Part of LM Voices' Tiny Review series
Pared down, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel When We Were Birds (2022) is a coming-of-age love story of star-crossed lovers, and yet to stop there would do the author a disservice. For there is nothing formulaic about Lloyd Banwo’s main protagonists: Yejide is ordained to carry on her family’s multigenerational duty to usher souls to the afterlife, while Darwin spurns his mother’s wishes and aspects of his Rastafari belief system to work as a gravedigger in fictional Port Angeles, Trinidad. The novel incorporates Trinidadian folklore, which serves as the basis for the title, alongside post-colonial underpinnings and the challenges of twenty-first century life in Trinidad, where migration from the country to the city is spawned by a desire to work, and where that work is problematized by greed and corruption. This serves as the novel’s backdrop.
To that end, Lloyd Banwo successfully creates a dark Caribbean atmosphere. The two protagonists regularly deal with ghosts, and Darwin’s time at the cemetery is filled with eerie occurrences and co-workers who thrust him into the city’s seedy underbelly. Violent storms accompany Yejide’s phantasmagoric work. In short, the author relies heavily on a shadowy imagery, often through an ecogothic lens in which a dark environmental force plays a pivotal role in the plot’s development, to narrate her story. At the same time, she offers moments of levity as she develops two separate coming-of-age stories that finally converge in the second half of the book.
A novel centered on life and death serves as a gateway to a central theme: predestination and free will. When Yejide’s mother passes away, she inherits a family ability and responsibility passed down matrilineally to help spirits reach the next plane of existence. This part of her life is determined for her, despite her misgivings throughout most of the novel. Darwin’s path is less settled. He takes on a job as a gravedigger because there are no other opportunities; he wonders about his absent father; he worries that the big city will eventually consume him. Only upon meeting Yejide does his path seem to materialize. Darwin is a man of pure values, and it is his moral compass that attracts Yejide to him. Rastas believe a clean life can lead to immortality, and Lloyd Banwo’s Darwin might be a quintessential example. Despite all these meditations on fate, one certainty is that Yejide and Darwin were destined to find each other. Their loyalty is unconditional, with both of them taking risks to help the other find their calling.
While the novel is a love story, other themes abound still, particularly the role of parental figures, familial obligations, faith, and notions of masculinity. Holistically, the book is rich in topics. C oupled with the largely linear progression that breaks from the more temporally fragmented storytelling forms that have become prevalent in Caribbean novels like Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020) or Kei Miller’s Augustown (2016), When We Were Birds is an easy, but engaging offering that cements Ayanna Lloyd Banwo as an emerging voice in Caribbean letters.
Daniel Arbino is the Head of Collection Development at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American literature in 2013. His most recent articles have been published in the Latin American Literary Review, eTropic, and Aztlán.
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