August 2014

Vanessa Willoughby

fiction

Into the Go-Slow by Bridgett M Davis

Twenty-one-year-old Angela Mackenzie, the protagonist of Bridgett M. Davis's Into the Go-Slow, has just graduated from Wayne State University, yet she feels achingly adrift in her hometown of Detroit. Unlike her peers, she's content with enduring grueling shifts at the local Lane Bryant. Her older sister, Denise, has taken the fast track to success and prestige, climbing up the ranks as a pharmaceutical rep. Their mother, Nanette, is ready to make an exodus back to the South, tired of living with the ever-looming ghost of Ella, her late daughter. Life after graduation seems bleak. Detroit lacks the answers to Angie's questions.

Tragedy has followed the Mackenzie family like a persistent drought. When Ella was sixteen, Samson Mackenzie suffered a massive heart attack and died instantaneously among his beloved racing horses. Beneath the staggering weight of her guilt and grief, Ella, the volatile touchstone of the family, nearly collapsed. Her frustrations are eventually channeled into an unwavering interest in the Black Power Movement. When she attends the University of Michigan, Ella transforms into an extremely stubborn, Afro-wearing Huey Newton disciple, using the university's Center for Afro-American and Africa Studies as her personal campus headquarters. While attending the University of Michigan, Ella is given the chance to visit Nigeria for FESTAC, the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. Her mother and Denise believe that Ella's intellectual passion is forging a gateway into a cult of militant politics, but impressionable Angie admires her sister, in awe of her dedication.

Despite Ella's ferocious appetite for life and new cultural experiences, her voracious thirst for knowledge and stimulation backfires. She turns to the comfort of heroin and overdoses. Ella refuses to listen to Nanette's pleas to go to rehab. Ella's addiction quickly disintegrates the sensitive balance of the Mackenzie household; the prodigal daughter resorts to lying, cheating, and stealing to fuel her expensive habit. One night in May, Ella hits rock bottom. Exhausted and shaken to the core, Ella lets down her defenses and checks into a drug abuse clinic as an inpatient. The transformation isn't instantaneous but Ella undergoes recovery with surprising sincerity. She fixates on the idea of returning to Nigeria for a spiritual awakening. Little does the family know, but this second trip to Nigeria will mark the last time that they will see Ella alive. Ella is killed in a hit-and-run, thus obliterating the precarious harmony among the surviving members of the Mackenzie family.

Years pass, and Angie fiercely guards the memory of her sister, to the point of obsessive imitation. Emotionally paralyzed by the sudden death of Ella, Angie decides to go to Nigeria and retrace her sister's last few months alive using her old letters as a guide. The heart of the narrative resides within Angie's pilgrimage to Nigeria, as Davis writes with confidence and a keen awareness to pacing. Angie's sugarcoated dreams of Nigeria are quickly shattered as she realizes that the vibrant, thriving, optimistic revolutionaries of the country have been permanently silenced or beaten into submission. Downtown Lagos displays the benefits of stunted wealth and prosperity; outside the city limits, paved roads turn to dirt and the skyscrapers are exchanged for shanties without electricity or indoor plumbing. Afrocentric pride has fallen out of fashion; women are content to copy the Westernized styles of Reagan's America, including big shoulder pads, sherbet-colored blazers, perms, weaves, and wigs. Hospitality is an exception rather than the standard expectation, and Angie is consistently reminded of her status as a foreign outsider, despite her sister's tenuous connection to the country. During the first part of her journey, Angie connects with Chris, an old friend of Ella, and Ella's ex-boyfriend, Nigel. The meeting sets an ominous tone for the remainder of the trip; Chris attempts to sexually assault Angie, feeding on Angie's idolatry of Ella as a form of psychological manipulation. Escaping into the dead of night, Angie travels to Surulere in hopes of connecting with another person from Ella's past. Again, this proves to be a disastrous miscalculation of generosity. The local Nigerian woman who hosted Ella does not have any interest in conjuring old memories of grieving over Angie's loss.

Davis crafts her protagonist as a strong-willed, defiant, intelligent yet extremely vulnerable young girl on the brink of womanhood. At the beginning of the novel, Angie is stuck in a stale half-life, wallowing in the shadow of her sister, resenting the tough-love advice of Denise and Nanette. She struggles to form her own path and her trip to Nigeria cracks open old wounds. Yet in order to heal and move forward with her life, Angie must confront her demons and consequently put the spirit of Ella to rest. The narrative is deeply character-driven and the Mackenzie family, through their momentous joy and devastating heartbreak, showcases a stunning spectrum of the human experience. The communities of Nigeria are drawn with the utmost respect and care. Although the narrative is propelled by the political climate of Nigeria and the desolation of 1980's Detroit, Davis ensures that the focus is on the plight of the novel's heroine. Into the Go-Slow is a work that spans across continents, cultures, and time yet the author's smooth execution makes for a compelling and succinct read.

Into the Go-Slow by Bridgett M. Davis
The Feminist Press at CUNY
ISBN: 978-1558618640
320 pages