There must remain a delicate balance between life and death for the world to function, and as the St. Bernard women in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel When We Were Birds have understood from generation to generation, the dead need to stay dead, no matter how much they rage on and cling to the idea of life. Lloyd Banwo delivers a well-written narrative — part ghost story, part social commentary — that explores love in all its complexity. Although the novel is initially presented as a romance between two young people trying to find their place in the world, the true story lies within their respective relationships with their mothers. These onerous maternal relationships provide the impetus that drives these children into each other’s arms, and into the arms of death.
When We Were Birds is set in a fictionalized Trinidad, in the city of Port Angeles — inspired by the real city of Port-of-Spain. The novel follows Emmanuel Darwin and Yejide St. Bernard: Darwin is a poor country boy determined to provide for his mother and himself, and Yejide comes from a line of women tasked with entering the spiritual realm to guide the souls of the dead. Lloyd Banwo tells a story of intergenerational trauma and poverty in which her two main characters are forced into new roles, each to help their family, each losing parts of themselves in the process.
When Darwin decides to take the only job he can find, digging graves in the city, his mother Janaya turns her back on him—mingling with the dead goes against their Rastafarian teachings. The moment he tells his mother about his decision to take the job, their close-knit relationship shatters. “That place could swallow a man whole,” Janaya tells him. “Plenty woman watch they son, they daughter, they husband walk out they house looking for more . . . And they never see them again.”
Janaya is a devoted single mother who raised her son in poverty, and yet she pushes him away as he attempts to give her the financial security she doesn’t have. She believes Darwin will leave her for life in the city as his father did. Darwin, for his part, does not take this decision lightly, and we see how he struggles to adjust, even shearing his locs for this new step in his life. Lloyd Banwo does an excellent job constructing this powerful narrative, and the scene between mother and son is heartbreaking. That newly broken bond is what carries Darwin throughout the novel, opening a space for him to connect with Yejide. As his mother fears, Darwin’s life is eventually endangered when his coworkers at Fidelis Cemetery force him to become an unwilling participant in criminal activities, robbing graves and more.
Yejide’s life is a little more complicated. She’s forced to take on the role of peacefully guiding the souls of the dead from the land of the living to their final resting place, and most importantly, ensuring that they stay there. “You have to make sure the body rest good, bury properly so they don’t forget themselves and rage like they want to come back,” Yejide’s mother tells her. It’s a task she inherits from her mother, who inherited from her mother before her, and so on. But Yejide does not want it—her mother, Petronella, never mentally or emotionally prepared her for the responsibility. Only when Petronella is on her death bed does she finally call Yejide to speak about her new role, and the scene is a little less heartbreaking than the one between Darwin and his mother but tension-filled just the same. In a spiritual realm, Petronella initiates Yejide and imparts the secrets of their craft before she fully moves on to the afterlife. “The dead make us strong and we give them rest,” she begrudgingly tells her—Petronella’s way of letting Yejide know the importance of their family’s role in this cycle.
While at work at Fidelis cemetery, Darwin is surprised to see a beautiful woman appear before him, sheathed in wind and rage. It’s Yejide, of course, walking through the spiritual realm she sees as a ghostly plain and Darwin sees as a storm in the cemetery. “She didn’t look lost or haunted, not at all. She look damn vex . . . ” But he can’t shake her out of his mind when she disappears as suddenly and as eerily as she appeared. It is Yejide’s first experience walking into the spiritual realm with the call of the dead souls she’s meant to help. She too is surprised to see Darwin as he stands among them, clearly alive, and clearly seeing her too. “The green man amongst the dead. Who was he? Only light around him—nothing else. Light and forest and green and something strong and pulsing that draw her to him.” Then and there they are both instantly connected. Yejide feels as if she has business with Darwin even though she sees him once and doesn’t know who he is. And when she returns to the cemetery to discuss a burial plot for her dead mother—in person this time—Darwin feels the same way. Even though their meeting is unconventional, Darwin and Yejide’s relationship uncannily falls into place with little effort. They were written truly as characters who were “meant to be.” Darwin does not question the peculiarity of Yejide’s life, and Yejide allows a strange man, no questions asked, into hers.
Unlike Darwin, Yejide is not keen on throwing herself headfirst into a role for her family. Her life with her mother was not filled with love and devotion. In fact, Yejide spent her entire existence yearning to be seen by Petronella, who only had affection for her aunt—Petronella’s twin sister. “Whatever bond there was supposed to be between Yejide and her mother skip a generation,” Lloyd Banwo writes. Whereas “ . . . with Petronella and Geraldine—one didn’t make sense without the other.”
In contrast to Darwin’s mother, whose presence throughout the book is minimal but crucial to Darwin’s actions, Petronella serves as a pain point in Yejide’s story. But her character could use more development. Lloyd Banwo presents her as a complex person, constantly angry that she does not have control over her own life or death. We understand why Petronella was unhappy with her role in guiding the souls of the dead. It’s a lonely, painful life, as Yejide comes to understand herself. But there isn’t a clear sense of why discord exists between mother and daughter. Petronella’s outright dismissal and seeming hatred for Yejide is unclear even in death. Her last advice to her daughter as she is taken away by the ancestors—“Run. Take your man, take yourself and run. Let the dead bury the dead.”—suggests there must be a sliver of concern for her daughter’s wellbeing. But this one remark is a stark contrast to Petronella’s behavior towards Yejide in life—cold and distant.
The roles of the men and the women in this novel, particularly in the St. Bernard household, are clearly defined. The women are the saviors and the men are the support. Darwin’s arrival in Yejide’s life is to serve as her anchor to the land of the living. This is a role her mother’s lover Peter assumed, and her grandmother’s lover, Mr. Homer, as well. Darwin offers Yejide the chance to leave everything behind. His criminal coworkers are trying to kill him. She is not eager to follow in the footsteps of the women in her family—tied to the dead until her own death. They could run. But not everyone can run from their destiny.
The most glaring flaw in When We Were Birds is the imbalance between Darwin’s story and Yejide’s. Darwin’s motivation is fully defined, and it is easy to identify with him, his struggles, and his personality. Yejide, on the other hand, lacks depth. As with her mother’s character, it is difficult to clearly grasp why she wants to leave her family and community, and whether this is a direct result of her flawed relationship with her mother.
Nevertheless, Lloyd Banwo’s writing is superb. Her descriptions are poetic and evocative: “dusk drape her head like a shawl.” Early in the novel, we’re thrown into her lush world-building, from the verdant green forest of Morne Marie to the gray haze of the early morning sky that boasts the foreboding presence of the vultures circling the vast city, to the sprawling St. Bernard plantation and big house, to the vibrant Fidelis cemetery teeming with history. The early appearance of the corbeaux—the black birds of death, or vultures—is a strong motif that signals the trouble that is to come. Lloyd Banwo has a strong handle on pacing: the story swells and swoops in all the right places, taking us on a pulsating journey between the lands of the living and the dead.
When We Were Birds also throws us into the melodic cadence of Trinidadian prose, the best choice for this story that is so rich in color and Caribbean colloquialism. “Darwin scramble up before the man change his mind and tap the metal panel to let him know that he inside. They head down the highway, the fields brown from the dry spell and bush fires passing in a blur,” Lloyd Banwo writes. She opens the novel with a simple, yet vivid image of Darwin on his way to a life-altering experience in the city. “That hour the day was usually still clean and pink, but Sahara dust was bad this rounds. Make the pink hazy and the clouds look like bundle-up dirty clothes.”
Lloyd Banwo’s dialogue is particularly colorful and draws you right in. “Here with me eh good enough for you, Emmanuel?” Darwin’s mother rings out in anger. “What it have to see over there? Dead-people bones? Police and tief and prostitute and dutty politician. You want to be out there in that life? Is glamour life you want?”
Lloyd Banwo gives us a sense of emotion and place with every scene. Her writing is reminiscent of Sam Selvon, with a hint of a more contemporary Ingrid Persaud. But make no mistake, Lloyd Banwo is her own novelist with a distinct style for bringing to life the spiritual and physical worlds of her home country. When We Were Birds is skillfully written, a fascinating and painful story that surges with a beat that shakes and brings to the surface the underbelly of a life people think about but prefer to keep hushed.