The latest novel by D. Nandi Odhiambo, Smells like Stars, is a swirling, dizzying, drama full of complex characters and high stakes. Following people who live outside of the mainstream and are typically marginalized, the book challenges the idea of social “deviance” and “normal” moral decision making. When readers are treated to beautifully portrayed characters with enough depth and inner contradictions, they are forced to see outside of themselves and to reckon with the struggles that their friends, neighbours, or enemies face. In other words, the more we know about a person’s story, the less likely we are to deny that person the freedom to make mistakes, the less likely we are to deny that person’s humanity.
As in other works that grapple with queerness, race, and class identities, Smells like Stars rejects the categories and binaries that have been constructed to separate people. The book follows the stories of four central characters in the lead up to a wedding that will bind them together. Woloff is an injured runner from, what is assumed to be based on a few mentioned lakes, Kenya. A running scholarship has won him a visa to study philosophy at a university in a resort town somewhere in North America. He has fallen in love with Schuld, a nineteen-year-old transgender visual artist who is working hard on her upcoming show, so hard that she often prioritizes her work over her relationships. Schuld gets her unrelenting work ethic from her mother Kersten, a journalist who investigates a series of horse corpses found in her community. Kersten is about to marry PJ, a recovering addict who is trying to build a life acceptable to his father, a plantation owner. With the marriage of PJ and Kersten, they will be entwined as a family, but the pressures society has placed on their identities threatens to pull them apart. This book is about their struggle to stay together and stay safe as they are threatened with financial ruin, emotional break downs, legal penalties, and violence.
Odhiambo’s great achievement is his ability to portray three-dimensional characters with long histories. He does so efficiently, drawing the reader into the character’s life within the first few sentences of meeting them. We see the back stories that inform their decisions, allowing us to understand them even when their actions don’t conform with our moral expectations. I sympathized with Woloff and Schuld’s romance from the very first page. I cared about Kersten’s career. I even understood PJ’s questionable decisions. The connections I felt with the characters were not because we have things in common. The connections were created because Odhiambo is a skilled storyteller.
I did worry about the possible characterization of Schuld as a “tragic queer” figure. So often when transgender characters appear in novels, they are relegated to a category of plot device, caricature, or tragic warning. Given the great depth, power, and successes that Odhiambo attributes to Schuld, I would say that she escapes the “tragic queer” characterization even though she experiences violence in the novel. But, I am someone who does not identify as queer, so my perspective is not as attuned to the queer experience as a queer critic’s might be. I look forward to reading reviews from writers who identify differently than I do. That interest in perspectives other than my own is part of the success of the novel. Smells like Stars forced me to challenge the expectations with which I came to the book, expectations informed by my own identity. That challenge was to see outside of myself.
Book*hug will release Smells like Stars [ISBN 9781771664233] on October 8th, 2018. It is 233 pages and will be available for $20.
© 2018, Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa
Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa is the general manager of Confabulation Montreal, an organization dedicated to the growth of the storytelling community in Canada. She is a co-founder of The Confab StoryLab, Confabulation’s education arm. Leigh has taught storytelling for the Lister Family Engaged Science Initiative at McGill University, District 3 Start-Up incubator, and Concordia’s Graduate Summer School for Counter Radicalization Education. Leigh has produced stories for CBC Books All Told, The Intercultural Storytelling Festival of Montreal, Wildside Theatre Festival, Broad Science, the New Storytellers Conference, Off-JFL, and Phi Centre’s Lucid Realities and Echo exhibits. She has told stories for Tales from the Black, Yarn, Vanier College, Confabulation. She is also a contributing editor for Salon .ll. of Linda Leith Publishing and the creator of Food Core, a culinary learning experience at Phi Centre. [Photo: Mickael A. Bandassak]
Website: www.leighkp.com; Twitter: @leighkp