The best fiction of 2022: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s “When We Were Birds”

Here are excerpts from Leighan M Renaud’s “The best fiction of 2022: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s ‘When We Were Birds’–An exquisite exploration of love and legacy.” Read full article in The Conversation. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel When We Were Birds is a spellbinding, beautifully told blend of love story and magical realism ghost story.

The novel opens with protagonist Yejide sitting on her grandmother’s lap as she tells her a story that opens “there was a time before time”. Because of the text’s strong narrative voice, it feels like the reader stays on that lap throughout the novel. Lloyd Banwo’s prose, written in Trinidadian English, is incredibly poetic, lyrical and ripe with lore and proverb that firmly roots the narrative in a tradition of anglophone Caribbean women’s writing.

Yejide’s grandmother tells her a story about the time before time, when animals reigned on a utopian Earth. After an encounter with human warriors, war breaks out and wreaks havoc on the animals, leaving many dead.

The narrative describes parrots transforming into the “corbeaux” bird, “devouring the dead” and bringing balance to the forest in doing so. The corbeaux is known across the Caribbean as a bird of prey associated with death, and it is the fictional corbeaux’s work with the dead that connects the novel’s two protagonists and acts as a catalyst for the romantic storyline. [. . .]

Between the realms of the dead and the living

Beyond being a love story, When We Were Birds is an exquisite exploration of trauma, legacy, lineage, familial relationships and ancestral reverence.

One of the novel’s most intriguing relationships is that between Yejide and her mother, Petronella. Theirs is a relationship characterised by coldness and silence.

Yejide’s gift is passed down to her from her mother, who inherited the gift from her mother. As I read this mother-daughter relationship (a relationship that has so often been explored in Caribbean women’s writing), I consider how it might be symbolic of the colonial history of the Caribbean, and the inherited traumas associated with it. Talking to the dead is a gift because it means a lasting connection with one’s ancestors, but it also means existing between the realms of the dead and the living and being reminded of difficult pasts. [. . .]

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