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Not All Ghosts Are Scary: 'When We Were Birds' by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo wants us to know that ghosts are not scary. And even when they are, they can guide us, point us towards love and steer black lives out of danger. In her debut novel, ‘When We Were Birds’, Banwo seamlessly weaves fate and love into an interdimensional dialogue with ancestral spirits. We begin on grandmother’s lap; not the most unfamiliar location for storytelling and the theme of ancestors. Granny Catherine is telling her granddaughter, Yejide the story of creation, but not the one we know. It is a creation story of animals, humans and flesh-eating birds known as corbeaux. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo uses the metaphor of birds to explore black womanhood, Caribbean heritage and the thin lines between love and loss, birth and death, the deceased and the living.

The novel follows Yejide and her transition into being the new matriarch of the St Bernard family who can commune with the dead. Yejide’s story is not the only one. The novel also follows former Rastafarian turned gravedigger Emmanuel Darwin as he navigates the dark world of Port Angeles, the fictional urban centre of Trinidad. Darwin desperately moves to the city in the hopes of making money for him and his sick mother. His Rastafari religion restricts contact with the dead and the job quickly turns sour when he is pulled into an underworld of crime and grave robbing. His new reality is made worse with the spectre of his absent father who too escaped to the city decades ago to earn money for a young Darwin and his mother. Both protagonist’s stories begin halfway, at the height of their grief and desperation, as if we already know them.

Banwo writes with abandon focusing on the liminal moments rather than concrete form. The breathless prose leaves some questions unanswered, particularly of the relationship between Yejide and her childhood companion, Seema who plays a significant role in Yejide’s characterization but is for the most part left undeveloped. Despite this shortcoming, the lethargic language makes up for the lack of characterization and as a result, the novel is more visual than literary. This visual language mirrors Yejide’s own transformation as the heiress of being able to see death, emotion and the ancestral plane. When her mother dies she teaches Yejide to tap into her strength, instructing her to “stop trying to see one thing, one place”. This power is one that has been passed down over generations of women in her family, beginning with the original woman, Maman, a fierce spirit-woman who burned down a plantation house where a couple that tried to escape the violence of slavery were horrifically lynched and hung for all to see.

Caribbean storytelling is often linked to slavery. When We Were Birds refers to this painful period of history as one not to be overlooked but also is not the central story. Love, however, is the thread that runs through timelessly weaving in and out of the narrative. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is stating that black love need not be central to black suffering, and that black suffering can be acknowledged without being the focus nor the conclusion. She reminds us that black love is multifaceted, as simple as holding hands, and as heavy as a fated, supernatural meeting. Black womanhood is also explored as a saving grace, not only to Yejide but to Darwin too. Yejide’s inheritance of death functions as a rebirth for both, offering them a lifeline. It is refreshing to see a narrative that positions black women not only as the protagonist but also as the hero.

Banwo shows that crucial to black storytelling is the focus on aesthetics. Her language leaves convention styles of plot and characterization, instead capturing intimate moments and weighted pauses. When Yejide’s mother dies the moths that gather in the house are described as “tiny white cotton whispers''. Other forces of nature such as rain, storms and heavy winds act as forces of transformation bridging the gap between the natural and the supernatural. The supernatural functions as a character too - ancestors take centre stage, showing themselves in the flames of candles and the natural world of winds and storms. Banwo’s unique style and subject matter have gained her several accolades such as the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and recognition from The Guardian and The Economist. It is as though she is setting the scene for more books and charting the path for an exciting new direction in black speculative fiction, contributing to a rich tradition established by writers such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) and more recently, Tomi Adeyemi and Nnedi Okorafor’s works. Black speculative fiction - particularly by black women authors - is crucial to black imaginations. It is thus exciting to know that Banwo is committed to building on this genre with her second novel which is “set in the same world” as When We Were Birds.

At the heart of it, When We Were Birds is a touching story of black love and mystical reckoning. Despite the gaps in the novel, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s novel functions as a sensational debut in a genre that blends crime, black folklore, and romance with hallucinatory results. To read her work is to be transported to a near fantasy world where ancestors and descendants walk alongside each other - a dream that many black readers can identify with. When We Were Birds distinguishes Ayanna Lloyd Banwo as a writer and storyteller to watch.


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