“We arrived at the resort in the afternoon when the sun was rising above the army of palm trees, lined and fanning in the breeze like the windmills in the brightening orange and blue.”
This is the second novel by Chinelo Okparanta and I wanted to read it after I read an article she wrote describing her process in deciding on the subject of the book. The cover and the title don’t offer much in terms of insight into the book itself, although I wonder if the character’s name is partly based on Harry F. Byrd from Virginia, the former Senator and governor who helped to construct and institute Virginia’s racist reaction to Brown v Board of Education known as “Massive Resistance”.
The novel begins with a white family from Pennsylvania on a trip to Tanzania for a safari. The teen boy, Harry Sylvester Bird, is horrified by his parents’ behavior. His mother is making side comments about food and cleanliness, while his father is making pointedly racist statements. In addition, Harry seems alienated from his family physically. Harry is also quite taken by the very dark skin of some of the trip guides, to the point that he seems to want to either become like one of them, or be adopted by one of them. The trip reaches a kind of head when Harry’s father, not for the first time, asks two young Black women (who are also guests on the trip) for service, and when they tell him, again, that they are also tourists, he asks them why they would come to Africa if they’re already from Africa and can just see animals where they’re from. He also steals a jeep and tries to drive closer to the animals and has to be restrained.
When we return to the US, we find Harry becoming more isolated from his family, and trying to figure out what kind of life he wants for himself. As he decides to go to college New York, we also see him begin the process of alienating himself from his own whiteness (not in the sense of confronting it in a real way) by running away from it. In college, we find that’s he decided that he’s “trans-racial” and goes to support groups to figure out how to bring out the inner-blackness he knows he feels. He also begins to date a young woman from Nigeria who is also a student at his school. The story develops alongside their relationship, as well as with Harry’s attempts at self-discovery, which are very obviously doomed. Also Covid is happening!
The novel luckily doesn’t lean into the “trans-racialism” very much, especially since it’s not a real thing, but uses it as a way to look at a reaction toward whiteness that Harry cannot seem to face. Rather than attempting to dismantle privilege and white supremacy in his life, he tries to skirt it, not in the way that lots of white people (and this is pretty successful in general) by denying it and ignoring, but by reacting violently against it in himself. This obviously doesn’t work, and we’re luckily let off the hook a little in the ways this could have been worse. But rather than be a Rachel Dolezal type character, Harry is something a lot scarier, a much more familiar progressive person who very much feels like he’s “done the work” or rather doesn’t need to do the work at all, because those bad feelings? He doesn’t have them actually. We are treated to some very clear moments that suggest that not only is he everything he fears, in a lot of ways he’s worse.
The novel is also, thankfully, a farce. And I don’t mean that in a critical way, but as a recognition of tone. It’s a farce in the literary sense (and is often very funny). It’s kind of a Adrian Mole meets Black Swan Green meets Paul Beatty. Harry is an absurd character painted against an absurd backdrop of New York (and the US) during Covid, where white supremacy and rugged individual did everything it could to refuse to hold itself even remotely accountable, except through extreme aversion to anything it didn’t want to do, while also patting itself on the back.