they have been denuded of their immediacy. As Mila reminds us, it is especially when looking through the yellowed scrapbook, or flipping back over the accumulated journal entries that we realize when we are talking about “that hair,” we are talking about so much more.
Omar Zahzah is a writer and activist who holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. Omar’s dissertation, “Undercover and Hyper-Visible: Security Poetics and Pacification Prosaics in African American and Arab American Literature,” analyzes the structures of signification that inform both literary representations of racialized policing and surveillance praxis among dissenting subjects as well as the quotidian logics and rationales driving state-sanctioned projects of repression and pacification.