In 2006, at 14, Harry travels with his parents, Wayne and Chevrolet, to Tanzania. Already acutely aware that his parents are neglectful and not much his cup of tea, Harry calls them by their first names. Wayne is selfish, racist, boorish, politically a member of a third party, the “Purists,” who just won the presidential election. They are obviously MAGAs but with their own party. Wayne is an untenured professor at an unnamed school in their fictitious town of Edward, Pennsylvania, located near the famous still-burning town of Centralia. Chevy is germaphobic, constantly critical, and runs an Ayurveda healing clinic. She’s right in there with Wayne politically. In Tanzania, as Wayne and Chevy continually embarrass Harry with their xenophobic, racist and classist comments during tours and in the hearing of locals, Harry meets a “dark” man who pays attention to him and makes him a special gift. Harry never forgets that this man “saw” him and was kind to him like no one has ever been.
The family hits hard times financially and Harry essentially runs as fast as he can to college in New York by accepting a sell-your-soul opportunity that he recognizes as problematic. There, he meets Maryam, a Nigerian (although I’m not completely sure she’s Nigerian from how she shares this with Harry) woman on a student visa. In New York, Harry also begins to actively work toward realizing his belief that he (is/should be/wants to b)e Black. Given this, one would think that his relationship with Maryam would be completely superficial, solely based on her being the right race and from a continent he associates with a happy experience. Instead, Okparanta creates a real friendship, a deeply loving relationship but one where Harry continually says and does things that shows his many assumptions about race that still reflect the common racism of white people in the USA. Maryam is fundamentally a decent person who is more mature than Harry, but enjoys him and sees his essential goodness. She subtly and not so subtly alerts Harry to his biases, but he does not realize how she has influenced him or how badly he has behaved until, he looks back at his life after their college years.
In the meantime Harry bobs along through life, trying to assimilate as a Black man, yet sounding suspiciously like a white guy who hasn’t a clue. Okparanta constantly sneaks in just about believable incidents that test who Harry really is, often juxtaposed against Maryam, whose moral compass and sense of who she is is well formed. I think to like this book at the level I like it, you have to feel sympathy and compassion for the not always likable Harry. I see him as growing, but not as fast as he should because he isn’t paying attention to Maryam’s cues. And in other ways, his efforts to be Black are so inauthentic that Maryam is simply bewildered. Because, while he hints at this, he doesn’t out and out tell her he is or wants to be Black.
I find Okparanta’s satire priceless, she thoroughly schools us on how white “allies” who believe they have assimilated cannot and have not but in an amusing manner that even has heart for Harry.