Obi Simic's Engrossing Novel
In Getting Over Yonder Mama Ersie tells granddaughter Olivia a story about a pair of twin brothers of the Hausa people. At birth Kepti and Kamdu each receive a crystal stone from the Magi; for their first hunt their father gives them a shaft of rhinoceros skull; when they come of age their mother presents them with exquisite quilts. The twins are never to part with these valuables, but when they are kidnapped by evil men and taken to a faraway land Kepti trades his treasures for a royal name and some fancy cloth. Kamdu, on the other hand, uses his treasures to escape and make his way home. This cautionary tale is about the value of hanging on to one’s own culture. Unfortunately, Olivia realizes she is a Kepti not a Kamdu: She would gladly abandon her African heritage and English tongue to fit in at her Montreal school.
Getting Over Yonder, an engrossing novel by Obi Simic, begins in Quebec in the run up to the 1995 sovereignty referendum where increasing hostility toward a English-speaking black family leads to a fatal crime. They eventually move to more “tolerant” Ontario, but it does little to heal their shattered lives.
Simic situates this unequivocally black Canadian story smack in the middle of the French/English tensions that have historically defined this country, subtly comparing black experience in Quebec’s distinct society with black experience in multicultural Ontario. The difference, we perceive, is one of style rather than substance.
This is the Montreal native’s first novel and like many promising black Canadian writers she found self-publishing to be her most viable option. Her work would have benefited from the editorial guidance of an established publishing house. Nevertheless, Simic’s storytelling gifts – including a ventriloquist’s command of voice - are indisputable. What’s more she gives us words for feelings we barely knew we had.
Simic would seem to be just the sort of promising, “diverse”, voice Canadian publishers claim to be seeking and yet this work has been bypassed altogether. Certainly, the subject matter is daunting, as is Simic’s “take no prisoners” approach: She categorically indicts Quebec’s language laws while exposing the province’s virulent strain of anti-black racism.
The Ugochinyere family at the center of the novel is presented as a microcosm of a diverse Quebec society. Olivia boasts that she can speak four languages. “Maybe one and a half,” her father smiles. On top of French, Mr. Ugochinyere speaks Igbo, one of his native Nigeria’s 200 tongues, as well as English, a language Nigeria’s many peoples share in common. Olivia’s Jamaican born mother and grandmother favour a “spicy” patois in the company of their vast extended family. Everyone comes together at the Ugochinyere’s modest home on the outskirts of Montreal to swim and cook barbecue at the pit in the big back yard. Olivia describes her relatives as a rainbow assortment of crayons with skin tones ranging from “White to Beige to Black to Black-Black. “
Olivia loves her family and her life. She can’t understand why grown-ups get so weighed down with care. The summer before Grade One she spends racing bikes with her big sister and brother, mostly to the depanneur where M. Leroux stuffs their bags with candy. It’s a blissful season. And yet, there is a strange tension in the air. Olivia wonders why certain neighbours are so unfriendly and why her mother, a head nurse, has become unhappy at work.
One night on the television news an angry woman supplies the answer:
“This is Quebec, for God’s sake!’ she roars. ”We speak French here, not English. If you are unable to speak the language in our stores, in our government, or even at our restaurants, you must leave! Why are we letting all these people come here from their countries if they are not prepared to be part of our society? Fit in or get out!”
Simic uses the newscast to neatly convey complicated cultural information to both Olivia and the reader. We learn of a variety of perspectives on the situation including that of an aboriginal man who points out his people never forced the French to speak Mohawk. The television broadcast is in fact one of the startlingly public ways many black children come to grasp the meaning of their experience; especially as parents tend to delay a conversation about racism they fear will demoralize their children.
In Grade One, Olivia is tormented by a miserable little racist named Michel Leduc. Yet she refuses to tell her big brother or even her friend, Carly, what is going on:
“(P)erhaps I was protecting myself,” she says. ”I started to think that not only was I different than the other kids, but different enough that it made a difference. Coming forward, I felt, would be outing myself to everyone and on the off chance that maybe someone like Carly … hadn’t yet noticed my difference, I kept quiet.”
Michel’s vicious behaviour instigates the deadly violence that will ultimately force the Ugochinyeres to leave Quebec.
His daily cruelty conspires with the general anti-English/anti-immigrant atmosphere to chip away at Olivia’s self-esteem which is not very high to begin with. She is embarrassed by her African heritage and the African surname teachers find difficult to pronounce. She dislikes the dark complexion she inherited from her father and craves her mother’s light skin and swingy hair.
Although, Olivia suffers in silence, Mama Ersie senses something is wrong. Her stories, songs and proverbs urge Olivia to love and accept herself. Olivia marvels at her grandmother’s unwavering faith in God; she admires her grandmother’s confidence in an eternal home over yonder. A sweet accent, flowery perfume and patient nature make Mama Ersie Olivia’s favourite person. Still, the child stubbornly resists her grandmother’s wise advice.
By moving to bilingual, multicultural Ontario, the family hopes to make a fresh start. Instead, Olivia feels as though she is in exile. She looks down at the black students in her school and mostly keeps to herself. Later, she falls in with a crowd of “cool” white teens. But when she realizes they see her as an outsider, she withdraws completely, sliding into depression and drug addiction.
Getting Over Yonder is a work of strong ideas, but it has its flaws, the most obvious of which is the age of the narrator who, for a good chunk of the novel is six years old. It is probably asking too much of adult and even young adult readers to identify with so young a heroine. Simic might have easily made Olivia as old as nine or ten since that is the age she sounds most of the time.
Another flaw is the lack of historical context for French Canada’s anti-English sentiment. It might have been interesting, for instance to incorporate author Pierre Vallieres’ comparison of the plight of the French in Quebec with that of blacks in the American South - the bleak irony that Quebecers wound up oppressing a minority with whom they professed to empathize. Naturally such an analogy would be beyond the ken of Simic’s child narrator. Still she could have used metaphor and allusion to work it into the sensibility of the story.
But this is an important novel. For those of us engaged in isolating the characteristics of a new literature, Getting Over Yonder feels wonderfully, unequivocally black Canadian. Like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, it examines the relationship between race and place. It is also a work of the wider diaspora: As with West African novelists, Simic draws on the motif of twins and the symbolism of stones. And like black women writers everywhere she illuminates the rugged path to self-love.