Creatures of Passage | reviewed by Karren Alenier | Karren Alenier | Scene4 Magazine | May 2021 | www.scene4.com

Creatures of Passage
A Matter of Survival

Karren Alenier

Balance squares off with racial politics in Morowa Yejidé's remarkable novel Creatures of Passage. Osiris Kinwell, the twin brother of Nephthys (Neff-this)—his enigmatic taxi-driving twin sister, has been murdered by a group of white men and thrown into the Anacostia River. A great white shark has torn away part of his body. Since sharks do not inhabit rivers, the reader might surmise that the devastation of the great white shark to Osiris' body symbolizes the general assault white people have exacted on black men.

But not all the evil people are white in Yejidé's novel of magic realism and myth set in Washington, DC.

Dash, the estranged ten-year-old great nephew of Nephthys, pays her an unexpected visit carrying a letter from Nurse Higgins from his school. The nurse hopes Nephthys can head off a confrontation with Amber, Dash's psychic mother known as the Death Dreamer. Dash has thrashed a schoolmate who has reported that Dash is crazy because he is speaking to a make-believe man down by the river.

Nephthys blames Amber for not forecasting Osiris' death—Osiris was her father. Nephthys drinks to drown her grief and thereby lives in a fog. When she offers Dash candy, something she always does for people in distress, the boy tells her that his mother has had a dream about him and he is worried, though Amber hasn't revealed the details.

Later the reader is introduced to the school janitor, a Black man named Mercy Ratchet, who Dash accidentally sees molesting a classmate in a utility closet. After this incident, Mercy marks time until he can silence Dash. These are the central characters to Yejidé's through-line story.

Creatures of Passage is divided into five passages. Instead of the passages being related to what happens in life, these passages refer to how creatures of passage (slaves and their descendants) die. Interestingly, the passages—moving through space, staying in one place, resigning life to another, surrendering one's life, and entering the Void—are revealed by a minor character who is the mentally ill son of a colonel's wife. The wife sneaks out of her house while her husband pretends to sleep so that she can visit their son at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane.

At the Ebbitt Hotel—a long time DC landmark with a checkered past, the colonel's wife summons a ride with Nephthys to better conceal who she is. Typically, the military does not allow for mental illness. Because the wife sometimes blames herself for her son's mental illness since she "hailed from the Nordic outback of the Upper Peninsula in the Kingdom of Michigan" and she asks the politically incorrect question about where Nephthys comes from (Nephthys has an odd lilt to her voice—she says she is Gullah), the reader should assume this woman and her family are white. It's another aspect of balance Yejidé provides to her story.

In her magically endowed sky blue 1967 Plymouth Belvedere that never breaks down, never runs out of gas, never gets stopped by the police, and has the ghost of a white woman in its trunk, Nephthys, who is always drunk and has no driver's license, provides passage to all those in distress. Her clients don't have to ask, she just shows up. Some of her needy riders, like Gary Higgins (son of Nurse Higgins), have been molested by Mercy Ratchet. Nephthys intervenes when the police are called to arrest Gary. He is delusional in a store and causing problems there. Nephtys keeps him from being another young Black man mishandled by the police but later he escapes from St. E's and kills himself by jumping from a radio tower. Death from a radio tower punches home the inability for members of the Black community to communicate the life-threatening dangers being exacted.

The word passage also alludes to the Atlantic slave trade that operated from 1500 to 1900. Middle Passage is a term used in the slave trade to indicate the transportation of Africans sold (by other Africans) to European slave traders who carried the slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. The First Passage involved the rounding up of Africans to be sold to the Europeans. The Final Passage concerned moving the slaves to plantations (usually) after they were purchased.

 The author plays impressively with transportation both physically and mythically. Physically, Neththys' haunted Plymouth subtly points to the 1620 landing at Plymouth Rock by the Pilgrims. Maybe this is why there is the ghost of a white woman in the car's trunk to add racial  balance. Mythically, Yejidé transports the reader to an older American landscape that has been stolen from indigenous people like the "Nacotchtank Indians." In beautifully crafted prose, she writes:

in 1977 Anacostia was the New World, an isle of blood and desire. It was the capital's wild child east of a river that bore its name, a place where much was yet discovered. Anything was possible in that easternmost quadrant, where all things lived and died on the edges of time and space and meaning. It was a realm of contradictions, an undulating landscape of pristine land and dirty water, breathtaking hills and decimated valleys.

Among the many aspects of this work to admire is the way Yejidé refuses to name real life political figures but lets the reader know they are there without regard to the impediment of time. She refers to a "son of privilege [who] would make his own living film by attempting to assassinate a movie-acting king" What else could this be except John Hinkley's assault on President Ronald Reagan? In the lead up to the murder of Osiris, Yejidé offer this:

Many years later, there would be other foot soldiers and commanders in race wars that never started and never ended, just as in centuries past. And there would latter-day nationalists and citizen circles and patriots, who from the forgotten fiefdoms of the territories heard the claxon bells of an orange-skinned king.

Is there any need to spell out the name of the former president who promoted race wars and gathered his so called patriots around him?

Morowa Yejidé is a smart writer who could easily write additional novels with these characters who carry important messages to all of us about survival in our times.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

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