Reviews

Storytelling is Power in “A Girl is a Body of Water”

A review of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's new book, "A Girl is a Body of Water."

Kirabo presses against the boundaries of tradition in her small village of Nattetta, Uganda. She does not outright reject her people’s customs, but her desire to learn where she comes from—specifically, the history of her mother—drives her to seek help along the edge of what tradition allows to find her own way into womanhood. In her newest novel, A Girl is a Body of Water, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi reveals that twelve-year-old Kirabo has within her another self that is able to fly out of her physical body and travel to other places. It scares her. She finds it evil and thinks herself possessed.

The only woman who could possibly understand her problem is Nsuuta, the blind “witch” who lives nearby. Kirabo secretly meets with Nsuuta to help rid her of the out-of-body affliction, but Nsuuta hesitates. Nsuuta no longer has use of her eyes, but what she can see is the shifting of woman’s place in the world. She tells Kirabo that her “flying out” is a special ability, stemming from woman’s “original state” at the beginning of time, an enchanting story that Nsuuta tells Kirabo.

The first woman, as Nsuuta explains to Kirabo, was “…huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent.” But it was apparently too much for the world and it was bred out of womankind. Occasionally, it reappears, and Kirabo is both intrigued by the idea and frightened by the responsibility. She wants to suppress it, but the story of the first woman is what begins chiseling out the form of Kirabo’s core being. Unfortunately, this supernatural aspect of the story, though effective as a hook, dissolves rather quickly and is only referenced later in the book when necessary. It is not the power that Kirabo develops and learns to wield, though her own origin story is still compelling.

Trading stories is foundational to Ugandan culture. In fact, it is how Makumbi introduces her young protagonist—eager to tell a story she has been practicing. And her hunger for storytelling permeates the novel through Kirabo at twelve, engaging the annoyed teenagers of her village in storytelling by activating  a cultural etiquette that they must abide by in the presence of adults. Stories are the collateral Kirabo uses to bribe Nsuuta to learn about her absent mother against her grandmother’s wishes. When Kirabo’s father brings her to live with him and his family, stories keep her connected to her family in Nattetta, but stories, even when not meant for her, are also how she learns about herself. She discovers while eavesdropping on her “new” stepmother and step-grandmother that she was “born on the edges of the family unit, and was therefore peripheral, regardless of her position as the eldest child.” And when her father died abruptly in his mid-thirties, family and friends paid their respect by telling stories.

Makumbi pays a similar respect to her characters by how she tells their stories. Kirabo and Nsuuta and even Kirabo’s grandmother Alikisa are treated with such care in the novel, you can almost hear the splashes and smell the earth when the two elders are dancing in the rain in the final pages. Kirabo grows from a scared and resentful child when in the presence of her stepmother, to a respectful and compassionate young woman who finally allows herself to feel for her stepmother when she is all but outcast from the family after the death of her husband.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is its relevance, from the ideas of mwenkanonkano (feminism) to the importance of having a voice and representation. After the dance in the rain, an ailing Nsuuta reaches for Kirabo in earnest:

“’Promise me you will pass on the story of the first woman—in whatever form you wish. It was given to me by women in captivity. They lived an awful state of migration, my grandmothers. Telling origin stories was their act of resistance. I only added on a bit here and a bit there. Stories are critical, Kirabo,’ she added thoughtfully. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’”

As various institutions stumble through the implementation of diversity, inclusivity and equality initiatives that are being forced into email inboxes and communication chat windows, Makumbi taps the shoulders of readers lest they forget the power of being able to tell your own story. Whether it be teaching something new or overwriting something old—A Girl is a Body of Water makes clear the importance of being able to speak for yourself.

FICTION
A Girl is a Body of Water
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Tin House Books
September 1, 2020

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