Nigerian American writer Chinelo Okparanta hardly shies away from contentious matters. Her first novel, “Under the Udala Trees,” deftly tackled gay love in Nigeria against the tragic backdrop of the Biafran War. When the book came out in 2015, writing about homosexuality appeared to be taboo among Nigerian writers. Today, it is almost trending, explored by prose and poetry writers in books and literary journals.
Likewise, Okparanta’s latest novel, “Harry Sylvester Bird,” is a curious forerunner of sorts, entering, with seemingly little trepidation and a lot of satire, into the unwieldy, tumultuous territory of racial reassignment. In this case, the protagonist, whose early-stages transition is more psychological than physical or cultural, goes from identifying as a white American to more of a Black African.
When we first meet Harry, the book’s 14-year-old protagonist from Pennsylvania, it is December 2016, and he has just arrived at a resort in Kizimkazi, Tanzania, with his parents, Wayne and Chevrolet. Yes, Harry’s mother, referred to as Chevy throughout the book, is named after an American car brand. This peculiar naming, coupled with the fact that Harry calls his parents by their first names, signals a departure from the norm. It turns out that they are a white American family so arrogant and devoid of self-regulation in belief and behavior that we wonder why we should even bother with them.
Parody or not, the book insists on revealing the absolute worst of its white characters’ main traits. For example, as the family settles into a room at the resort, Chevy admonishes Harry for coming too close to hand over a menu. “As if I were not her very own child,” Harry, the novel’s sole narrator, says, “as if I were not the flesh of her loins, as if I were instead some foreign pathogenic prototype.” Wayne is even worse; he makes racist jokes about the dark skin of the Africans who try to accommodate their stay in Tanzania.
Harry, on the other hand, becomes so utterly taken by the kindness and appearance of a safari guide, “the man with the darkest of skin … the softest of eyes,” that we see the stirrings of Harry’s dissatisfaction with his white self, which is only accelerated by disgust at his parents’ behavior.
Back in Pennsylvania, in a country now run by the very conservative, xenophobic Purists, “a third party said to have splintered off from the Republicans,” Harry and his parents muddle through sad lives punctuated by job loss, infidelity, a pandemic, saving a burnt town called Centralia, more provincialism and eventually a mental breakdown that marks a split from the past — a past which Harry associates negatively with his white identity.
College-bound, Harry chooses to sever all ties and move to Manhattan, where he renames himself G-Dawg, starts attending psychotherapy on not identifying as white and falls madly in love with a Nigerian student, Maryam. At times cringeworthy, at times lovingly tender, Harry and Maryam’s interracial relationship has its ups and down until a semester-abroad trip to Ghana forces a major reckoning.
In this oddly affecting novel that attempts to deploy exaggeration as an engine for social awareness and redress, Okparanta has laid bare some of our most vexing issues on race and identity, most notably those involving extremism and intolerance. Her unorthodox approach invites us — at our own risk — on an offbeat journey at once rattling and revealing.