The Places that Inhabit Us: On Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch
By Chaitali Sen
In a recent New York Times interview, “post-humanist” professor Cary Wolfe offered this idea about the self: “–that it is, in fact, a prosthetic entity, a distributed, dispersed ‘assemblage’ constituted by many elements, some of them physical and material and biological, some of them not, the constitution of the self by language and how it rewires the brain being the most obvious example. This is, if you like, the ‘truth’ of the self: that it exists nowhere as a totality.”
Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer and photographer Abeer Hoque’s new memoir, Olive Witch, examines this very question of the self as “prosthetic entity.” What are the effects of seeking but never achieving a unifying sense of self? This memoir begins with a suicide attempt. When asked why she swallowed 32 sleeping pills, Abeer answers, “So I’d sleep 32 nights.” Her suicide attempt is an event that haunts the entire narrative, presented mostly in offset boxes dispersed throughout the book, each box containing a single archival nugget–a psych ward guideline, a poem, or a scattered thought.
“I’m tired of wearing my face.”
“I hate all the things I am and could be.”
“I think I’ve forgotten how to think.”
Whatever the truth about self is, the reality is that we want to have an idea of who we are. We feel comforted by a primary identity that usually begins with one’s family and one’s home. Hoque’s childhood home is Nsukka, Nigeria. This is the place where she was born, the first place that seeped into her skin and her psyche. She beautifully describes Nsukka and her attachment to it, despite the fact that she is never given permission to claim it as her home. Her home was supposed to be Bangladesh, the country where her parents grew up, but she herself had never lived. She carefully excavates memories of her schooling, her friendships, and the complications of being a postcolonial immigrant in a country where the colonial inequalities persist and the privilege of foreigners, even brown foreigners, is upheld and problematic. She also knows that these things mean little to a child. Her memories consist more of the comical tics of a colonial era English education and her childhood games.
Chubuike is darker than the darkening evening. Bottle-smooth ebony skin. Next to Ivan, another Bangladeshi boy, he is a shadow bouncing around the gymnasium. They are speaking a pidgin mix of English and Igbo, while Simi and I play a clapping game called ‘oyo yo oyo’ with two other girls.
Hoque has an uncanny ability to bring particular places to life on the page. I first encountered her writing when I happened upon her collection of short stories, The Lovers and The Leavers, published by Fourth Estate, a division of HarperCollins India. These stories, set in the United States and Bangladesh, were exquisite, compact, and fearless in the range of voices and experiences they tried to encapsulate. Her physical descriptions of people and landscapes, of weather and the sky, behaviors and language and accents, of the movements of objects and how people and elements interact with each other, all contribute to the realization that place is lived through the body, that a place inhabits us as much as we inhabit the place. Hoque continues with this preoccupation in Olive Witch, which takes the narrator away from her beloved Nigeria to a painful adolescence in Pittsburgh, college and graduate school in Philadelphia, a more mature, more self-assured adult life in San Francisco, and occasional extended visits to ancestral Bangladesh. There is a sense that all of these places can’t be contained inside one consciousness. She has to release them onto the pages of a book just to stay sane.
The second section of the book takes place mainly on the drab edges of Pittsburgh, where she moved during her adolescence. Like Akhil Sharma in Family Life, Hoque viscerally describes the painful experience of becoming an immigrant to the United States during the most awkward stage of one’s life, when every difference and expression of cultural confusion becomes the subject of cruel, hormonal taunts. It’s here that she starts an almost obsessive habit of forcing herself into identities that don’t quite fit. She joins the swim team in high school despite being a slow swimmer, because no one ever gets cut from the team. She writes, “I hate swimming, but I dream about it all the time,” and eventually she improves.
I’m moving faster, more powerfully than I used to. I have figured out one thing in my American life, even as everything else feels picked apart. My body feels loose and liquid, my skin sliding easily over muscle and bone.
She repeats this strategy again and again, until it fails her in the middle of a PhD program in decision theory at Wharton School of Business. The reader can tell how bad a fit it is, how little it allows an intensely creative spirit like Hoque’s to flourish, and how, despite all her experimentation during this phase, how far she is from a sense of self, even a splintered self.
One of the greatest pleasures of this memoir is the infrequent appearance of Hoque’s father, a contradictory character who is a religious traditionalist in many ways but still defiant of stereotypical expectations. Hoque reveals more of him toward the end, during a visit to Bangladesh.
My father, with his legendary temper, even more ferocious will, lives at odds in America. Ambitious, religious, progressive, judgmental, intellectual, proud, accomplished. In Bangladesh, he is all of the same things, and somehow, as out of place.
There again is the self, existing nowhere in totality.