When, for my Well-Read Black Girl anthology, I asked some of my favorite black women writers to write about the first time they saw themselves in a book, I wasn’t surprised to see that nearly all of the contributors wrote about works by other black women. Who better represent us, after all, than our sisters? What follows is the only essay in the collection focused on a work by a white writer—a white man, at that. Bsrat Mezghebe beautifully portrays the pain of separation and the need to belong that she felt as a young black girl in the diaspora, as reflected in Roald Dahl’s own story of migration, Boy. She shows how, even when we can’t see ourselves directly on the page, our imaginations can forge the connections we need to embrace ourselves entirely. —Glory Edim
In Boy, Roald Dahl starts his childhood memoirs with this story of his father: As a teenager in late-nineteenth-century Norway, his father falls from a roof and breaks his arm. A drunk doctor pulls up in a horse and buggy, gives the wrong diagnosis, and amputates the poor kid’s arm without anesthesia. Dahl assures the reader that his father managed just fine. In fact, the only great inconvenience he suffered was not being able to cut the top off a boiled egg. No other time is spent on this unnecessary loss of limb.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Boy. But that blithe tone about an avoidable catastrophe was the first time I found my family in a book. Dahl sounded like my parents and their mass of Eritrean friends who had become our surrogate family in the Washington, D.C., area. Their stories were otherworldly, so different from my own life and the books I read. And the levity with which they treated their dramas—the deaths of loved ones, culture shock abroad, and nostalgia for home—only confused me more. Dahl’s voice echoed what I had heard in my home but nowhere else.
Dahl fast-forwards to his father and uncle taking a country stroll to discuss their futures. They decide that Uncle Oscar will plant his flag in France, while Papa Harald will try his luck in the United Kingdom. A branch of the Dahl family splinters, and again, something felt familiar. Thanks to the independence war against Ethiopia, I didn’t know a single Eritrean who had family in fewer than three countries. Our circumstances were less idyllic than the Dahls’—most Eritreans trekked on foot to Sudan before eventually making it to North America and Europe—but here was the first time I read of families parting, mirroring my own sense of loss. There is nothing tragic about being a first-generation American, but the discontinuity is palpable. Your ancestors lived in the same place for hundreds of years until a dislocation, whether by force or design, hurls your parents a world away. Unlike my American friends, I didn’t know all my cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. I didn’t really understand the rhythm of my parents’ hometowns and early lives, nor could I visualize their journeys to the place I called home. Yet I needed my parents’ origin stories to make sense of my own. Read More