CREATURES OF PASSAGE
By Morowa Yejidé
Mythic language will forever find a home in the Black American experience. Jail is the shadowed and forgotten realm to which mere chance can consign you. Jazz is Prometheus bringing fire to humans. The Great Migrations are Old Testament journeys, a rights-affirming Supreme Court case a New Testament parable. So myth is the tone of Morowa Yejidé’s second novel, “Creatures of Passage,” a modern-day fable about the fight for the soul of a boy who witnesses, and struggles to make sense of, an act of molestation at school.
In “Creatures of Passage,” a cosmic lexicon describes mundane, earthbound life. In Yejidé’s hands, the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., becomes the realm of Anacostia. The protagonist, Nephthys Kinwell, is, in one light, an alcoholic taxi driver, and, in another, a Stygian ferrywoman haunted by the violent death of her twin brother, Osiris. Rising fog announces her shifts and while she shuttles passengers to and from physical destinations, she is really shuttling them through emotional states, ferrying the soul as much as the body, all while the ghost of a murdered white woman passes the time in her trunk.
One day, Nephthys’s great-nephew, Dash, arrives at her door with a note from the school nurse, telling Nephthys that the boy attacked a classmate who made fun of him after he was seen at a nearby river talking to a man who wasn’t there. Dash later reveals that he thinks his mother, who dreams the deaths of others before they happen, had a dream about him. So begins Nephthys’s lyrically dazzling, Sophoclean attempt to keep her niece’s premonition from coming to pass.
The novel’s movement isn’t forward so much as in spirals and, in parts, the tale becomes unmoored as the reader is plunged into a profusion of bad-luck back stories. But when the book’s vertebrae returns, so does narrative propulsion. The novel’s prose-mechanics — cab rides transformed into recountings of characters’ personal histories — make sense given Nephthys’s occupation. But what is among the book’s greatest strengths, the care taken to deepen our understanding of these characters, ends up creating its greatest flaw: uneven pacing. Readers spend so much time amid the plight of the story’s victims that they can sometimes forget that there’s a hero, or three, out there capable of deliverance, of salvation. Heroes just as tragic and unlucky and compelling as the people they’re trying to save. “It isn’t all horror here,” I found myself hoping someone would say.
“Creatures of Passage” resists comparison. It’s reminiscent of “Beloved” as well as the “Odyssey,” but perhaps its most apt progenitor is the genre of epic poems performed by the djelis of West Africa, those repositories of oral histories, advisers to kings and keepers of a kingdom’s origin story. In this sense, the intertwining of legend and terrestrial history feels most appropriate. But griots don’t just tell the stories of kings, they guard the stories of marriages and births and deaths, exiles and reunions. The stories of families. The stories of a village perhaps, once upon a time, the size of Anacostia.
Perhaps, then, the easiest way into Yejidé’s novel is to envision it as a djeli’s performance. The head-hopping from one character’s point of view to another’s, the way the narration swoops from cosmic heights to the worm’s-eye view of the physical damage wrought by the “white ravage,” the expansive and mythic language, the presence of otherworldly wolves and underwater communities alongside kids on porches and police cars and school nurses, all these otherwise clashing elements become, in this cast, a cohesive whole, telling us that this, too, is America.