'Boy, Snow, Bird': New novel explores tradition of 'passing' in American culture

And again, when Boy dryly observes that “everybody agreed that Snow was valuable, but she was far too valuable to have around for keeps. Nice to look at for the afternoon, but we’ll all breathe easier once she’s safely back at the museum.” Both quotes draw out the discomfort Snow’s very presence incites in those around her, upsetting their ability to comfortably navigate within the, albeit limited, socially constructed race binary that renders Snow’s dilemma its grave power.

And yet, while Oyeyemi undoubtedly challenges the reader, in a somewhat circular fashion, to reexamine widely held beliefs about identity in terms of a story we tell ourselves about who we are in relation to the people around us, she maintains a deep empathy for the material circumstances, the legalized mandates of segregation that bore families like the fictional Whitmans or the very real Anatole Broyard’s of the world into being. In one devastating passage the matriarch of the family, Olivia Whitman, recounts her experiences in the segregated south that ultimately informed her decision to ‘pass’:

“There were other things too. Little things. You’d save up and go out for a nice night at a nice place…they were imitations of the places we were kept out of – most of it was done with perfect  taste, but sitting at a bar or at the candlelit table you’d try and imagine what dinnertime remarks the real people were making…yes the real people…two blocks away, the white folks we were shadows of…you’d try to talk about whatever you imagine they were talking about, and your food turned to sawdust in your mouth.”

At times commanding and incisive in her insights, Oyeyemi’s novel at other times feels on the verge of slipping out of her otherwise tight grip narratively, with the enigmatic stepmother, Boy, perhaps the least accessible of all of the novel’s characters.

Nonetheless, she manages to leverage a tight examination of race-passing to pose a much more radical question, insisting the reader consider the myriad ways in which we all engage in “passing” through the process of subjectivity, whether it be passing for blonde – as one early character in the book does for a hack expose she’s writing on how blondes experience the world differently than brunettes – or gender “passing” in a bombshell plot twist that is best left intact, or in Boy’s own desire to remake herself and relinquish her tormented past. However strong your sense of personal identity, Boy, Snow, Bird is likely, if you’re reading it right, to make you a bit uncomfortable in your own skin, and that’s quite an achievement.

Boy, Snow, Bird is available March 6th by Riverhead Press.

Chase Quinn is a New York based culture writer. Follow Chase on Twitter @chasebquinn