Book Review: Powder Necklace

It takes quite a lot of hubris to harshly review someone’s book. Writers agonize over every single word, the placement of every comma; through rewrite after rewrite, second guessing themselves endlessly, hoping they made the right choice when the book finally goes to print. A first novel is as precious as a firstborn child. Luckily, I can find no reason to be harsh in my review of Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond’s debut novel Powder Necklace (ISBN-10: 1439126100; ISBN-13: 978-1439126103). To put it simply, in case you are too busy to go on reading the rest of this review, I loved this book. Read it. Just do it. You won’t regret it. 

For those of you who want to stick with me, let me explain. Due to globalization and migration, our world is getting increasingly smaller. People move around a lot more now than perhaps at any time in human history. When my mother’s French ancestors came to America 125 years ago there was no going back. They Anglicized their surname, learned English as best they could and forgot all about the country that had been their homeland for ages. They didn’t consider themselves French-Americans, they considered themselves Americans and they assimilated as quickly as possible. Their children, grandchildren and now me, a great-grandchild of these immigrants, knew nothing at all of French culture, much less the language. Today I have no particular affinity whatsoever toward France, and have never been there aside from brief stopovers in Charles de Gaulle Airport en route to someplace else.

But immigrants of today are different. People don’t leave home once and never look back. They call relatives weekly, chat daily, email pictures to each other and go back home often to visit. The stigma of being an immigrant in America is less now than it once was. You can eat familiar food from your homeland, go to a church with people who speak your mother tongue, and maintain close connections with your native culture while at the same time being fully American. Children of these immigrants may be born in America, but in some sense are children whose feet straddle multiple continents. They aren’t really Ghanaian, or Kenyan or Nigerian. They are fully American, but they’re not quite African American, either. Traditional labels don’t really fit.

The writer Taiye Selasi is credited with popularizing the term Afropolitan to describe this global diaspora. Taiye herself is a grand example of the difficulties of labeling someone with roots in the soil of multiple continents, having been born in London to Ghanaian and Nigerian parents, raised in Massachusetts and studying in the US and UK before living part time in New York, Rome and New Delhi. Is she American? African? British? Other? Simply put, she’s an Afropolitan.

This preamble is all to explain the context in which the novel Powder Necklace is found. Like Selasi, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a child of the Diaspora. Born in the US to Ghanaian parents, she was sent to Ghana by her parents to complete secondary school, which formed the kernel of this novel. Lest you think this is somehow odd or uncommon, it really isn’t uncommon at all among African immigrant families. I have friends who are a Kenyan and Cameroonian couple that met and married in Russia and now reside in the US whose children spent several years living with their grandparents in Kenya. There are many reasons for this, among them economic, personal, cultural and practical. Many people want their children to learn their mother tongue and become familiar with their culture. Regardless of the reason, the common denominator among children who spend significant time growing up in Africa is humility. Experiencing life back home changes someone forever, makes them realize that chicken doesn’t come from a sterile plastic container in the grocery store, it comes from a screeching screaming animal whose throat must be slit and whose feathers must be plucked before it can be consumed. Water doesn’t always come out of taps hot and steamy, often it must be carried in buckets atop someone’s head, and if you’re lucky enough to have a warm bath the water is probably first heated over a smokey three stone fire of burning sticks that a woman has had to forage and scrounge before sunrise wherever she could find them.

Humility is what Powder Necklace has that Selasi’s definition of Afropolitanism lacks. The Afropolitan that Selasi describes is unique to an upper class segment of this population, those who can afford the global jet-set lifestyle; the brunches in New York and dinners in Paris and designer shoes and gallery openings and gala dinners and VIP club access. She is proudly self congratulatory about this lifestyle, proclaiming these globe-trotting fashionistas the “coolest-damn-people-on-earth.”

In contrast, Brew-Hammond makes no such claims to coolness in Powder Necklace. Her protagonist, Lila, is very much a typical shy and awkward teenager struggling to find the confidence to get through life. Brew-Hammond gently pokes fun at the Afropolitan elite through the character of Auntie Flora, a jet-setting fashion maven in London who typically “makes everything an event.” The type who wears a silk kimono around her poshly furnished chic home, makes her own blend of organic juices and buys her niece an expensive designer dress in a rather obvious effort to buy her love. One gets the sense that Aunt Flora is trying so hard to be a hip Londoner that she has forgotten what it means to be Ghanaian.

Humility and honesty are what makes this a great novel. It is refreshing to hear a young Lila talk about the things that real teens talk about. The term “young adult novel” generally makes me cringe, dredging up memories of Judy Blume books about girls trying on their first training bras, or moralistic After School Specials that preach the evils of smoking and drinking and having sex. I hesitate to use the term young adult novel to describe Powder Necklace, but that’s what it is. It’s the type of novel I would love to see teenagers read and identify with. Because it’s real. Yet it’s a polar opposite from Judy Blume. Brew-Hammond does an amazing job of writing in the voice of a fourteen year old girl. Never preachy, never moralistic, never judgmental. Lila unapologetically smokes weed, has sex, drinks alcohol, curses, sasses her mother and father and generally behaves like a real teenager does. This honesty is so rare that it comes across as a breath of fresh air to see a writer admit that this is how real people behave.

The other refreshing aspect of this book is its optimism. It avoids the pitfalls of “poverty porn.” Brew-Hammond is never judgmental about the Africa she describes. As if in rebuttal to the designer shoe and silk kimono clique she reminds us that these girls shit in plastic bags and sometimes trade sex with their teachers for water. This is reality, and many writers would portray it in a way that contributes to the stereotype of Africa being a hopeless morass. But interestingly, she avoids that completely. Ghana, while proving to be a difficult place to live for a spoilt Londoner, is in no way portrayed as a hellish bastion of “darkest Africa.” Instead, the hardship is what puts steel in Lila’s backbone and gives her the self confidence to persevere. She very much embodies the axiom of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Yes, the usual labels can be applied here. A “coming of age” novel about a young girl discovering herself. But somehow that falls very short of describing the richness of this story.

I feel like I could go on for another thousand words, but I should stop now. Let me just end this review the way I began, with the advice to just read this damn book. I promise you will like it. I hear that Nana has another book coming out soon and I can’t wait to read it.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Powder Necklace”

  1. A fine book indeed. I read and finished it over two nights. When it was done, I started all over again. brilliant evocation of a Ghanaian boarding school in an unassuming village. The narrator is humble, as is the author herself. Beautiful.

    Like

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