As a child I imagined the intricacies of my Louisiana Cajun father’s childhood. His family, his ancestry. He was a man gone long before my memory starts, and so I looked at a photo of us from the day I was born and extrapolated the curl of his hair and the darkness of his skin and what little I knew of his history into great detail. I blended truth and myth into a world of history and magic, replete with colors that fit in a way I did not and I hid it deep in the folds of my mind. The only piece that was apparent of that world was my skin, a color halfway between his and my white mother’s. When presented with a book that lay bare, in beautiful prose, the details of my absent father’s culture, I was immediately drawn in.
I needed to see how Boo survived even after he was told he would die.
Black Sheep Boy is a series of chapters that can stand alone as easily as they can be strung together, and none of them go down easy. The novel starts in the kitchen with Mama, a mixed woman who left a childhood of oil derricks and half men and Boo, a boy whose lisping tongue and restless arms made him sorely out of place in this world of “real boys.” From the beginning this book is not as simple as it seems. The benign scene, Mama singing as she puts away groceries, quickly morphs into Boo holding an egg in an upturned palm, trying to stay still. Trying to be the real boy his Mama wants him to be, enduring a test of the culture Mama fled at her first opportunity. Alas he cannot and so Mama rains down the package of eggs upon him and makes a revival of her own. The devil in Boo needs to be cleansed.
Full of characters whose minds and bodies stretch away from the present into history and mysticism and desires of bodies that fit, aching for transformation, the question I had reading this was does it translate?
To be mixed race and queer, to me, is to always be Other-ed. It is to perpetually exist in a room full of people of which I am half and to only have the other half be seen. It is to come of age in classrooms full of silent people staring at me only to stare at their desks when I looked them in the eye. It is to be told who I am and to always have that person be half of me, and it is to wonder about the Other half. To grow up mixed race and queer is to grow up splintered. Most importantly, to me, it is to spend young adulthood baffled at how to put the Others together after a lifetime of being dissected for the observation, discussion, and enlightenment of rooms full of people who do not resemble me at all.
One of the most salient pieces of my identity is the statement, “I am not just--.” Because of this I clung to each page as if it were a raft of recognition after a lifetime of floating just outside of realness. By the end of each chapter the raft was so deflated I was left to wonder if it was ever filled with air.
We make our languages, decorate our bodies, and find our tribes and we do so in the face of a world that would sooner call us the devil, try to kill us and blame us for our deaths.
The heartbreak of this novel is both its grounding in a specific cultural, racial, and sexual reality and the relentlessness of it. Mama’s desire for a real boy: pale-skinned, masculine, heterosexual and how Boo could not fit that; Boo’s repeated traumas and how unseen and ignored they were in plain sight—every piece of this story laden with the details of Acadian culture and its loss to colonization and consumerism. The distance between reality and myth is vast and almost every chapter navigates that space with a practiced deftness. Pousson brilliantly leaves emotion off of the page, forcing the reader to invest and do the work themselves.
I found myself repeatedly galvanized by Boo’s survival and Mama’s unhappiness. It was difficult for me to navigate a book so close to what I know and understand, but this book was not meant to be easy on the reader. I wanted parts to move quicker, I wanted to rush, but that is not a kindness reality gives and it is not one Pousson gives either. We can hallucinate transformation, turning the world which breaks us on its end, but the rebellion and joy of that lasts as long as the Acadian song of a frog; two-lined and meant partly to confuse the ones who truly hold the world in their hands.
The death of Boo’s maternal grandfather, a last vestige of legend for both Boo and Mama, is an opening. Mama’s confectionary grief, unpredictable but sometimes sweet, was the point at which Boo started to get free. Makeup and clothes and swaying hips, disapproved of but still allowed, intersperse the pervasive violence that continues into the second half. Pousson ever reminds the reader of precisely how we can decorate our bodies and scrub our houses and rehearse the tea we would partake in with our friends if only we were pale enough and still there is the world outside and, if you are Other, your place in it is painfully slow to move, if at all.
I clung to each page as if it were a raft of recognition after a lifetime of floating just outside of realness.
I couldn’t answer the question I had in the beginning of the book--does it translate?—until after I had reached the end. After Boo’s entrance into adulthood, after it became clear just how much Others try to distance themselves from their beginnings only to be haunted by them, I was left with the mysticism Boo made for himself. A mysticism that intertwined with his survival and was a string ran through his family.
The answer is yes. It does translate. We make our languages, decorate our bodies, and find our tribes and we do so in the face of a world that would sooner call us the devil, try to kill us and blame us for our deaths. Impossibly few get to disappear completely into our self-made worlds without being forced to step out into the Other air for money to fund them. Boo had to step out to sell his plasma to pay for his access to his tribe and in doing so, one day, received the message of his impending death.
Even inside of these worlds of reinvention are predators, people who have risen in the hierarchy of counter-cultural mysticism to perpetuate abuses after power turns them into lions. And also inside of these made worlds are the precious few who will show us the land and define the words and give us warnings we may not choose to heed. Pousson’s giving of mysticism woven with the heartbreak of reality gave me a glimpse of the Other that I know, that I have lived, and I read the final page dually devastated and freed.
I thought I needed this novel to look back, to fill in the holes of childhood imaginings still densely colored in the back of my mind. But more than Mama’s history, I needed Boo’s survival. I needed to read the experience of this specific boy so Other, so in-between, that predators saw him an easy mark again and again. And I needed to see how Boo survived even after he was told he would die.
REVIEWED BY MELANIE ALLDRITT
Melanie is a native Oregonian currently living and writing in Ohio. She is fascinated with race, class, science, and the in-between where they mingle and create language. Her work can be found online at Nailed Magazine, The Gravity of the Thing, in print at Gobshite Quarterly, Perceptions Magazine, and elsewhere.