Harry Sylvester Bird by Chinelo Okparanta

Date Read: May 15th 2022

To be Published: July 12th 2022

Publisher: Mariner Books

Pages: 312

The Blurb

From the award-winning author of Under the Udala Trees and Happiness, Like Water comes a brilliant, provocative, up-to-the-minute novel about a young white man’s education and miseducation in contemporary America.

Harry Sylvester Bird grows up in Edward, Pennsylvania, with his parents, Wayne and Chevy, whom he greatly dislikes. They’re racist, xenophobic, financially incompetent, and they have quite a few secrets of their own. To Harry, they represent everything wrong with this country. And his small town isn’t any better. He witnesses racial profiling, graffitied swastikas, and White Power signs on his walk home from school. He can’t wait until he’s old enough to leave. When he finally is, he moves straight to New York City, where he feels he can finally live out his true inner self.

In the city, he meets and falls in love with Maryam, a young Nigerian woman. But when Maryam begins to pull away, Harry is forced to confront his identity as he never has before—if he can.

Brilliant, funny, original, and unflinching, Harry Sylvester Bird is a satire that speaks to all the most pressing tensions and anxieties of our time—and of the history that has shaped us and might continue to do so.

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Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

Sigh. Where do I even begin with this book???? There are so many layers to this satire, and I have so many complaints and questions! Chinelo Okparanta really had the gall to portray the life of a white boy / man, as a Black African woman writer and I deeply admire her for that. Reading Harry Sylvester Bird was mind-boggling and mortifying as hell, but I’m always down for an original, chaotic read by an author I admire (my book review of Okparanta’s 2013 collection – Happiness, Like Water thoroughly celebrates my love for her storytelling).

Harry Sylvester Bird is a coming-of-age novel that takes readers from Edward Pennsylvania, Centralia Pennsylvania, New York City, Ghana (Cape Coast, Aburi, Afajato) and back to New York City, spanning the years of 2016 to 2026. Harry’s stalk is extremely racist, but he does everything in his power to distance himself from the burdens of his personal and racist family history.

Once I finished reading this book, I concluded that my dear Harry, is a sick man. I don’t know whether he has a white savior complex, body dysmorphia, obsessive-compulsive disorder or all three – but the man is… strange. I found Harry to be adorable yet repulsive, timid, lonely, calm, selfish, confused, weird and inherently racist as fuck – through no fault of his own.

While reading, I kept wondering whom Okparanta wrote this novel for. I can’t wait to attend her virtual book tour to hear her talk about this book! Surely, I can see sensitive white readers hating this novel. Harry loathing his whiteness will definitely make white readers uncomfortable. Black readers may be baffled and annoyed as hell at this novel, because Harry seems to be reminiscent of Rachel Dolezal – just Google her, if you’ve been living under a rock. Harry believes he is a Black man in a white body, but in my opinion, his belief holds no grounds! I wouldn’t even call him an ally… he’s just a lonely white person who is a product of his abandoned, white supremacist upbringing. Harry never engaged actively with Black culture or Black folks, besides Maryam – a Nigerian young woman at his college who he was deeply fond of. The only engagement Harry had with Black ‘culture’ was his family trip to Tanzania in 2016, which was the epitome of of micro-aggressions, fetishization and a weird admiration for the locals.

This book has a lot of great characters besides Harry. Maryam added a nice twist to Harry’s coming-of age-story. I was worried that the introduction of a Black African woman character would turn the book into a love story. But Maryam’s existence in the novel only unravels Harry’s true-blue being (pun intended). At certain points in the novel, I felt Maryam’s embarrassment, annoyance and shame for engaging with Harry, as she slowly realized the man he truly was. Okparanta did a good job portraying Chevy and Wayne as well. They are an insane pair with lots of depth with respect to their eroding relationship – you’d have to read the book to find out who these two are. And brace yourself!

Memory plays a huge role in Harry Sylvester Bird. Harry is the sole narrator of this coming-of-age novel, which is a first-person narrative. As readers go through his life in 10 years, we only rely on his flawed recollection of events. Many happenings in the book are hence exaggerations of reality/the truth, as we see life through Harry’s insecure, troubled lens. While I found it fascinating reading Harry’s voice and inner thoughts, again, I really wonder how other readers would take to this novel. Some happenings are far-fetched, some happenings are hilarious and others are simply perturbing. As we move passed 2022 and into the future, I loved Okparanta’s take on how the future – sans the pandemic would be. I especially liked her depiction of Ghana – it felt accurate and even hopeful (with respect to Ghana’s use of energy and transportation).

This satire aims at questioning the evolution and limitations of identity and race. Obviously, our identities are ever-evolving, as long as we are alive. But can our race evolve? Is it possible to be phenotypically white but feel as if you’re Black within? Black folks who pass as white may battle with this, but in Harry’s case, he’s genotypically and phenotypically a white boy/man who adamantly believes that he’s a Black man. Once you finish the novel, you begin to question whether dear Harry is actually well mentally, especially as his love for the Black race seems to originate from micro-aggresssions and terrible stereotypes.

While this book is hilarious, it explores various political stances that may be uncomfortable to imbibe. I just want to know why Okparanta chose to write this story. Authors are free to write what they like – duh. But was she trying to humanize racist white men? Was she trying to expose racist white people? Was she indirectly celebrating the gloriousness of our Black race? Was she trying to open up the dreadful trans-racial conversation? Was she trying to flip the white gaze? I have soooo many questions! Nevertheless, Okparanta did a damn good job with this original novel. Dear reader, please remember that this novel is a SATIRE – lighten up! Harry and this glorious mess of a novel will be on my mind for a long time.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase Harry Sylvester Bird on Amazon

Thank you to the team over at Mariner Books / Harper Collins for the ARC!