If there is a missed opportunity in “Weightless,” I wish she’d have asserted more clearly not just that fat people shouldn’t be subject to criticism and discrimination, but also that they have a right to exist — period. Dionne stops short of a full-throated declaration that fatness is not always — or even often — the result of health problems, trauma or “bad” eating and exercise habits. In this way, we see traces of latent fat-phobia poking through an otherwise incisive and gratifying critique. Of course, Dionne acknowledges her internalized bias; and so her book is to be taken as an “excavation” by someone who is, by her own admission, a work in progress. This, too, is a gift of “Weightless”: the chance to witness what it looks like to do the hard, continuing work of self-inquiry in pursuit of a better world.
In her captivating and lyrical debut, A COASTLINE IS AN IMMEASURABLE THING: A Memoir Across Three Continents (259 pp., Ecco, $26.99), Mary-Alice Daniel reaches boldly into her past across Nigeria, England and the United States to inspect the pressures and nuances of mythology, ancestry, colonization and religion.
The result is as much the story of Daniel’s life — her parents’ escape from post-colonial Nigeria soon after her birth, their doctoral programs in England, their jobs in Tennessee — as it is an inquiry into the things that surround and supplant biography itself: memory, belief, doubt, hope. “My directive is unearthing,” she writes, finding the “root” of the histories that created her, “feeling my way to bare, buried fact.”
Daniel embraces the complexity of being simultaneously drawn to and repelled by our roots. She is a “third culture kid,” experiencing the “overwhelming instinct to find people who looked, spoke and acted like we did,” and then “barren grief” when she realizes she never will. She is too in-between, too multifaceted to be in easy kinship with her peers.
In asking what makes a person, a place, a family or a tribe, Daniel dives deep into language, including gorgeously rendered etymologies of her name, the names of places she’s lived and those of the entities who form her personal cosmology of idols, like Queen Calafia, the fictional Black empress after whom California, Daniel’s current home, is named.
Daniel is a poet, and on occasion her observations tilt a paragraph abruptly toward free-form verse. But her writing remains striking, discerning and haunting: British snow is “blinding against bloodied brick,” America is a “leviathan” hungering for excess, traditional African gestures of submission “felt like vulgarities in my body.” Adrift among identities, she moves through “darkening fields of misunderstanding and miscommunication.” Immigrants, she asserts, are “integral, even when we are not integrated,” forming “the tensile connective tissue in all diaspora,” i.e., in all human history.