APRIL 23, 2020
WHEN I WAS a baby, I went through a Tamil custom called mottai, a practice in which a baby’s head is shaven or tonsured. In pictures, my hair just after birth looks sleek and thick and lustrous. It grew in differently afterward: wild and curly and frizzy and difficult. When I wonder about my other self, the self that might have grown up in India, instead of America, I imagine her life might have been different without that mottai, with manageable, straight hair. While the particulars of that other self, the self that grew up in India, are hard to determine with any certainty, I know she wouldn’t have wondered all that much about me, the other self who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Likely, she would have been just one self: a Tamil self. If she had imagined or constructed another self, it likely would have been a British self; due to colonialism, the relationship between Indian and British is a clearer, more binary relationship of power than is the relationship between Indian and American.
Perhaps all of us with artistic temperaments who immigrate as small children and grow up without a sense of belonging develop a certain density to our questions about our other selves, our imagined selves who are formed while belonging somewhere, selves who are not rendered perpetually two-faced as Janus, divided. What other life might we have led, who else might we have been, had we only belonged someplace? And which is our real story: the story of what we’ve done in the lives within which we’ve acted, or the submerged story, the story of the self that never was, that follows us around? Aren’t we defined, in some way, by the absences?
Originally published in Portuguese as Esse Cabelo (2015) and now out in an English translation by Eric M. B. Becker, Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s highly experimental That Hair is deeply haunted by questions of the other self. Mila, the narrator of the novel, arrives in Portugal from Luanda, the capital of Angola, when she is three years old. Her mother is Angolan; her father is Portuguese. These personal details are shared between the character Mila and the author Pereira de Almeida. Her family swears to Mila that she is “the most Portuguese of all the Portuguese members” of her family.
That Hair begins with Mila’s first haircut when she is six months old. Although it had been soft and straight at birth, her hair is reborn dry and coiled — or most of it is, since at her nape, it continues to grow straight. She writes “How might I write this story so as to avoid the trap of intolerable frivolity?” For, to Mila, the story of her curly hair is not as slight or superfluous as it might seem, but is instead the story of “at least two countries and, by extension, the indirect story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics.” Her hair is her ancestors, and it is also the story itself, and it is within these odd, inventive equivalences that the novel derives both its fascination and its difficulties.
The recounting of haircuts generates a bass line to the book, a braided rhythmic pulse that tells the story of several generations. Yet, the haircuts are also rendered in beautifully specific and tangible and intensely intimate terms. Mila’s black grandfather Castro Pinto finds her braids divine:
I’d spent nine hours sitting cross-legged on the floor at the hairdresser, head between the legs of two particularly ruthless young girls, who in the midst of doing my hair interrupted their task to turn some feijoada and rice pudding from lunch into a bean soup, and I felt a warm sensation on my back (and a vague odor) coming from between their legs. “What a sight!” he said.
On another occasion, two fake blondes at the salon wage war against her split ends. Mila notes, “The haunted house that every hair salon represents for the young woman I’ve become is often all I have left of my connection to Africa and the history of the dignity of my ancestors.” At her first visit to a salon in Lisbon’s Sapadores neighborhood, when she’s six years old, she has her hair “opened up” by a children’s variety of hair relaxer. She cannot remember this visit, but instead recalls what must have happened, how she imagines it must have happened based on other events. After every visit to a salon, her hairdos are disfigured by humidity. Mila wonderfully puts it, “To my great chagrin, it’s not acceptable to tell the border patrol that my country of origin is my grandmother’s hair.”
As much as That Hair is a biography of Mila’s hair, the novel is also a curiously rapid family history: the story of her ancestors, and events that shaped them. Her father attends nursing school in Angola, surviving his studies on bananas and peanuts. She pictures him studying half-naked in a hut, knowing this to be a false imagining, since he actually studied in a house in Luanda, where everyone ate margarine from a giant can. Her grandfather Castro comes to Portugal with his son in 1984, intending to seek treatment at a hospital in Lisbon for that son. They stay at a boardinghouse near the hospital for 10 years before sending for his wife and other children in Angola. A more traditional story might set forth why they stayed there 10 years before bringing the rest of the family over; instead, this fact is almost a footnote to pages describing the boardinghouse, its smell, and its other inhabitants.
Billed as a tragicomedy, the book might best be interpreted as an essayistic novel, or perhaps as an essay that uses a fictional biography to interrogate self. Unlike a traditional novel, which is driven by narrative, Pereira de Almeida’s tale is driven by potentiality, by its willingness to contradict itself and provide answers or termination points that are only ever provisional. Mila wakes up with her hair in a mane, even on the mornings after visiting the hair salon; her hair is not susceptible, in the long term, to being perfectly controlled. As she puts it, her hair is the story. And although it provides harmonic continuity, hair proves to be less the subject of the book than a quasi-McGuffin, a trigger for forward movement, and sideways movement, a unifying feature of structure, if not plot.
The language itself is complicated, discursive, taking the form of elliptical sentences that loop in on themselves, full of precise, but unusual syntax. The form of these sentences, and the form of the work as a whole, mirrors the content. Where can we go when we are not quite of a particular place, or perhaps more accurately, when we are of two places at once, when home, or belonging, is a perpetual question?
That Hair takes a fascinating turn toward the end, where we begin to question the reality being created within it. It’s a difficult turn to parse or fully pull apart. The other self comes to the fore. The “I” is not Mila after all, or any more; Mila’s identity apart from another narrator’s identity — perhaps Pereira de Almeida’s, perhaps not — begins to slip soon after a visit from her mother, and another narrator takes over. The new narrator explains, “For a long time I thought that, according to a suitable notion of integrity, sharing Mila’s story would be a fraudulent act. I thought that she would be perceived as a stock black woman. I realize now, however, that only for me is the person I never was a caricature.” While Mila’s family perceives her as utterly Portuguese, perhaps there was a complexity to the other self she might have been, not a “stock black woman” as she puts it, but a more complex self, a complexity erased or blurred by her experiences of growing up and assimilating to life in Portugal. There is, possibly, a component of internalized racism. She explores this when looking at a picture of angry white women in Little Rock; it’s an internalized racism that the other self, the Angolan self, would not have had.
In assessing her own surprising emergence in the text, the narrator asks whether the life that wasn’t lived is perhaps the more important one, the one to which she must defer. She describes what’s left standing from the past, the monument, or the text of her book, as the thing that could be forgotten. A reader has the sense that the truth, whatever that is, and to the extent there is such a thing, is incapable of being shaped enough to provide the usual pleasures of fiction: shape, knowledge of characters, drama, foreground, background, closure. Rather, this is a many-angled exploration of self and history, an exploration in which every potential path is pursued with equal intensity.
The bass line that hair and haircuts provide is harmonizing, but not fully shaping. In Jean Rhys’s novel Good Morning, Midnight (1939), the narrator remarks, “You imagine the carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That is just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth.” Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s That Hair is a beautiful and truthful book in its particulars, but it’s also highly tangled and untamable in structure. Its multiplicity presents readers with a challenge; its multiplicity feels like a distorting mirror.
Perhaps form should follow meaning. A hard, clear meaning will have the most simple, defined shape; a more ambiguous meaning will assume a fuzzier or more complex aesthetic shape. That Hair falls on the more fuzzy, complex end of this spectrum. The question of the other self is, by its very nature, an unanswerable one, a problem with no solution. So much happens in a life that is merely contingent, unpredictable, open-ended, and arbitrary. As we live, we remember only that which allows us to keep moving, and we lose the embodied constraints the other self would have faced in a different country. We construct according to the existing moment.
We are only ever capable of assessing this life from within the perspective of the self we are in this moment. Or as Mila puts it: “Memory is a demagogue: it doesn’t allow us to choose what we see; it thrives on the temptation to make less of the people we were not.”