A Response to Disaster: A Review of “Aminatu” by Olufunke Grace Bankole, published in Michigan Quarterly Review

Written by B. Nathanial Steelman

The world as we first see it, as we first are led to believe in it, is anguished, starved: instinctual. In media res “drunken dogs” are enduring, as the humans in their milieu they hollow to tissue and bone. They growl; yet “in that grayish-blue darkness” their “eyes droop heavy with shame,” as if Man’s Best Friend well knows the consequences of his (re)wilding in these circumstances post-storm inside the dome. Things will not be the same. In “Aminatu,” Olufunke Grace Bankole’s poignant, gusty debut short story published by Michigan Quarterly Review, first in print in Fall 2006 and again online in August 2020, a reader is learned in the wake of the US’s costliest natural disaster for whom life is most fragile.

Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 nearly rendered the city of New Orleans like mythological Atlantis. Gales thrashed the metro and made a house of cards of apartments, churches; but it was the ensuing deluge to which the civilization nearly succumbed. It was a disaster in the truest sense of the term: disaster, disastro: apart star, ill fate: inevitability. The city had been evacuated, but tens of thousands could not leave, because exodus is not free. In her modest essay, “Going Solo,” Bankole speaks to, although does not reference by name, “Aminatu”: “Having just moved from New Orleans, and witnessed with the rest of the world, the horror of Katrina and its aftermath, I clicked open a blank page,” Bankole says, “and tried to imagine how the hours between night and dawn, inside the Louisiana Superdome, might have been for someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave the city in the first place.”

Think about any disaster—or, at the very least, crisis—such as Hurricane Laura in 2020 or the derecho (or any of the outbreaks or any of the shootings or any of the deaths of heroes or any of the obliterations delivered by/embodied in the deluded occupant of this White House in 2020). See roofs peeled open like sardine cans, alarmed neighbors in tents on their lawns among snakes of downed power lines: The undone structures subjugate our focus and the tense is present. We can’t look away. Because the grotesque is so perverse, thrust upon its audience is the impetus of meaning-making. In “Aminatu,” the dogs loiter around the carnage and carcasses strewn across the gridiron of the Superdome-come-grotto. “One has in his teeth and clutched between his skinny legs a blue-yellow damask head tie.” Thus follows meaning-making so much as memory: “A scarf,” the narrator says, “the kind that would adorn the head of a West African woman; and just a short while ago, it did. Her name is Aminatu.”

There appears to be cultural responses to disaster. For instance, after the derecho bulldozed much of Iowa, where I live, folks swarmed with chainsaws and garbage cans the detritus of their houses and lawns. With all the oil and grease of machinery, whole blocks smelled of an amusement park. Spangled across social media were pictures of community aglow with purpose. It was quintessential Iowa Nice. That said, Coming Together displays, and is allowed by, certain culture, certain socioeconomic status. In “Aminatu,” the culture Bankole admirably depicts is that which houses, again, as she says, “someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave,” the culture, in other words, inhabited by those to whom inevitability arrives faster, as these inhabitants cannot afford protection from and/or to flee various clutches by dint of low socioeconomic status and racial discrimination. Per “Aminatu,” this culture’s disaster response (vide trauma response) is remembrance. Because what else can be done if one has nothing?

Not so much points as characteristics in the middle of the story: Aminatu was the vendor in the small, dimly lit stall in the Big Easy’s French Quarter; she was the woman from Africa in America. Among the fluid colony of market stalls, she was the one with the “permanent space,” seeing that her brother-in-law had bought the stall. She lived in her brother-in-law’s basement, with her daughter, Ghaniyah, and paid no penny of rent, utilities, nor tuition for her daughter’s schooling, because “little was expected of [Aminatu].” And yet she “read the kind of books she had heard black students read at local universities.” She wanted out. A late-twenty-something, single-mother-of-one, she hadn’t been back home to Africa in a decade and now “could not answer for herself where she belonged.” Notwithstanding, when you visited the shop, Aminatu made you feel so “lucky.”

A paragraph of the story: “Aminatu had a way. That way not easily described, but well understood when you met her.”

Not so much backstory as this analepsis is eulogy. And it is eloquent, compelling, and thorough as a eulogy can be, it seems, which is remarkable in light of the fact that the narrator had not been friends with the vendor, never had been, so far as we know, in activities with Aminatu, etcetera. It seems important here to see that the reader does not experience Aminatu move and talk and think. We learn about her. So it goes with eulogies—even with the one I had given of my grandmother, who I had known all my life, with whom I had spent my mornings, afternoons, and summers—that the character never graduates out of static into dynamic; eulogies are synopses. In essence, they convey the informative point that not enough about the person was known or could be. It seems important here, too, to see that the narrator does not attempt to wrest from the fetid, crenellated maw of the dog—as some would—the damask head tie. The narrator lets it be, surrenders it to inevitability. There is so much to “Aminatu”: the irony, existentialism, brilliant language and structure, among other provocative features. I encourage you to give it a read. It can induce reflection on disaster response; for instance, I clean up—tangible debris as well as intangible—I attempt to restore order. (In all likelihood, I confess, I would have tried to reclaim the head tie.) But I am inclined to say this sort of response disallows disaster’s most useful function. Suspension of disbelief is idling; it is avoidance of any critical thinking at the convenient store on the way home from work, and it is forsaking any examination of our mothers at the dinner table. Suspension of disbelief buoys illusion and disaster can snap this. “Aminatu” is tagged in orange, italicized, small font Black Lives Matter. Per suspension, per our culture’s cushion, we do not see that Black lives do, indeed, matter. Disaster can allow us to come back down to earth to see who we have coerced into the trenches. As importantly, it can recalibrate our morals that have altogether been scrambled if not abandoned.

Review of “Little Beast” by C Pam Zhang, published in Bomb

Little Beast by C Pam Zhang is propelled by a tsunami of momentum gathered and flung forth by the narrative voice of its protagonist—a paranoid, delusional, displaced, misplaced, and misguided middle/high school student who is bewildered, troubled, and so writhing with uncertainty that she can only act on base ambitions, on some level. We learn the ultimate reason for why—why all or any of what happens in the story—but not until the end, though we are clued in throughout. I’m being intentionally vague about this because the conclusion at which I arrived—meaning, what I think the story is about—only came from a gathering of several details and clues interspersed throughout that aren’t fully realized until the end, at which point we learn who this narrator is and what afflicts her wholly. Or at least we think we know. There’s so much left to question, in the best possible way.

But we can’t talk about this story without first addressing the figurative language: “My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae.” Or, “Once again a girl appeared, summoned by my blood as a shark is summoned across murky waters.” These examples, like so many other lines in the story, are so rich and multilayered that one wonders at times if what we’re reading is real or surreal. And later still, with the series of events that occur, we’re still as confused at the end as we were at the beginning, but we aren’t as confused as the narrator herself: “When the door began to open, I slopped into the breach, pleading, my mouth wide with explanations, never mind how I looked or what I spattered.” But maybe we’re not as confused as we think we are. There might be a lesson here about the mentally ill; about what happens if people aren’t given proper treatments and therapy needed to address the mental illness. Or maybe that interpretation of the story is wrong. Maybe it’s a more surface-level here’s-what-happens-in-extreme-cases-of…. Of what? Of adolescence? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be sure.

The story, on the surface, is about a young woman who winds up in Alta, an all girls school “built on progressive principles” where “senators’ daughters, screenwriters’ daughters, celebrity daughters’” etc, attend. This is also where the protagonist’s father works as a custodian and where she attends on “scholarship.” While there, she meets a host of young women in a special, “silent” group, and these women are awarded nicknames given to them by the protagonist. Names such as “mouse,” “elf,” and “armored.”

While the narrator is battling the ongoing onslaught of typical (and not-so-typical) school and adolescent issues, there’s also the father who is a wonderful character in his own right, full of heart and ambition, and perhaps what he’s guilty of is that he cares too much. But we understand why. A blue collar, working-class father who allows his daughter, who he calls “girlie,” to stand on his shoulders to reach heights he’ll never reach. It’s a common story of a parent wanting better for their children—that the child(ren) achieve the “success” that the parents weren’t able to achieve for him/herself, for whatever reasons held them back. And what’s conspicuously missing throughout is the mother who, we learn three-quarters of the way through the story, died in childbirth. What, if any, affect does that have here? Well, we’re not exactly sure.

The demise of the narrator occurs rapidly (possible cutting, anorexia, paranoia, delusions, more), but the unraveling of the parent-child relationship, while on the surface can be explained by “typical” teenage angst, in the end seems an utter misunderstanding. Again, this is only if we are to read this on face value. If read as a surrealistic cautionary tale, then we know we are no better than the selfish ambitions that propel us forward at any cost, even if those gains mean leaving behind those who have helped us the most (such as a caring father). Because in the end, really, does it matter at all?

And perhaps there’s another way to read this, which is maybe how I best understand the story. Maybe it’s not intended to be read at face value, and perhaps not as a surrealistic cautionary tale, but maybe as a modern-day fable told from the perspective of a mentally unstable young person, whose actions she’s not fully aware of because of her instability, and this causes her to act in permanently detrimental ways. A fable, traditionally, possesses some kind of lesson and often features animals prominently. They don’t always end well, but there’s a lesson to learn somewhere in the story. Maybe that’s the case here. Maybe. Oh, the vagueness! Oh, the elusive dodging of what actually happens! I know, I know. But I would feel as if I were denying you an Experience knowing I gave everything away on a platter to you, when in fact you could read this deliciously mischievous, sad, confusing, and manically paced and rendered piece on your own.

Check out the story here.

Review of “Toxins” by McKenna Marsden, published in Pithead Chapel

I suppose it goes without saying that we—the various generations that make up current society—are the social media guinea pigs. We won’t fully know or understand, if ever, the extent of its various effects on us individually and/or collectively. It’s terrifying to think of the larger and more sinister ways social media might be harming us, but rarely do we think of social media’s micro invasions and what that might do to us. Or if we do think about it, we probably aren’t doing much to avoid the ten-minute scroll through FB or Instagram.

In many ways, I think the question of how we relate to social media is at the heart of the aptly titled “Toxins” by McKenna Marsden, published in Pithead Chapel. The story is told from the perspective of Harper who, we learn later in the story, is recalling the events of the story because of the voyeuristic permission lent to her by social media, as she checks on Dani, her childhood friend: “I know from Instagram that she lives in Portland now… that she still favors dramatic eyeliner…that she has a lot of friends who post cryptic jokes to her comments.” Yes, Harper is checking in, intentionally or passively, we don’t know, with a former best friend with whom she’s lost touch. The thing acknowledged here is that the level of information known about one another is off-balance. Harper knows a lot about Dani, but Dani might not know much, if anything, about Harper who doesn’t “post much to social media.” Instead, Harper, it seems, uses it as most of us do: to scroll, to check on, and to read updates about those people in her life she once knew. And from this scrolling, we get a recollection of a childhood that these two—Harper and Dani—shared together.

The story, of course, is about much more than social media. I think the story examines very convincingly the worth of those vital and urgent relationships we have when we’re younger but now no longer exist. What do those relationships mean? What part did they play in our growing up? Even though we’ve lost touch, and we rarely think of those people anymore, does that lessen who they were to us then? Do those relationships even matter?

Even more so, I think this story examines how our home life and background drastically affect who we might be as adults and where we might go. How one differing variable, such as growing up with a hypochondriac mother, could potentially make a difference in who we are now, and what we might become. Maybe I’m pointing out the obvious here, but the story does such a thorough job at “showing” us how a child’s background and home life really do make a difference—for better or not.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I’m reading way too much into this story. Maybe it’s simply a story about two girls growing up in drastically different households who share time together because they want to fit in, they want acceptance. And these two girls go to painful, though humorous, lengths to get there –rolling fake cigarettes made of dried lawn grass and sprinkled with spices found in the kitchen drawer to attract the attention of some older classmates.

In either case, however wrong I may be (or not), I think this is the mark of a good story—one that raises more questions than answers; one that helps us reevaluate our lives and how we view our current and past relationships. What can we derive from these reflections? How might they influence how we better understand ourselves and the world? Did, or do, any of the isolated events and relationships from middle school matter? How much do they matter? Are we better off knowing what our childhood friends are up to even though our only connection is virtual? Would we be better off not knowing what these same people are doing with their lives since we’ve lost touch anyway?

I have no idea the answer to any of these questions, especially the ones related to social media, though I do think those relationships matter. Or they did matter, anyway. I hope so, anyway. Otherwise, what’s the point? And what’s the point of the story? I’m not in the habit of answering my own questions, but for this one, I’d add: the point, I think, on some level, on the human level, is that, yes, it does matter. At least I hope so.