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Voluntary Disappearance in “The Unfortunates”

Voluntary Disappearance in “The Unfortunates”

J.K. Chukwu’s debut, The Unfortunates, is so much more than a novel. It is visual art, emotional plea, nostalgia bomb, and bildungsroman all wrapped up in one. While the powerful themes explored in the novel can and will resonate in some way with anyone, this story particularly speaks to the isolation Black students often experience in academic institutions that are predominantly white. Despite the presence of organizations like the Black Student Union, or other culturally specific clubs that give some sense of community on campus, the warmth of such societies is often not enough to cancel out the cold shadow cast by the institution itself, and its blatant lack of interest in its non-white students beyond a prominent place on the cover of their brochure.

Sahara is a queer, half-Nigerian college sophomore whose depression has such a hold on her that she refers to it as “LP” or “Life Partner.” Her Black American mother expects constant communication, her Nigerian father drifts somewhere between ignoring and criticizing her, and her younger brothers are constantly invited to participate in Igbo traditions while Sahara is not. Home feels more like a prison than a place of comfort. But life at her university is hardly any better. Though her best friend (whom she refers to as “ROD”), a Korean-American visual artist, experiences similar familial pressures as a child of immigrants herself, and shares in much of Sahara’s life, even she remains unaware of her friend’s harshest struggles—self-harm, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation—which Sahara hides in order to avoid scaring her ride-or-die away. Sahara frequently feels cornered in class, as opportunities to share the truth of life as a Black and monetarily underprivileged person come and go. Her white classmates seem almost willfully oblivious to experiences outside of their own, and though her professors show more of an interest in her point of view, the university’s overarching negligence towards its students of color has Sahara wary of expressing herself honestly to just about everyone, including her Black peers.

Interspersed throughout the book are pages from a zine created by Sahara’s late aunt, Nita, who died “from AIDS-related complications.” Sahara discovers the zine in her university library, and discovers that a white graduate student cited it in their thesis on “AIDS crisis art, post-WWI German Art, and Freud.” However, just like Sahara’s white classmates, this graduate student dismissed Nita’s vulnerability, reducing her to a “misguided anarchist,” and judging her work to be “flat” and “ineffective.” Sahara later poses an important question often asked by creators of color—Toni Morrison and Matthew Salesses immediately spring to mind—in their work: did it ever occur to him that he is not the zine’s intended audience?

This question is central to both the story and the book as an object, which not only includes artwork and poetry, but also narrative experiments in the form of interludes written as stage plays, multiple choice tests, emails, footnotes, and charts. Each chapter heading is a play on a song lyric (which set each song going in my mind as soon as I started to read the words). Every detail of Sahara’s story, from its content to its presentation, is a finger on the hand of relatability reaching for its twin. This novel takes the form of a thesis written two years early because Sahara predicts that she herself will number among the Black students who are so thoroughly broken by their educational environment that they leave, in one way or another. This novel is a book written by, about, and for those who fall into the titular category of The Unfortunates. And just as Sahara manages to find hope after hitting rock-bottom, so too are we encouraged by the novel to trust our own sources of strength not to desert us when we need them most.

Though it isn’t a lighthearted read, especially if Sahara’s experiences in any way mirror your own, there are moments when Sahara experiences the joy of living in the present with people who either understand her or want to. She eats, drinks, and laughs with ROD; she commiserates with other BSU members over the other students’ cluelessness; and she begins to stand up for herself in small ways. Eventually, she realizes that, though she may be surrounded by people who can only see themselves no matter where they look, there will always be at least one person out there who sees you and won’t run away.

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So whether your Black Student Union is led by a white graduate student who refuses to step down because no one else is “as qualified or experienced,” your loved ones’ medical concerns are roundly dismissed by those employed to care for them, or your Dean of Students shows more concern for your university’s reputation than for the welfare of students who look like you, even when they are being fatally disregarded—Sahara can relate. Whether or not the Thesis Committee is fully able to understand every emotion, reference, or experience documented in Sahara’s grand opus, hope remains that her story will somehow reach the right minds, the ones it was truly created to speak to.

The Unfortunates
J K Chukuwu
Published February 28, 2023

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