Louis Chude-Sokei draws the title of his memoir, "Floating in a Most Peculiar Way," from the lyrics of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," a song he heard in a refugee camp in Gabon after he and his Jamaican-born mother fled Biafra in 1970 when he was 3. His father — right-hand man to the head of that short-lived state — had been killed and young Chude-Sokei and his mother only barely made it out of the country. Tied up with his sense of dislocation, the song haunted the author for years.
Escaping her late husband's family's demand that she marry her husband's brother, Chude-Sokei's mother returned to her native Jamaica with her son. She eventually traveled on to America to work as a nurse, leaving the boy in the care of a grim Seventh Day Adventist couple until she could provide the wherewithal to send for him. Accordingly, he spent at least three difficult years in Jamaica contending with what became a lifelong conundrum of possessing a mixed ethnic and cultural heritage.
"Africans and Caribbean people thought themselves superior to one another," he tells us, "the former having escaped chattel slavery and the latter for having escaped Africa."
Chude-Sokei's first American home was in Washington, D.C., where his mother worked as a nurse. Eventually, the two moved to Inglewood in Los Angeles County, whose neighborhoods were rife with street gangs. The author, a big reader, a trait that had previously drawn praise, now found he was derided by his Black peers for "acting white." In fact, he writes, "Anything that was alien to my friends and neighbors was branded white even if it came from Jamaica or Nigeria."
Consequently, Chude-Sokei did his best to adapt and fit in, to expunge his accent, to adopt street lingo and manners. His schoolwork suffered; he got into fights; he stopped reading. But secretly he wrote for himself and was quite possibly saved from the fate of so many he knew — prison or death — by a teacher who understood that he was not the persona he projected but the person who would work at writing a novel.
Chude-Sokei chronicles his further missteps, advances and inner conflicts to create a moving, perspicacious account of disguising his origins, of adopting pose after pose, of seeking acceptance. It is a story of perplexed identity, of its permutations and specificities. Much depended on context: In Washington and California, white people saw him as Black, while American Blacks, identifying as African American, did not — scorning Africans as not really Black.
Confronted with a bewildering complex of bigotry here and in Jamaica, he became fascinated by the nature of the African diaspora, a fascination that prevented him from disappearing "into the vortex of American racial meanings and cultural expectations." His interest grew into scholarly inquiry, the forging of an influential academic career, and, not least, a way of making sense of his own life.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
Floating in a Most Peculiar Way
By: Louis Chude-Sokei.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages, $27.