Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida
Translated by Eric M.B. Becker
“The truth is that the story of my curly hair intersects with the story of at least two countries and, by extension, the underlying story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics,” Almeida states in the opening pages of this hybrid novel which according to its English translator, Eric M.B. Becker, sits “somewhere between fiction and the essay.”
In this slim novel, narrator Mila and the writer Almeida seep into each other, both being one-half Angolan and another half Portuguese and, after a point in time, the reader might forget that she is reading fiction. In places, it feels too real to be fiction. Mila’s tussle with her wild untamable hair is a clever metaphor to demonstrate her constant struggle to detangle their mixed identity. Almeida repeats, through Mila, the one constant pain in her life—the hair, that does not let her belong to either of her identities. Woven between memories of hair salons and meandering family histories are profound lessons on the stubbornness of immigrant psyches and its propensity to preserve certain ascriptive characteristics despite being exposed to foreign cultures. Much like the way Mila’s hair withstands the storm of chemical treatments and flat-irons and keeps springing back to its natural curly state.
Postcolonial history with its confusing deluge of uprooting and multiple migrations shaped postmodernist writing and coughed up hybrids known for their uneven blending of genres. In That Hair, there is a blurring of boundaries between an autobiography and fiction. Almeida’s work is significant because hers is the first written from the perspective of one who left Lisbon, and whose family history overlaps both the Iberian Peninsula and Portuguese Africa. She deftly explores the spaces between cultures but what sets her apart from other writers dealing with a similar theme is how she marries the journey of self with physical migration. She highlights in her essay-style writing multiple times that when you leave the land of your birth to travel to a new country there is a sort of “migration within the self,” and that adds a solemn, philosophical dimension to her otherwise easy sense of humor noticeable throughout the book.
We see Mila the narrator in the novel, twist and bend her memory, interpreting what might have happened because memory itself is often unreliable and incomplete. The spine of the narration is how she flirts and experiments with different hairstyles through her growing up years, and the many lighthearted anecdotes associated with that journey.
Mila spends a sizeable amount of time tracing her maternal and paternal grandparents’ trek across Portugal’s African colonies, bringing in backstories that seem more tethered and easier to grasp, unlike her own many-angled, complex self-discovery that will leave readers breathless at times.
Utterly entangled like Mila’s hair and her multifarious identity as a mixed-race woman, the novel itself is a challenging read. For a while, you might wonder whether it’s the translation that makes it more complex or if it’s the Portuguese way of writing that throws you off. Almeida writes long rambling sentences that often run on filling entire pages to contain her unself-conscious habit of shifting between countries and periods. The book is full of discursive detours, and sentences that are so long and complex that they fold on each other and make you re-read parts. But she does not seem to worry too much about whether her readers follow her. Chronology is not something she wants to stick to. She believes in expressing her intricate thought process to the fullest and that requires her to transcend following a proper timeline or even a proper plot.
The repetitive questions and the irritation of not getting a straight answer to any of them can frustrate readers despite the lyrical triumph of the writing. But what pulls the readers back from the brink of being completely annoyed and abandoning the book is the universality of how existential and ethnic peculiarities can become life-long obsessions and add a permanent tinge to the lenses through which we view the world.
It is not a book that can be read in one sitting. The disjointed narration makes that rather arduous. It is a kind of book that will make you pause and think about your own ethnic and cultural background, how it has interpreted your physical appearance and how in turn that has shaped your thought process. Not fitting in neatly in any identity boxes due to our ethnicity or gender or sexuality is a more universal dilemma than we generally acknowledge. And that gives the book the power to start a global conversation on what it means not to be able to conform to typecasts.
There are certain stories unfolded by Almeida that impel you to blow off the dust settled on your trunk of memories and pluck out incidents that might have infuriated you at one point but make you smile now.
One was Mila’s love for grandma Lucia’s fine hair. She believed that it “exuded the scent of the place I come from, my homeland, the scent of stale air, of a retired person.” The pleasant tactile bliss of a nine-year-old girl combing her grandma’s hair and catching a whiff of her true identity in it wraps the readers in a blanket of warm nostalgia. It is in her bizarre longing to tell border patrol police that her country of origin is her grandma’s hair that the whimsical becomes a thing of beauty. Snippets like this reveal the quiet and tender poetry in her writing and the philosophical superiority of her thoughts. Just like the mention of a personal journal or diary as being a sort of “language playground,” or adolescence being “merely the exacerbation of what none of us ever wanted to become, as if for a few years we were allowed to be a lesser version of ourselves that could explode in our very hands,” brings in the matured observation of a deep thinker.
This made me remember growing up how my parents struggled with my “too” fine and silky hair that did not allow the safe lodging of hair clips they wanted to add as embellishments on festive occasions. I recollect a particular incident at a wedding when my parents stood on either side maniacally twisting strands of my hair (a technique my father had observed a mother use on her fine-haired daughter at a busy airport) so that they could install butterfly-shaped clips that matched my dress. My seven-year-old-self had experienced a chagrin that my memory had stored for so many years but now it brings more of an achy smile reminding me that my aging parents live in a different continent and I see them only once a year.
The other is Almeida’s mention of “damaged childhood photos—crammed into an old shoebox to slowly lose their color…” She acknowledges that “We cannot deny that our childhood has changed color and that its coloring now is not the sepia occasioned by the photograph but the sepia of neglect.”
This made me open up old forgotten albums and pour through photographs that represented a younger and naïve world, a world that had not grown jaded with disappointments and hardships marking the life of an immigrant. Tumbling out came distant relatives and old friends that my memory had tucked away to make space for the present. Episodes spilled out from the 1980s and 90s, from my school and college days. Episodes that are so unique to the time that they could not be emulated in today’s technologically sophisticated world at all.
This is not a book to recommend to those looking for a conventional novel with a lucid plotline. But for those who are grappling with the idea of “self,” it can be an interesting read. If you are willing to let go of your preconceived notion of how a novel should read structurally and are comfortable to float for a while pondering how you have changed with time and why that is an important path to follow, this book will provide you dollops of comfort in a quirky manner.