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Michelle Newby is a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and Foreword Reviews, writer, blogger at TexasBookLover.com, member of the Permian Basin Writers' Workshop advisory committee, and a moderator for the Texas Book Festival. Her reviews appear in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, Concho River Review, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, PANK Magazine, and The Collagist.
Calling My Name
Hardcover, 978-0-0626-5686-5, (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on Audible), 320 pgs., $17.99
October 24, 2017
Taja Brown is playing hooky from church in favor of a spiritual awakening. “There’s something moving inside … my body,” she tells us,” tiptoeing across the high arches of my feet, break-dancing on my kneecaps, running figure eights around my hips … skipping up my sides, and climbing up to my shoulders’ peaks.” Taja has awakened this morning to the miracle of autonomy—the breathtaking realization that she is a separate being from her parents and siblings—and the knowledge that God is inside her, so much sweeter than “the tasteless lessons [she] swallows in Sunday school.” We follow Taja through first bras and first periods, boys, peer pressure, ambition, loss, and the longing for “space for mystery and mistakes.”
Taja regards the future apprehensively as she witnesses the disappointments and failures of the adults around her, and the death of her great-grandmother. She tests boundaries, eyeing freedom but not quite ready to try; she’s practicing, but still needs the reassuring, safe harbor of home.
Calling My Name is finely wrought young-adult fiction by Houston’s Liara Tamani. Her debut novel about an African American girl coming-of-age in the 1980s in Texas is powerfully reminiscent of, and compares favorably with, Judy Blume’s seminal Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (Random House, 1970). Calling My Name is a sensory experience, beginning with the beautifully designed jacket; tendrils of climbing roses, delicate yet strong, curl across it and throughout the pages. Tamani structures Calling My Name in instructive vignettes representative of her journey from middle school through high-school graduation.
Tamani’s writing is lyrical and tactile. A thunderstorm approaches and “a hungry growl rolls through the clouds’ dark bellies.” When Taja’s parents produce a chastity contract for her and her first boyfriend, we feel acutely her humiliation. Tamani uses a father’s job loss to illustrate the singular, selfish focus of teenagers. When Taja’s family visits great-grandmother Gigi, sick with cancer, Taja contemplates the railing on the apartment balcony, “the black paint peeling … the red rust underneath, taking over.”
Passages resonate with the frisson of recognition. “There’s something wrong with my walk when I’m alone and have to walk past a group of boys,” Taja thinks. “They’re everywhere, these stupid, ugly boys. Judging me. Making everywhere I walk feel like a runway.” The exquisite surprise at the first touch of a boy “pulsing and rising and pulsing and rising from a low, untouched place,” and the confusion at the realization that this sensation and love are not the same thing.
Religion features strongly in Taja’s life. Her parents are evangelical Christians, and Taja begins to chafe under the restrictions and to question differing standards of conduct and liberty applied to her and her older brother. God is a source of power and comfort for Taja, as is the memory of her great-grandmother Gigi, a more pagan source.
Taja’s first-person narration is a joy—sensitive, observant, smart, funny, and vulnerable. Taja’s interior voice matures in nuance as she grows from a pubescent girl into a young woman, as she discovers and attempts to sort the many diverse things of this wide world that call her name. Learning to integrate the inside and the out, she tells us, “I’m busy noticing I’m alive.”
I can’t wait to read what Tamani gifts to us next.
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