Title: When We Were Birds
Author: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
Genre: Current Lit
Page Count: 288
Publication Date: February 10, 2022
When I pre-ordered When We Were Birds back in 2022, I was on a mission. A mission to broaden my reading horizons and venture into the worlds and stories of different cultures, races, and mindsets than my own. I got about 20 pages in, ready to dive in wholeheartedly when I managed to misplace the book. It was living in my work backpack and managed to slip out, going underneath our guest bed during a work-at-home day. I honestly thought it was lost forever, taken away by the leprechauns that clearly live in my house.
I came back to the book through the happy accident of finding it again in the midst of moving furniture while my husband and I were painting our guestroom in late January. I’m so glad this book came back into my life and introduced me to a beautiful and unique interpretation of grief and death. Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel honors legends, love, family, and life throughout its pages. Both a ghost story and a love story, this tale opens your eyes to modern takes on folklore while reminding you that generational guilt and familial responsibility are alive and well in every culture.
When We Were Birds follows Yejide and Darwin, the main characters and love interests, as they navigate coming of age in Trinidad and Tobago. Yejide is part of a generational line of mystic women who live in an in-between reality, half rooted in life and half in the afterlife, to help the dead find peace. She is thrown into navigating her new role as an undertaker after her mother dies. Darwin is a young man, brought up in the Rastafari religion, forced to take a job as a gravedigger to support himself and his mother.
I found myself enraptured by the backbone of this book – myths and beliefs surrounding death. Yejide’s familial powers are inspired by the mythologies associated with corbeaux, or black vultures. Throughout many forms of folklore (Greek, Roman, Native American, etc.) vultures and ravens are associated with guiding the dead from one world to the next. I was honestly convinced that the corbeaux had to be part of Trinidadian traditions, but through an internet rabbit hole, I found that Lloyd Banwo was simply inspired by both the tales of other cultures and the bird’s natural connection to death and its ability to consume carcasses without becoming sick. Black vultures are also found everywhere in Trinidad. Lloyd Banwo skillfully thought through every aspect of Yejide’s family and their abilities. Every last detail makes it easy to believe in the impossibility of their magic.
Darwin, on the other hand, represents the struggles faced by minority groups in the real world. Rastafari, a religion most often associated with Bob Marley, is a spiritual and political movement rooted in Protestantism, mysticism, and pan-African politicism. Rastafarians do not believe in reincarnation, and often hold celebrations of life for those who have passed. They are also known to cut off their dreadlocks after going to funerals. Making Darwin a gravedigger is both ironic and brilliant — highlighting the struggles of holding onto your personal beleifs in a world that might not understand them.
Together, Yejide and Darwin are a symbol for the universal struggle faced by all young adults: balancing self-expression and generational guilt. Yejide is torn, trying to decide if following her neglectful mother’s guidance and leaving the life thrust upon her is what she wants or if she is driven by her family’s traditions. Darwin struggles with finding and making a way in the world while making his mother, and himself, proud. I always find it so fascinating how much stock we put into other people when it comes to defining our own happiness. I’m at complete fault for it myself. Like a child putting faith in a parent to be exactly what they need or a parent putting their personal hopes and dreams onto the shoulders of their child. It almost always leads to some level of disappointment, and — hopefully — eventual acceptance. This is clear through Yejide’s distain for her mother, who was in her life physically but never emotionally, and Darwin’s internal battle with a father he believes abandoned him. They both come to terms with their conflicts with their parents in the end, but have to find themselves before they can.
Throughout all 288 pages, Lloyd Banwo is writing a love letter for the misunderstood and the forgotten, as well as her home country of Trinidad. Her novel is a universal tale that is relatable for anyone who has experienced grief, disappointment with a loved one, or has experienced the difficulties of becoming an independent adult. In short, this is a story for everyone.
Buy Lloyd Banwo’s modern Caribbean fairy tale here.
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