I was about 10 when I found out that my whole life I’d been saying my name wrong. A friend of my father’s — an “uncle” — had come to town, and my white mom had dressed us up for the occasion in traditional Nigerian dress. My top and wrap skirt were of a gorgeous orange- and red-printed fabric, hand-sewn by a woman from my father’s village in Rivers State. But when this uncle asked me my name, I embarrassed myself and my family by mispronouncing it “Joma.”
“That is not your name,” he replied. “Your name is Ijeoma. You have to know how to say your name. It is a very good Nigerian name.” Suddenly my clothing felt tight and uncomfortable, as if my uncle could see that none of this — the clothing or the name — fit me.
To this day, when people ask me how to pronounce my name, part of me knows that no matter how much I’ve practiced, I still don’t say it right. It is a good Nigerian name, and my father was a good Nigerian, while I am floating in this space just outside.
In his debut memoir, “Floating in a Most Peculiar Way,” Louis Chude-Sokei writes from that space outside, detailing with unflinching directness the confusion, isolation, horror and bizarre humor of his life as a child born to a high-ranking Biafran major father and a Jamaican mother in the midst of civil war in Nigeria. Born the day that war was declared in 1967 — “Family legend had it that while she was in labor she could hear the first fruits of the federal government’s bombing campaign against Biafra” — Chude-Sokei, the director of the African-American studies program at Boston University, doesn’t remember being carried away by his mother to Jamaica. By 6 he was living in a “home for left-behind children” in Montego Bay while his mother tried to find work in the United States. “America was a place where people disappeared all the time,” Chude-Sokei writes, “mothers in particular.” But eventually, after years in this austere and often abusive environment, he joined his mother as an adolescent in Inglewood, Calif.
Chude-Sokei’s prose is both direct and poetic, describing horrific trauma with such flat immediacy that at times I had to set the book down for a moment, just to process what I was reading.
This is a story of a young Black man trying to find himself in a world where he never quite seems to belong. Too African for Jamaica, too Jamaican for America, too American for Nigeria, Chude-Sokei grows up grasping at these various identities in the hopes of finding a Blackness that fits him, as each of these realms places its own, often contradictory, expectations upon him.
I cringed with recognition as Chude-Sokei attempts and fails to escape American racism by embracing his African forebears’ prejudice against Black Americans. But Chude-Sokei resists editorializing. There are no life lessons, no rationalizations of the bigotry and violence that exist in a diaspora so ravaged by white colonialism. We must look at the author’s story, see how messy it is, and try to figure out why alongside him. Reading this book I wondered if white readers would get its complexity, if they’d be able to reserve judgment. As I reached the end I was anxious for a satisfying resolution, a clear takeaway, to soothe the pain of this uncomfortable journey.
But as I sat with that discomfort I began to laugh at the absurdity of my expectations. How very American to expect a story so wide, so vast, so nuanced to be tied up in a bow. This is not a Hollywood movie; this is a man’s life, and a life like those of so many of us who make up the African diaspora. Herein lies the beauty of “Floating in a Most Peculiar Way”: It reveals how we carry trauma with us, how that trauma can cause us to hurt one another, and how we still love and carry one another with wounds unhealed. I finished this book wanting to know more — about Chude-Sokei’s mother’s story, about my own father’s. There were times when I enjoyed this book and times when I felt like I survived it, but there was never a time when I did not find myself within it. These are words in which those of us who have floated outside for so long can touch down for a bit, and connect.
Ijeoma Oluo writes for New York Times. She is the author, most recently, of “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.”